NHL Preview: SouthEast Division

Inside Report: what everyone will be watching this season is whether the Capitals can play at the level they did near the end of the regular season. The Lightning and Hurricanes will have something to say about that while the Panthers and Thrashers begin the season on the outside. Both teams lack the offense to compete this season. The Panthers will look to win with defense. Expectations will be high for the Capitals.
1. Washington Capitals (43-31-9)
The Capitals went 11-1 last year to clinch a playoff berth and won the South East division title on the final day of the regular season. Head coach Bruce Boudreau changed the whole complexion of the Capitals. He made hockey fun for the players and they excelled under his leadership. Alexander Ovechkin (65 goals – 47 assists – 112 points) flourished under Boudreau and was named the league’s most valuable player. Ovechkin is surrounded by talented forwards Alexander Semin (26 goals – 16 assists – 42 points), Viktor Kozlov (54 points), Nicklas Backstrom (55 assists), Michael Nylander(37 points in 40 games) and Brooks Laich (21 goals). Semin who missed 19 games last season has the potential to be a 40 goal scorer this season. Backstrom in his second year will be better and the same can said for the 25 yr old Laich. Sergei Fedorov was a pivotal pickup and brought veteran leadership to a young team that needed it. He didn’t put up superstar numbers but his presence made the difference. The Capitals rewarded Fedorov with a 1yr Р$4 million contract. The player to watch for the Capitals is Chris Clark. Sidelined by injuries last year, Clark is a 30 goal scorer when healthy.
On the blue line the Capitals have one of games top offensive defensemen Mike Greene (18 goals – 38 assists – 56 points). What the Capitals lack on the blue line is a physical presence. The need a defensemen like Brooks Orpik and they have one in the system named Karl Azner who projects to be shutdown defender but he is a few years away from having a impact.
The Capitals penalty kill needs to improve for them to take the next step. A statistic to build on this season is in the final 23 regular season games the Capitals ranked 1st in GAA.
Goaltending is a question mark. Cristobal Huet solidified the position. He bolted for Chicago and the Capitals signed Jose Theodore (28-21-3). Theodore had a strong 07-08 campaign after failing to find his game since the lockout. If Theodore can perform at the level he did last season, the Capitals will be playing into May
Trade Watch
Michael Nylander РThe Capitals haven’t made it no secret that they are looking to move Nylander’s salary. Team’s are interested but the salary is an issue. The Capitals are looking for D in return

2. Tampa Bay Lightning (31-42-9)
Worst to first? The Tampa Lighting saw a complete makeover this summer when new ownership came in and showed they were all business. From a PR standpoint, hiring Barry Melrose was a great hire. He brought a buzz to the team they haven’t had in a few years. New ownership didn’t waste any time adding the pieces after the Melrose hire. Prior to free agency they acquired the rights to Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts from the Penguins and signed both within days. Next the Lightning made an under the radar move signing Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata (27 goals) Vrbata has the potential to be a 30-33 goal scorer Tampa Bay. The Lightning then brought back forward Vinny Prospal (33goals). 2008 1st overall selection C Steve Stamkos will play on a line with Malone and Vrbata. What about the defense? Ownership traded for young Senators D Andrej Meszaros to fill the void of Dan Boyle who was traded to San Jose for D Matt Carle. The Lightning have a young blue line that needs a veteran presence but I was impressed with their play in the preseason.
Goaltending is the biggest question mark. Can Mike Smith get the job done. I think he can but we won’t know until the puck drops. The most important signing the Lightning made this summer was inking Vincent Lecavalier to a 11 year extension. Upfront the Lighting can play with just about anybody. Defensively they are young and improving. Those two facets will keep them in playoff contention but how much of a contender they are will depend on their goaltending.
Trade Watch
Jussi Jokinen – trade speculation has surrounded Jokinen all summer. He played a strong two way game in the preseason and Barry Melrose became a big fan. Still the Lightning need to move some salary and he could be a cap casualty.
3. Carolina Hurricanes (43-33-6)
The Hurricanes struggled down the stretch last season which opened the door for the Capitals to win the division on the final day of the regular season. The Hurricanes haven‚Äôt done much to upgrade their roster. Gone are forwards Erik Cole, Corey Stillman, but the biggest loss will be forward Justin Williams. Williams will be out for the first four months of the season. Rod Brind’Amour is a year older. The bright spot of the off-season was signing star forward Eric Staal to a long term extension. The Hurricanes have improved their D with the addition Joni Pitkanen but they have took a step backwards upfront which will be their Achilles heel this season
Trade Watch
Tuomo Ruutu
4. Florida Panthers (38-35-9)
Plain and simple if the Panthers are going to be successful this season it will be through their defense and goaltending. The Panthers have upgraded their D with the additions of Bryan McCabe, Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard. The Panthers are built around defensemen Jay Bouwmeester but for how long? Trade speculation surrounding Bouwmeester will be a distraction all season. Goaltender Tomas Voukon (30-29-8 2.68 GAA) was strong last season but he will have to be better for the Panthers to be in playoff contention late in the season. While the defense has improved, the offense which ranked 20th in the league has took a step backward. The Panthers have done nothing to replace Olli Jokinen (34 goals-37assists-71Points). They will rely on players such as David Booth and Stephen Weiss to have breakout seasons. Relying on players for breakout seasons is a scary thought
Trade Watch
Jay Bouwmeester – The 24 yr old defensemen is a free agent at season’s end and has been noncommittal on his future in Florida. There will be quite a few teams willing to overpay for a franchise defenseman at age 24
5. Atlanta Thrashers (34-40-8)
To land free agents a franchise like the Atlanta Thrashers has to overpaid. They did just that signing Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Ron Hainsey to a 5 year- $22.5 contract. Hainsey was a key pickup in the off-season to help the Thrashers blue line that ranked 30th in the league last season giving up 266 goals. GM Don Waddell struggled bringing in other parts but acquired defensemen Mathieu Schneider who will help the Thrashers power play but will it be enough to make the Thrashers competitive? Most likely not. In the past two seasons the Thrashers have lost dynamic forwards Marian Hossa and Marc Savard in most part because those players didn’t want to play in a market like Atlanta. Upfront Illya Kovalchuk (52 goals – 35 assists – 87 points) is the team’s only legitimate goal scorer. Waddell signed Slava Kozlov (17 goals) to a 4yr deal worth close to $15 million following the 06-07 campaign. Kozlov’s best days are behind him. The Thrashers are going to rely on players such as Erik Christensen to net 25 goals or more. What happened to Kari Lehtonen? Two seasons ago Lehtonen looked like the next up and coming super star in net. Even since the Thrashers were swept by the Rangers two years ago, Lehtonen hasn’t been the same. It’s going to be a long season in Atlanta

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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