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Prediction: Southeast Division

I have come to the final division in my pre-season previews.  Today I will do the Southeast Division.  The Atlantic Division is here, the Northeast Division is here and the West Conference is here.

Here is my predicted order of finish in the Southeast Division:

1. Washington Capitals  This team has Alexander Ovechkin to lead their offence.  He is the best player in the NHL today.  He is not the only star player in the Capitals offence.  Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin can be counted upon to provide significant scoring as well.  Depth is provided by Brendan Morrison, Mike Knuble, Michal Nylander, Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr.  This is a good offence.  The defence is led by Mike Green, who has developed into the top offensive defenceman in the NHL today.  Shaone Morrisonn, Tom Poti and Milan Jurcina fill out the defensive crew.  This is not the top defence in the NHL, but they did well together last year.  In goal, Semyon Varlamov will have the chance to lead the team.  If he does as well as he did in the playoffs last year, he will be a rookie of the year favorite.  His backup is Jose Theodore, who is a proven NHL goalie, even if he is no longer capable of providing MVP-type seasons.  This team has a very good young core and the depth to be among the best in the NHL.  Given the number of games they play against weak Southeast Division opponents, they could put up a very good record.

2. Carolina Hurricanes  The Hurricanes made it to the semi-finals last year.  Though they are not likely good enough to repeat that, they should be strong enough for second in the southeast.  Cam Ward is a good young goalie.  He may not develop into the superstar he looked like he might be when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as a rookie, but he is one of the better goalies in the NHL.  Their defence is built behind Joni Pitkanen, who is one of the more underrated number one defenceman in hockey.  Joe Corvo, Tim Gleason and Andrew Alberts will provide depth.  At forward, Eric Staal is one of the better tow/way forwards in the NHL.  Ray Whitney, Erik Cole, Tuomo Ruuttu, Matt Cullen, Sergei Samsonov and an aging Rod Brind’Amour provide depth.  This is a solid team that should gather a playoff berth.

3. Florida Panthers  I question the wisdom of the Panthers not trading Jay Bouwmeester for a bigger return during last season, when it became clear that he wouldn’t return, but they still have some strengths.  Tomas Vokoun is a very talented, underrated goalie.  If he had been playing in a more mainstream hockey city, he would enter the debates for best goalie in the NHL.  His backup, Scott Clemmensen, had a very good year last year.  Even with the departure of Bouwmeester from the Panthers defence, there is some talent left.  Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen and Jordan Leopold should be a solid defence.  There is no big scorer in Florida, but they do have some offensive talent.  Stephen Weiss, David Booth, Cory Stillman and Nathan Horton all could put up 60 points or more under the right circumstances.  Michael Frolik and Steven Reinprecht provide some solid depth.  This team made a mistake by not moving Bouwmeester for a bigger return and that will slow their development, but they won’t be bottom feeders.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning  This is probably the most likely team to join Phoenix is the bankruptcy game.  The uncertainty over ownership should be a distraction.  Oren Koules is running the team as their owner and has made questionable moves in the past and likely does not have the financial resources to keep them afloat for long.  That doesn’t change the fact that they have two very good forwards in Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St Louis.  Steve Stamkos will probably take a big step forward in his sophomore year as well.  Depth is provided by Ryan Malone and Alex Tanguay.  This is a pretty good group of forwards if they can stay healthy.  Last season, the defence in Tampa was a big question mark.  Mattias Ohlund has come in to try to be a stabilizing influence.  He joins Andrej Meszaros, Kurtis Foster and Paul Ranger and will try to right the ship.  Mike Smith had a good season in 2008/09 before a concussion ended it.  He is joined by Antero Niittymaki.  Both are injury prone, but both can be solid NHL goalies if they stay healthy.  Tampa will likely have some off-ice distractions to overcome, but they have some talent as well and that will keep them out of the basement.

5. Atlanta Thrashers  The Thrashers are another team that is not on solid ground financially.  There is talk that they may be setting up the groundwork for a move in the future.  Their offence is built behind star Ilya Kovalchuk.  He will be a free agent this summer and as such may be moved at trade deadline time.  This would leave the offence to Slava Kozlov, Nik Antropov and Bryan Little, which is a step downward.  Todd White, Colby Armstrong and hopefully Maxim Afinogenov will provide depth.  Pavel Kubina joins the team to try to anchor a defence that includes Ron Hainsey, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian.  This could be a good defence, but it may be a year or two away from success as Bogosian is still developing.  In goal, the Thrashers would love for Kari Lehtonen to be healthy for the whole season.  He has had consistent injury issues in the past, but if he overcomes them could become a top goalie.  Ondrej Pavelec will probably be his backup, though Johan Hedberg also remains with the Thrashers.  This team could very easily become subject to off-ice financial problems or to the distraction of a Kovalchuk trade and they don’t have as much frontline talent as Tampa does, so I think they will be hit harder when it occurs.

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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