by PuckStopsHere on 10/07/08 at 02:14 PM ET
It’s time for the final conference of my pre-season predictions. Here are my West Conference predictions and in my run through the East Conference here is the Northeast Division and here is the Atlantic Division. The Southeast Division has been the NHL’s weakest division for the past few years. Last year, only Washington managed to make the playoffs. With the more balanced schedule we will see this season, it is easier for that scenario to repeat itself as there will be fewer points tied up in games between Southeast Division teams.
1. Washington Capitals The Capitals made a huge leap forward last season. They were one of the best teams in the stretch drive last season after being one of the worst for the first part of the season until coach Bruce Boudreau took over. It is very common that teams that take a huge step forward to take a step backward in the following season; despite the fact their continued improvement is often projected. Washington’s continued improvement is most likely to stall do to a dropoff in goal. Jose Theodore has not had as good a season as Cristobal Huet did last year in quite a while. Theodore could be an acceptable goalie, but there is a good chance he will be a weakness. They have a good group of forwards built around NHL MVP Alexander Ovechkin. Providing depth are Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov. On defence, they will rely on the continued growth of Mike Green, if he can keep that up. Depth is provided by Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz and Brian Pothier. This team does not have the depth of a top contender that some consider them, but in the Southeast Division they should be enough to win the division.
2. Carolina Hurricanes The Hurricanes still have a lot of the team that won the 2006 Stanley Cup together. They have Cam Ward in goal, who should be able to provide solid goaltending. Their forward unit still has Eric Staal, Rod Brind’Amour and Ray Whitney. They hope that Sergei Samsonov and Tuomo Ruutu can join them as successful forwards, but that is not a particularly safe bet. Carolina is rebuilding their defence with Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo expected to be the workhorses. This team was very lucky to win the 2006 Stanley Cup and is no longer as strong as they were then. They have less depth at offence and a weaker defence, but this team may have what it takes to be a playoff team.
3. Florida Panthers The Panthers have a very good goalie in Tomas Vokoun. They have a good stable of defencemen built around Jay Bouwmeester, Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. This team should be solid defensively, but it may start to fall apart if they are out of the race and trade Bouwmeester as he is approaching free agency. With the trade of Olli Jokinen, there is little offence here. Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and free agent signee Cory Stillman are the best the Panthers have in a weak group of scorers. Florida lacks the defensive system and enough checking talent to be a successful team with their goaltending, but they will not be easy to play against.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning Initially, I planned to pick the Tampa Bay Lightning for third in the division. I figured that nothing of significance would be learned in their first two games to change my mind. Tampa made a bunch of high profile signings to bolster their forward unit. Tampa had Vincent LeCavalier and Martin St Louis but little depth last year. They signed some depth in Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata, but nothing that should make a big change. In order for Tampa to take a big step forward by signing forwards, they must sign some elite forwards. None of their new signees managed close to a point per game last year. In order to add them, Tampa discarded other useful forwards including Michel Ouellet and Brandon Bochenski. Their defence has been shaken up adding Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaros and dropping Dan Boyle and Filip Kuba. Their defence was never particularly good and hasn’t made a step forward. The team had weak goaltending last season and probably still does with Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig in goal. It’s a lot of change, but most of it is sideways instead of upwards. It doesn’t change my prediction that they lost both of their season opener games against the New York Rangers. What does bother me is the way management reacted to the losses. Tampa swung a deal with Vancouver to acquire Lukas Krajicek, giving up Michel Ouellet and Shane O’Brien. Tampa’s ownership will panic as they lose and could make some interesting, but poor deals along the way. It will be an interesting season, but probably not a good one.
5. Atlanta Thrashers Atlanta also has a bad situation. Ilya Kovalchuk is a 2010 free agent as seems to be preparing to leave the Thrashers as soon as he can. He is a very talented player. Very few others exist in Atlanta. Their depth at forward is provided by Slava Kozlov, Jason Williams and Todd White. The Thrashers added Mathieu Schneider to their defence, which helps. Tobias Enstrom and Ron Hainsey are some of their other better defencemen. In goal, Kari Lehtonen may develop into a top goalie, but he has had a hard road given the weak team in front of him. Atlanta is in bad shape and things likely won’t improve until Don Waddell is replaced as GM.
The Southeast Division will likely be the weakest division in the NHL again this season. The Washington Capitals are likely the best of a bad bunch.
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