If there were awards given out at the end of the off-season, the Southeast division would win Most Improved. This division is where the surprises are going to come from. They’ll surpass other squads that simply didn’t bother bolstering their rosters during the off-season. This division is a division of spoilers, and this is how it will play out.
5. Winnipeg Jets (84 points, 22nd Overall, 10th in Conference, 4th in Division): It’s a shame that the newly minted CBA didn’t include the Jets being reassigned to the Western Conference. The brutal truth, however, has saddled the Jets with arguable the worst travel schedule of any team in professional sports. The Alaska Aces of the ECHL may actually have it better. And not only that, this Winnipeg squad is in a division where most of the teams ahead of them have made improvements to their rosters and management. On top of all that, their goaltending is still a question. They signed former first round draft pick Al Montoya in hopes that he will split time with under-achiever Ondrej Pavelic. Neither net minder has shown that they’re ready for a full time starting position in the NHL. That spells trouble for the Jets and their raucous fans, who will be hard pressed to find something to cheer about, as their team’s players rack up enough bonus miles for a trip around the world. (Prediction: 15th in conference, last overall)
4. Tampa Bay Lightning: (84 points, 21st Overall, 9th in Conference, 3rd in Division): This new season in Florida brings a new goaltender into the mix. Newcomer Anders Lindback is probably the second most interesting off-season move made in the Southeast, and certainly the best of Steve Yzerman’s young GM career. Lindback learned at the feet of the elite keeper Pekka Rinne. Only meaningful minutes will prove how well this move plays out. The addition of Sami Salo, Matt Carle, and Matt Taormina on the blue-line improves a defense corps that was consistently left wanting. This roster includes superstar goal machine Steven Stamkos, the ageless mighty mite Martin St. Louis, and fallen star Vincent Lecavalier. Under normal circumstances, that would be a recipe for some good Florida hockey, but with part of its core in decline, and the other part still simmering waiting for that goldilocks moment, Tampa seems to be in transition. It doesn’t seem that all hope is lost with this team, but like all good things, it will simply take some time to put the extra pieces together. (Prediction: 12th in conference)
3. Florida Panthers: (94 points, 14th Overall, 3rd in Conference, 1st in Division, lost to the Devils in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals): This Panthers team came out of nowhere last year and stole the division title right out of the Washington Capitals grasp. They took the Stanley Cup runner up Devils to seven games. And they improved their roster in the off season, adding Kris Versteeg and Peter Mueller for a pinch of scoring, George Parros for a pinch of toughness, and Scott Clemmensen for a pinch of goaltending insurance. Will it be enough? Both Carolina and Washington have the potential to dethrone the Cats as division champs, and with the rest of the teams in the conference hell bent on getting back to the post season, these felines could be on the outside looking in. It will be tight race, but they’ll take ninth by a fraction of a hair. Two pieces that could play a part in improving the Panthers’ sprint to the post season are the impact of top prospect Jonathan Huberdeau, and whether or not Roberto Luongo trade rumors turn out to be true. (Prediction: 9th in Conference)
2. Carolina Hurricanes (82 points, 23rd Overall, 12th in Conference, 5th in Division): By adding top notch center-man Jordan Staal, and the ever enigmatic Alexander Semin, the Canes may just be the most improved team in the Eastern Conference. Now fans everywhere may read this and say “This writer is NUTS.” The fact is the oft-maligned, ever inconsistent Alex Semin is in a contract year. Washington invested too much time in him, and let him go. The Caps loss will be the Canes gain, as Semin sees this as a fresh start on solidifying a potential contract next season. Not only that, Jordan Staal will be riding high after being reunited with his big brother Eric. Could it all fall apart for Carolina? Sure it could. But with solid goaltending from Cam Ward, and the steady offensive production that will come from wunderkind Jeff Skinner, the Staal boys, and Alex Semin, not to mention the steady hand of coach Kirk Muller, the Canes are a sure thing to make it back to the playoffs. (Prediction: 6th in Conference)
1. Washington Capitals (92 Points, 15th Overall, 7th in Conference, Lost to Rangers in Eastern Conference Semi Final): Newly minted head coach Adam Oates should bring a faster, more aggressive style, which should suit superstar Alex Ovechkin’s in your face style. Heck, he might even actually enjoy scoring again. Ovechkin should be tearing through the league again, especially since he had been tearing up the KHL. He’s already in game shape, as is his perennial linemate Niklas Backstrom, and should be back to form. And with solid goaltending from either Braden Holtby or Michael Neuvirth, the Red should be a-rocking’ once more. (Prediction: 3rd in Conference)
To Read my other previews:
Click here for the the Atlantic Division or
Here for the Northeast Division. or
Here for the Central Division or
Here for the Pacific Division or
Here for the Northwest Division
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