The Most Exciting Division of 2011? (Southeast Division Preview)

The Southeast division is home to some good teams including a perennial favorite and a scrappy young squad that surprised everyone. It also includes some bad teams that have been in financial trouble for years but continue to hang around. After this year the division will undergo an overhaul that is a result of a big change this year. Ignore the top right image on the puck as the Atlanta Thrashers are no longer a team and in their place is the long-awaited return of the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets will be a new experience for all as they are a western team that is in the eastern conference for a year forcing all to travel further than usual and forcing the Jets to have a hectic travel schedule in the East. Not only will every team be traveling further but the atmosphere in Winnipeg will be different from any other place in the NHL and the teams in the Southeastern division will get a full taste of this throughout the season. After the year is done Winnipeg will be gone from the division to move into the West and will be replaced by another team. With the new team entering the NHL and adding another team to Canada all eyes will be focused on the Jets and the Southeastern division that has been ruled by the Capitals since the arrival of the Great 8 Alexander Ovechkin. The season will be interesting this year but with Stanley Cup favorite Washington in the mix the rest of the teams might just be looking to get into the playoffs and not win the division.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes last year rode the success of their Calder Cup winner Jeff Skinner to a good season. The season did however come up short as they finished two points out of the playoffs after a late season battle with the Leafs and Rangers. The Canes have tasted success in the past winning a Stanley Cup in the 2005-06 season but as of late have struggled. The Canes won the first new era cup but have not been able to repeat their success. They came close in 2009 but have not been back to the finals since they won. The Canes are hoping that they can improve on the season last year and return to the playoffs. Carolina will try to do this with a few moves in the offseason that they hope will provide what they need to compete in the Southeastern Division.

The Hurricanes did not make a lot of moves in the offseason but they made some calculated moves in order to improve the team. The offence saw an added boost last year with the outstanding performance of rookie Jeff Skinner who won the Calder Cup. Skinner provided some needed secondary scoring that gave Eric Staal a bit of relief. The Canes offence has centred around Staal for years as he was the one true weapon on the team for a long time. Carolina still works around Staal who is their captain but they have added some skill around him in the last few years. Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen have added some skill to surround Stall and with the addition of Skinner the offence has some solid skill up front. The biggest moves of the offseason were the signing of two big bodies that can add some size to their skill. The signing of Alex Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart will add this much-needed size to an offence whose focus has been smaller skilled players. With some secondary scoring beginning to develop for the Canes the pressure on Staal to produce the entire offence is not as big. Of course the Canes will still be looking to Staal to lead the offence but with some big bodies and the skill around him he should be able to get enough support in the offence. On defence the Canes added some more offensive support as well as special teams support, in the form of Tomas Kaberle who has become a sort of gun for hire after winning the Stanley Cup with Boston last year. Along with this added offence the Canes will be gambling on Joni Pitkanen who has the ability to be a top-tier defenceman but has had some lapses that have kept him from his potential. Pitkanen will most likely be paired with the big body of Tim Gleason who, along with Bryan Allen bring some muscle to the blue line. The Canes will also be looking to Jamie McBain to step up and continue his development this year after starting for the first time last year. The defence will be pretty solid especially with Kaberle adding some offence but they have not taken and major steps forward. The defence will remain solid if they can stay at a consistent level. In goal the Canes have a solid backstop in Cam Ward who has the ability to stand on his head if the defence falters. Ward will have a veteran backup when he is needed as the Canes signed Brian Boucher. The Canes have added some offensive power but have questions at defence. Luckily they have Cam Ward to back the defence up and with the added offence the Canes will probably be competing for a playoff spot again this year but could come up short if the defence fails and the offence cannot produce.

Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers are a team that is in trouble in many ways but mainly financially as they have suffered to attract fans. A large part of this is their performance over the past years as they continue to miss the playoffs. Last year the Panthers finished last in the division and in the conference missing the playoffs for the 10th year, and NHL record. The Panthers have not been able to be a solid team for years but they have tasted success. In 1994-95 the Panthers made an improbable run at the Stanley Cups but came up just short. Since then the Panthers have struggled to repeat their performance and have lost fans along with it. Florida is attempting to stay above water and the easiest way to do this is to win. The Panthers new commitment to winning was shown in the offseason where they almost completely changed their team to try to get to the playoffs.

The Panthers were one of the most active teams in the offseason as they signed a number of players as they almost completely overhauled the team. On offence the Panthers have let a number of players go but still kept their skilled core. To replace the lost players the Panthers went to the free agent market when they signed Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, and Kris Versteeg to name a few. These three signing alone will give the Panthers some more skill on the top two lines to add to David Booth and Stephen Weiss who remain from last year. The Panthers also signed Sean Bergenheim, Matt Bradley, Marcel Goc, and Tomas Kopecky who will all be able to contribute. The Panthers will look to their new signings to provide a lot more offence for a tea that struggled to produce any offence last year. With the new offensive weapons the Panthers should be able to put together four lines that can score goals and provide some support. The top line will be looked at to provide the most of the offence with Booth, Weiss, and Upshall but don’t be surprised if the second line of Versteeg, Fleischmann, and Jack Skille can be just as potent. With the Panthers top two lines looking almost brand new they should be able to improve on last year when they struggled to score. The offence will be able to worry about the offence alone this year as the Panthers will have a solid defensive corps with a mix of veterans and young guns. The Panthers have committed to defence over the past years through their draft and these young defenders may begin to pay off this year. The Panthers own system has brought in Dimitry Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby who have steadily improved as they get more responsibility and playing time. Meanwhile another pick from 2010 is looking to be paying off early as Erik Gudbranson will most likely see a lot of time this season and is expected to be a fixture in Florida for years to come. These young defenders will provide some youth and skill to the blue line but will also have two very good veterans to help them out. The Panthers brought back Ed Jovanovski and traded for Brian Campbell as both will provide a veteran presence on the blue line. Jovanovski will be one of the bigger stories this year for the Panthers as he played his first three plus years in Florida and was a fan favorite like in every other place he goes. Jovo is also a great shut down defenceman who will help the young players out with his presence on the ice. The defence looks to be much improved this year and for the coming years with their young depth on the blue line mixed with some good veteran players. In goal the Panthers may have some issues this year after Tomas Vokoun left for the Capitals this year leaving the Panthers to search out a new goalie. The Panthers chose Jose Theodore to fill in the spot of the top goalie but Theodore does not have the best pedigree for a goalie. His inconsistency has caused him to enter his third teams in 4 years and if it continues the Panthers may have to look to Scott Clemmensen to take over the top spot. The good news for the goalies is that the defence is much improved and may provide some much-needed support. The Panthers have gotten better this year but it is hard to think that they will be in the playoff hunt after years of ineptitude. The Panthers will miss the playoffs for the 11th year but the future is bright as they will continue to improve year by year.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning have been the more successful team in Florida over the past years and last year became a break out year for them. With the signing of a new coach, Guy Boucher, the Lightning were able to confuse teams with a brand new scheme in the NHL. The 1-3-1 was a variation on the neutral zone trap of the past but added a dangerous transition to it as teams could not get into the Lightning end and then paid for it with a quick Lightning breakout. Along with Guy Boucher taking over the Lightning saw a new GM in Steve Yzerman who was able to make some key moves that helped put the Lightning into the playoffs last year. While in the playoffs the Lightning used their 1-3-1 system to perfection moving all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. The small lightning team met with the big and powerful Boston Bruins and were able to take the series to 7 games. The Lightning came up just short losing the final series 4 games to 3. With the success of last year the 1-3-1 will not be as confusing this year but the expectations are high for the young team but they may be able to meet them.

The Lightning have built from their system and created an innovative twist on the trap to produce a quick strike offence that frustrates every other team. This offence has finally figured out how to use the highly touted first pick Steven Stamkos. After his first year in the NHL the Lightning, with a different coach, refused to play Stamkos as much as other rookies due to the old school thought of their coach that draft picks should remain in the AHL. With Guy boucher at the helm the Lightning are using Stamkos to his full potential on the top line. Martin St. Louis and Stamkos have become one of the best offensive pairs in the NHL and will be looked to, to provide the majority of the offence. Meanwhile captain Vinny Lecavalier had a resurgence last year and found his scoring touch again providing two top centres. With the addition of Tom Pyatt the Lightning hope that they have three good centres that will provide offence up and down their offensive depth chart. The Lightning will go into this year with the same system but may need to adjust as teams learn to deal with it. The Lightning have enough firepower on the offence to be a threat and will definitely be a force in the Southeast. The defence lost a big part of their top line with Sean Bergenheim gone but have the players to make up for his minutes. The Lightning will focus on another young player in Victor Hedman to be a big part of the defence along with Eric Brewer. The rest of the defence will be generally unchanged with Pavel Kubina, Mattias Ohlund, Brett Clark, and Marc-Andre Bergeron filling out the rest of the defence. New additions Bruno Gervais and Matt Gilroy could be seen this year giving the defence some depth. With the continued development of Hedman the Lightning look to be getting better on defence and with the modified trap in place the D-men will frustrate a lot of teams until someone can find a way to break it. The goal of the defence will be to stop shots from being taken by creating turnovers and starting the rush up ice. They will be able to do this as they continue to focus on some young talent that has the ability to shut down defenders. The goalie is a bit of a question mark but only because of Dwayne Roloson’s age who at 41, 42 later in the month, is trying to continue a great season. Last year Roly the Goalie had a resurgence after arriving in Tampa last year. Roloson will need to depend on his backup in Mathieu Garon to take a lot of the regular season load off of him. If Garon can prove to be a solid backup the Lightning will have the ability to keep Roloson fresh when they get to the end of the year and into the playoffs. The Lightning are an exciting team with a new fire under them with new coach Guy Boucher and look to have the ability to challenge for the cup but they will need to get through some tough competition to get there. The Lightning will battle for the division crown and will make the playoffs again this year whether at the top of the division or lower.

Washington Capitals

The Washington Capitals have been a team that loves their Russian superstars in the past and the present. The Caps first fell in love with a young Jaromir Jagr who was exciting and very talented. The Caps then went into the irrelevant pile when Jagr left but came back and have been one of the best regular season teams in recent years. A lot of this is thanks to their new Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin. Last year the Capitals struggled at the beginning of the season as coach Bruce Boudreau changed his philosophy. With the talent that the Capitals had the team was a run and gun team that went all out on offence but were not very physical or defensive minded. Boudreau attempted to change this as he pulled back the reins on the offence and focused on a defensive presence. The team suffered from it and the change did not last as the Caps changed back to their run and gun style just before the halfway mark of the season. With the change the Caps came rushing into the postseason after finishing first in the Southeastern division. The Caps went on to beat the Rangers in five games and then were shocked by their divisional foes the Tampa Bay Lightning. This year the Caps hope that they can overcome their poor postseason performance and finally get to the Finals.

The Washington Capitals made a good number of moves in the offseason as they began to retool their team but kept the core. On offence the Caps are bursting with skilled players including Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, and Brooks Laich who will all hope to return to their goal scoring form after struggling with a new system. The skill has never been the issue for this offence as they have one of the best players in the NHL and a good support cast. The issue for the Caps is one that many have and that is the lack of grittiness on the team. Grittiness is what wins championships as the skill players are not as potent on any team in the postseason and most goals come from hard-nosed play. The Caps made sure they took care of this getting a handful of tough players including Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, and Joel Ward. All three of these players will add a defensive awareness that Boudreau wants in his team but all also have the ability to score some dirty goals. With the addition of these two-way players the Capitals did not really do much for the regular season but instead prepared for a long run in the playoffs where they hope to shake of the cobwebs. On defence the Capitals made few changes but were happy to have John Carlson and Karl Alzner who gelled together in the NHL after they played together in Hershey (AHL) but were called up last year to the big club. Their styles compliment each other as Carlson is willing to get involved in the offence while Alzner is a stay at home type of blue liner. The Caps will also be glad to have Mike Green back from a head injury that ended his season last year. Green will provide some extra offence while new addition Roman Hamrlik will provide some solid defence. The defence for the Caps is built with offence in mind but the development and signing of some key players have given them a better balance. In goal the Caps made their biggest move getting a true #1 goalie in Tomas Vokoun that will end the search that has been going for a long time. The Capos will lean on Vokoun while the young Michal Neuvirth continues to develop into their top goalie of the future. With this addition the Capitals’ defence will feel freer to jump into the rush for some added offence as Vokoun will be able to hold the fort. The capitals have always been a powerful offensive team but last year’s experiment failed to continue this trend. This year the Caps will be looking to get back to their old ways and with some new additions the need for defensive awareness is gone. The caps look good this year and will be competing for a chance at the cup but the question still remains if they can handle the playoffs or if they will collapse once again when the pressure is on.

Winnipeg Jets

Yes it is real no need to pinch yourself or hold your breath that it was just a cruel joke the Winnipeg Jets are back. The Jets were a legendary franchise that due to the rising cost of a franchise were forced to leave their small market. Now with revenue sharing, the salary cap, and the Canadian dollar hovering around the American the Jets are back and there to stay. With 13,000 season tickets sold for the next 3-5 years in 17 minutes the Jets will be sure to have a packed house full of diehard fans who never gave up hope that the Jets would be back. The fans will be so happy to have a team that they will ignore the fact that the Atlanta Thrashers last year did not have a good year and the inherited team is beginning to look like a slow building team that will begin to build from within. With this the Jets will still be looking to ride the excitement of the move from Atlanta to Winnipeg and give their fans a chance to see playoff hockey again.

The Jets inherited a team with some holes and although the fans are excited they will need to hope that some players step up in the energized building if they hope to improve on Atlanta’s showing last year. The Jets spent a lot of time preparing for the first season in the NHL and a lot of it was trying to resign their team and getting their management together. This means that the Jets will suffer and the offence has taken the brunt of the punishment. The Jets will have a number of good players but few great ones that can provide the 50 goals that many teams need to be successful. The Jets will be leaning on their young talent including Evander Kane who has improved greatly since entering the NHL and is ready to step up to the top-tier of the league. The Jets will also look toward rookie standout Mark Schiefele who earned a spot on the team during preseason where he became an offence power. The rest of the offence will be surrounded by 20 goal scorers like Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler. The offence will need Kane and Schiefele to step up if they hope to keep up with the rest of the league as they wait and see how their first season goes. On defence the Jets will see some offensive help from Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom who were the two best passers on the team last year. The rest of the defence will need to step up from a bad defensive performance last year when they allowed the second most goals in the NHL. Again the pattern continues for the Jets as they will depend on the young Zach Bogosian to bounce back from a bad season last year and become a top defenceman. The Jets defence is nothing to be scared about but Byfuglien, who moved from offence to defence last year, is a big body that can become a good defenceman if he focuses on his defensive play more than his offence. With some addition to the offence the defence will add to the holes in the offence but defensively they are a little shaky and will give their goalies some headaches at times. The goalies with the headaches will be alright but nothing special. Ondrej Pavelec has shown that he can be a great goalie but he has also shown a lack of concentration at points. Meanwhile Chris Mason has not panned out the way the Thrashers had hoped as a veteran presence behind the young Pavelec. If Pavelec can be more consistent he can be one of the best goalies in the league but the question is whether or not this will happen. The goaltending situation is iffy and could be the final breakdown in the team this year. The Jets inherited some issues on the Thrashers that they seemed to not focus on while scrambling to start a brand new franchise. Lucky for them the Jets fans will forgive them for having a bad year but they will need to improve after this year. The Jets are an exciting team with the most exciting stadium in the league this year but we will not be seeing it in the postseason as much as everyone would like it.   


1. Washington Capitals

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

3. Carolina Hurricanes

4. Winnipeg Jets

5. Florida Panthers

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