Last year, Cory and I made predictions as to how we felt each division would end up. Our selections for the Southeast were very similar except that I predicted that the Canes would return as division champs, Cory stuck with favored Washington. We all know how that turned out..
It's time to honor the tradition again this year, starting out with the Southeast.
Should I go against the grain again this year and diss the defending division champs? We will see. First, here is Cory's take:
4. Tampa Bay
The Washington Capitals are at a pivotal moment in their history. Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom are centerpieces any franchise would gladly take. Youngsters Simeon Varlamov and Karl Alzner are also poised to burst on the scene. But with Semin due for restricted free agency following this season and chinks already showing in the Caps' forward lines, this might be their best chance to make a run at the Cup. Problem is, there are huge question marks down the middle — the place most teams look to build from. After Backstrom, the center position is average at best. Brendan Morrison will be asked to center the second line, a role that he hasn't been capable of for a few seasons. David Steckel or Boyd Gordon don't have the skill to dethrone him.
That being said, the addition of veteran Mike Knuble is a great one. He'll provide a presence in front of the net and has been very durable throughout his career. Varlamov will battle Jose Theodore for the top job in goal. Varlamov proved up to the task in the postseason last year, but taking on the rigors of a full NHL season is tough on any young netminder. Green leads the defense, with Tom Poti providing veteran experience and Alzner poised to become a rugged, defense-first blueliner.
Still, Ovechkin & Co. will have enough firepower to keep them atop the Southeast.
The Hurricanes went deeper than the Caps in last year's playoffs, and they've stabilized the bottom half of their lineup with hard-to-play-against additions Aaron Ward, Andrew Alberts, Stephane Yelle and Tom Kostopoulos. The big question mark is on the blueline, where Anton Babchuk and Dennis Seidenberg — who both added some offense from the back end — are gone. Not only will there likely be a drop in point production from the blueline, but the power play is up in the air without enough viable d-men who can run the point. Matt Cullen will slide back with the man advantage to fill one hole on the top unit, but the second spot on the second PP team is up in the air. Don't be surprised if prospect Bryan Rodney gets a look there if the team struggles to find a solution.
The Canes are banking on their revamped defense to limit chances against emerging star goalie Cam Ward. If the new additions can help Ward, then the Hurricanes can rely on their forwards for enough scoring to help them win games. Eric Staal, Ray Whitney and Tuomo Ruutu should lead the way, with the team hoping Erik Cole and Rod Brind'Amour can regain their scoring touch, and Jussis Jokinen, Cullen, Chad LaRose and Sergei Samsonov adding several layers of secondary scoring.
The Florida Panthers lost their identity when they dealt defenseman Jay Bouwmeester before he was set to enter the unrestricted free agency market. That might not be a bad thing, seeing that identity hasn't led to any playoff appearances. Mostly, the Panthers need Nathan Horton to become a dominant power forward. David Booth and Stephen Weiss have found ways to be productive, but Horton has been a disappointment year after year, whether because of injuries or inconsistent play.
The defense is solid, especially with the addition of Seidenberg right before the start of the preseason. Keith Ballard is a cornerstone blueliner that makes life hell for opposing forwards, while Bryan McCabe is a threat offensively whenever he's on the attack. Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen are a solid tandem in net, but the team will need to see more out of Horton and their other forwards if they are to sneak into the playoffs.
If the Lightning can show some patience with their roster, they could be better than expected this season. They have the ability to push the Panthers for third and perhaps even make a run at a return to the playoffs. It all starts on defense. Last year's group was constantly in a state of flux, but the addition of Mattias Ohlund and drafting of Victor Hedman make the Bolts' D immediately better. If Mike Smith can stay healthy in net, keeping goals out of the net shouldn't be a big problem.
There's talent on offense, too, led by Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos. The addition of winger Alex Tanguay adds more scoring punch on the outside to go with power forward Ryan Malone and slippery Martin St. Louis. The third and fourth lines will be nothing to call home about, but there's enough talent in the top six to keep Tampa Bay in games.
In Atlanta, things could get ugly — then worse if Ilya Kovalchuk decides to leave town following this year. Throughout the lineup, there are bright spots surrounded by not-so-bright ones. Bryan Little and Kovalchuk are top-flight forwards, while newcomer Nik Antropov brings size and the ability to take over a game, even if it came way too expensively (an average of more than $4 million a year for the next four seasons). But the rest of the group are either too old or too average to inspire excitement.
The defense has the potential to be good if prospects Zach Bogosian and Boris Valabik can play beyond their years, while acquisition Pavel Kubina is a solid addition.
There's plenty of talent in net, but none of it proven. Kari Lehtonen needs to prove he was worth being the second overall pick in 2002, while Ondrej Pavelec is lurking in the minors looking to become the new No. 1. Backup Johan Hedberg is always reliable, but not capable of being an everyday starter. All these holes mean one thing: another high draft pick for the Thrashers.
4. Tampa Bay
If Cory and I agreed on everything, this would be a pretty boring column, wouldn't it?
It's time to put on my homer cap once again and stick with my gut feeling, that the Caps are going to take a step back this year. As I mentioned in this highly controversial article I posted a couple of weeks back, I do not feel that each of the Washington superstars will be able to duplicate or surpass last year's lofty scoring results. The team will not be able to win as many games because quite frankly, they do not have the quality defense or goaltending needed to win games without that consistent high scoring.
While Knuble is a great pickup, how much better can the powerplay be than the 25% achieved last season which was good for second place in the league? Morrison is no Sergei Fedorov and Alzner has some maturing to do before he can single-handedly save the defense. While Mike Green is a scoring dynamo, is he going to be counted on for shut-down defense? Viktor Kozlov was under-rated and the team will miss him more than they think.
Can they still win the division? Of course they can, but it will not be the cakewalk that it was last season. Each of the other teams in the division have improved. How much better are the Caps now than they were last year?
The Hurricanes beat the Capitals head to head last season and they have addressed some of their weaknesses by getting bigger and more physical. Several players had injury issues they were dealing with and scored well below their lifetime scoring averages. Rod Brind`Amour, Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen, and Scott Walker should all have rebound years. Cam Ward is the most consistent goalie in the division. The defense is bigger, nastier, and should be stingier than they were last year.
This season the club has more quality depth to fill in when needed than it has ever had before. I give the nod to the Canes.
I chose Atlanta to come in third because I think they can continue what was working for them at the end of last year when they finished on a winning tear. This team is kind of like the opposite of Florida, which has a ton of defense, but no offense. If they can sign Manny Legace to play backup goalie and Kari Lehtonen can give them any kind of consistency, this team could be dangerous. Pavel Kubina is going to knock in points from the blueline and Bryan Little should continue to improve as forward. Young defenseman Zach Bogosian is a horse and Ron "Hollywood" Hainsey is coming into his own.
Did I forget to mention that Ilya Kovalchuk is in a contract year? Be careful because this team could surprise people.
Tampa Bay has a ton of talent on the squad this year, but something important is missing: Leadership. They don't have it on the ice, behind the bench, or upstairs in the main office. While Vincent Lecavalier is an unquestionable talent, is he the best leader in the division, or even on the team? Is Rick Tocchet Jack Adams material? I don't see it. Then you have the owners squabbling over control at the top and this franchise looks like it might implode. It's hard to be successful on the ice when there is internal strife and this franchise is ripe with it.
They still have enough talent to keep out of last place though.
Florida has a very solid goalie, a ton of quality defensemen, but just one line of offense. Shut them down, and what have you got? A lot of 2-1, and 3-2 losses. Stillman, Booth, Horton, and Weiss are good, but not good enough to carry the offensive load needed to win consistently in this league, or this division. And speaking of ownership trouble, things are not exactly all rosy in Sunrise right now.
What do you think? Leave your comments and rate your teams in the poll below.