The Southeast Division, usually a doormat for the rest of the league with a number of teams finishing under .500, should see somewhat of a revival in 2008-09. The Capitals had a strong showing at the end of last season, and with Tampa Bay undergoing a massive rebuild this offseason, the Southeast has a legitimate chance to put three teams in the playoffs, as long as Carolina can play consistently good hockey. Fans in Atlanta and Florida may be better off following football this winter.
Washington Capitals finished last season strong, with superstar Alexander Ovechkin winning a closetful of awards at the end of last season and Coach of the year Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. With Alexander Semin and goal-scoring defenseman Mike Green helping Ovie out, the Caps should put up some big offensive numbers. The question mark is in net, where Jose Theodore replaces young phenom Cristobal Huet and veteran Olaf Kolzig.
Tampa Bay Lightning will be expected to perform well after the offseason additions they made. Barry Melrose is a talented coach and should get what he needs out of this young team. With Lecavalier and St. Louis getting help from role players like Ryan Malone, the Lightning should rebound nicely after a dismal showing last year. Rookie Steve Stamkos is expected to get plenty of ice time and make a positive impact almost immediately. Again, the problems may be in net, with Olaf Kolzig winding his career down.
Carolina Hurricanes is used to having their way in their own division, but may be in for a surprise if they think this upcoming season will be more of the same. With Eric Staal and Cam Ward leading the way, and buoyed by the additions of some solid defensemen, the Hurricanes should be solid at both ends of the ice. As long as they don’t end up getting bit too hard by the injury bug, Carolina should be hanging around come playoff time.
Atlanta Thrashers finished last season under .500, and the expectations for this season aren’t much better. Ilya Kovalchuk can only do so much, and without much offensive help, the Thrashers won’t be blowing anyone’s doors off this year. Lehtonen will be solid in net again, and some blueline upgrades should cut down the number of shots he sees, but it won’t be enough to keep Atlanta out of the basement.
Florida Panthers was a bit of a tease at the end of last season, hanging around until the very last few games before being eliminated from playoff contention. Management got rid of superstar Olli Jokinen, opting to give goalie Tomas Vokoun and blueline anchor Jay Bouwmeester some help in their own end. The Panthers should be able to keep teams under control defensively, but you have to score goals to win games, and the Panthers may come up short in that department.
Division standings prediction: Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida, Atlanta