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Southeast Division

Panthers on the prowl as Hurricanes regain force

Posted: Wednesday September 26, 2007 8:30PM; Updated: Thursday September 27, 2007 5:07PM
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By Allan Muir, SI.com

Other previews: Atlantic | Northeast | Central | Northwest | Pacific

Southeast Division
Florida Panthers
2006-07: 35-31-16, 12th in Eastern Conference
Style: Sound defense with up-tempo forecheck
Strengths: Quality centers; goaltending; power play
Weaknesses: Scoring from wings; forward depth
MVP: Olli Jokinen (left). A member of the NHL's All-Under-appreciated Team, he's a proven scorer, ready to be an effective leader, and seems determined to will his team into the postseason.
Don't count on: Radek Dvorak. The prodigal first-rounder (10th overall, '95) returns to provide offensive depth, but is an extremely streaky scorer. His best days are well behind him.
Kid to watch: Rostislav Olesz. The young Czech appears ready for the third-year breakout. After focusing on defensive duties for two seasons, he's rediscovered the offensive touch that made him the seventh overall pick in '04.
Overview: They haven't sniffed the playoffs since 2000, but the pieces are in place to end that miserable streak. It starts in goal. Former Pred Tomas Vokoun won't make anyone forget Roberto Luongo, but he's a legit top-10 goalie who may be worth 10 points in the standings by himself. The young core -- Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss in particular -- is at the age where it can stop promising and start delivering. The defense, led by Jay Bouwmeester (plus-23 on a team that was minus-10), looks as well-rounded as any in the conference thanks to the signing of Cory Murphy. The MVP of the Finnish SM-Liiga last season has the puck skills to boost the potency of the solid power play. Florida fans might want to start stocking up on rubber rats.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Carolina Hurricanes
2006-07: 40-34-8, 11th in Eastern Conference
Style: Aggressive forecheck that helped win the '06 Cup
Strengths: Scoring depth; veteran experience
Weaknesses: Aging, injury-prone defense; questionable goaltending
MVP: Rod Brind'Amour (left). Coming off a second-straight Selke, the ageless Brind?Amour is the defensive conscience and player most likely to chip in with an offensive play when it's most needed.
Don't count on: Matt Cullen. Not that he won't contribute, but his 25-goal effort in the Cup campaign was an aberration. He's more likely to pot 15 -- not bad if he maintains his energetic, defensive presence.
Kid to watch: Casey Borer. The 22-year-old defender is in tough to make the club out of camp. A 2007 St. Cloud State grad, he left an impression by making plays with the puck and keeping his game simple. Defense-minded, he?s likely to be the first call-up when injuries inevitably befall the geriatric blue line.
Overview: A textbook case of Cup hangover or were those 'Canes classic overachievers? Whatever, they suffered the ignominy of being just the third team of the Expansion era to miss the playoffs after a championship. This group ? virtually intact ? will be motivated and blessed with outstanding forwards. They should be in the hunt for the Southeast title. Returning to those heights depends on bounceback years from Eric Staal and Cam Ward, two young Cup heroes who struggled last season. Ward, especially, will be under the gun after signing a three-year deal in the off-season. He has to lop more than half a goal off his 2.93 GAA to keep this group in the playoff mix.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Atlanta Thrashers
2006-07: 43-28-11, 3rd in Eastern Conference
Style: Preach defense, practice offense
Strengths: Dynamic Duo of Hossa and Kovalchuk
Weaknesses: AHL-caliber centers; scoring depth; special teams
MVP: Marian Hossa (left). Coming off his first 100-point season, he's firmly established as a premier two-way talent. With the potential for unrestricted free agency next summer, he comes in armed with plenty of motivation for a career year. Don't count on: Todd White. Only in center-starved Atlanta could a 44-point, third-line caliber pivot like White be gifted with wingers like Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov. His point totals may rise, but he'll strictly be coattailing.
Kid to watch: Brett Sterling/Tobias Enstrom.The reigning AHL Rookie of the Year and the undersized defender from Sweden will be asked to bring offensive sizzle. Sterling, listed at 5-7, lit the lamp 55 times last season with the Chicago Wolves. Enstrom, a shifty, stickhandling wizard, will be groomed as a future power play QB.
Overview: Last season may have been the finest in franchise history, but a four-game playoff disaster proved they are still a work in progress. After losing eight veterans, GM Don Waddell chose spit and duct tape veterans White, Eric Perrin and Ken Klee. That approach opened roster space for draft picks, but put him under the gun if the team loses ground. Though it has improved in each of his three seasons behind the bench, Bob Hartley is the favorite to be the first coach axed. The season could come down to Kari Lehtonen, whose inconsistency is the natural, painful drawback to relying on a young stopper. After suffering yet another groin pull in camp, he's the big question mark on a team that will struggle to match last season's success.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Tampa Bay Lightning
2006-07: 44-33-5, 6th in Eastern Conference
Style: Roll Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards. Repeat often.
Strengths: The Big Three; power play
Weaknesses: No established No. 1 goalie; forward depth; penalty kill
MVP: Vincent Lecavalier (left). The best player in the East not named Crosby is coming off a Richard-winning 52 goals and career-high 108 points; 60 and 115 aren't out of the question.
Don't count on: Brad Richards. Coming off his worst season statistically since 2001-02, he may look like a prime candidate for a bounceback, but saddled with castoff wingers (Michel Ouellet, Jan Hlavac), he's more likely to sink than swim.
Kid to watch: Karri Ramo. The 21-year-old Finn is in the hunt for a goaltending gig. Coach John Tortorella will make him the go-to guy if he's the best of three options
Overview: Two points separated the Bolts from ninth place last season, so a slow start may be fatal in the tightly-packed East. You can't underestimate the impact of the wrist injury that will keep top defender Dan BoyleDan Boyle out for the first month. He's the lynchpin of a power play that ranked fourth in the East. His absence could impact the effectiveness of the Triplets. But the big question is in net. Ramo, Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis impressed in camp, but one must step up to be No. 1 and deliver in the regular season. If not, Tampa's four-year playoff streak is likely to end, and so is the stewardship of GM Jay Feaster.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis
Washington Capitals
2006-07: 28-40-14, 14th in Eastern Conference
Style: Offense first; half-hearted commitment to defense
Strengths: Two scoring lines; coach Glen Hanlon
Weaknesses: Special teams; inexperienced defense
MVP: Olaf Kolzig (left). As marvelous as Alex Ovechkin can be -- first team All-Star in both NHL seasons says it all -- the Caps won?t sniff the playoffs without a magnificent effort from their veteran stopper.
Don't count on: Tom Poti. The free-agent defenseman brings a much-needed knack for the transition game, but is prone to mental errors that lead to pucks in his team's net.
Kid to watch: Nicklas Backstrom. The fourth-overall pick in '06 is being asked to switch from center to wing, but looks comfortable. An elite offensive talent a notch below Ovechkin, he's among preseason favorites for the Calder.
Overview: Kudos to GM George McPhee, who tried to transform the conference's fourth-worst offense by signing a pair of legitimate centers in Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov. The abysmal 24th-ranked power play should be much improved as a result. The additions have the front office talking playoffs, but that seems like a lofty goal. The Caps have plenty of promise on the blue line, but far too little experience to finish in the top eight. Expect this to be a season of baby steps, with better days ahead.
Summer Report Card: Offseason moves and analysis