Caps see Hurricanes and Lightning
The Southeast will definitely be one of the most intriguing divisions this season. For one thing it has the electrifying Alexander Ovechkin and his up-and-coming Capitals, but there is also the dramatically revamped Lightning with the charismatic Barry Melrose behind the bench and top overall pick Steven Stamkos joining forces with the stellar Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. It's also easy to overlook the Hurricanes, who are only two seasons removed for a Stanley Cup. And then there are the youth movments in Atlanta and Florida.
Here's a closer look, with teams ranked in my predicted order of finish:
2007-08 RECORD: 43-33-6 --92 points; second in Southeast; ninth in conference; missed playoffs
KEY ADDS: Joni Pitkanen (Edmonton), Anton Babchuk (Russia), Josef Melichar (Sweden),
KEY LOSSES: John Grahame (Russia), Glen Wesley (retirement), Bret Hedican (retirement), Jeff Hamilton (Chicago Wolves), Erik Cole (Edmonton), Craig Adams (Chicago)
STRENGTHS: Experienced forwards
The roster has seen significant change since the Stanley Cup campaign of 2005-06, but the core remains sound. Eric Staal, Matt Cullen and Rod Brind'Amour provide solid depth at center, and there's plenty of competition on the wing with Scott Walker, Tuomo Ruutu, Ray Whitney and, when he comes back at mid-season, Justin Williams. The Canes scored 250 goals last season, a total that trailed just four teams. With virtually the same roster, and a more effective transition game, they should be equally effective this time around.
WEAKNESSES: Team play
If you want to make the argument that injuries derailed the Canes last season, you've got plenty of ammunition. But the bodies left standing seemed to have enough talent to grab a playoff spot. So why'd they fall two points short? Call it a failure to buy into one another. There was no connection between the forwards, defense and goalies, leading to scrambly play where everyone was caught out of position trying to do their job and someone else's. The challenge for coach Peter Laviolette is to get all his horses pulling in the same direction by simplifying the game plan and demanding accountability. If he can't --quickly -- he's likely to pay with his job.
MVP: Cam Ward
For the Canes to realize their potential, they need Ward to take the next step. After leading the team to the Cup, he's struggled at times, victimized by his own inconsistency and the porous defensive efforts of his mates. But with a renewed focus on team play, life should be easier for the 24-year-old who hopes to build on last season's career bests in wins (37), shutouts (4), save percentage (.904) and GAA (2.75).
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Brandon Sutter
The Canes' first-rounder is considered a good, though not safe, bet to stick in Raleigh this season. He's likely to have little impact, however, spending most of his time on the fourth line with spot duty on the penalty kill.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Sergei Samsonov
With 32 points in 38 games after being plucked off the bottom of the scrap heap, Samsonov's contributions were an unexpected bonus during the late-season swoon. But the bigger shock was that the player who'd loafed his way off four teams post-lockout was rewarded with a three-year, $7.6 million deal by GM Jim Rutherford. It'll be a stunner if he finishes this season in Carolina, let alone survives that contract.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: The Canes may not boast the sexiest lineup in the East, but they are a solid, gritty bunch. Given the benefit of a reasonably healthy season -- already an issue given early injuries to Brind'Amour and Williams -- they'll win the division.
2007-08 RECORD: 43-31-8, 94 points; first in Southeast; lost in first round to Philadelphia
KEY ADDS: Jose Theodore (Colorado)
KEY LOSSES: Cristobal Huet (Chicago), Olaf Kolzig (Tampa Bay)
STRENGTHS: Scoring depth
It's easy to look at the Caps as The Alexander Ovechkin Show, with AO working his magic surrounded by a chorus of faceless sweater-fillers. But a shrewd procurement program has been at work during the past few years that allows Washington to boast of one of the most dangerous offenses in the conference. There's enviable center depth featuring Michael Nylander, Niklas Backstrom and Sergei Fedorov. Alexander Semin and Chris Clark could chip in 70 goals from the wings,and Mike Green is in the process of establishing himself as one of the game's most dangerous point men. Ovechkin's name is still the marquee draw, but this is an ensemble act now.
Ovechkin and coach Bruce Boudreau were the engines that powered the Caps from the basement into the thick of the playoff race, but it was the acquisition of Huet that added a turbo-charged boost down the stretch. GM George McPhee reacted curiously to Huet's free agent defection by signing the enigmatic Theodore. The former Hart-winner enjoyed something of a career renaissance in Colorado, but even while playing behind a more experienced defense he was no more than a middle-of-the-road stopper. Washington's blueline is promising but green, suggesting he'll have to be even better just to maintain his mediocre standing.
MVP: Alex Ovechkin
You were expecting John Erskine? Ovechkin, the defending Art Ross, Rocket Richard and Hart winner, is the game's most dynamic force. At 23, he's years away from hitting his prime. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him break the 70-goal, 120-point mark this season and become the NHL's most compelling marketing tool.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Karl Alzner
The fourth overall pick from 2007 is a big, bruising blueliner the Caps envision as part of their top pairing with Green...in time, anyway. This season will be about making the jump from junior hockey to the NHL, a transition that will be made easier by Alzner's physical maturity and mental agility. He'll likely be eased in on the third pair, but could be playing significant minutes by season's end.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Jeff Schultz
The rookie blueliner established his credentials as an NHL regular late last season, scoring 18 points and averaging more than 18 minutes, often against the opposition's top offensive unit. But he failed to take full advantage of his 6-6, 225-pound frame, and frustrated fans, if not his coaches, with his timid play. Look for that to change as Schultz becomes a more imposing presence in his own zone and a reliable 20-minute defender.
BOTTOM LINE PREDICTION: Armed with the confidence that comes from a breakthrough season, the young Caps should be well situated to take the next step forward. But will they? The loss of Huet might not shoot off their wheels, but the margin between success and failure in the East is incredibly slim. It won't take much of a drop-off in netminding to cost them the division title, but the Caps won't be denied a lower playoff berth.