Shop Fantasy Central Golf Guide Email Travel Subscribe SI About Us Hockey Almanac Fantasy Minors College Juniors

baseball S
pro football S
col. football S
pro basketball S
m. college bb S
w. college bb S
golf plus S
tennis S
soccer S
motor sports
olympic sports
women's sports
more sports

 Sportsman of the Year
 Heisman Trophy
 Swimsuit 2001

 Fantasy Central
 Inside Game
 Multimedia Central
 Your Turn
 Message Boards
 Email Newsletters
 Golf Guide
 Work in Sports GROUP
 Sports Illustrated
 Life of Reilly
 SI Women
 SI for Kids
 Press Room
 TBS/TNT Sports
 CNN Languages

 SI Customer Service
 SI Media Kits
 Get into College
 Sports Memorabilia

Southeast Division Preview

Offseason changes makes for interesting race

Click here for more on this story
Latest: Tuesday October 03, 2000 07:58 PM

  Pavel Bure Pavel Bure looks to be a key ingredient in the Panthers' quest for the Stanley Cup. Steve Babineau/Allsport

JERSEY CITY, New Jersey (Ticker) -- All three Southeast Division contenders -- the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes -- made substantial offseason changes to prepare for an interesting battle in 2000-01.

The Panthers will need to squeeze a bit more production out of their top forwards to repeat the success of this past season, when they posted a team-record 98 points before getting swept by New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs.

The Panthers traded two-time 20-goal scorer Mark Parrish and left wing Oleg Kvasha to the New York Islanders for center Olli Jokinen and goaltender Roberto Luongo.

Florida also signed 39-year-old free agent Igor Larionov, who will center Pavel Bure this season. The Larionov-Bure combination could turn into one of the most potent in the NHL. Larionov is known for his smart offensive play and playmaking ability, two skills off which Bure should feed.

Rob Niedermayer likely will play alongside the two Russians as he looks to bounce back from a 10-goal season.

Expectations for right wing Denis Shvidki are high. Coach Terry Murray has slotted the 1999 first-round draft pick for the fourth line, but the absence of holdout Peter Worrell has given Shvidki time between veterans Mike Sillinger and Scott Mellanby.

Goaltenders Trevor Kidd and Luongo have offered conflicting comments regarding who will be the starter. Murray wants to see a No. 1 goalie emerge, but even he won't give clues as to who will mind the crease on opening night.

Kidd never has been at his best when he is not the clear-cut starter. And giving Luongo -- the Panthers' goalie of the future -- the starting nod could undermine his confidence.

Defense is Florida's most obvious weakness. The Panthers were unable to obtain an offensive-minded defenseman and an offseason scrimmage left Brad Ference with a broken jaw that will keep him out some six weeks. Lance Pitlick has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff and is the subject of trade rumors.

The defending division champion Capitals went to camp without three of their top five goal-scorers. Peter Bondra has requested a trade, while Chris Simon and Sergei Gonchar remain unsigned.

Management would like to smooth things with Bondra but agreed to shop the second-leading goal-scorer in team history. With the season approaching, several Western Conference teams have expressed interest in the 32-year-old Slovakian.

In the absence of the injury-plagued Bondra this past season, Simon picked up the slack with a team-leading 29 goals. Gonchar, who had 18 goals and 36 assists, led the Caps with a plus-26 rating.

Jan Bulis signed a three-year to stay in Washington. However, offseason shoulder surgery will keep him off the ice into November. Although Bulis registered just nine goals this past season, he centered one of Washington's most productive lines with Steve Konowalchuk and Richard Zednik.

To cope with the expected scoring void, the Capitals signed two-time 50-goal scorer Stephane Richer, who stunned team officials by retiring one day into training camp.

The signings of former Caps Craig Berube and Sylvain Cote will add grit, but Washington still will rely heavily on Vezina Trophy winner Olaf Kolzig. No one faced more shots this past season than Kolzig.

Like Washington, Carolina must overcome the loss of four of its top 10 scorers after Gary Roberts, Paul Coffey, Sean Hill and Andrei Kovalenko left via free agency.

In place of Coffey and Hill, the Hurricanes acquired Sandis Ozolinsh and signed free agent Kevin Hatcher. The departures of Roberts and Kovalenko should create more ice time for young forwards like Shane Willis and Byron Ritchie.

Since moving into the Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena, the Hurricanes have struggled to earn wins and fans. A big name like Ozolinsh may help, but without victories, Carolina will continue to play before thousands of empty seats.

Goalie Arturs Irbe was 34-28-9 this past season with a 2.42 goals-against average. But his streaky play was a factor behind the "Canes" failure to return to the postseason. Irbe again figures to see a lot of action, with inexperienced rookie Jean-Marc Pelletier backing up him.

Maurice is entering his sixth season as Carolina coach. Still the youngest NHL coach, he is 165-178-55 with one playoff appearance. He has succeeded in developing the team's youth, but missing the playoffs again could cost Maurice his job.

With a healthy lineup, the Tampa Bay Lightning could play spoiler for more than a few teams. General manager Rick Dudley has pieced together some young talent that can carry the team to the playoffs -- in a few years.

The Lightning lost more than 400 man-games to injury this past season, heavily depleting their defense corps. The lack of talented blue liners translated into 310 goals-against, the second-highest total in the NHL behind only expansion Atlanta.

Sergey Gusev and Andrei Zyuzin return from injuries this season and veteran Petr Svoboda and Pavel Kubina form the top two pairings.

Tampa Bay's goaltending situation improved somewhat over the summer with the acquisition of Kevin Weekes. The Lightning have said Dan Cloutier will be their goalie of the future, but playing with Weekes may set his development back. Instead of receiving mentoring from a veteran, Cloutier will compete throughout the season to retain the No. 1 role.

The Bolts boast one dangerous line in Mike Johnson, Vincent Lecavalier and Fredrik Modin. Lecavalier is coming off a career season and the 20-year-old has only scratched the surface.

After the top line, however, talent begins a steep dropoff. Aside from Johnson, Lecavalier and Modin, the Lightning produced only three players with as many as 10 goals.

For Tampa Bay to realize any improvement in the standings, it will need more scoring from more players. Rookies Sheldon Keefe and Brad Richards could provide a spark if they make the jump from juniors.

If the Lightning can stay healthy, get solid defense and goaltending and above-average production from young players, they should build on this past season's 19 wins. Of course, those are a lot of ifs.

Although Atlanta won't contend for the playoffs, the Thrashers have done enough in the offseason to overcome a trying 14-win expansion campaign. General manager Don Waddell is trying to develop youth at the NHL level, a process that will continue this season.

Several veterans, including Mike Stapleton and Johan Garpenlov, are not returning for a second season in Atlanta, leaving openings for the Thrashers' crop of youth.

Dmitrti Vlasenkov and Tomi Kallio, two top-10 scorers in their respective leagues last season, could add some much-needed scoring punch.

Atlanta signed free agent Adam Burt with hopes of upgrading its defense. Burt scored only seven points last season, but the Thrashers can expect solid play in front of the net, something they sought as an expansion team.

Goalie Damian Rhodes has a chance to do what he could not in 1999-00 -- finish the season. The 31-year-old missed nearly four months with knee and ankle injuries, leaving Atlanta without a top netminder. Scott Langkow, Scott Fankhouser and Milan Hnilicka will battle for the backup role.

The Southeast Division could send two or three teams to the playoffs, provided Washington, Florida and Carolina minimize their weaknesses. As far as the division title, Florida has the edge with its offensive depth and 1-2 tandem in net.

Related information
Atlantic Preview: Makings of a soap opera
Northeast Preview: Reversal of fortune needed
Visit Multimedia Central for the latest audio and video
Search our site Watch CNN/SI 24 hours a day
Sports Illustrated and CNN have combined to form a 24 hour sports news and information channel. To receive CNN/SI at your home call your cable operator or DirecTV.

© 2003 SportsTicker Enterprises, LP

CNNSI Copyright © 2001
CNN/Sports Illustrated
An AOL Time Warner Company.
All Rights Reserved.

Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.