Work in Sports
Southeast Division Preview
Offseason changes makes for interesting race
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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