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Southeast
Sarah Kwak
October 13, 2008
WASHINGTON Capitals
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October 13, 2008

Southeast

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WHEN OREN KOULES and Len Barrie took ownership of the club in June, they vowed to be aggressive in rebuilding the franchise. They weren't kidding. In the first 10 days of free agency the Lightning brought in 13 players—and that doesn't count No. 1 draft choice Steven Stamkos. Important among the pickups are ex-Penguin Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata, who scored 27 goals for Phoenix. "I've never seen a team make that many changes," says top center Vincent Lecavalier (above), who also spilled a little ink when he signed an 11-year, $85 million contract extension. "It's not just players but everywhere in the organization. It's like I got traded without having to leave Tampa."

The revamped roster has depth up front but will be extremely thin—and inexperienced—on the blue line. "We're going to take our lumps early," says coach Barry Melrose, another import (from the ESPN studio). "We'll make mistakes, but I accept mistakes as long as you're trying to get better."

FLORIDA
Panthers

LAST SEASON
38-35-9, 11th in East

KEY ADDITIONS
D Keith Ballard, D Nick Boynton, Coach Peter DeBoer, D Bryan McCabe, LW Cory Stillman

KEY LOSSES
D Jassen Cullimore, C Olli Jokinen, Coach Jacques Martin, D Steve Montador, C Jozef Stumpel

DEFENSE WINS championships, as the old saw goes, but in the Panthers' case it's not likely to be enough to even contend in this division. Goalies Tomas Vokoun (69 games) and Craig Anderson (17) tied Anaheim's unit with a league-best .920 save percentage last season, and in the off-season Florida acquired several veterans to strengthen a defense that, with powerful Jay Bouwmeester (above) at its core, could be as strong as any in the Southeast.

Ah, but the offense. With perennial top scorer Olli Jokinen having been dealt to Phoenix, the onus falls primarily upon 25-year-old center Stephen Weiss and ascendant 23-year-old right wing Nathan Horton. Those two can make plays—Horton, in particular, has 35-goal potential—but they'll have little support up front; that makes continued production from Bouwmeester, a fine passer who also had 15 goals last year, essential.

The bottom line: Florida's eight-season playoff drought is tied with the Blue Jackets' for the longest active streak in the NHL—and there's no end in sight.

ATLANTA
Thrashers

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