With the long grind of summer upon us, there is nothing left to do but continue to study and project results for the coming season.
The Southeast Division will be the first on my list, coming in order of strength from last season.
In 2007-2008, the Southeast was the joke of the Eastern Conference. However, it was also home to the most exciting regular season finish of the year. The Washington Capitals ended up beating out the Carolina Hurricanes, who failed to surge at a time when it was most needed.
The Caps deserved to win the division, winning nine of their last 10 games. Carolina deserved to lose it, playing .500 hockey down the stretch.
With the off-season improvements of the Tampa Bay Lightning, expect another exciting race for the Southeast Division crown in 2008-2009. I’ll start with the Washington Capitals.
The Capitals are a bit weaker in net with the departure of Cristobal Huet.
Jose Theodore will assume the starting goaltender position. With nearly 30 wins in Colorado last season, posting a 2.44 GAA and .910 SV%, he overachieved on a weak team. In Washington, Theodore will benefit from a team that dominates offensively.
However, a weak defensive corps may give him problems. In the long run though, the Capitals will likely benefit from having a the same guy in net every night that is not named Olaf Kolzig.
However, if Theodore goes down to injury, or fails to perform, Washington will have few places to turn with Brent Johnson as a backup. Theodore has been prone to injury in his career.
Johnson is a big body in net, but has failed to perform well enough to be a reliable backup in Washington. In the last three years (all in Washington), he has averaged a 3.24 GAA and .900 SV%. Management has to hope he can replicate numbers from last season that were his most consistent since playing in St. Louis in 2001-2002.
Defensively, this team is young and it is hard to predict how they will play. If you take the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example, the defense has improved each season and now is rated as one of the stronger units in the league.
Last year, the Capitals defense was suspect. Working in the team’s favor is that the same guys are back again. To reference the Penguins once again, the stability and chemistry developed by the same guys playing together has created much success.
Washington’s defense allowed the second fewest amount of goals in the Southeast Division, and benefited from playing eight games a piece against the two worst defensive teams in the Eastern Conference: Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
The Capitals should be better defensively. How much better is the big question.
Offense hasn’t been an issue since Alexader Ovechkin entered the picture, and it doesn’t figure to be any time soon. Their defensemen can score and their forwards can score.
It is relatively the same team from last year. The big question is, will that be enough to hold off other teams in the division that made strides to improve over the off-season?
Time will tell, but I will tell sooner. Following the way they finished in ’08, I will next preview the Carolina Hurricanes.