With each Southeast Division team researched and previewed, it’s now time to lay out how the teams will finish in 2008-2009.
Major moves in free agency will have serious impacts for some teams, while others will suffer from a lack of depth due to in-activeness during the off-season. Free agency doesn’t determine everything though. Some teams have much talent returning, which in my mind is more important that anything.
My predictions are based on what each team will start the season with as of right now. It’s impossible to know what will happen in the future, and if moves are made I will make note of such. Also, it’s impossible to know if injuries will happen, so I’m assuming players to be as healthy as can be.
Enough jabber. Your Southeast Division standings are…
1. Washington Capitals
Washington will repeat as Southeast Division champions. This time it will be another close race, though.
The Capitals will probably have the best defense in the division, which will make all the difference. The young corps is still in place and, being the second best defensive team in the Southeast last season, I expect them to be the best this year.
Offensively the Caps are, and always will be, scary. Nothing should change from last year, so look for more highlight reel performances from Alexander Ovechkin and crew.
I think Jose Theodore will do well in Washington. With an improved defense, as well as potent offense, more attention should be directed toward the other half of the ice. If he can stop 90% of his shots faced or more, that should be enough.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa will jump from last to second in an up and down season. The up and down being a product of great offense and porous defense.
It’s just hard to believe that the second worst defense in the NHL will do a 180 and magically be firmed up. Don’t get me wrong, I think this unit will be better thanks to chemistry and a better offense. However, not good enough to claim the top spot in the division.
As already mentioned, the offense will be great. Maybe the best in the division, and potentially the Eastern Conference for that matter. The way I see it, there are two – potentially three – threatening scoring lines. Opponents are going to have a lot of trouble defending these guys.
Playing against the bottom teams in the conference six times a year will help the Lightning as well, considering the conference is weak as a whole on defense.
It all comes down to how Barry Melrose manages this talent. The sky is the limit, to be as painfully cliched as possible. He should do just fine though. This is not a tough situation to walk in to.
3. Carolina Hurricanes
The defense is younger, but is it better? Younger seems to be better in the NHL as a whole, but a lot of leadership left with Bret Hedican and Glen Wesley. The defense will have a lot to prove, and I think it will be better than last season.
However, offense is the big issue for this team. Losing Erik Cole is a hit to the offense. The bigger hit…not one legitimate move has been made to try and fill the void he will be leaving.
Tuomo Ruutu is a nice, young guy to have and should continue to improve as a player. However, he’s not going to magically morph in to a 20-20 guy like Cole is. Therefore the offense is taking a step down.
With the offensive talent in Tampa Bay and Washington, this defense needs a capable offense. Such is not the case for the Hurricanes.
4. Atlanta Thrashers
Yes, it’s true. Atlanta will not finish last in the division! However, don’t think that takes them out of the running for the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft lottery.
They scored the least and gave up the most last season, yet somehow finished five points ahead of Tampa Bay.
Defense is a serious issue. The franchise seems to be counting on rookie Zach Bogosian to assume a starting role. That’s risky to say the least. However, the five defensemen on the roster are rather dependable.
There honestly is one reason that the Thrashers will not finish dead last, and that is Ilya Kovalchuk. He single-handedly gives his team a chance to win. There aren’t many complimentary forwards for him to play with though. Hopefully the addition of Jason Williams will be of service.
The one surprise could be young prospects that make their first marks in the NHL. It seems this franchise is looking to rebuild around it’s youth.
5. Florida Panthers
This team just flat-out lost the most over the free agent signing period. They lost their captain and two leaders on defense.
The offense was a problem to to begin with, and now will rely on David Booth to produce numbers that are beyond his reach.
Defensively, it gets even worse. For a unit that made the team competitive, it’s a shame to see the management in Florida not keep some guys around. At least Jay Bouwmeester was re-signed, but it’s not going to be nearly enough.
The lone bright spot on this team it Thomas Vokoun. Unfortunately for him, he will be facing a lot of shots and seeing a large drop in his numbers. This, however, will be no fault to him. The men in front of him are just not good enough to get the job done.
Keep posted here at Pittsburgh Puck Talk as I will be previewing the Northwest Division, starting team-by-team analysis tomorrow.
~Chris @ Pittsburgh Puck Talk
Last year’s standings at season’s end (ESPN.com):