Remember when one of the big jokes in the NHL was a division referred to as the "Southleast?"
|Vincent Lecavalier recorded 108 points for the Lightning last season. (US Presswire)|
But heading into the new season, there really is not one team here with more than an outside shot at adding something to the division's trophy case.
In essence, the Southeast became a collection of also-rans last season and is likely to remain that way this season. Only two division teams -- the Atlanta Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning -- made the playoffs last spring, both doing so only by sneaking in at the wire before losing quickly in the first round. And neither can plausibly argue that it looks any better now than back then.
Atlanta tweaked a largely lackluster lineup with acquisitions Todd White and Ken Klee, but their arrivals coincide with the departures of captain Scott Mellanby, who retired, and deadline rental Keith Tkachuk, who returned to St. Louis. And there are off-ice issues that could hang over the team all season, most notably finding a resolution to Hossa's contract situation before he gets to test unrestricted free agency next summer. In the meantime, Atlanta will also have to deal with rebuilding the confidence of young goalie Kari Lehtonen after he was shell-shocked and pulled in his first postseason series.
In Tampa Bay, the biggest news this summer was the sale of the team to a group fronted by former Columbus GM Doug MacLean. But while that unexpected event was going on, the Lightning decided to handle their goaltending concerns with hopes and prayers, while failing to solve the dilemma of creating a legitimate contender when four players eat up more than half the payroll. Tampa Bay did make some roster moves, but they were of the low-rent variety and unlikely to make a big impact for them.
That won't be the case in Washington and Florida, where the two bottom feeders opened their wallets and moved aggressively to upgrade their talent levels. The Capitals added some nice offensive help for young snipers Ovechkin and Alexander Semin in free agents Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov, and recent first-rounder Nicklas Backstrom is coming over from Sweden and is expected to be an impact rookie. Even so, there are still enough holes on the utility lines and defense to keep Washington from becoming a playoff team just yet, but the Caps were a hard-working group last year, and with a stronger lineup, they figure to be in mix.
Florida might be in it as well after trading for one of the NHL's better and more expensive goaltenders in Tomas Vokoun and making a significant statement about keeping its talented young core together by giving Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss lucrative long-term new deals. The Panthers have hurt themselves in recent seasons with extended bad stretches during the season, but the organization now has a sense of stability behind the bench and in the front office that was long missing and should make a difference.
The wild card in the Southeast will likely be the Carolina Hurricanes, who crashed and burned last season after winning the first Stanley Cup of the post-lockout era. Carolina's Stanley Cup hangover was evident early in the season and a series of injuries to key players prevented the team from ever getting on track. But the heart of the roster that won the title is still around, Conn Smythe-winning goalie Cam Ward has taken his conditioning seriously this off-season, and the 'Canes are anxious to prove their championship was not a fluke.