Southeast preview: Caps hope minimal changes bring better result

by | Staff Writer

Among the lessons the Washington Capitals should have learned last season was that nothing comes easy in the NHL.

Of course the Capitals could have been excused for thinking that it does. With a high-powered offense and, in spite of its questionable defense, Washington effectively locked up the Southeast Division title at Christmas before going on to win the Presidents' Trophy by a comfortable margin. And if that wasn't enough, the Caps barely worked up a sweat as they jumped into a 3-1 series lead in the opening round against heavy underdog Montreal.

'We've explained to players that they can't let opportunities go by because you don't have many,' Caps GM George McPhee said. (Getty Images)  
'We've explained to players that they can't let opportunities go by because you don't have many,' Caps GM George McPhee said. (Getty Images)  
Problem was, the Caps either looked too far ahead too soon or simply believed that all they had to do was show up to win and they ended up suffering what was one of the worst collapses in NHL history. And it brought the kind of response that tends to be common in the nation's capital, with Washington dealing with the situation by doing next to nothing.

That means the Capitals will open training camp next week with a lineup that is nearly identical to the one that endured a disaster only a few months ago.

"We've explained to the players that they can't let opportunities go by because you don't have that many," general manager George McPhee said. "But we can score, we have good team speed and we're in good shape with our contracts, so we didn't need to do anything major.

"I just hope we can have a year like we did last year because we certainly had a terrific regular season. We just expect to be better in the playoffs if we get there."

That really shouldn't be a problem for a team that has superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom spearheading things up front, and Mike Green serving as the catalyst from the back end. Washington will be working in promising youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner to its blue-line group and definitively turning the goaltending duties over to Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, but the overall talent level here is deep enough to make another division flag almost inevitable.

Even so, life will be a little more challenging this season in the Southeast for the Caps, the result of some serious upgrades made in Tampa Bay and Atlanta. In fact, both the Lightning and Thrashers have created some real hope for a playoff spot because of the work of their respective new general managers, with rookie Steve Yzerman overhauling the Lightning in a major way and Rick Dudley following suit in Atlanta.

Yzerman made the bigger headlines this summer by adding high-scoring forward Simon Gagne to a group that already included 50-goal scorer Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, while improving his defense with Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark and goalie Dan Ellis. Tampa Bay also secured the services of Guy Boucher, whose work in the AHL and junior levels made him one of the most sought-after coaches this offseason.

Dudley, meanwhile, installed his own man behind the bench as well by bringing in longtime NHL assistant Craig Ramsey, but he changed the look of the Thrashers in a big way as well prying Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel away from the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks and signing veteran goalie Chris Mason as well.

The Carolina Hurricanes weren't nearly as active, largely because they are in cost-containment mode as their owners search for investors. It translates into a youth movement that saw them say goodbye to Rod Brind'Amour and Ray Whitney, two veteran leaders from the 2006 Cup team, and officially makes this the team of captain Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward. The 'Canes did dip into the free-agent market to sign much-traveled defenseman Joe Corvo, but with a lineup that should be dominated by products of the farm system, the highlight of the season in Raleigh is likely to be the NHL All-Star Game that will be played there in January.

Unfortunately for the Florida Panthers, there will be even less to look forward to this season, although the future could be brighter with Dale Tallon running the show as general manager.

Tallon, of course, was unceremoniously ousted last year from the same job in Chicago, where his efforts over the past decade were largely responsible for building the lineup that won the Stanley Cup. He has brought the same organization-building philosophy to South Florida and showed off his skills at the draft, where he managed to secure six of the first 50 players taken, including third overall choice Erik Gudbranson.

Tallon did make some moves that could have more immediate impact as well, sending forwards Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell to Boston for defenseman Dennis Wideman, moving blue liner Keith Ballard to Vancouver for forwards Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner and he signed free agent Chris Higgins.

And Tallon will have a pretty good asset to move at the trade deadline in goalie Tomas Vokoun if he chooses, so the future could be brighter in Florida. The problem is the present for a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs in a decade.


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