Southeast Division: Doormats No Longer?

In the past few years, if you had asked hockey fans what is the weakest division in the NHL, most would have answered the Southeast before you finished asking the question. And they would have been right. For the most part, the division has been thought as the Washington Capitals and the stepsisters. This despite two of its teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes have won the Stanley Cup earlier this decade.

So far in the 2010-11 season, the Southeast is emerging as the most competitive divisions in the league (the Central has a strong arguement). Going into the games of 12/21, it is the Atlanta Thrashers who stand in first place in the division, not the Capitals. I think it’s safe to say that nobody would have thought that would be the case with the services of traded winger Ilya Kovalchuk (his performance as a New Jersey Devil notwithstanding).

As it stands today, three (Atlanta, Washington and Tampa Bay teams from the division are in the top eight, with Carolina and the Florida Panthers sitting at ninth and 11th respectively.  And while the season is only 30-35 games old for most teams with a lot of hockey left to play, the three current playoff teams have shown no signs of fading.

How does this happen?  For three of the teams (Florida, Tampa and Atlanta), you need look no further than the front office.  All three clubs brought in new general managers, who have wasted little time leaving their marks on their team.  For the Panthers, Dale Tallon arrived as the primary architect of the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.  In his brief time in Sunrise, he’s turned over Florida’s roster, replaced malcontents with worker bees, and stockpiled draft picks and young players.  And while the team is still a year or two away from making their mark, this version of the Panthers is certainly much better than many predicted it would be.

For Tampa, they landed the most sought after GM candidate in Steve Yzerman.  His overhaul of the Lightning roster, hiring of coach Guy Boucher combined with the further emergence of Steven Stamkos has the team a proven goaltender away from serious Cup contention.  I’ve always been of the mind that Tampa has always had far too much talent not to be a perennial playoff team.  Right now, Boucher has them playing at the level.

Atlanta went and hired Rick Dudley away from Chicago and had him bring some key pieces of that Cup winning team with him.  Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager all brought their championship rings to a city that does not have a single playoff victory to its name. Adding the four veterans to a young group that includes winger Evander Kane, Panther castoff Anthony Stewart, Bryan Little and goalie Ondrej Pavelec had paid off big time for the Thrashers. In addition to being tops in the Southeast, they’re second overall in the conference.

Washington, despite just break an eight game losing streak,  will be among the tops teams at the end of the season.  And Carolina has always been an up and down team.  The Canes seem to follow a non playoff season with a playoff berth and a playoff run. And while a deep playoff run seems unlikely this season, they certainly hold their own. But they can boast of the games top players in Eric Staal and maybe  the most promising in 18 year old Jeff Skinner.

It all adds up to a division that’s on the verge of being a major factor in the Eastern conference. Can you imagine a NHL where the sunbelt teams are the teams to beat in the East? In the very near future, it might just be reality.

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Tags: Anthony Stewart Atlanta Thrashers Ben Eager Bretn Sopel Bryan Little Carolina Hurricanes Chicago Blackhawks Craig Ramsay Dale Tallon Dustin Byfuglien Eric Staal Evander Kane Florida Panthers Guy Boucher Ilya Kovalchuk Jeff Skinner Ondrej Pavelic Rick Dudley Southeastern Division Steve Yzerman Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning Washington Capitals

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