With the season set to start in less than a week, now is good time to look at the teams the Florida Panthers will be playing the majority of their games against. The Southeast division has been something of a joke for the past decade but going into this season, most of its teams are moving in a positive direction. I am predicting the Panthers to repeat as division champs followed by Carolina, Tampa Bay, Washington and finally Winnipeg. I think both Florida and Carolina will qualify for the playoffs. I could see the Lightning making it if they have improved goaltending, but I would not expect any more than three teams to qualify for the playoffs out of the Southeast. Below is a look at the Panther’s Southeast division rivals, their key additions and losses and brief comments about what to expect from each team this season.
2011-2012: 37-35-10 (84 Pts)
2013 Prediction: 5th in Southeast Division
The Jets impressed in their first season in Winnipeg after being moved form Atlanta. Their home games were some of the most raucous in the league, and the team stuck around in playoff contention much longer than anyone predicted. Their performance tailed off towards the end of the season and the team finished 11th in the Eastern Conference and 4th in the Southeast Division. Don’t tell that to anyone in Winnipeg though, the fans looked like they were so overjoyed just to have a hockey team that how that team actually performed was secondary.
This year the Jets will have some actual expectations from their passionate fans. The core of their offense and defense will be returning including thirty goal scorer Evander Kane. Kane is only 21 and the team has high hopes for him going forward. Big man Dustin Byfuglien will be back anchoring the defense while providing an offensive spark (12 G, 41 A, 53 Pts in 2011-2012).
One of the Jet’s biggest additions was forward Olli Jokinen. Panthers fans are extremely familiar with Jokinen who is a former Panthers team captain and spent seven season with the team. Jokinen proved he could still be a productive player, at 34 years of age, last season tallying 61 points off 23 goals and 38 assists with the Calgary Flames.
The Jets additions this off-season should help this team move in a positive direction but it will not be enough to keep up in the Southeast. The Jets were content to make minor tweaks to a team that was not a playoff team last year and it is looking like that will be the case again this season. The Jets could have a better team this year but still finish last in the Southeast.
2011-2012: 33-33-16 (82 Pts)
2013 Prediction: 2nd in Southeast Division
Of the Southeast Division teams, the Carolina Hurricanes made the biggest splash this off-season. Signing big name players like Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin indicates the team is going all in to make the playoffs this season. It is a big gamble but is one that could easily work. The Hurricanes may have finished last in the Southeast last year but their play to close out the season indicates this is a team on the rise. The big offseason additions will add more talent to a team that already had 2010-2011 Calder Trophy Winner Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal’s older brother and Eric Staal.
The big question with this team comes on defense. The Hurricanes ranked 25th in the NHL last season in Goals Against. (source) They have a talented goaltender in Cam Ward and the team is hoping new addition Joe Corvo helps shore things up. Twenty year old defender Justin Faulk was named to the NHL All-Rookie team and his development should further improve the team’s defense.
Big moves in the off-season mean big expectations. The Hurricanes are looking like a team that could meet these expectations. One question is: which Alexander Semin will the ‘Canes see this season? Will they see the player many have called the most talented in the NHL or the player whom the division rival Capitals had no problem letting walk this off-season? With all the additions, I think Carolina has what it takes to be a playoff team. They have made by far the most improvements this offseason and I believe they could compete for the division title.
2011-2012: 38-36-8 (84 pts)
2013 Prediction: 3rd in Southeast Divison
The Lightning excelled on offense last season but were putrid on defense. Big names such as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and 60 goal scorer Steven Stamkos led the way on offense but the team ranked dead last in the NHL in Goals Against. The Lightning are hoping this defensive ineptitude can be remedied by
the addition of former Nashville Predators backup Anders Lindback. Serving as the back up to Pekka Rinne, the 24 year old Lindback had a .912 SV% and 2.42 GAA while playing in 16 games.
For a team that came within a game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010-11, missing the playoffs last year was a huge disappointment. Tampa Bay is pining its hopes on Lindback hoping improvement in the crease will return the Lightning to their winning ways. While there is no disputing the talent of Lindback, he has only played in 38 career NHL games so if he struggles with full time duty, the Lightning could be in a lot of trouble.
The Tampa Bay Lightning should have no problem scoring goals, Stamkos will see to that, keeping goals out of their own net will be the big test. If Lindback excels with the team, the Lightning should make the playoffs. If he struggles, Tampa could be looking at another early end to their season.
2011-2012: 42-32-8 (92 pts)
2013 Prediction: 4th in Southeast Division
The Capitals by all accounts underperformed last season. They fired their coach Bruce Boudreau midseason but still managed to make the playoffs and advance to the Conference semi-finals. The coach that got them there Dale Hunter, will not be back this season and he will be replaced by hall of famer Adam Oates. (Source) The lockout will probably have the most effect on the Capitals out of the Southeast teams, because the Capitals now have to adjust to a new coach in about one weeks worth of training camp.
The question everyone in Washington has been asking is, what is going on with Alex Ovechkin? That is reflective of the extremely high expect ions Ovechkin has to meet as he did score 38 goals last season in what was perceived as a down year. Will new coach Adam Oates be able to get through to Ovechkin? Will Ovechkin return to his scoring ways of old? Even if Ovechkin has settled in as a 30 plus-goal scorer, that should be enough for the Capitals if they can improve in other areas. Mike Ribeiro was brought in from Dallas to help bear some of the scoring load.
The Capitals very talented team, but I believe they have too many questions they must overcome in order to be successful. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun is no longer with the team leaving the position to be filled by Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. The loss of Alexander Semin could harm the team as well as the loss of defender Dennis Wideman. Also there is the question about whether Mike Green will ever stay healthy and produce like he has in the past.
Teams with a lot of questions are always suspect. A team with a lot of questions and only a week to prepare for the start of a shortened season with a new head coach could potentially be a total mess. The Capitals could silence the critics and storm through the Southeast, but I do not see that happening. I think the Caps will be sitting out this years playoffs.