In 10 years, South-least will be a beast

Like the last person to traverse the globe following Wang Chung from city to city, I'm a lonely voice when it comes to contracting teams. I'm against it. I believe NHL hockey is a relatively young sport in the United States. As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, as recently as the late 60s, there were only four teams in the United States and very little television coverage. When television coverage was prevalent, it was hardly "Hockey Night in Canada."

Additionally, to reap a larger NHL fan base, kids need to play hockey as well as watch hockey. The more NHL teams there are in the U.S., the more that will happen. This is a long-term process. It could take 20-30 years to see dividends. Hockey is already such a thick thread in the tapestry of Canada; the same formula isn't necessary north of the border. Their fan base is obviously NFL-like in passion and relative size.

With that being said, the ultimate litmus test is now under way in the Southeast Division, perhaps the most maligned in terms of pro-contraction components. There are plenty of voices that scream that the NHL should abandon its long-term plans in Tampa Bay, South Florida, Raleigh, Atlanta, and the most mature of the five, Washington, D.C.

However, suddenly the division is turning into the future of the NHL.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning
This team will be good for a long time. This year, the Bolts had the scoring champion (and the eventual MVP) Martin St. Louis. In the future, Vincent Lecavalier also could win those two awards. If the NHL implements an economic system that allows teams to hold on to most of their players, the Lightning will be a perennial Eastern favorite for a long time.

2. Florida Panthers
Roberto Luongo may be the goaltender of the next 10 years. The Panthers have a stable of young players that will be the core of good team for at least a decade. I love Nathan Horton's game. He's a future Stanley Cup playoff stud. The Panthers plan to add a few veterans to their young corps this summer.

We interrupt this list to provide our top 10 teams that could use a player like our pal Shjon Podein to provide a veteran presence and locker room fun for a young team or a team with a locker room in need of laughs and camaraderie.

1. Florida Panthers, 2. Atlanta Thrashers, 3. Anaheim Mighty Ducks, 4. Minnesota Wild, 5. Columbus Blue Jackets, 6. Pittsburgh Penguins, 7. Chicago Blackhawks, 8. Carolina Hurricanes, 9. Buffalo Sabres, 10. Phoenix Coyotes.

Now back to our column, already in progress ...

3. Atlanta Thrashers
Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley and the newest future All-Star: goalie Kari Lehtonen. If the Thrashers can make a couple of key signings on the blue line, I believe Lehtonen's game could have them in the playoffs. He's the real deal. Young defenseman Braydon Coburn should see action next year as well. Atlanta has the 10th pick in the draft and should get another piece to the championship puzzle. This team will win the 2008 Stanley Cup.

4. Carolina Hurricanes
From Stanley Cup final to a room in the Spin Doctors hotel of oblivion:

Marry him, or marry me
I'm the one that loved you baby can't you see?
I ain't got no future or family tree
But I know what a prince and lover ought to be
I know what a prince and lover ought be

Although Eric Staal stalled in his rookie season, he appears to be a franchise center. A summer of protein shakes and dead lifts should have him stronger, leaner and meaner next season. This franchise is too young to expect a budding fan base to support a boring, bad team. It must be built and marketed with wisdom and creativity, and Staal is a great place to staart.

5. Washington Capitals
Well, the Capitals got a break. Or did they? By winning the draft lottery, the Caps get the right to draft the man Panthers GM Rick Dudley says is the best talent he has ever scouted, Alexander Ovechkin. But, as the Columbus Blue Jackets can attest, prying Russian talent from Russia has turned into a major undertaking. What will it take for the Caps to get Ovechkin to play in this nation's capital? That is an issue for another time. What is not debatable is that the Caps have never had a talent like Ovechkin wear their sweater before. Hopefully, he is the start of a major revival in D.C. He is just one piece and they are more than one draft away, but Ovechkin is the place you want to start.

So, the stage is set for the Southeast Division to be dominant in the future. How about this for a division roster of young players:

Goalie: Luongo, Lehtonen
Defensemen: Jay Bouwmeester, Coburn
Center: Lecavalier, Horton, Staal, Brad Richards
Wingers: Heatley, Kovalchuk

Now is the time for the Southeast Division to begin to make its move, and I believe it will. If 10 years from now, any of these teams are struggling at the gate, you have my permission to bag the experiment and move one of them to Hartford.

Obviously, it's way too early for a true Conn Smythe meter. We need another week. So, here are five guys who have made a major impression in the early going.

1. Patrick Marleau, C, San Jose Sharks: Talent to die for. He is the Scott Niedermayer of forwards. Sick talent displayed so effortlessly that it appears as if he isn't even trying. There is nothing he doesn't do well, except perhaps weld in Paraguay. San Jose's Stanley Cup hopes rest on just how mammoth his postseason turns out.

2. Michael Nylander, C, Boston Bruins: Boy, did the Bruins miss him in Game 3 in Montreal. Nylander has given the Bruins a real change of pace in terms of the lines they throw on the ice. They go from the 700-pound line, centered by Joe Thornton, to Nylander, Patrice Bergeron and Sergei Samsonov. Speed, smarts and the kind of line I can't remember the Bruins ever having.

3. Keith Primeau, C, Philadelphia Flyers: He has been a playoff disaster in his career, but so far so good. Primeau has thrived under the role Ken Hitchcock has given him. You wonder whether he'll have the best postseason of his career now that he has very little offensive expectations.

4. Brendan Morrison, C, Vancouver Canucks: Brendan Morrison has stepped up his play. He has taken his game to a slightly higher level at precisely the time the Canucks need him to. He's fast and smart and making a difference in the Canucks' run.

5. Peter Forsberg, C, Colorado Avalanche: He's the best player in these playoffs, and when you have the best player, that's a fantastic head start. With that fact and with no team really making a major statement as being head and shoulders above the rest, the Avalanche have to feel very good about their championship chances.

Hey Bucci,
So I went to my first Ben Folds concert this week. The ticket cost $15 DOLLARS. I remembered to yell "No!" when he asked if he should take a class to lose his Southern accent. Best bang for my buck for a concert EVER. Now, on Saturday, I am going to my first playoff game for the Red Wings vs. Nashville. That ticket cost $110 DOLLARS. I know it will be fantastic and well worth it, but part of me feels I should have paid a little more for Ben and a little less for the Wings. Oh, and thank you for picking Detroit over Nashville. I know we can win anyways, but after last year, your predictions frighten me a little.
East Lansing, Mich.

Which Ben Folds CD should I get first?
Les Sweeney

I would start with Ben's solo debut, "Rocking the Suburbs." It's a clean, clever and good listen. Listen to that for a month and then go buy "Ben Folds Live" for the true soul of Ben.

You so didn't namecheck Keane in your column! They've got to be one of the best new British acts around. "Somewhere Only We Know" is one of my favorite songs at the moment (and it had an impressive top three entry into the British charts). Wish I could see them opening on tour with Travis.
Wings fan living in London

I so did, Hilary! And, like "Everybody's Changing" sooooooo rocks! I can't not listen to Keane!!

Thanks for the band reference in your column! Thought I'd return the favor and send some names your way. You might have heard of them as they are growing quickly in popularity, but I'm a big fan of The Black Keys. Some other bands I'm listening to now are Engine Down, Jennifer Tefft, and +/- (Plus/Minus). Engine Down and +/- both performed small-scale concerts here at Colgate this semester and they were both good.
Colgate University

Hi John!
The power of Loob almost got Färjestad all the way this year! The had a 3-2 lead in the series against regular-season winners HV71, but lost Game 6 1-0 after a goal from Fredrik Olausson. Game 7 was a blowout and HV71 won 5-0. One of the big heroes was goalie Stefan Liv, a Detroit draftee, who had four shutouts in the finals against Färjestad. Never would have happened if Håkan had put his skates on, right?
Daniel Elmå
Umeå, Sweden

Let's bow our heads and take a knee for our fallen Loob. Keep your head up Hakan. America loves you and believes in you.

Hi John,
If there is a lockout, what do the players do during the spare time? I assume they'll try to keep in shape in case it ends, but in the meantime, do they all play golf or what?
Jason Abner

Some will golf, some will play in Europe, some will work out on their own and take luge lessons. But there won't be a season-long work stoppage, so don't worry about it Jason. By the way, the players' health benefits for their families are taken care of through the players' union, so the players and their families will be covered. If Radoslav Suchy needs an emergency root canal during a work stoppage, he'll be OK.

If the NHL has a stoppage next season, will the AHL and ECHL have a work stoppage too?
William McHale
San Antonio, Texas

No, they will play. They have separate agreements with the Professional Hockey Players' Association.

I heard that Chicken Parm is engaged to Tony Granato's little sister and former Olympic hockey player, Cammi. If I were a GM, I would negotiate with Chicken and Mrs. Parm about the rights to their kids.
Nick Brownlee
Los Angeles

Ray proposed to Cammi in Nova Scotia during the Women's World Championships. Between bites of Chicken Parm, he asked Cammi to marry him. Cammi thought Ray asked her to carry him. The wedding will be held at an Olive Garden because of their slammin' chicken parm.

John --
When I told my brother that my wife and I were expecting our first child (due April 1 and arrived a few days early on March 28), he quickly did some math and stated, "You lucky dog, you'll get to watch all the West Coast playoff hockey games!" Sure enough, on the first night of the playoffs, Ethan Matthew wanted nothing to do with sleep starting around 10 p.m., and he and I got to watch the first game between Colorado and Dallas. In some strange way, I am hoping that he keeps this sleep schedule until the playoffs are over. He may not remember it, but it is something that I will never forget.
Ben Loewenberg

When Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played record, I woke up my 2-year-old to see it, so he could always say he saw what I consider the second greatest individual achievement in sports after Glen Hall's 552 consecutive games played streak in net. It was a special night as we watched Ripken run around Oriole Park after breaking the record. My son celebrated by throwing up on my shoes. Something I'll never forget.

"Femullet" is a pretty good one, but we've always called it a she-mullet. Scary, scary sight.
Mike Branigan
Cleveland, Ohio

A lot of you have e-mailed me on my fledgling mullet. Next time you see me, it will be gone. In honor of Phil Mickelson's first major championship, my hair will be about a 12 on the stimpmeter the next time you see me on NHL 2Night.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.