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Southeast isn't going away, it's only getting better

Before the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs, I wrote a column extolling the virtues of the Southeast Division. Here are excerpts:

"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 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.

Tampa Bay Lightning
This team will be good for a long time. 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.

Florida Panthers
Roberto Luongo might be the goaltender of the next 10 years. The Panthers have a stable of young players that will be the core of a good team for at least a decade. I love Nathan Horton's game. He's a future Stanley Cup playoff stud.

Atlanta Thrashers
This team will win the 2008 Stanley Cup.

Washington Capitals
What is not debatable is that the Caps have never had a talent like (Alexander) 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.

Carolina Hurricanes
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.'"

Back to 2006.

• Carolina has a chance to make it back-to-back Stanley Cups for the Southeast Division. Led by Staal, Carolina should be set for some time. Although considering all of their veterans, the Hurricanes could have a drop off as they look to replace their aging blue line and some key veteran forwards.

• Tampa Bay has some holes, but it has great, young leadership and will be a solid franchise for years. Also, the division will pick fourth (Washington), 10th (Florida) and 12th (Atlanta) in the NHL draft on June 24.

• The Capitals will get better quickly. Erik Johnson will go No. 1 or No. 2. That leaves Phil Kessel, Nicklas Backstrom, Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews. These are all good players and the Capitals will get one of them. Backstrom is probably the guy the Capitals covet. He doesn't turn 19 until November, so he is a little young and might not be ready for the NHL until 2007-08. But he is a playmaking center who comes from good bloodlines. If the Penguins (or Hurricanes, if the Penguins trade this pick for Jack Johnson and the Hurricanes draft Jordan Staal) or Blackhawks take Backstrom, the Capitals will have three more centers to choose from and a center is exactly what they need.

• The Panthers are in a good position. They will in all likelihood trade Luongo this summer, unless ownership steps in and gives the goalie a five-year, $40 million deal. As this year's Stanley Cup playoffs have shown, franchise goaltenders are not a complete necessity. Depth is more important. That being said, a general manager will take the Luongo bait, and if the Panthers have competent talent evaluators, they can add multiple pieces to go with their good core of young players.

• Atlanta has solid pieces to work with at every position, but I wonder about their mix and leadership. Ilya Kovalchuk will never be a team leader. The Thrashers need someone to shoulder that burden. I like Bob Hartley a lot as a coach, and I don't mean to terminate the man, but I wonder if someone like Pat Quinn would be a good fit there. I also wonder if Mats Sundin and the Leafs might agree to part ways. Between the Thrashers' draft pick and some prospects, a Sundin-Quinn combo would be just what this team needs to lead it to the playoffs.

Whatever the case for each of these teams, I'll reiterate what I wrote here over two years ago: The Southeast is here to stay. Its teams have the best crop of young players in the NHL. It is getting better and should be good for a long time. There is a very good chance that Lord Stanley's Cup, which is still enjoying its Tampa Bay tan from 2004, will continue to need Southeast sunscreen for the rest of the decade and beyond.

The Mother of All Mailbags

John,

Do you think the Rangers will be making any big moves (trades/free agency signings) this offseason and into next? Also, with the Rangers lacking in the defensive aspect, do you think Marc Staal will be ready to move up by the start of next year?

Thanks,
Dan
Bethlehem, Pa.

The Rangers will be aggressive in the free-agency market this summer. Their No. 1 priority should and will be Zdeno Chara. And who knows? If they can't get Chara, maybe they will make Niklas Lidstrom an offer he can't refuse. Marc Savard is also a possibility here as the Rangers need to upgrade their scoring depth to help out Jaromir Jagr.

Marc Staal has shown nice, steady improvement. He got better every year in junior hockey for the Sudbury Wolves. He then played in 12 AHL playoff games for the Hartford Wolf Pack. Staal has good size already (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) as he continues to add weight, so it's possible he could play in the NHL. But I would think a full year in Hartford running the power play, killing penalties and playing 20-25 minutes a night would be way better for his development than playing in New York. His brother Eric of the Hurricanes played in the AHL during the lockout and look what it did for him.


John,

You recently answered an e-mail by saying that you don't feel yet that Rod Brind'Amour is a Hall-of-Famer. For the moment, I agree, but what do you think he needs to add to his résumé to get there? Also, how about Mark Recchi, yes or no?

Bill Wyce
Philadelphia

A Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe certainly would be nice jewels on Rod Brind'Amour's résumé. Only one All-Star Game and no postseason accolades hurt him. But when a player exemplifies so many aspects of the values of hockey that we have identified here -- Heart, Courage, Mental Toughness and Artistic Impression (Nov. 3, 2003 column in archives) -- that goes along way with me. Brind'Amour has fulfilled all of these requirements this postseason and most of them for a long time. Mark Recchi is a similar player in those regards. It gets difficult when you consider the hundreds and hundreds of players in NHL history who have played with similar values.

That being said, Mark Recchi is 31st on the all-time points list. That's a great accomplishment, taking into account his two-way play. His time in Pittsburgh is not a positive on his résumé. He made little difference and one could argue that made things worse.

These are two players who have played a long time and have played well. They are popular players with fans and have good résumés. I don't think Recchi is the kind of player who had a major impact on the ultimate success of his team. Playing with Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros really added to his early numbers. My inclination is to admit Brind'Amour before Recchi by a hair. You have to take it year-to-year and class-to-class, and right now, both are not in for me.


John,

1. Do you think the Devils would have beaten Carolina with Scott Niedermayer at the blue line? He definitely adds speed, puck control and some good offense. But I think his physical
grit is often underrated.

2. With the salaries of Malakhov and – cough, cough -- Mogilny being eaten, do you see anyway for the Devils to keep all their free agents? (Here's hoping a fat "C" gets a hometown discount from Elias).

3. What defensive improvements do you see the Devils making in the offseason? I definitely saw something lacking in the Carolina series.

4. Devils head coach, any guesses?

5. Last one. Here's my hope for an improbable miracle. Do you think the genius that is Lou Lamoriello can orchestrate the re-debut of the famed Sykora-Arnott-Elias "A Line?"

Alec J. Calvo
Civil Engineering
Cornell University
Class of 2007

One more year to go, Alec. Keep it up.

1. Scott Niedermayer would make any team better. Would he have made the difference in the Devils series? Possibly, but Carolina has earned everything. They got career seasons out of veterans, unexpected (this quickly) superstar play from Staal, added to their depth, and are well coached. They deserve what they got.

2. With the cap rising, the Devils could find a way, but in a salary cap league, there always will be a team out there who will max out a player their original team can't stomach. We see it in the NFL all the time and we'll see it in the NHL from time to time.

3. Defense is unquestionably the weakness of the Devils. It is a very unathletic blue line. I'm not sure how the Devils can match the huge offers Elias will get and upgrade the blue line. If he has a choice, I would think Sweet Lou would go the blue line route.

4. Predicting Sweet Lou is impossible. I'd hate to guess, although I hope it's Pat Burns.

5. Sweet Lou has no interest in doing that I would think.


John,

How many of the Sabres' regular defensemen are available to play in tonight's game?

Jeff Garrity
Buffalo, N.Y.

Brian Campbell strained both ear drums in an iPod mishap. He is not available. The Sabres will dress three goalies and play them at the same time.


Bucci,

Been a recent, but avid, reader. I don't remember you mentioning anything about possible Red Wings' offseason plans. I was wondering what you think they should do about Shanahan, Lidstrom and possible trades. Any thoughts?

Lance
Scottsdale, Ariz.

We've talked about the Wings a bit here. I would keep Shanny like they kept Chelios. Cheap veterans are valuable come playoff time. These guys can't be big parts of teams anymore, just complimentary parts. They have to be paid that way. Lidstrom will get big offers and will probably force the Wings to pay him $25 million over three years if they want to keep him. He made $7.6 million last season and didn't play like a guy who would take a pay cut.


Bucci,

You answered yes to Sergei Fedorov getting the Hall of Fame nod, but how about Mike Modano? He tops the Stars in all career offensive categories and won the Cup despite a broken wrist. Your thoughts?

Kevin McKenna
Dallas

Mike Modano is a no-brainer and there is no need to state his case. He'll get his 500th goal and 700th assist next season.


Hey Bucci,

What do you think of the new Pearl Jam album?

Cheers,
Mike C.
'Southie'

You can judge a lot on a CD based on its ability to assist you on going back through a band's catalogue. The new Pearl Jam has me going back through their discography. I love Tracks 5, 6 and 7. I don't have an emotional bond with this band because I haven't heard enough of them talk. They obviously have had a bit of an aversion to fame and being in public eye.

That's fine, and something a lot of us can relate to in our own small way, but that will effect CD sales and the casual fan from becoming a dedicated one. Some people only need the music to follow a band around on tour; others are more perceptive than me in feeling the soul of a band without the music. The bands I feel a connection with are bands whose members talk a lot. I like knowing where athletes and musicians are coming from before I give them a part of myself. From the little I know about Pearl Jam, I like them. They are very American, unique, thoughtful and passionate.

I think if they had to do it over again, they would have approached things differently. If they did, more people could have heard their thoughts and they could have made a bigger impact in terms of communicating their ideals. I think it might be too late now in terms of taking the band to a level they should probably be at. They kind of remind me of the NHL in some respects.


Bucci,

I'm still feeling empty this week after the Sabres loss in Game 7. What a wonderful season and what a shame it had to end with all the injuries. I honestly believe at this point that the Sabres were the better team. Add the five players who were out back into the game and I've got to believe it's a whole different story. At this point, what are your thoughts as to the Sabres keeping McKee, Numminen and Grier? And what about the rest of the team? Do the Sabres pony up and pay these guys or do they continue with the trend of low spending?

Regards,
Scott Ferguson

I think the Sabres will pony up, keep their core, trade Martin Biron and sign a defenseman or two. $14 million over five years is about right for Jay McKee, no?


John,

My husband and I are awaiting the birth of our first daughter and cannot pick out a name. The only thing that's certain is her last name will be Woods. I've heard you have a talent for picking out names -- could you suggest something for us? We would like something strong, but unique.

Thanks,
Penny Woods

Anna Belle Woods

Hockey Fact: The Stanley Cup weighs 35 pounds.


John,

Scene from the 2006 NHL draft:
Boston GM Peter Chiarelli: Get me Peter Chiarelli from Ottawa on the phone.
Ottawa assistant GM Peter Chiarelli: Hello, Peter speaking.
Boston GM Peter Chiarelli: Peter, it's yourself; what will it take [for] you to trade yourself either Chara or Redden?

Jason Reilly
Danvers, Mass.


John,

Mario went as far to give the conference trophy slight raise above the head en route to the locker room tunnel after they beat Boston in 1991. And that didn't stop the Pens from winning back-to-back. It looks silly when players ignore the trophy and pretend it will make their
skin fall off.

Dave Lewis
PGH PA


Dear John,

Does Gary Bettman really think the NHL is better off with OLN? Is it? While it seems other sports are trying to expand to worldwide interest, it feels like from Japan, anyways, the NHL doesn't care about the foreign market. OLN? No one, and I repeat, no one has OLN in Japan, or quite possibly, outside the U.S. Sorry. Maybe OLN is legit, it just doesn't exist here.

Naoki Sakai
Yokohama, Japan


Bucci,

Congratulations to the good people at ESPN programming for being kind enough to let people in New Zealand/Australia watch some of the Stanley Cup. I'm in the middle of end of semester exams and came back from the library and turned on ESPN to see if my Yankees had won. Instead, I find the Stanley Cup playoffs, 1:30 left in the third period. Although it didn't get to
overtime (which would have almost made up for missing every Pens game this year), it was still amazingly awesome. Plus my Yankees won.

Cheers,
Tim
Auckland, New Zealand

I don't know anything about this international television thing. I know I've received e-mails throughout the year from people around the world who couldn't see NHL games anymore after ESPN stopped carrying them. I imagine it's a small number and in the NHL's minds, negligible, but it's still something to get out there.


Yo John,

What's Stevie Y gonna do?

Clay
Grand Rapids, Mich.

Whatever Stevie Y wants to do. Stevie Y does not sleep. He waits. Stevie Y can win a game of Monopoly without owning any property.

In fine print on the last page of the Guinness Book of World Records, it notes that all world records are held by Stevie Y, and those listed in the book are simply those who have come closest to him.

When Stevie Y goes to donate blood, he declines the syringe, and instead requests a hand gun and a bucket. Stevie Y can set ants on fire with a magnifying glass -- at night.

When Stevie Y runs with scissors, other people get hurt.

Yzerman doesn't need the money. He wouldn't play for the money. He made $1.25 million last season and he likely would make about a million next year. He had 14 goals in 61 games. I find his grit and will incredible and exemplary, and those kinds of efforts actually make me emotional. To put his humanity on the line out there is beautiful. He did not embarrass himself. The NHL is better with people like Steve Yzerman in it.

The league is losing legends so quickly, perhaps too quickly, that I'd love to see No. 19 give it one more lap. And it would be cool to retire with 700 career goals. He's eight away. He would pass Mark Messier, who retired with 694, and be one of just seven players to score 700. He's also 17 assists away from passing Adam Oates for that much anticipated "most assists by a right-handed shot" in NHL history. ESPN will break into regular scheduled poker matches as Stevie Y approaches this milestone.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.