Like the Northwest, the Southeast wasn't a walk in the park to call. But where the Northwest was difficult to predict because of four teams that conceivably could still be playing in June, the Southeast is hard to read because there are easy-to-envision scenarios in which each team misses the playoffs completely. Let's get to the guessing:
Southeast Division (in predicted order of finish)
Washington Capitals: Why No. 1? Because what would a preseason NHL prediction series be without at least one shocker pick for a new, worst-to-first division champ?
The thing is, on paper, the Capitals are far from the basement dwellers they were last season. The sense some NHL observers have about the Caps is, while they're not yet genuine Stanley Cup contenders, they've got the components to mirror Atlanta's 2006-07 campaign (i.e. road warriors in the regular season, road kill in the playoffs).
In the same way the Thrashers prospered by surrounding young stars Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk with veterans such as Slava Kozlov and Alexei Zhitnik, Washington added Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti this summer to help "Alexanders (Ovechkin and Semin) The Greats" raise their games. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Ovechkin and Semin combine for 100 goals or more this season.
The similarities between the two teams continue: The Thrashers didn't have a Ducks-like defense corps last season and the Caps don't in 2007-08; but both have above-average goaltending, as well as hard-working third- and fourth-line forwards willing to come back and help their blue-liners out. I like Washington's forward unit more than I like Atlanta's, which is why they get my nod over the Thrashers.
Now, coach Glen Hanlon may not survive the season if Washington stumbles out of the gate as it tries to make all the new faces (including potential Calder Trophy candidate Nicklas Backstrom) fit in. Call it a hunch, but I bet they'll jell into one of the league's swiftest, most offensively dangerous teams rather quickly, and drop many a jaw in the process.
Moreover, if I were ranking the team playoff performances last spring, I'd have the Thrashers firmly slotted in at No. 16. The manner in which they were destroyed/swept by the Rangers in the first round made me wonder for a second if Vince McMahon and/or Don King weren't somehow involved.
There still is a great deal of talent inside this franchise. But there are good reasons why Bob Hartley is making a lot of "first coach to be fired" lists this fall. His specialty teams reek of awfulness, his organization's overall depth is for the birds (pardon the pun), and again, his top three centers, respectively, are Todd White, Bobby Holik and Jim Slater.
A playoff berth remains a possibility for Atlanta, but so does a spot in the draft lottery.
Florida Panthers: Why No. 3? Because the acquisition of elite goaltender Tomas Vokoun instantly gives the Panthers a shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2000 -- and at winning their first playoff game in more than a decade.
More vital to their success this season and beyond, though, is the production from and progression of young forwards Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton and blue-liner Jay Bouwmeester. The trio combined for 63 goals and 152 points last season, but if that winds up being a career-best average, Florida management will be sorely disappointed, not to mention, employed elsewhere.
If the Panthers can hang on through a challenging first month of their schedule (and if coach-GM Jacques Martin doesn't stifle his young stars' creativity on offense), they've got as good a shot as any Southeast team at winning the division. However, should they miss the postseason again, expect this group to be broken up pronto.
Carolina Hurricanes: Why No. 4? Because the Hurricanes missed out on the playoffs last season and seem to have more questions surrounding them now than they did then. Their defense corps, in particular, is so thin and surgically rebuilt, it's already had multiple offers from fashion model agents to work the catwalks in Paris.
Another development working against a Carolina rebound: the NHL's apparent move to an enforcement standard that rewards a big, bullying lineup like Anaheim's. You certainly can't call a team "soft" that has Rod Brind'Amour on it, but that blue-line unit is as close to ambassadorial in nature as any that believes it can make the postseason; and their forward group won't soon cause any opposing players to alter their travel plans into Carolina's corners.
As I noted off the top, the Canes are one of four Southeast teams that could be playing deep into the postseason, but only if everything goes right. By my count, everything goes right only for exactly one of the league's 30 teams each season. I can think of a dozen teams more likely to have such a fate befall them than these fine Southern-based gentlemen.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Why No. 5? Because if I'm picking a team to come out of nowhere and win the division, I've got to pick a team to fall out of somewhere and burn up upon re-entry. And when you've got new minority owner Doug MacLean and John Tortorella suddenly on the same management team, it's as if soon-to-be former Lightning owner Bill Davidson already made the pick for me.
With a goaltending situation more unsettled than Courtney Love competing on "Jeopardy" – and a defense corps that scared only the coaches responsible for it – any hopes Tampa harbors of winning a Cup seem at least one step beyond overly optimistic.
Even if Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards achieve the improbable and triple-handedly get the Bolts back to the postseason, is there anyone with no relation to a team employee who believes the Lightning can win it all? I thought not. I've got the same feeling about this team as I did last season with the Flyers, and we all know how well their season turned out.
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