12 September 2007
So in order to get properly informed for the season, it's time to take a look at each division. Let's start with the toughest to call, the Southeast.
Atlanta Thrashers: At the beginning of last season it would have been considered a success just to make the postseason. Well they did better than that and won the worst division in hockey last year. Then they got embarrassingly swept out of the playoffs by the NY Rangers. What made this even worse was they gave up quite the bounty for forward KeithTkachuck to do some damage in the playoffs, damage that never happened. They did nothing spectacular in free agency, other than re-sign underrated forwards Slava Kozlov and Pascal DuPuis.
They have a lot of goalies with at least a little NHL experience, unfortunately they are all backup quality. Kari Lehtonen, Johan Hedberg, and Fred Brathwaite. They do have an excellent Czech goaltending prospect named Ondrej Pavelec but he seems to be a year or two away from making it to the big show. Why this team didn't try and sign a guy like Belfour or Joseph for a year or two to hold the fort down until Pavelec makes it is really beyond me. They would be perfect for the Thrashers and could help them actually win games in the playoffs. Instead, hello Lehtonen.
Carolina Hurricanes: Last season can best be described in one word: disappointing. 2 years removed from the Stanley Cup championship, but last year they finished 4 points out of the playoffs, but also 11th in the conference. The Carolina GM must be banking on just a bad season, as he made no really significant offseason moves. Rod Brind'Amour is back for his 50th NHL season, and young hooligan Eric Staal should continue to improve. The defense is led by an underrated no-name defense.
Like nearly every team in this division goaltending is an issue. Cam Ward won the Con Smythe in 2006 and then decided to take the 2006-2007 off. This is his make or break season where we find out if he had a bad season or if he was a flash in the pan playoff run. Luckily for Hurricanes they have young goalie prospect, Justin Peters, who may be ready to make the big club this season. That won't help them much this season and Carolina needs Cam Ward to step up and have a solid season.
Florida Panthers: The Panthers were among the most forgetable teams in the league lat season. Unlike the two other teams mentioned they had a busy offseason with players coming and going. Gone is talented scorers Martin Gelinas and Alexei Semenov, along with Chris Gratton. To replace them Florida brought in Radek Dvorak, Richard Zednick and Av, Brett McClean. They also re-signed Jozef Stumpel. Captain Olli Jokenen remains one of the games most underrated players as well. They also brought in a huge goalie upgrade with Thomas Vokoun, who should backstop this team for years to come.
Look for young Defenseman Noah Welch to come in and play for the Panthers. Acquired from Pittsburgh in the Gary Roberts trade, he should come in and get playing time on a relatively weak Panther's Blueline. The Panther's thin blueline, and lack of a true superstar scorer, are probably Florida's biggest weakness. Overall they are heading in the right direction after the disastrous reign of Mike Keenan.
Tampa Bay Lightning: I just don't understand some teams. Tampa has a lot of the tools necessary to be Cup contenders. Great Leadership (St Louis), scoring (Richards, St. Louis, LeCavalier), solid defense (Boyle, Kuba). Even though they lost Ruslan Fedetenko, they pucked up Chris Gratton and Michael Oullette who should be able to fill the void. Overall they look to have a pretty solid team and should contend in the East...
...EXCEPT their goaltending is atrocious. Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist may be the wost tandem in the league. Another team I have no idea why they didn't roll the dice with Belfour or Joseph this season. The only thing I can think of is they expect Karri Romo to make the leap this season to the big club. He's the top prospect in their system and may be ready. It still seems that he would be best served in an apprenticeship to Belfour or Joseph in my opinion. That being said if their goalies can have a couple non-awful months they should be able to continue the success of the last few years.
Washington Capitals: Ted Leonisis has declared the rebuilding effort as officially over. The Capitals had one of the best offseasons of any team this summer bringing in puck-moving defenseman Tom Poti, Center Viktor Kozlov and they stole Mychael Nylander right out from under Edmonton's nose. Finally surrounded with some offensive talent Young Superstar Alexander Ovechkin should shine. Olaf Kolzig remains the best goalie in the division (not saying much, other than Vokoun), and the game.
Despite the addition of Poti, the defense is still of some concern. Ovechkin can't out score every team, and Poti isn't known as a defensive stalwart, but a power play asset. I would imagine they will be in more 5-4 games than anyone this season, especially if rookie center Nicklas Backstrom has a Calder-type season. For my money he is the Calder frontrunner going into the season.
Predicitions: This may be the toughest division to predict as the top team and the bottom team are pretty close. Also teams like Carolina and Atlanta could go either way. So my prediction:
* = playoffs
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