By Michael Rushton, NHL Contributing Editor
(Sports Network) - The Washington Capitals have dominated the Southeast Division for the better part of the last five seasons, but it was the surprising Florida Panthers who reigned supreme at the end of the last campaign.
Those were the only two clubs to qualify for the postseason and neither had a great deal of success. The Panthers were eliminated in the first round and the Capitals dropped a seven-game series to the New York Rangers in the semifinals.
The Southeast Division isn't lacking star power, not with the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Evander Kane and now two Staal brothers, and is shaping up to be yet another tight race this season.
2011-12 - (2nd place, 92 pts); Projected Finish - 1st place
REVIEW: The Washington Capitals continued a downward trend last season and look to new head coach Adam Oates to turn things around. Washington has made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, but its 42 wins and 92 points recorded in 2011-12 were the lowest in that span and ended the club's four- season reign as Southeast Division champions. Bruce Boudreau was fired after a 12-9-1 start and replaced by Dale Hunter, who often clashed with some of the Capitals' stars and opted not to return after Washington was eliminated in a tight seven-game series with the New York Rangers in an Eastern Conference semifinals bout. So, in steps Oates, who is the fifth straight coach hired by general manager George McPhee with no experience guiding an NHL club.
KEY ADDITION: After enduring seasons of frustration from Alexander Semin, the Caps opted not to re-sign the talented winger. Instead, they went out and acquired a skilled veteran from the Dallas Stars in Mike Ribeiro, who is expected to center the second line. Ribeiro will be tasked with providing offense from a line that doesn't contain superstar Alex Ovechkin and should also boost the Capitals to some extra points in shootouts.
X-FACTOR: Oates' biggest task is finding a way to get Ovechkin back on track after the club's shift in philosophy to a more defensive style wreaked havoc with his numbers. The sniper's points total has gone down each season since his 112-point campaign in 2007-08 and he had just an alarming 65 points a season ago. Ovechkin did net 38 goals, six more than he did in 2010-11, but it is no secret that the Capitals are more dangerous when he is netting closer to 50 goals.
PROGNOSIS: There is no doubt that things are changing a bit in Washington and it doesn't have to do with just another new head coach. The Capitals have netted 218 and 219 goals, respectively, in the last two seasons since leading the NHL with 313 in 2009-10, but with a young defensive nucleus led by Karl Alzner and John Carlson, as well as a hopefully-healthy Mike Green, scoring goals may not be as important. Still, goals will be a bit harder to come by again this season without Semin, so it is up to Ovechkin, Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom to try and delay a further shift of power in the division for at least one more season.
2011-12 - (5th, 82 pts); Projected Finish - 2nd
REVIEW: The Carolina Hurricanes were 8-13-4 when they fired head coach Paul Maurice and replaced him with Kirk Muller, who enters his first NHL head coaching gig after serving that role with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL. Muller pushed some of the right buttons as the Hurricanes finished the season at .500, going 33-33-16. Still, the win total was the lowest for the franchise since 2003-04 and the 'Canes missed the playoffs for the third straight season as well as for the fifth time in six years since winning their first ever Stanley Cup.
KEY ADDITION: The Hurricanes finished in the middle of the pack with 212 goals, 25 less than they gave up, but hope to swing that margin in the other direction thanks to a pair of offseason moves. The biggest was trading for center Jordan Staal, sending center Brandon Sutter, defenseman Brian Dumoulin and the eighth-overall pick in the 2012 draft to Pittsburgh for the two-way star's services. Staal played third fiddle to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the Penguins, but his comfort level should be high in Carolina thanks to the presence of older brother Eric Staal, the face of the franchise. The two will likely be on the same line for special teams and could even play some 5- on-5 together.
X-FACTOR: Former 40-goal scorers under the age of 30 are usually in high demand, but hustle issues and a down season seemed to make Alexander Semin one of the offseason's biggest gambles. The Hurricanes are hoping to cash in, signing the Russian to a one-year deal despite just 21 goals by the winger last season. Semin should be motivated given the length of his deal, unless he wants to jump to Russia's KHL, and should get first-line duties with the Hurricanes. As long as Semin stays happy, he should be good to net at least 25 goals for the sixth time in seven seasons.
PROGNOSIS: Carolina's offensive additions, as well as the signing of steady defender Joe Corvo, represent a much-improved roster. Throw in a franchise goaltender (Cam Ward), one of the league's best young stars (Jeff Skinner) and an exciting defensive prospect (Justin Faulk) and you have a young team on the rise. And don't forget, the last time the NHL returned from a lockout, it was the Hurricanes who emerged as Stanley Cup champions. That is a lofty goal for this season, but things should stay exciting in Carolina.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
2011-12 - (3rd, 84 pts); Projected Finish - 3rd
REVIEW: After dropping a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference finals to end the 2010-11 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning were considered a team on the rise thanks to a 23-point improvement. However, the Bolts took a big step back last season, going from 103 to 84 points and missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. Injuries plagued Tampa Bay for a good chunk of the season as forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone, defenseman Victor Hedman and goaltender Mathieu Garon all missed time, while a knee injury prevented blueliner Mattias Ohlund from suiting up all season.
KEY ADDITION: With Garon having recently turned 35, the Lightning were in the market for a goaltender of the future and general manager Steve Yzerman hope to have acquired just that after trading for Nashville Predators netminder Anders Lindback. The 24-year-old Swede is a former seventh-round pick, but was solid in the brief times he filled in for former Vezina Trophy nominee Pekka Rinne. In 38 career games, including 28 starts, he has gone 16-13-2 with a 2.53 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and two shutouts.
X-FACTOR: If the Lightning are to compete for a playoff spot, improving their defense is a must. After all, how concerned do you have to be when Steven Stamkos, only the second player since the 2005-06 lockout to net 60 goals in a season, is running the offense? Tampa Bay allowed a league-high 278 goals a season ago, so in addition to trading for Lindback, the club signed defenseman Matt Carle and Sami Salo to shore up its two top defensive pairings with Hedman and Eric Brewer.
PROGNOSIS: Expectations may have been a bit too high for the Lightning last season and their injury issues certainly did not help. Tampa Bay took steps in the right direction with its offseason moves, but the lack of a training camp and shortened season will give the new pieces, which also include forwards Benoit Pouliot and B.J. Crombeen, less time to gel with the existing core. Instead, the Lightning should get a free pass this season as Lindback gets time to take over the No. 1 spot in net and the defense comes together. The playoffs would be the high-bar for the Bolts.
2011-12 - (1st place, 94 points); Projected Finish: 4th
REVIEW: For years the Florida Panthers had nowhere to go but up. Last season saw the club rise to unexpected heights that saw the Panthers snap a 10-season postseason drought thanks to a huge offseason overhaul by general manager Dale Tallon. Florida was very aggressive in the 2011 offseason and added 10 players that were mainstays to a roster that claimed the team's first ever division title. The Panthers failed to win their first playoff series since 1996 -- blowing a 3-2 series advantage to the New Jersey Devils by losing a Game 7 double-overtime decision -- and had a much quieter offseason this time around. The pressure is now on the holdovers to stay relevant in Sunrise.
KEY ADDITION: Defenseman Jason Garrison was an offensive star for the Panthers a season ago, netting 16 goals and scoring 32 points before taking his services to the Vancouver Canucks. Florida replaced the 28-year-old with Filip Kuba, a former draft pick of the club in 1995 entering his 14th NHL season. The 36-year-old did net a career-high 15 goals with the Lightning in 2006-07 and had six goals last season, his fourth with the Ottawa Senators. Florida is hoping he will be a solid two-way addition after posting a plus-26 rating a season ago.
X-FACTOR: The Panthers had the worst goal differential of any playoff team last season, allowing 24 more goals than they scored, and are hoping a healthy Peter Mueller can balance that out. The eighth overall pick of the 2006 draft by the Phoenix Coyotes, Mueller scored 22 goals in his rookie season before his production began to slip and he found himself traded to the Colorado Avalanche 54 games into the 2009-10 campaign. The 24-year-old exploded for nine goals and 20 points in 15 games before suffering a season-ending concussion. A second concussion cost him all of the 2010-11 season and held him to seven goals in 32 games a season ago. The Panthers took a chance and signed him to a one-year deal.
PROGNOSIS: Few thought that throwing the likes of Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Kris Versteeg and Jose Theodore together would translate into a winner so fast, but the Panthers emerged as one of the biggest surprises of last season. It will be a tough task to duplicate, even with a mostly- returning cast. The loss of Garrison will be big and the Panthers actually had fewer wins than the second-place Washington Capitals a season ago, but stole some points thank to 18 setbacks after regulation. Florida is banking on the tandem of Theodore and Scott Clemmensen to be a solid one in net again and the general weakness of the Southeast Division always helps. Still, the offense will need to improve for a return to the playoffs.
2011-12 - (4th, 84 pts); Projected Finish - 5th
REVIEW: The Jets' first season in Winnipeg did not result in a playoff appearance, but the franchise is hoping that some small steps forward were a sign of things to come. After relocating from Atlanta, the Jets finished fourth in the division for the fourth time in the past five seasons, but their 37 wins and 84 points were the most for the club since a 43-win, 97-point campaign in 2006-07. It's not a coincidence that season was also the last -- and only time -- that the franchise has made the postseason. Winnipeg's young core is now hoping to take the next step in front of its newly-rabid fanbase.
KEY ADDITION: Winnipeg has some solid scorers on the wings in Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler and gets plenty of points from its blue line thanks to Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian. So, the Jets got stronger in the middle by signing the 34-year-old Olli Jokinen, who isn't going to put up close to 40 goals like he did in his prime with Florida but is still a solid, veteran addition. After struggling following his departure from the Panthers, the 6-foot-3 pivot was solid in 82 games with Calgary last season, netting 23 goals with 61 points.
X-FACTOR: Had Winnipeg played as well on the road as it did at home, it would have been a lock for the postseason. The Jets went 23-13-5 as the hosting club and had the league's second-best home power-play unit at 22.0 percent. However, on the road they went just 14-22-5, converted at just a 12.7-percent clip on the man advantage and yielded 42 more goals. The Jets became a tough team to visit last season, but must carry over some of that energy into visiting arenas.
PROGNOSIS: With a host of its core 25 years of age or younger, the Jets felt as though they didn't need to make a big free-agent splash. Instead, they added veterans like Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky with the hopes of advancing into the playoffs. The pressure will remain on goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, though Winnipeg did add a younger and capable backup in Al Montoya. The Jets did a great job bringing hockey back to the city of Winnipeg and hopes the addition of some experience will improve their road numbers in the shortened season, but may find that tough against an improving division.
01/15 11:36:02 ET