Southeast Division Preview
-Top end talent in Kovalchuk and Hossa
-Excellent young goalie in Kari Lehtonen
-Lack depth and secondary scoring
-Just an OK defence and not deep.
-Is Lehtonen ready to take his game to the elite level?
-Will Atlanta re-sign Hossa or be forced to trade him before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer?
-Is Steve Rucchinâ€™s career done?
A few of the bodies changed but I the outlook for the Thrashers is pretty much the same as last year. They will compete for the division title once again but only because they play in a weak division and are otherwise a borderline playoff team whose success or failure is pretty much dependent on the performance of Kovalchuk, Hossa and Lehtonen.
-Strong down the middle with Staal, Brindâ€™amour, Cullen and Jeff Hamilton.
-Pretty good set of wingers too.
-They have 7 NHL calibre defensemen but none of them are really top pairing defensemen on most good teams in the NHL.
-Despite winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy goalie Cam Ward has still not yet established himself as a good consistent dependable goalie in the NHL.
-Will goalie Cam Ward take his game up a notch?
-Can Eric Staal return to the level of play he showed in 2005-06?
-Like most teams in this division they are a decent team but not a great one. They have a chance to compete for the division title but may also miss the playoffs like they did last season. Which outcome they obtain will depend on the play of Cam Ward and the Hurricanes weak defence group.
-Finally have a proven star goalie.
-Lots of good young talent.
-Not a lot of depth up front which means staying healthy will be critical.
-Not a lot of experienced talent.
-Can Vokoun stay healthy enough to play 65+ games?
-Can Olesz, Horton, Weiss and the other young players take their games up a notch.
-There is no doubt that adding Tomas Vokoun is going to have a major impact on this team. With a lot of young players on the roster, having a proven star goalie back that can help make up for a lot of â€˜rookieâ€™ mistakes. If Vokoun can play 65+ games and they get some improvement out of their young forwards there is no reason why Florida canâ€™t compete for a playoff spot or even the division title in this weak southeast division. If neither of those happen it will likely be another playoff miss for the Panthers. I am optimistic about their playoff chances though.
Tampa Bay Lightning
-The big 3 forwards in Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards are among the best in the league.
-Boyle and Kuba are two solid offensive defensemen to compliment the big three forwards.
-Can Dan Boyle make a quick recovery from his freak accident and return to being a star offensive defensemen?
-Can they finally get some consistent, solid goaltending?
-The story in Tampa since they won their Stanley Cup just prior to the lock out has been all about goaltending. They have squeaked into the playoffs two years in a row now despite having horrible goaltending, in part because of a weak division and in part because they have been stellar in shootouts (combined 16-6 the past 2 years). In fact, last year Tampaâ€™s goalies had a better save percentage in the shootout (.887) than they did during the rest of the game (.884). That is unlikely to happen again and with the potential improvement of Florida and Washington it makes Tampaâ€™s playoff spot seriously up for grabs. Best case scenario for the Lightning is they squeak into the playoffs again.
-Next to Pittsburgh might have the best set of young forwards in the NHL with Ovechkin, Semin and rookie Nicklas Backstrom.
-Added some nice complementary forwards in Nylander and Viktor Kozlov.
-Below average defence
-Can Nicklas Backstrom have a solid rookie season?
-Does 37 year old goalie Kolzig have another good year in him?
-The Washington Capitals are one of the interesting teams to watch this year. They finished 14th in the eastern conference last season with 70 points but have added Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, Tom Poti and rookie of the year candidate Nicklas Backstom to their roster. They have the makings of two very good offensive lines, one anchored by a Nylander-Ovechkin duo and the other by a Backstrom-Semin duo with 30 goal scorer Chris Clark and 25 goal scorer Viktor Kozlov added to the mix as well. They have the potential to have a better forward group (top to bottom) than either Tampa or Atlanta and that is saying a lot. Like Tampa and Atlanta though, their defence is suspect though it could be serviceable if everyone plays to their potential. The question is if and when will this offensive talent come together and play like a cohesive unit (much like what happened in Pittsburgh last year). If it happens by the mid-point in the season the Capitals could challenge for a playoff spot but I suspect they are still a year or two and a quality defenseman or two away.