KELLEY: Southeast can be good ... no, really

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Jim Kelley


Southeast Division

The National Hockey League's Southeast Division is not only competitive, but it's got a couple good teams and a lot of really good young players. OK, stop laughing, we're serious. Hey! I said we're serious. Look, we'll agree that in recent seasons this group of Washington, Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay and Atlanta has been little more that a collection of teams to walk over en route to somewhere higher in the standings, but that's about to change. For starters, Carolina, long a blip on an over-folded map (remember when they were in Greensboro after coming over from Hartford and even the WHA?) went to the Stanley Cup finals last spring. That counts for something. Also, the Washington , with a roster that includes , , , and Petr Bondra, can't stay down for long. Down in Atlanta, (Calder Trophy as rookie of the year) and Ilya Kovalchuk (even more talented than Heatley) started to rise as did a young goalie, , who is being challenged by Pasi Nurminen, the MVP of the AHL playoffs last spring. In Tampa, forward and goalie are already stars (Khabibulin was the player to notice at the All-Star game last winter) and Vinny Lecavalier and have a chance to join them in that regard this season. In Florida, goalie has a .926 save percentage in his three NHL seasons, an extraordinary figure for any goalie, let alone a young one. Left wing finished third among rookies in scoring and earned a spot on the All-Rookie team and and are highly regarded kids who are breaking in this season even though they still have junior eligibility remaining. Does it make the Southeast a powerhouse? Not exactly, but it's a division with a lot of talent and some teams that are starting to rise. Teams are profiled in predicted order of finish. Washington Last season: 36-33-11-2, 85 points, second Southeast, ninth East, 19th overall.
GM: George McPhee, sixth year, second team.
Coach: Bruce Cassidy, First NHL year. New Faces: Cassidy, , C, , F. Dearly Departed: , D; , C/W; Dimitri Khristich. Ron Wilson, Coach. Strengths: The talent we mentioned in the lead-in plus Lang, who should mesh as a center for Jagr. There's plenty of overall firepower as evidenced by the NHL's third best power play last season. The defense, long a strength on this team, has gone through an overhaul, but is still pretty good and there's character in people like and , both of whom are coming off injuries and should help this time around. Kolzig is a force when in the mood. Weaknesses: Jagr can be a puzzle wrapped in a mystery and surrounded by an enigma of his own making at times. When that happens his points are meaningless. The defense is a tad inexperienced behind Gonchar, Johansson and . Cassidy is a highly regarded minor-league coach, but he's a rookie here on a team with a lot of complex veterans. Outlook: Traditionally a slow-starting team, Caps should be more focused with a new coach and after missing the playoffs last season. Knowing that and knowing that Carolina could be suffering physically and mentally from its long run into the playoffs last spring, the points made early will count. This team looks ready. Carolina Last season: 35-26-16-5, 91 points, first Southeast, third East, 16th overall.
GM: Jim Rutherford, ninth NHL season, second team
Coach: Paul Maurice, eighth NHL season, first team New Faces: , RW (up from minors). Dearly Departed: , LW Strengths: A solid team with now very experienced coaching and home-bred talent throughout the lineup. Vets like , , and now , fill the top two lines. Goaltender is experienced and a solid competitor. Forward was a rookie-of-the-year candidate last season. Defense is more system than stars, but plays well as a unit and was upgraded with addition of late last season. Weaknesses: Offensively, third and fourth lines fall off from first two lines in dramatic fashion. Defense is young and can be pushed around if the forwards don't come back to help. Offense is productive, but not overpowering -- 'Canes lose games in which they played well enough to win. Outlook: Cup appearance was no fluke, but 'Canes were the 16th seed and a lot of things went right for them last spring. This is a team on the rise, but likely will take a step back this season as competition is better and youth still needs to improve. Tampa Bay Last season: 27-40-11-4, 69 points, third Southeast, 13th East, 27th overall
GM: Jay Feaster, second NHL year, first team
Coach: John Tortorella, fourth NHL season, second team New Faces: , LW; Alexander Svitov, C, Kevin Hodson, G; , D. Dearly Departed: , D; , D; , G. Strengths: Khabibulin wins games all by himself in goal ¿ provides leadership and a power-play presence, is a horse when it comes to ice time and uses it well ¿ Svitov is a well-regarded Russian who had a standout junior career. is a proven scorer and a durable player. , when healthy, is capable of 30-plus goals. Weaknesses: Not enough overall talent up front. Defense is still way too young and except for Kubina doesn't move the puck very well ¿ Most talented player, Vinny Lecavalier, doesn't like the coach and though he is most obvious about it, he is not alone ¿ Team shows little character in close games, especially on the road ¿ Franchise is woefully under funded Outlook: Pieces of a team, but no team. The record will bear that out. Atlanta Last season: 19-47-11-5, 54 points, fourth Southeast, 15th East, 30th overall
GM: Don Waddell fourth NHL year, first team
Coach: Curt Fraser, fourth NHL year, first team New Faces: Slava Kozlov, RW; , D; , D; , LW. Dearly Departed: , D; , G; , D; , D. Strengths: Heatley and Kovalchuk finished 1-2 in rookie scoring and Kovalchuk likely would have won had he not been injured. They are good ... Kozlov and McEachern twice have gone beyond the 30-goal mark and should help the offense ... Krupp and Smehlik are old and a little slow, but very experienced and should steady a still too-young group. Weaknesses: Hnilicka is a promising goalie, but he's not yet in with the elite netminders in this division, let alone the league. Defense beyond Krupp and Smehlik is small, and not physical. Even with newly acquired vets, team is way too young to compete every night. Outlook: Waddell has a plan and aside from messing up on the goaltending early, he's stuck to it and it shows. Team should be fun to watch, especially on the power play with Kozlov and McEachern out with Kovalchuk and Heatley. After that, however, still a lot of growing up to do. Should improve in the standings, but not a playoff threat. Florida Last season: 22-44-10-6, 60 points, 4th Southeast, 14th East, 28th overall.
GM: Rick Dudley, 5th NHL year, 3rd team
Coach: Mike Keenan, 15th NHL year, 7th team New Faces: Too many to list, but take note of Dmitry Yuskevich, a veteran defenseman from Toronto. Dearly Departed: Same as above, except for , D; , C; , G. Strengths: Keenan moves around a lot, but knows how to coach and win and seems to be showing patience (for him anyway) in the Sunshine State ... Luongo is a star on the cusp of superstardom ¿ Huselius and are young players on the rise ¿ and could join them this season ¿ can move the puck out of his own end. Weaknesses: Team lacks leadership, a go-to scorer, a No. 1 center and size and scoring off the wings. The defense is in the same class. There's been a constant turnover in ownership and the front office, so the prospect pool is iffy for this season. Outlook: Dudley has a reputation for strong drafting and it showed last summer. There now are kids in the system and someday they'll get there. Maybe Luongo can wait for them. Not a playoff team and could finish last overall. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Todd Reirden, Jeff Heerema, Kip Miller, Dieter Kochan, Flames, Red Wings, Hurricanes, Stars, Islanders, Senators, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Ducks, Panthers, Jets, Wild, Rod Brind'Amour, Sami Kapanen, Sandis Ozolinsh, Martin Gelinas, Brad Lukowich, Shawn McEachern, Ruslan Fedotenko, Robert Lang, Pavel Kubina, Nikolai Khabibulin, Fredrik Modin, Dave Andreychuk, Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt, Jaromir Jagr, Steve Konowalchuk, Olaf Kolzig, Jason Wiemer, Bret Hedican, Roberto Luongo, Niklas Hagman

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