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THN.com Blog: Southeast Division preview

The Washington Capitals finished with 108 points and won the division by 11 points last season. (Getty Images)

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The Washington Capitals finished with 108 points and won the division by 11 points last season. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON CAPITALS
THN Prediction: Second in the East

Key Additions: Brendan Morrison, C; Mike Knuble, RW
Key Departures: Brent Johnson, G; Donald Brashear, LW; Sergei Fedorov, C; Viktor Kozlov, RW

Though the team lost significant pieces when Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov bolted for Russia, the additions of Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison actually make the team better up front.

The question marks surrounding the Caps don’t stem from the forward group, however, where they sport one of the league’s best collection of offensive weapons, including reigning two-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin.

If Washington is to fail this season it will be due to a blueline that lacks depth and a true two-way stud and/or the goaltending duo of veteran Jose Theodore and rookie Semyon Varlamov ending up more mouse than monster.

Of course, if the defensive youngsters step up and the backend corps plays to its potential with either Theodore (circa 2001-02) or Varlamov (circa last playoff) taking the reins, the Capitals will be a handful for any team in the East and true Cup favorite.
 
CAROLINA HURRICANES
THN Prediction: Sixth in the East

Key Additions: Stephane Yelle, C; Aaron Ward, D; Andrew Alberts, D; Tom Kostopoulos, RW
Key Departures: Dennis Seidenberg, D; Anton Babchuk, D; Frantisek Kaberle, D; Patrick Eaves, RW

The Hurricanes were out-muscled in their own end during a four-game loss to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Penguins in the East final last season, so GM Jim Rutherford – the league’s most underrated executive – set out to do something about it.

Carolina repatriated gritty defenseman Aaron Ward and brought in plenty more toughness in the form of blueliner Andrew Alberts and forwards Tom Kostopoulos and Stephane Yelle.

Beyond Eric Staal and Cam Ward, the Cane collection is a bit of a no-name bunch, but there’s a lot to like about this squad from top to bottom and, most importantly, they respond well to coach Paul Maurice, who had the interim tag stripped this summer.

Ward is also in the hunt for Team Canada’s No. 3 goalie role at the Olympics, so you can expect his focus to be that much greater early in the season, which is bad news for opposing shooters.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
THN Prediction: 10th in the East

Key Additions: Alex Tanguay, LW; Antero Niittymaki, G; Kurtis Foster, D; Stephane Veilleux, LW; Matt Walker, D; Mattias Ohlund, D; Drew Miller, LW
Key Departures: Radim Vrbata, RW; Vaclav Prospal, RW; Evgeny Artyukhin, RW; Cory Murphy, D

If you’re looking for a dark horse in the Eastern Conference, look no further than the Lightning.

After a foolish, buy-everything-available summer in 2008, GM Brian Lawton had a well-planned off-season in ’09 by purchasing blueline depth in the form of Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker and Kurtis Foster. Add No. 2 overall pick in the latest draft, Victor Hedman, and holdovers Paul Ranger and Andrej Meszaros, and you get a defense corps that’s leaps and bounds better than the league’s worst collection of 2008-09.

An impressive top six led by Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St-Louis and Steven Stamkos will make up for the bottom two lines’ lack of scoring punch. Tampa’s fate, however, will be determined by the health and performance of goalie Mike Smith, who missed the last 32 games last season due to concussions.

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There’s a lot of “ifs” surrounding the Rick Tocchet-coached Bolts, hence the 10th place prediction, but if things shake out as they very well could, a return to the playoffs will be the result.

FLORIDA PANTHERS
THN Prediction: 12th in the East

Key Additions: Dennis Seidenberg, D; Ville Koistinen, D; Scott Clemmensen, G; Steven Reinprecht, C; Jordan Leopold, D
Key Departures: Steve Eminger, D; Ville Peltonen, LW; Nick Boynton, D; Anthony Stewart, RW; Karlis Skrastins, D; Craig Anderson, G; Jay Bouwmeester, D; Richard Zednik, RW

While the loss of Jay Bouwmeester won’t have nearly the impact most predict, the Panthers are still a team closer to being moved to another market than they are to the playoff hunt.

If it weren’t for the goaltending duo of Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen and the coaching of Pete DeBoer, a draft lottery position would be a foregone conclusion. Without a permanent GM or a budget to spend, Cats fans can’t hold out hope for any kind of addition that will help, either.

As has been the case with this club since they last made a post-season appearance in 2000, Florida is in desperate need of leadership. Any who hold out hope that recently appointed captain Bryan McCabe will lift this team up by the scruff of the neck will be sorely disappointed.

One reason for optimism: nine of Florida’s top 12 forwards are 26 years old or younger, so potential for success down the road is there.

ATLANTA THRASHERS
THN Prediction: 14th in the East

Key Additions: Nik Antropov, C/RW; Pavel Kubina, D
Key Departures: Garnet Exelby, D

For the Dirty Birds, the goal this campaign is – or at least should be – more about making a positive impression on UFA-to-be Ilya Kovalchuk rather than making the playoffs. A post-season run? Not so much.

Atlanta will hit the ice with ostensibly the same crew that finished 13th in the East in 2008-09, plus a new first-line forward (who’s much better suited for second-line duty) and a better puck-moving, but less physical top defenseman.

A full season of Zach Bogosian, the 2008 third overall pick who missed 28 games in his rookie year with a broken leg, will surely help, as will the scoring punch of 2009 No. 4 overall pick Evander Kane (should he stick with the club).

Alas, any optimism built after winning 12 of 18 games to finish out last year will quickly dissipate after the reality that this team has next to no scoring depth and no true No. 1 goalie sets in.

Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog appears Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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