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Screen Shots: The powerful Southeast, crazy ticket prices and small-town stars

Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos haven't hit 25 years old yet, but both have scored 50 goals in a season. (Photo by Greg Fiume/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos haven't hit 25 years old yet, but both have scored 50 goals in a season. (Photo by Greg Fiume/NHLI via Getty Images)

In honor of the upcoming Labor Day weekend, I’ve labored (and failed) to come up with one full-length Thursday column. Instead, here are some more compacted thoughts on late-summer NHL news:

• The Southeast Division has been dumped on in recent years - and I’ve participated in a good amount of the dumping.

But you know what? I’ve got a feeling - no, not that tonight is going to be a good night - but rather, that the Southeast will be the most fun (and least predictable) division in the league this year.

The Washington Capitals stand out as the runaway favorites to repeat as division champs, but after that, no team is a lock to make the playoffs.

The expectations for the Florida Panthers are rightfully diminished, but after the shocking performances of Phoenix and Colorado last season, even the Cats can’t be counted out.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been picked by many pundits (including me) to reverse their downward trajectory and make the playoffs. Yet until their reconfigured defense corps and goaltending platoon prove themselves worthy of the affection, there will be cause for skepticism.

The Carolina Hurricanes were one of the better teams during the league in the latter half of the 2009-10 campaign, but some still question their depth, overall team experience and ownership’s focus on keeping salary costs in line with its internal budget.

The Atlanta Thrashers were one of the NHL’s most active teams in terms of roster makeovers this summer; they’ll be bigger, meaner and coached by one of the game’s best teachers in Craig Ramsay.

The Southeast was the only division last year to have just one team make the post-season - validating the oft-argued point many of us made about its weaknesses. I expect that number to jump to three this time around.

• Speaking of the Southeast: THN Video Producer Ted Cooper was doing a little online digging and came up with a fascinating nugget of info:

The Thrashers’ most expensive season ticket package costs $9,900 per seat. The Lightning’s costliest season ticket package will set you back $9,999.

Meanwhile, the most expensive 2009-10 season ticket package for the Montreal Canadiens (sold out, of course) is priced at $8,459 (Canadian).

Uh, am I missing something? Does it make sense two NHL markets that struggle to draw fans (at least, in comparison to the Habs) are attempting to soak their smaller client bases, while one of the league’s most profitable organizations has a far cheaper price tag on its product?

And if I’m a player, isn’t this just another reason I have to wonder about the business practices of my “partners” at the NHL’s head office?

• Came across a Wired story that featured a Queen’s University analysis of the birthplace of more than 2,000 pro athletes from the NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the PGA.

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The study found the percentage of athletes raised in cities of fewer than 500,000 people was significant - particularly in hockey.

Although some 52 percent of the U.S. population lives in metropolitan areas of more than 500,000 people, those cities produce just 13 percent of NHL players. (By contrast, large urban centers produced 29 percent of NBA players, 15 percent of MLB athletes and 13 percent of PGA players.)

A 2006 Stats Canada study showed four in five Canadians (81.1%) lived in a metropolitan area (and one in three lived in either Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver), so that has to be somewhat disconcerting to people involved in the game.

But there was another intriguing theory in that same Wired piece: a report from a University of Chicago psychologist who argues small towns are less competitive than urban centers - and that relaxed environment gives small town kids the chance to sample other sports.

“(S)maller cities offer more opportunities for unstructured play than larger cities, which results in more opportunities to hone general coordination, power, and athletic skills,” the psychologist said. “These longer hours of play also allow kids to experience successes (and failures) in different settings, which likely toughens their attitudes in general.”

Food for thought - and if you’re a small-town type, reason for pride.

• I mentioned this on Twitter, but anyone who is feeling for Antti Niemi ought to reverse-shed immediately. Sure, he’s no longer a member of the defending-champion Blackhawks, but in signing with the Sharks, he gets (a) a $1.173-million raise from last season; (b) a winter’s worth of California weather; and (c) a much calmer, much smaller group of local hockey media.

As well, Niemi will have Antero Niittymaki to push him and help shoulder the netminding load in a way Cristobal Huet couldn’t in Chicago.

Not a bad change of employers, if you ask me.

Follow Adam's hockey tweets at twitter.com/TheHockeyNews, and his non-hockey observations at twitter.com/ProteauType.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

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

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