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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Looking ahead: Is a SE Division Renaissance coming? (from more musings of a caps fan)

Editor’s note: once again, I wrote a nice long article for more musings of a caps fan, and then felt it was good enough and relevant enough for posting on Musings of a Caps Fan. The question: “Is a Southeast Division Renaissance Coming?”

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Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Southeast Division, comprised of the Washington Capitals, Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers, is widely considered to be the worst overall division in the NHL. While the Capitals had the best overall record in the NHL, the other four SE Division teams all finished out of the playoffs. While the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes have both won Stanley Cups recently (2004 and 2006, respectively), the Atlanta Thrashers have made the playoffs only once in franchise history, and the Florida Panthers consistently have been missing the post-season as well. What is astounding about the Thrashers especially is the amount of talent that has been there recently, including Marian Hossa & Ilya Kovalchuk.

In the 2009-2010 NHL season, these 4 teams all came extremely close to playoff contention at points in the season. Had there been more than 82 games, the Hurricanes likely would have managed to qualify for the playoffs after digging themselves into a hole to start the season. Numerous injuries cost the Florida Panthers their playoff hopes, even with star Czech goalie Tomas Voukon in net. The Tampa Bay Lightning simply weren’t consistent enough. A similar problem lead to the Atlanta Thrashers missing the post-season yet again.
However, the one good thing about finishing in the bottom of the NHL is a high pick in the draft. Prospects and trades can turn a bottom-feeder into a Stanley Cup contender – just take a look at the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks lost in the 2002 Western Conference quarterfinals, and did not make the playoffs again until last season, when they made it to the conference finals. This year, they are heading to the Stanley Cup finals, just 2 seasons removed from being a team that missed the playoffs. While I dislike the Blackhawks’ development style, and feel that they have a very small window of opportunity, I cannot deny that their system works well. They are, after all, the 2010 Western Conference champions.

How does this relate to the Southeast Division? Well, with four SE teams being in the bottom of the standings, they will likely gain many good prospects, and we could see some success by those four teams very quickly, a la Blackhawks. In fact, the Florida Panthers recently hired Dave Tallon, the former Blackhawks GM who was fired this summer, and the architect of the Blackhawks’ rise to power, as their new GM. It is entirely possible that, in a few seasons, the Panthers will be “Blackhawks SE”.

In another big announcement, the Tampa Bay Lightning said Tuesday that they have hired Steve Yzerman, longtime Red Wings player, Stanley Cup champion, member of the Red Wings organization, and the GM of the gold-medal winning Canadian Olympic hockey team, to be their new GM. Yzerman knows what is needed to make a good team, and it is also very possible that the Lightning, who already have several talented players (headlined by the Rocket Richard – winning Steven Stamkos and Swedish defenseman
Meanwhile, the other two teams (Carolina Hurricanes & Atlanta Thrashers) are currently in very different positions. The Hurricanes are definitely a playoff-ready team, and they only missed the post-season due to their poor start. This season, the Hurricanes started to become younger, beginning with the selection of Eric Staal as team captain. The ‘Canes will be dangerous next season, and are very possibly going to make the playoffs.

The Atlanta Thrashers, on the other hand, always fall just short of the playoffs. Starting a rebuilding by trading goalie Kari Lehtonen and star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, the Thrashers just need a good GM and a bit of luck to become a playoff team in the next few years.

Add to all of this the Washington Capitals, expertly constructed by GM George McPhee to remain a contender for years to come. The Caps have a fantastic team right now, and they also have one of the best prospect pools in the NHL. They Caps also draft very well, picking up players such as Mike Green, John Carlson, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth with late first round and early second round picks. The Caps have their core duo (Alex Ovechkin & Nicklas Backstrom) locked up for the next decade, and the team looks to be in a good position for a long period of success.

Will all of this going on, how long will it be before the Southeast Division rises from the title of “worst division in the NHL”? Looking at the track records of some of the new GMs, as well as the teams themselves, I predict that, within maybe 5 years, all 5 SE teams will quite possibly be playoff-caliber teams. This is both an exciting and unpleasant though for Caps fans, as a good division means more competition, but also a harder time making the playoffs. Regardless, the next few years will be interesting for the SE Division, and I can’t wait!

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