Last season, after ten consecutive seasons of missing out on the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Florida Panthers, turnover and all, won their first division title in franchise history, edging the Washington Capitals by two points. The Southeast was the tightest of the six divisions, with a 12 points difference between the champs (Florida) and the cellar dwellers (Carolina).
But, my, how a summer could change things. Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford promised to spend money to compete and he did acquiring Jordan Staal and signing Alex Semin. Winnipeg added Olli Jokinen up front. Tampa signed Matt Carle for the blueline and acquired Anders Lindback to take over in goal for the departed Dwayne Roloson. Meanwhile, the Panthers lost Jason Garrison, a 16-goal scorer from the blue line, replaced him with Filip Kuba, and also signed George Parros.
Will a summer of turnover in the division mean a different outcome come April? We'll find out.
Last Year’s Record: 33-33-16 (82 points)
Coach: Kirk Muller
Pre-Lockout Preview: “This is a playoff team. Potentially dynamic top six, solid goaltending, veteran defense and a coach ready to come into his own. Not sure how the dominoes will fall in the Southeast, but this is an Eastern Conference No. 8 finisher."
What’s Changed: Zack Boychuk and Zac Dalpe got extra seasoning with Charlotte and will push for spots on the big club. Kevin Westgarth was acquired from the Kings for protection. Tuomo Ruutu underwent hip surgery and will be out until May. Joe Corvo got a haircut.
Pivotal Player: Eric Staal. His season changed once Muller took over for Paul Maurice in November. He finished strong, which included a 12-game points streak after the All-Star break, and could find himself between Jiri Tlusty and Alex Semin to start.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Justin Faulk was in the Calder Trophy talk before last season and the defenseman finished with eight goals in 66 games. Playing with Charlotte during the lockout has given him a 31-game head start into the NHL campaign furthering the 20-year old's development.
Prediction: First, and a team that could make a little noise in the East.
Last Year’s Record: 42-32-8 (92 points)
Coach: Adam Oates
Pre-Lockout Preview: “The Southeast is a more interesting place than last season: The Carolina Hurricanes have Jordan Staal and Semin; the Lightning have bolster their blue line and addressed their goaltending; the Panthers were a division champ last season (and are waiting on Luongo). The Capitals need a smooth transition to Oates next season, because a playoff spot isn't predestined for any team that gets off slowly in the East.
That said, the Capitals should be a playoff team. And Ovechkin should reclaim his form.”
What’s Changed: Nick Backstrom visited a specialist in Michigan after taking a hit from behind in Sweden. The prognosis? "No concussion". Eric Fehr was re-acquired. Roman Hamrlik and Michal Neuvirth spoke out against Donald Fehr. Teammate Troy Browuer spoke out against Hamrlik. The two hugged it out. Alex Ovechkin was named a torchbearer for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Pivotal Player: Alex Ovechkin. Is he done threatening 50 goals every season? Maybe not. But it will be important how the captain reacts to Oates' new system. He felt "trapped" under Dale Hunter. How will he feel after this season?
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Mike Green had a long off-season to recover from a groin injury that limited him to 32 games last season (He played only 49 in 2010-11). He's scored just 11 goals in two year after seasons of 31 and 19. Basically, we haven't seen the real Mike Green for some time now, and for the Capitals, they're hoping the extra rest can do him some good.
Prediction: Second. They'll be solid in goal with Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, as long as he proves last year's postseason wasn't a flash in the pan.
Last Year’s Record: 37-35-10 (84 points)
Coach: Claude Noel
Pre-Lockout Preview: "Is it as simple as winning a few more games away from MTS Centre? Well, no. The Jets will need to be much better defensively and on the penalty kill if they're to go back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. But are the additions of Jokinen and Ponikarovsky enough to get there? If the Southeast Division remains as tight as it was last season, then that will benefit the Jets' chances of being in the playoff hunt until the end. Otherwise, unless Cheveldayoff pulls the trigger on a move that will upgrade an area of weakness, they'll once again remain just on the outside looking in."
What’s Changed: Zach Bogosian skated for the first time since wrist surgery in August. His return is still questionable. Ondrej Pavelec didn't fair so well in Europe.
Pivotal Player: Pavelec has the contract and now must back it up.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Bogosian was feared to have been lost for the first few months of the season, but thanks to the lockout, he may just be a handful of games.
Prediction: Third. The home-ice advantage was nice (23-13-5), but away from MTS Centre? Yeesh (14-22-5).
Last Year’s Record: 38-26-18 (94 points)
Coach: Kevin Dineen
Pre-Lockout Preview: “What once was the known as the "South-least" Division was competitive down to the wire. The Panthers made the biggest jump, but many believed they benefited from an off-year by the Washington Capitals. Was it an aberration? We'll find out; but the results on the ice speak volumes. A number of Panthers sported career seasons, which powered them to a division title. The Southeast will once again be tight with Carolina is expected to provide powerful opposition. Can those offensive leaders once again carry the load?”
What’s Changed: Please give a warm welcome to Alex Kovalev, your newest Panther!
Pivotal Player: With Garrison gone to Vancouver, Kuba will have to help replace his production from the back, as long as Brian Campbell can have another career year.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: Kovalev will be 40 next month and hasn't played in the NHL in two years. Won't be looked upon as a guy who needs to carry the load. A compressed schedule could help him fit in quickly.
Prediction: Fourth. Can they once again get balanced scoring and above-average goaltending from Jose Theodore?
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last Year’s Record: 38-36-8 (84 points)
Coach: Guy Boucher
Pre-Lockout Preview: “Tampa missed the playoffs by 8 points last season. A few breaks here or there and they could have found their way in. The hope is that the contributions from Carle, Salo, Pouliot and most importantly, Lindback, will be enough to make up those 8 points and more in 2012-13. Just as important, the Lightning can't continue to rely on their top dogs for offense. Contributions down the lineup need to complement the production led by Stamkos, St. Louis and Purcell.”
What’s Changed: Not much. Though, sadly, Mattias Ohlund's career is probably over. Maybe Ryan Malone got a new tattoo?
Pivotal Player: Anders Lindback was acquired to be the guy in net. He's out from under Pekka Rinne's shadow after two seasons in Nashville, and will look to improve upon the league's worst defense from a year ago.
Player That Benefits Most From 48-Game Season: St. Louis turns 38 after this season and his legs aren't getting any younger. His production took a dip to a still respectable 74 points last year, but that followed back-to-back 90-plus point campaigns. He stayed rested during the lockout, something that could wind up being a huge benefit.
Prediction: Fifth. At least Stamkos will be fun to watch, right?