The Florida Panthers made the NHL playoffs last season for the first time in over a decade. It's an exciting time for Panthers fans but it looks like the other teams in the Southeast Division won't make it easy for the Cats to repeat.
The Caps came in second place in the division and were gunning for the Panthers' first place spot right up until the end of the season. The Caps may have let Alexander Semin go but they have bolstered their lineup in a couple other places. The most notable free-agent pick up the Caps have made this offseason is Mike Ribeiro. This move gives the Caps a bit more depth at the center position. Ribeiro may not be an all-star but he's always good for 50 or 60 points per season. The Caps also added Wojtek Wolski, who the Panthers let go as a free-agent.
The Jets didn't have a bad season for the new kids on the block. Last year the Jets finished third in the division, tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and made several good runs during the season. The Jests picked up Alexi Ponikarovsky, a big left winger, to fill in some depth chart gaps. The Jets' biggest offseason moves this year have been re-signing Oli Jokinen and Evander Kane, both of whom were keys to their success last season.
The Bolts had a disappointing season last year. General manager Steve Yzerman has reacted by doing a complete rebuild of the Lightning's back-end. The Bolts signed three new defensemen this season including Matt Carle and Sami Salo. They also added left wing Benoit Pouliot to strengthen their already dangerous stable of scorers. It looks like the Lightning are done playing possum and look return the top of the division after a five year absence.
The Canes get my nod as the most aggressive team in the free-agent market this year. The Canes were involved in this off-season's biggest free-agent signings. The team picked up center Jordan Staal in hopes that he can revitalize their franchise. Staal is certainly the real deal and a huge upgrade for the Canes' offense. The team also picked up Alexander Semin who has had a few slow seasons but has proven that he can put up 80 points per season from the right wing. No one knows if these moves will pay off but it appears that the Canes are pulling out all the stops next season.
The Southeast Division isn't the best division in the NHL but I think it does have the best parity. Last season only five wins separated the first and last place teams in the division. Because the teams are so evenly matched, it makes for great hockey that goes down to the wire at the end of the season.
The Panthers have to make a good showing next season to prove to everyone that last year wasn't a fluke, but it looks like the other teams in the division won't make it easy for the Cats to get back to the post-season.
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Kristian Eberwein is a freelance journalist from Orlando, Florida. He was an English major at the University of Central Florida and has been a part of the Florida hockey community for the past twenty years. Follow him on Twitter @KrisEberwein