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Southeast Division: Now with Winnipeg!

Sam McCaig
Yahoo Sports
Southeast Division: Now with Winnipeg!
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Alex Ovechkin wants to rebound after career lows of 32 goals and 85 points last season

The Southeast Division boasts Alex Ovechkin(notes) and Steven Stamkos(notes) and … the Winnipeg Jets? Well, yes, for the 2011-12 campaign anyhow after the Atlanta Thrashers relocated north (and west) after 11 mostly lamentable seasons. Speaking of lamentable, the Florida Panthers underwent a facelift that would make Joan Rivers jealous in the hopes of finally returning to the postseason. Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals are coming off another Eastern Conference regular-season title, but underwhelmed in the playoffs again when they were swept in Round 2 by Stamkos’ surprising Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts took the Bruins to a 0-0 tie in the third period of Game 7 of the East final before Boston finally scored to end Tampa’s resurgent season. The Carolina Hurricanes, always more than the sum of their parts, look like playoff outsiders again. But back to Winnipeg, where the Jets have returned for the first time since 1996. The future is bright, but this season the locals might have to be satisfied with the fact the NHL is back.

Predicted order of finish:

1. Washington Capitals*

2. Tampa Bay Lightning*

3. Carolina Hurricanes

4. Winnipeg Jets

5. Florida Panthers

(Asterisk denotes playoff team.)

1. WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Five Most Important Players

1. Alex Ovechkin, LW: The new, improved “playoff-style” Caps still need more than 32 goals from the league’s most explosive player.

2. Tomas Vokoun(notes), G: He’s never had a group this good in front of him, and this group has never had a goalie this good.

3. Alexander Semin(notes), LW: On a pure talent level, he has few equals. And that’s why it’s frustrating when he isn’t a factor.

4. Mike Green(notes), D: Last season was a concussion write-off for the offensively skilled power-play quarterback.

5. Mike Knuble(notes), RW: Didn’t you see HBO’s 24/7 special on the run-up to the Winter Classic? This guy runs the team.

Best-Case Scenario: Washington’s defensive dedication continues, and the reward is a chance at a championship.

Reality Check: Winning in the regular season is one thing; winning in the playoffs is quite another. Can the Caps come through in crunch time?

2. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Five Most Important Players

1. Martin St. Louis(notes), RW: His superior skills are exceeded only by his desire and determination.

2. Dwayne Roloson(notes), G: The Lightning are putting their faith in a goalie who turns 42 in October. Time will tell, indeed.

3. Steven Stamkos, C: Nobody’s scored more goals over the past two seasons, and he’s only 21.

4. Victor Hedman(notes), D: The future of the Bolts’ blue line rests on his big shoulders.

5. Vincent Lecavalier(notes), C: A rebound to 35 goals and 80-plus points is in order.

Best-Case Scenario: The team that was within one Game 7 goal of advancing to the Stanley Cup final scores that elusive goal this time around.

Reality Check: Tampa went from three straight non-playoff seasons to the East final. A big breakout like that is often followed by a fall back to earth.

3. CAROLINA HURRICANES

Five Most Important Players

1. Eric Staal(notes), C: A horse of a No. 1 center who carries the franchise tag in Carolina.

2. Cam Ward(notes), G: In another market, he’d be getting a lot more “best goalie” press.

3. Jeff Skinner(notes), C: Teenager showed maturity and big-time skills in rookie season. Yeah, he’s a keeper.

4. Joni Pitkanen(notes), D: Hurricanes’ best defenseman will be on the ice all the time.

5. Brandon Sutter(notes), C: Another solid building block for the future, but the ’Canes need him now, too.

Best-Case Scenario: Carolina sneaks into the playoffs and then rides Staal and Ward for a round or two.

Reality Check: Hard work and team chemistry can only carry you so far.

4. WINNIPEG JETS

Five Most Important Players

1. Andrew Ladd(notes), LW: The captain’s power forward approach should go over very well on the prairie.

2. Dustin Byfuglien(notes), D: Big body, big shot and big potential. Opponents figured him out after a Norris-worthy first half last season, but he’s still improving.

3. Ondrej Pavelec(notes), G: The Jets appear to be set in goal with the up-and-coming Pavelec.

4. Evander Kane(notes), LW: Young power forward has all the pieces, he just needs time to put it together.

5. Zach Bogosian(notes), D: It hasn’t been smooth, but his talent is undeniable. The season opener will be his 200th NHL game, and he just turned 21.

Best-Case Scenario: A storybook Stanley Cup championship in their inaugural season as the (“new!”) Winnipeg Jets is asking too much, but riding the local euphoria into the playoffs is a realistic possibility for young, promising club.

Reality Check: They might not be ready for prime time quite yet.

5. FLORIDA PANTHERS

Five Most Important Players

1. Stephen Weiss(notes), C: After all the moves in Florida, he’s still the team’s best player and top offensive threat.

2. Brian Campbell(notes), D: Along with Ed Jovanovski(notes), Campbell will be charged with tutoring the club’s young defensemen and reviving a long-dead power play.

3. Scott Clemmensen(notes), G: Longtime backup gets his first crack at an NHL starting job. If he falters, Plan B is Jose Theodore(notes).

4. Tomas Fleischmann(notes), LW: A top-line talent whose career – and more importantly, health – was in jeopardy due to a blood-clotting problem. He’s been given the all-clear.

5. Dmitry Kulikov(notes), D: Represents the future on the blue line, along with Keaton Ellerby(notes) and Jason Garrison(notes).

Best-Case Scenario: GM Dale Tallon is the smartest man in hockey and all the moves pay off as the Panthers return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

Reality Check: A top-to-bottom roster makeover and the best the Cats can do is Clemmensen-Theodore in goal? Risky.