Southeast Division Preview: Who Should Worry the Caps?

This week we've been taking a look at the Capitals' very own Southeast Division, breaking down what moves were made over the summer, and who the division's best forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders are.  Today we take a slightly longer look at each of the Capitals division rivals and ask one question: "Which team presents the biggest challenge to the Capitals four-peating as Division Champions?"

Atlanta Thrashers

Why the Capitals should be worried about them:  The Thrashers may have lost Ilya Kovalchuk, but they've made a number of additions that are going to make them both competitive and more difficult to play against.  The return from the Kovalchuk deal - Nicklas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, and Patrice Cormier (if he's with the team this year) - offers the Thrashers a nice combination of offensive ability, defensive depth, and grit, which is about all you can ask for.  The additions of former Blackhawks Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Ben Eager mean that there aren't going to be too many easy shifts for opponents or nights the Thrashers come out flat, something that will help Atlanta, especially in the era of the three-point game.

But no one move was as important as the addition of goaltender Chris Mason, a free agent from St. Louis.  While most of the offseason talk swirled about the future of Evgeni Nabakov, where Antti Niemi would be playing next year, and what was going to happen to Marty Turco, Thrashers' GM Rick Dudley shrewdly locked Mason in to a two year deal with a cap hit of $1.85 million dollars - not bad for a guy who's gone 97-63-1-20/2.44/.918, save for a poor 2007-08 season, since becoming an NHL regular.

The Thrashers also arguably sport the division's best defense corps, a group made up of Zach Bogosian, Ron Hainsey, Tobias Enstrom, Brent Sopel, Boris Valabik, and the aforementioned Oduya.  No one player from that group may be a world-beater, but the unit as a whole can play effective defense, man the point on powerplays, move the puck, and kill penalties.

Why the Capitals shouldn't be worried about them:  As valuable as a number of the Thrashers' players are, most are valuable as complementary players rather than marquee ones.  Neither Chris Mason nor Ondrej Pavelec is a top-tier netminder, the defense doesn't have an anchor, and the forward situation is, at best, two second lines, a third line, and a fourth line.  In a division full of elite offensive talent, having neither the means to shut opposing players down on defense nor the firepower to keep up with them might be too much to overcome.

Of course, we might be selling the Thrashers a little short with that assessment.  After all, Bryan Little, Evander Kane, Tobias Enstrom, and Zach Bogosian are still young, and getting better-than-expected seasons from each could be a difference-make, as would guys like Ladd and Byfuglien stepping up their games as they play more important roles than they did last year.

What it all boils down to:  The Thrashers should be an interesting team to watch in 2010-11, if for no reason other than how much uncertainty surrounds the team and how much potential they have.  But for Atlanta to make enough noise to become a playoff contender or even challenge for the division, a lot of things are going to have to break right for them - more than you could reasonably expect for any team.  While the Thrashers will likely prove a tough opponent in games where they go head-to-head with the Capitals, it's hard to imagine them giving Washington a real run for their money as the class of the Southeast.

Carolina Hurricanes

Why the Capitals should be worried about them:  I'm always slightly wary of underestimating the Hurricanes, the same way I'm always a little wary of underestimating the Atlanta Braves - all too often when you're sure they're headed for a mediocre-at-best season, they find a way to be competitive.  Add that to the fact that the Hurricanes are arguably flying under the radar, coming into the season with Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov, and Erik Cole all coming off sub-par and/or injury-ravaged seasons, and the fact that Cam Ward can get hot at any time, and it might be too early to dismiss the Hurricanes.

Why the Capitals shouldn't be worried about them: Simply put, the 2009-10 Hurricanes were not a very good hockey team.  They were average in terms of generating offense, in the bottom five in the league in goals against, and below average both on the powerplay and the penalty kill - and they haven't really done much in the way of strengthening their team in the offseason.  And while the 'Canes did have several players break out (or overachieve) last year, for every Brandon Sutter or Jussi Jokinen there's a Sergei Samsonov or Erik Cole.  For Carolina to really be a threat in the Southeast, the players who exceeded expectations in 2009-10 will have to continue to play at that level and the players who dropped off will have to return to form, and that's a tall order.

What it all boils down to: The Hurricanes may not have undertaken the same kind of massive fire sale we saw out of the Capitals, but make no mistake about it, this is a team in rebuild mode, full of young players, question marks, and generally underwhelming veterans.  For the Hurricanes to do anything more than fight to stay out of the Southeast cellar would be somewhat of a surprise...well, aside from that whole "never underestimate this team" thing.

Florida Panthers

Why the Capitals should be worried about them: Tomas Vokoun is the best goalie in the Southeast, and one of the few NHL netminders who can steal games for his team on a regular basis, and if healthy, David Booth will be a guy you hate to play against but would love to have on your team.  Beyond that the Panthers have several guys who would be excellent complementary players on better teams, and guys like that can end up burning you if you're not careful.

Why the Capitals shouldn't be worried about them:  Florida might have a number of players who would do very well in auxiliary roles for good teams, but on the Panthers they're going to be asked to carry the load, a fact that belies the team's overall lack of talent at the NHL level.  There's no elite player on either offense or defense, the team's depth is questionable, and unless something surprising happens, the Panthers will be a  lottery team in 2010-11.

What it all boils down to: New GM Dale Tallon has a pretty impressive track record, and given time he should be able to make the Panthers in to a decent NHL team, but they're simply not there yet.  Expect the extent of the pressure the Panthers put on the Capitals to be limited to individual games and individual performances from Vokoun or Scott Clemmensen.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Why the Capitals should be worried about them: To start with, the offense.  Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, and Simon Gagne are all excellent offensive players who can skate, score, and create for their teammates, and you could do a lot worse than Ryan Malone and Steve Downie for secondary scoring and Adam Hall, Sean Bergenheim, and Dominic Moore as depth forwards.

The Lightning should also be better on the defensive side of things.  Dan Ellis should provide an upgrade of Antero Niittymaki, and the addition of Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina give the team a pair of solid stay-at-home defenders.  Continued development from Victor Hedman and a bounce-back campaign from Mattias Ohlund might be all that is needed to turn this in to a formidable group.

Why the Capitals shouldn't be worried about them: The Lightning's offseason looks great on paper, but until the new players and coach get out on the ice in competitive situations, the team's not going to be completely sure exactly what they have or how to most effectively utilize their talent.  Eventually the Lightning should figure it out and be a very good team, but any stumbling out of the block might give the Capitals enough of a head start to win the Southeast by a comfortable margin.

What it all boils down to:  Steve Yzerman's had a very impressive start to his career as a general manager, shedding ineffective and overpaid players and making shrewd moves in the the trade and free agent markets.  There's only so much one man can do in one offseason, so the Bolts might not be ready to challenge for the division crown - but if one or two guys have breakout years or Yzerman is able to make another solid move or two in season, things could get very interesting in the Southeast.

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