As training camps are now in full-swing around the NHL and the regular season barely two weeks away, it's time to take a closer look at the would-be challengers and the Caps' attempt to win a fifth-consecutive Southeast Division title. After the jump, who's new, who's gone and what to expect from four divisional foes.
Bottom Line: The 'Canes got deeper over the summer, but didn't add any high-end talent to a team that narrowly missed the playoffs a season ago. If youngsters like Jeff Skinner, Jamie McBain, Brandon Sutter, Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk continue to develop, Carolina could surprise some folks, as they have forward depth, a solid two-way top-four defensemen, an outstanding goaltender in Cam Ward, and rid themselves of Joe Corvo. Still, they're not nearly in the same class as the Conference's top teams and will likely be fighting for one of the last playoff spots come March.
Florida Panthers (30-40-12, 72 points, 5th in the Southeast, 15th in the Eastern Conference)
Notable Additions: Sean Bergenheim (F, UFA - TB), Matt Bradley (F, UFA - WSH), Brian Campbell (D, Trade - CHI), Tomas Fleischmann (F, UFA - COL), Marcel Goc (F, UFA - NSH), Ed Jovanovski (D, UFA - PHX), Tomas Kopecky (F, UFA - CHI), Jose Theodore (G, UFA - MIN), Scottie Upshall (F, UFA - CBJ), Kris Versteeg (F, trade - PHI)
Notable Losses: Niclas Bergfors (F, UFA - NSH), Steve Bernier (F, UFA - tryout with NJD), Darcy Hordichuk (F, UFA - EDM), Rostislav Olesz (F, trade - CHI), Sergei Samsonov (F, UFA), Tomas Vokoun (G, UFA - WSH)
Bottom Line: If you ever wondered what a team that has to spend like crazy to get to the salary floor looks like, wonder no more. Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon now has a $50-million chemistry experiment that should be better than the group that finished dead last in the Conference last year... but how much better? Certainly they've downgraded between the pipes, and the offense will be better and certainly deeper, even if the Panthers top-two lines would be slotted as second- and third-lines (if that) for at least a couple of their division foes. But this isn't a playoff contender, and Cats fans are left anxiously awaiting the arrival of prospects Jonathan Huberdeau, Jacob Markstrom and Erik Gudbranson.
Tampa Bay Lightning (46-25-11, 103 points, 2nd in the Southeast, 5th in the Eastern Conference)
Bottom Line: It's hard to say whose first year on the job was more impressive in Tampa as between General Manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher, but both have now set high expectations that might be tough to meet. The team didn't add anything this past summer other than back-end depth, and on a team with a defense that wasn't great to begin with, a goaltender who will be 42 next month, and a somewhat-gimmicky system has to be solved sooner or later, a bit of a regression by the Bay might be in the cards... if Yzerman and Boucher can't adequately handle these potential pitfalls. Still, the Bolts look to be a solid bet to make the playoffs.
Washington Capitals (48-23-11, 107 points, 1st in the Southeast, 1st in the Eastern Conference)
Notable Losses: Jason Arnott (F, UFA - STL), Matt Bradley (F, UFA - FLA), Eric Fehr (F, trade - WPG), Boyd Gordon (F, UFA - PHX), Scott Hannan (D, UFA - CGY), Tyler Sloan (D, buyout, UFA - NSH) Marco Sturm (F, UFA - VAN), Semyon Varlamov (G, trade - COL)
Bottom Line: It's not that the players no longer in D.C. are particularly culpable for the most recent edition of playoff failure. Far from it, in fact. But the players with whom they've been replaced are the type that General Manager George McPhee believes the team lacked last spring. They're grittier (Brouwer), tougher to play against (Ward), more veteran (Halpern and Hamrlik), and elite (Vokoun). But ulitimately, it's the team's core group of players and the man behind the bench who are likely to be the difference between this season and previous ones... if there is a discernible difference at all.
Winnipeg Jets (34-36-12, 80 points, 4th in the Southeast, 12th in the Eastern Conference)
Notable Additions: Eric Fehr (F, trade - WSH), Tanner Glass (F, UFA - VAN), Fans, Randy Jones (D, UFA - TB)
Bottom Line: Other than relocating from Atlanta and everything associated with the move and being touched by tragedy, it was a relatively quiet summer for the Jets. This is a team that finished 20th in the League in goals scored last year... and added an injured Eric Fehr to its stable of top-nine forwards. The then-Thrashers allowed the second-most goals in the League... and added Randy Jones to the defense. The power play was mediocre, the penalty kill bad... and they added a head coach with little on his NHL resume. This isn't a playoff team, but for the players that are there and the fans who brought 'em there, it sure will be nice to be able to focus on the on-ice stuff.