continues its rise
Some, after my rambling missives from the Olympics, might consider my silence golden.
Indulge me, though, as I take you back through time all the way to 2003 when I wrote a column declaring that the Southeast Division, which at the time had been the home to many a down-trodden franchise, was indeed on the rise. (Yes, it's true; one monkey left alone in a room with a typewriter will eventually type something of meaning.)
At the time, the column got picked up by a couple of bulletin boards and fan sites (blogs weren't in vogue back then) and sparked debate among fans of the clubs in that division.
With back-to-back Cups, the Southeast Division sits on the horizon like the summer sun, big, bright, hopeful and destined to rise higher in the sky. This should serve as a warning for every other division and team in the East.
Carolina won this Cup with a time-tested formula: A hot goalie, key veterans and young legs in the form of players like Eric Staal and Andrew Ladd. Veteran Cory Stillman is the poster boy for this division having won the Cup in both Tampa and Carolina.
When you consider the rest of the division in Atlanta, Florida, Tampa and Washington, they each have varying pieces of the formula.
Fresh off a Cup, the Lightning elected to sign all their top forwards in Vince Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis and figured they'd learn to live without Nikolai Khabibulin, leaving their goaltending situation in question. The Bolts suffered without the 'Bulin Wall in net and he didn't do so well with his new team in Chicago, either.
Atlanta experienced goalie problems as well. Kari Lehtonen got hurt early in the season before helping the Thrashers make a desperate bid for the final playoff spot in the East. They fell just one victory or two points short. If the Thrashers can combine regular goaltending with the firepower of Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk and Peter Bondra, this team has the kind of jump-up-the-standings potential we witnessed in Buffalo and Carolina this season.
Florida owns a money goaltender in Roberto Luongo. He's become such an asset that many wonder if the Panthers are better off dealing him for a package of players. History has shown that dealing a guy who easily turns aside 40 or 50 shots a night, can be a mistake later on when the shot totals are down to more reasonable levels when the club finally improves.
The Panthers have been stockpiling young talent like Nathan Horton and Jay Bouwmeester. What they need is an injection of experience. Carolina used Rod Brind'Amour, Glen Wesley, Doug Weight and Stillman to counterbalance the youth. Florida can easily follow a similar path.
Washington has a terrific veteran goaltender in Olaf Kolzig. But we all know what the Caps really have -- the Human Highlight Reel in Alexander Ovechkin. The Caps have drafted well the past couple of years and their farm club in Hershey just won the AHL championship.
The Caps have a few more years and a few more Drafts to go before they can say they are on par with an Atlanta, but they are certainly on the right track. Caps fans probably don't want to hear this, but you can almost predict the Caps rising up at about the same time as their arch-nemesis the Pittsburgh Penguins.
What does this all mean, this Southeast Division dominance?
For one, the Cup better learn to use sunscreen because it's going to be spending more time in the Cotton Belt.
It also means that the Eastern Conference is about to become a whole lot tighter. Teams like the Bruins, Devils, Islanders and Maple Leafs will have to work feverishly to restock their farm clubs while creatively supporting the four or five players that make up their core.
As an aside: I'm not sure if I should congratulate or console former fans of the Hartford Whalers. From the stories I've read some of the folks didn't transfer their loyalties to North Carolina. Others did. So, congrats and er, sorry.
At least Hartford didn't have to suffer like Quebec City. The Avs won the Cup their first year in Colorado and that, in my opinion, has to be one toughest twists of fate that I've seen in sports.
And now, we must turn to Wayne Gretzky, a man with World Hockey Association genes in his blood. It's up to him to help the last WHA team win a Cup. The Phoenix Coyotes, formerly the Winnipeg Jets, are the only WHA merger team to have not gone to the Final. But hey, they're in the Southwest, so maybe the hockey gods will get their directions mixed up.