The Florida Panthers held off Washington to earn the first Southeast Division title won by a team other than the Capitals for the first time in five seasons.
While it was an impressive achievement for the Panthers, it was also a surprise. The best years for the franchise in South Florida are likely still to come, as the Panthers have amassed one of the finest collections of prospects in the NHL and some of them should provide an extra boost as early as next season.
This division has belonged to the Capitals for a while, but they have work to do to prevent a "changing of the guard." Tampa Bay gave Washington a strong run for the division title in 2010-11 and then the Lightning swept the Capitals out of the playoffs in the second round.
Many of the key players involved in Tampa Bay's run to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final are still in place, and general manager Steve Yzerman could have the Lightning back among the contenders in the Eastern Conference after a disappointing step backwards this past season.
Both Carolina and Winnipeg have some exciting young players already with the parent club and near ready to join it. The Capitals once held the distinction of having not only the best NHL roster but also the best farm system in the Southeast as well.
That is no longer the case, and GM George McPhee has work to do this summer to improve the Capitals both now and for the future. Thanks to a deft trade last summer and his team's disappointing season, McPhee has a pair of picks in the top 16 of the draft next week in Pittsburgh at his disposal.
Here is a look at the five Southeast Division teams as they prepare for the draft:
(No. 8 overall)
The six seasons since the Hurricanes reached the pinnacle of the NHL as champions have included a trip to conference finals, but also only one playoff appearance. Carolina has missed out on the last day twice, but that offers little solace.
A slow start (8-13-4) cost coach Paul Maurice his job, and the Hurricanes lost eight of 10 at the start of Kirk Muller's tenure. From that point forward, the Hurricanes stabilized with Muller's influence. Carolina finished 23-14-10 -- a 97-point pace -- but for the second straight season a slow start sabotaged the Hurricanes.
Strengths: Defenseman Jamie McBain was a bright spot as a rookie two seasons ago and Justin Faulk will likely finish somewhere in the top seven or eight of the Calder Trophy voting. Put those two with 2011 first-round pick Ryan Murphy and Hobey Baker finalist Brian Dumoulin, and the blueline looks bright for the Hurricanes. Dumoulin left Boston College early to sign with Carolina, and don't be surprised if Murphy pushes for a job in training camp.
Weaknesses: Zac Dalpe did not help the Hurricanes as much as expected last season, but he and 2011 second-round pick Victor Rask look like the only potential impact forwards in the system that could help Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner. While Cam Ward should be in net for the foreseeable future, a potential young understudy in Mike Murphy decided to play in Russia next season.
Biggest need: Expect the Hurricanes to go forward-heavy in the opening rounds, but the same could have been said last summer and Rutherford was quite happy to scoop up Ryan Murphy when he lasted longer than most projections.
(No. 9 overall)
The first year back in Winnipeg was a huge success off the ice, and the Jets stayed in the playoff race for much of the season. MTS Centre provided a significant home-ice advantage, but the team's play away from home left plenty to be desired.
Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and captain Andrew Ladd were consistent scoring options, and Ondrej Pavelec was a workhorse in net for the Jets. Still, it was a fifth straight season without a playoff berth for a franchise that has only one (and no postseason victories) in its 12 seasons.
The move to Winnipeg also meant wholesale changes in the front office and with the coaching staff. There is likely to be more patience preached in Year Two as GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has plenty of work to do to mold the Jets into a consistent contender.
Strengths: Kane can be a top-line power forward to build around, and could be paired with 2011 top pick Mark Scheifele in the near future. Bryan Little and Alexander Burmistrov are young and could be consistent top-six forwards in the future as well.
Weaknesses: Zach Bogosian has not fulfilled his vast potential, but will still only be 22 years old next season. The Jets could use a No. 1-type defenseman to ease some of the minutes for offensive-minded Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom. Pavelec is a restricted free agent who reportedly has suitors in Russia, and there would be no clear succession plan in goal if he left. Frederik Petterson-Wentzel had a decent season as a backup in the Swedish Elite League, but he'll only be 21 next season and needs more game experience.
Biggest need: The Jets aren't in a position to target a specific area of need -- they need young talent everywhere on the ice. Given their spot in the first round, one of the many talented defensemen would make sense unless one of the high-end forwards drops.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
(No. 10 overall, No. 19 from Detroit)
After a great run to Game 7 of the conference finals in 2011, the Lightning were besieged by injuries to an already thin defense corps and Dwayne Roloson was unable to maintain his superb form from the previous postseason in 2011-12. There was a bit of a late-season charge, but the Lightning missed the playoffs in the second year of the Steve Yzerman/Guy Boucher era.
Steven Stamkos led the League in goals and cemented his place among the elite talents in the sport. The top forwards around him are, save for Teddy Purcell, aging and the Lightning are going to need an infusion of youth and talent both at forward and on defense.
Strengths: In a pair of Russians from the 2011 draft, Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov, Brett Connolly and Richard Panik, there is a collection of potential impact forwards to fill in around Stamkos and Purcell. Riku Helenius, Jaroslav Janus and Dustin Tokarski provide depth in net, but the future (and present) for the position likely belongs to Anders Lindback after Tampa Bay acquired him from Nashville on Friday.
Weaknesses: Victor Hedman is still only going to be 22 next season, but the Lightning could use another young, high-end defenseman or two. Radko Gudas was solid for the Admirals during their title run, but depth is thin both at the NHL level and in the minors on the blue line.
Biggest need: Finding someone to pair with Hedman for the foreseeable future would seem to be a solid goal with the No. 10 pick, and picking defensemen with both first-round picks could mean a big boost at the position in the future.
Possible targets: Jacob Trouba, D, USA U-18 (USHL), Morgan Reilly, D, Moose Jaw (WHL), Olli Maata, D, London (OHL)
(No. 11 overall from Colorado, No. 16)
It was a tumultuous season in Washington. The Capitals entered the campaign emboldened by several offseason acquisitions and raced to a 7-0-0 start. They lost 10 of the next 15, and coach Bruce Boudreau was out, replaced by former Capitals captain Dale Hunter.
The team's play became more conservative with Hunter, and while Washington missed its fifth straight division title by two points, the Capitals also barely made the playoffs and saw a 15-point drop from the previous campaign (and 29 shy of their Presidents' Trophy total from two seasons ago).
2012 NHL DRAFT
The best-ever draft picks, from 1 to 30By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist
Who was the best-ever No. 1 draft pick? What about the best fourth pick? Or the 18th? NHL.com weighs in with our opinion of the best ever, No. 1 to No. 30. READ MORE ›
Washington upset the defending champion Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round and pushed the top seeded New York Rangers to seven before being knocked out. Hunter's use of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin garnered plenty of attention, but he decided not to return as coach for a full season.
Strengths: Goaltender Braden Holtby was the breakout star for Washington in the postseason, and the combination of he and Michal Neuvirth gives the Capitals a young, cheap goaltending tandem. John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov and possibly Patrick Wey should form a strong nucleus on defense for several years.
Weaknesses: The Capitals have been an offensive juggernaut in recent seasons, but there isn't a lot of help in the pipeline in the near future. Stan Galiev or Cody Eakin could push for a full-time role this coming season, and the Capitals would welcome another step forward in development from Marcus Johansson. The big name is Evgeni Kuznetsov, and he might be the best player in the world not in the NHL -- but when, or if, he's coming to the League remains to be seen. The Capitals are not counting on him for next season, and he reportedly signed a new two-year deal with his KHL club recently.
Biggest need: McPhee always stresses taking the best player -- if one of the top guys starts sliding (like Kuznetsov did two years ago), don't be surprised if he ends up in D.C. -- and the Washington table could be one to watch on draft day with the Nos. 11 and 16 picks. The organization's search for another center to play behind Nicklas Backstrom continues, but the Capitals aren't exactly flush with wings who have top-six potential, either.
(No. 23 overall)
When GM Dale Tallon had a yard sale before the 2011 trade deadline, it looked like the Panthers were about to start another rebuilding process, but as it turned out it was more about creative reloading. Tallon cleared out a ton of salary cap space, and then went about reshaping his roster through trades and free agency. Add in a new coach in Kevin Dineen and some strong performances from guys previously cast as supporting characters, and the Panthers improved to 94 points in a division-winning campaign in 2011-12.
This was a little bit ahead of schedule, even if the Panthers thought they had a chance to contend if everything broke right. The talent on the Florida roster will improve in the next couple of seasons, even if Tallon isn't nearly as active as he was last offseason.
The offshoot of hoarding draft picks (and finally putting those selections to good use after years of poor choices) is a bright future in South Florida -- the Panthers served notice this past season, and they are likely to be even better in coming campaigns.
Strengths: Quite simply, one of the deepest collections of young talent in the NHL, with star potential at every position. The core guys are likely to be forward Jonathan Huberdeau, defenseman Erik Gudbranson and goaltender Jacob Markstrom. There is depth behind them as well. Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Keaton Ellerby, Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic could form the defensive backbone, while guys like Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Drew Shore, Vincent Trochek, Rocco Grimaldi and John McFarland could fill in roles behind Huberdeau up front. The Panthers don't need all of these guys to pan out, and Tallon could use some of them to fill in specific holes through trades.
Weaknesses: Not a lot, but there might not be a truly dynamic offensive defenseman in the system, though Gudbranson or Kulikov might still develop into one. None of their best seven or eight forward prospects profile as a left wing, but all of those guys aren't going to stay at center, either.
Biggest need: The Panthers have had nine top-10 picks in the past 11 years, so they're not accustomed to picking in the 20s, but Tallon has some experience with it. In a draft expected to be flush with impact defensemen, finding one that can provide some offensive punch in the future wouldn't be a bad idea.