Despite the fact that two of the last four Stanley Cup winners have come from the Southeast Division, teams residing in that sector of the Eastern Conference haven’t exactly instilled fear into the rest of the League in recent seasons.
Over the past two seasons, a combined three Southeast Division teams have qualified for the playoffs – the Atlanta Thrashers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. All three were first-round casualties, including the 2007-08 Caps, who finished third in the East before bowing to the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers in seven games.
Even with Washington’s 94-point outburst that led to its first division title in six seasons, the Southeast averaged a combined 83.6 points, its lowest total in three seasons. There’s reason to believe, however, that the Southeast might be the most improved division in 2008-09 and perhaps have as many as three teams with at least 90 points, as was the case in 2005-06 when Carolina (112), Tampa Bay (92) and Atlanta (90) hit that mark.
The Southeast Division possesses the League’s most electrifying forward in Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, a respected defenseman in Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester and a former Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie in Carolina’s Cam Ward.
“You know what? One thing the players have learned from me, and something I’ve learned in all my years here, is I never want to put limits on anybody,’’ said Washington coach Bruce Boudreau. “The minute you put limits, players will just reach for that and won’t have the motivation to go past it. If I know Alex (Ovechkin), whatever he accomplished last year, he wants to do it one better this season.’’
That would be tough, but not impossible. Ovechkin, who signed a nine-year extension in January, lived up to the hype with career-highs of 65 goals and 112 points in 82 games last season. He also finished with a career-best plus-28 rating and accounted for 27.3 percent of Washington’s total offense while winning the Hart, Rocket Richard, Lester B. Pearson and Art Ross trophies.
The division also is home to two of the League’s most promising rookies, center Steven Stamkos of the Lightning and defenseman Zach Bogosian of the Thrashers.
“Steven improved every game during the preseason,’’ said Lightning coach Barry Melrose, whose team will feature at least eight new players, including Stamkos, among its top 18 skaters. “He’s making the better play offensively and getting better defensively. He’s getting comfortable playing against men instead of boys.’’
Bogosian was impressive during Atlanta’s second-place showing at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in September.
“Zach was just a machine,’’ said Jeff Pyle, who coaches Atlanta’s ECHL affiliate, the Gwinnett Gladiators, and served as an assistant coach in Traverse City. “He’s a great kid who wants to be out there for 60 minutes. You can’t really measure heart and commitment and I just think he’s going to keep getting better. When you’re motivated, you want to prove yourself every day, and that’s the way Zach is. He’s never content with his game and, while I think he understands he’s a good player, here’s that carrot dangling out there in front of him and he’s determined to go after it. That’s almost a lost art for some of these kids today, so it’s something great to see.’’
Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell expects the Southeast to be much improved from top to bottom.
“Every team has improved,’’ Waddell said. “I think Washington, over the second half of last year, showed what they are all about and I feel they’ll be extremely powerful right from the start of the season. Florida and Tampa Bay have upgraded their hockey clubs and Carolina has added some quality players to their team and they’re getting back Rod Brind’Amour, which will be a huge boost for them. I think our division is going to be as tough as it’s been since we’ve been in the League (eight seasons). Every night it’ll be a battle to pick up points.’’
As for his club, which finished with the second-fewest points in the Eastern Conference in 2007-08, Waddell has high hopes. The club spent much of the summer retooling a defense that yielded a League-high 3.24 goals per game last season, adding puck-moving blueliners Ron Hainsey and Mathieu Schneider.
“We’ve got some guys we’re hoping will give us a big boost, but we’re also counting on young guys (Bogosian) to play key roles on the team,’’ Waddell said. “I think last year the goaltending was solid, and in the second half of the year Kari (Lehtonen) really took a step forward and we need him to keep going strong. Let’s face it – we have to cut our goals-against down and we need goaltending to do that. So our roster is younger, but it’s also exciting in a lot of ways.’’
The carrot also is dangling out there for the Panthers, who haven’t qualified for the playoffs in seven seasons. Defensemen Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton and Bryan McCabe were brought in to upgrade the defense, which has general manager Jacques Martin optimistic.
“I really believe our defense is much stronger, much better at moving the puck, but also much more physical and nasty to play against versus last year,’’ Martin said. “We definitely have more experience back there and the fact (goalie) Tomas (Vokoun) has been here a year now, and Craig Anderson is here, makes our goaltending very solid.’’
Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier, whose team failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in five seasons in 2007-08, also feels the Southeast will be much improved.
“It’s going to be exciting and I think, in some ways, we’re starting to build some rivalries, which is good,’’ Lecavalier said. “There was a lot of movement and stockpiling of good defensemen within the division during the offseason. As far as our team goes, I almost feel like an outsider with the number of new faces in the locker room, but I know that should only make it good for us.’’
Carolina center Eric Staal, whose team hasn’t earned a postseason berth since winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-06, agrees with Lecavalier.
“There are a lot of great players in our division, a lot of offensive-minded players,’’ Staal said. “It’s a different kind of game and I feel it’s going to be exciting not only for the fans but the players competing night-in and night-out against Lecavalier, (Martin) St. Louis, Ovechkin and (Florida’s) Nathan Horton. It’s fun to play against those guys and it was amazing to see what Tampa did this offseason. Hopefully for us, we’ll get back to the top of the division where we should be.’’
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.