The biggest story of the 2008-09 season might be that the Southeast Division no longer is the pushover of the Eastern Conference.
Following a summer of intriguing draft picks, free-agent pickups, new coaching hires and key re-signings, look for the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers to create quite a stir within the East this season.
While each team has their share of star players, there are a few others who could determine the fate of their respective clubs. Here's one player to watch from each Southeast Division club who could become an influential component in a postseason run.
Kari Lehtonen, Atlanta Thrashers -- Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell felt the revamping of his team's defense wouldn't have been complete without the assurance his record-breaking goalie was back in the mix, and signed him to a one-year deal in July.
The 24-year-old Lehtonen, the second pick in the 2002 Entry Draft, is the Thrashers' all-time leader in games played (158), wins (75), shutouts (11) and save percentage (.913). Lehtonen completed his third full season in 2007-08 with a 17-22-5 record, a career-high four shutouts, a 2.90 goals-against average and franchise-record .916 save percentage.
"It was my goal all summer to get a deal done and it was great to finally reach an agreement, so this way everything is in order from the start of training camp," Lehtonen told NHL.com. "I'm looking forward to playing for John Anderson since he was my coach for two years in Chicago (in the American Hockey League). We had great success there and I'm very excited that he's been given a chance to prove his ability on this level."
Lehtonen's new contract came after Waddell signed free agent defenseman Ron Hainsey to a five-year deal and drafted Zach Bogosian third at the 2008 Entry Draft, all in an attempt to retool a defense that yielded a League-high 3.24 goals a game last season.
Joni Pitkanen, Carolina Hurricanes -- Pitkanen is regarded as a power-play specialist with an uncanny ability to make a good first pass off the transition, and the Hurricanes hope Pitkanen will be able to transform the back end into a more mobile unit while playing alongside offensive-defenseman Joe Corvo. Pitkanen was acquired in a summer trade with the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for forward Erik Cole.
Pitkanen had 8 goals and 26 points in 63 games in 2007-08 to rank second among Oilers defensemen in scoring. He averaged 24:07 in ice time per game, ranking second among Oilers skaters, and No. 22 among all NHL defensemen. He's played in 269 career NHL regular-season games with Philadelphia and Edmonton, scoring 33 goals and 142 points, including 64 points on the power-play.
David Booth, Florida Panthers -- After turning some heads in 2007-08 after posting a career-high 22 goals, 40 points and a plus-13 rating in 73 games, look for Booth to take it one step further on Florida's second line, possibly as the left wing alongside Brett McLean and Richard Zednik.
Booth was drafted in the second round (No. 53) of the 2004 Entry Draft and recorded 10 points in 48 games in 2006-07. He should see more than the 16:10 of ice time per game he averaged last season, as well as continuing to see time with the power-play and penalty-killing units. Booth also was a physical force, as evidenced by his 113 hits (third on the team). He also ranked fourth on the club with 30 takeaways.
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning -- The expectations will be high on the top pick of the 2008 Entry Draft, but Stamkos appears to possess the demeanor and determination to make an impact in his initial season with the Lightning.
"I think sticking in the NHL is the biggest goal of mine right now," Stamkos said. "It's one thing to go to training camp and get a sniff of the NHL, but it's another to stay a full season. If I'm able to do that, I'm definitely going to have greater expectations for myself to produce. I'm known as an offensive player and I definitely want to put up some reasonable numbers. You look at Patrick Kane (Chicago), Sam Gagner (Edmonton) and Jonathan Toews (Chicago) and how they were able to step in and put up some pretty good numbers in their first seasons. Hopefully I can follow in their footsteps."
Stamkos finished fifth in the Ontario Hockey League with 105 points for the Sarnia Sting. Despite a 6-foot, 176-pound frame, his rare combination of skill and speed make Stamkos a good candidate for second-line duty.
Jose Theodore, Washington Capitals -- The Caps signed the 31-year-old goalie to a two-year deal in July.
After failing to re-sign unrestricted free agent goaltender Cristobal Huet, who joined Chicago, Capitals General Manager George McPhee turned to Theodore. While he'll have some big skates to fill, as Huet posted an 11-2 record to close the regular season after joining the Caps in February, McPhee is confident Theodore has the goods.
Theodore started 20 of the Avalanche's final 21 games and helped Colorado earn a Stanley Cup Playoff berth behind a 2.31 goals-against average over that span. Theodore finished 28-21-3 with three shutouts, a 2.44 GAA and .910 save percentage last season. In his final 18 starts, he went 12-4-1 with two shutouts, a 2.38 GAA and .917 save percentage.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.