Just six more days till the Caps open their regular season against the Bruins up in Boston and counting. I missed the Capitals Convention today. I had a ticket but I needed to work since I'll be going out to Long Beach, CA to meet up with "wingman" while his ship is in port the next three days. I wanted to go to get some more autographs from the Caps of yesteryear's but such was not to be.
I'm thinking more and more about the upcoming season. Tom has the tickets to tomorrow's pre-season finale against the Rangers, but I'll be at the home opener next Saturday and I am psyched. As I look at the season ahead, I'm starting to wonder about a couple of things, perhaps for example I need to rethink my thoughts about the Southeast Division. I was thinking the SE Division would go: 1) Caps, 2) 'Canes, 3) Panthers, 4) Thrashers, and 5) 'Bolts but then Tampa Bay went and made some great moves, IMO, this off season and the late pickup of Alex Tanguay along with the stellar preseason play of 1st round draft choice Victor Hedman on top of the moves to strengthen the blue-line corps overall has me rethinking things - alot. If Lightning Goaltender Mike Smith stays healthy and can play in 55+ games well, Tampa Bay could well be back to form and a threat to anybody in the league on any given night. After last year's debacle that's saying something. I watched their pre-season game against Edmonton the other night on NHL Network and though they struggled with fatigue a little, that seemed totally understandable since it was their fourth game in four nights. The style of responsible hockey they generally played was clearly a team driven by Coach Rick Tochett. The Lightning start the season with a solid set of scoring capability in their top six forwards, a responsible maturing blue line corps and pretty good pair of solidly NHL caliber goaltenders. These guys are looking like they want to give the Caps and 'Canes a run for their money and try to be one of the 8 playoff teams from the Eastern Conference.
Florida's moves to back fill the departure of Jay-Bo haven't been earth shattering and it looks like the panthers are still looking to primarily build from within. I think that has been proven now to be the right general strategy for longer term NHL success and the Panthers have some excellent foundational players in Stephen Weiss, David Booth and Nathan Horton. Steven Reinprecht is a good off season pickup IMO, and the goaltending duo of Scott Clemmensen and Tomas Voukoun is probably the most reliably good duo in the division on face value. The only area the Panthers didn't upgrade or won't benefit from maturing in system folks is really the blueline. I really think the Panters should have gotten more for Jay Bouwmeester, after all he would have resigned with the Panthers before going to somewhere in Europe no doubt... In any case Florida will likely once again be a "bubble team." I expect them to play very solid, defensive hockey and they have a couple of guys who can hurt you by "putting the biscuit in the basket" as well. They start this season in a similar position to the way they started last season though 2 - 4 players away from being a solid playoff contender, but with the set of goaltenders they have, they will again likely flirt with the playoffs. For the sake of the general franchise health, I'm rooting for them.
Atlanta, what can you say, they made some good moves, moves probably prompted by trying to work towards being the team they really want to be and that their star, Team Captain, Ilya Kovalchuck wants them to be. Thankfully for us Caps fans though - our Russians remain better than their Russians. That said their off-season moves have been all solid moves in my opinion and their home grown talents and recent high draft choices are moving along nicely. They will no doubt be a better team, if not much better team then they were last season. The question mark for the Thrashers, IMO, remains their netminding. If Kari Lehtonen can settle in for a good run, Atlanta could also make a run for the playoffs and be an Eastern Conference "bubble team". If they make a similar improvement to the capabilities and level of their team next summer, they too could find themselves solid playoff contenders, but right now they are, again IMHO still 4 players away form that position.
Carolina didn't loose any ground as a team this off season IMO, they really didn't gain any though either. The Hurricanes are down to a roster of 25 players right now so they only have two more cuts to stabilize, they should come out of the gates faster than last season and that will likely make up for anything they loose in the way of standings points to the fact that when they face Tampa Bay and Atlanta for their 4 matches this season they'll be playing against an better team then they were last year. If the Hurricanes, who have the oldest roster in the Southeast Division, stay healthy and Cam Ward again shows his consistency and durability, they are likely to repeat, if not improve on, last seasons 97 point performance. So they'll likely make the playoffs again but they will be given a run for their money by Tampa Bay. If we believe the "stuff" NHL Commissioner Gary Buttman is selling about participation in the Olympics and it's general negative affect on the NHL regular season, an older team like Carolina, who will likely not have a disproportionate number of their players on National Team rosters in Vancouver, should benefit disproportionately from the Olympics break this February. If that's true, Carolina might even improve their regular season record and top 100 points, they were close to that last season.
So my revised projections for finishing positions and estimated point totals for the Southeast Division are:
1) Washington Capitals - 112 Points
2) Carolina Hurricanes - 99 points
3) Tampa Bay Lightning - 94 Points
4) Florida Panthers - 91 Points
5) Atlanta Thrashers - 90 Points.
I expect it to take 94 points to make the playoffs and whether Tampa Bay makes it or not will be a function of their record against the other likely non-Southeast division bubble teams in the Eastern Conference this season who I am picking to be: Toronto, Ottawa, and the Rangers. One thing is for sure though, if the Caps do finish with 110+ points, and Carolina finishes firmly in the playoffs and flirts with or just exceeds 100 points, and a third team from the division makes the playoffs in 2010, then the idea that the Southeastern Division is the weakest division in the NHL should finally die. The fact is if that were to happen the Southeastern Division would look pretty much like any of the stronger divisions from the 2008-2009, or the 2007 - 2008 seasons - they'd look very similar to the Atlantic Division from those years. What that means for Hockey in the Sunbelt is anybody's guess. But for us Washington Capitals fans and Season Ticket Holders it would mean 12 - 16 really good games every regular season. Who knows, the desired for (by Mr. Buttman) rivalries might even start to really develop and grow.
Anyway while I continue to be very bullish on the Capitals prospects this season, it's clear there won't be any free points for the taking in the division this season, IMHO.
LETS GO CAPS!!!