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The days of the Southeast division being the NHL's worst may be numbered

Jun 27, 2010, 4:30 PM EDT

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 2-yzerman.jpgLet’s face the facts … the Southeast division has been a bad joke for years. Each season, the Washington Capitals seem to end any doubt about its division title winner by, what, November? Even though they’ve won two Stanley Cups fairly recently, those Carolina and Tampa Bay teams fell apart in the blink of an eye. The 2009-10 season might be the lowest point for the division, as they only managed to send one team to the playoffs.

If a summer of bold moves and dramatic change is any indication, though, the days of the Capitals sleepwalking through the Southeast may be numbered.

While the Carolina Hurricanes largely lay dormant or even regress, the Capitals’ three other divisional roommates have been making some big changes in the front office as well as on the ice.

The Tampa Bay Lightning hired hockey legend Steve Yzerman to be their GM and named the highly touted Guy Boucher as their coach. Dale Tallon is already dramatically revamping the wayward Florida Panthers. Finally, the Atlanta Thrashers are going in a new direction with GM Rick Dudley, eschewing the offense-laden Ilya Kovalchuk days in favor of size, grit and defense.

Now, there’s no guarantee these gambles will pay off. Will the surprisingly star-packed Lightning get their act together or continue to underachieve? Florida had three first round, second round and fourth round draft picks, but their current roster boasts lateral moves at best. Atlanta paid quite the ransom to land flighty former Chicago Blackhawk Dustin Byfuglien, but they still lack answers in net and regarding high-end talent. It’s quite possible that all three teams will take a year – maybe a few – to get out of the hockey outhouse.

Either way, these teams are now active movers and shakers in the NHL after years of irrelevance, incompetence and general indifference. One of these days, they might even make the Capitals break a sweat.

  1. Kubota - Jun 27, 2010 at 6:40 PM

    I wouldn’t completely agree that the Carolina Hurricanes have regressed. Raleigh is a solid market (despite what those uppity folk from southern Ontario might think) with a dedicated season ticket holder base that will show up night in and night out regardless (which Atlanta, Tampa and Florida haven’t been able to accomplish yet) but until the team can grow that base they’re going to be a small market club that will have to lay close to the salary floor. However, I feel fortunate in that the ownership is smart and wont spend themselves into bankruptcy, we wont be picking up any big names on the free agent market, but Chicago showed everybody that you can build through the draft, and that’s how Carolina is going to try and get it done.

  2. Laura - Jun 27, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    I agree with you, James. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I do think that there will be a shift in the next season or two – a more palpable shift than when the Bolts or Canes won the Cup. This is more of a division-wide momentum pickup. The new GMs and coaches in the cities are realizing that they need to step up to be viable, both fan wise and hockey wise. Apparently that’s coming from the ownership groups from these teams – surprisingly the Atlanta Spirit are taking a “win now” attitude and have told Dudley as much. I think they’re tired of losing $30 million a year, and I guess they’ve given up on the primadonnas who play for the Atlanta Hawks.
    The team’s made some smart drafting decisions, has begun to address major problems even before free agency begins (some might say we addressed our two largest problems – the GM and the coaching staff – right after the season ended), and should be able to be a bigger pest this year to playoff squads than we were last season. I’m not going to go all overboard and get all overly optimistic, because I’ve kind of learned my lesson about that, but I will say that this season the SE Division should be fun to watch, and shouldn’t be written off that easily.

  3. Josh - Jun 27, 2010 at 8:35 PM

    The Southeast Division may be the “worst” in hockey over the last three years or so, but this is completely overblown. You may recall (or maybe not) that Sports Illustrated actually advocated contracting the Chicago Blackhawks what? ten years ago, since Detroit was sleepwalking through the Central each and every year and Columbus was (and still is) a total joke, St. Louis was dismal, Nashville was bad, and the ‘Hawks were not only pathetic, they were drawing less than 10,000 fans at home night-in and night-out and were widely regarded as the worst-run franchise in pro sports. Now, the Atlanta Thrashers might be in the conversation these days, but even at its worst, the SE is no Central Division of yore. That group was an utter joke except for Detroit, so you can save the whole “the SE is terrible and always has been!” thing. SE teams have done pretty well in the “new” NHL which, remember, is only 5 seasons old. Moreover, while Washington made the playoffs this year, Carolina, Atlanta, and Tampa were all within 8 points of the 8th spot, higher than the storied Rangers, Islanders, and Leafs, in most cases. And that’s with Carolina’s franchise goalie being hurt a large part of the year and Atlanta in full-on rebuild mode. Finally, far from lying dormant and regressing, Carolina has been favored to win that division two of the last three years, but Rod Brind’Amour got old overnight, Cam Ward wasn’t ready to start 70 games a season, Laviolette lost the locker room, and Jack Johnson wouldn’t leave college for Raleigh. It wasn’t for lack of trying or strategy in the front office. Furthermore, the Canes have a bumper crop of developed young players ready to step in this year – not something you get by sitting back and letting the franchise go to seed. So, you’re just plain wrong about that. Besides, if GM Jim Rutherford was so slack, how did he get Sergei Samsonov (and resurrect his career), Tuomo Ruutu, Erik Cole (again), Joni Pitkanen, Jared Staal, Tim Gleason…the list of shrewd signings and trades that have unquestionably improved the team goes on. The more I think about it, the more I believe the swipe at Carolina came from total ignorance more than any real knowledge about the franchise! Oh, and if you think Yzerman is so great, how about Ron Francis behind the Canes bench? Or hadn’t you noticed.

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