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Nowhere to go but up

Jets, Southeast Division rivals seek improved performance this season

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The numbers bear it out -- the NHL's Southeast Division was the poorest-performing, least-respected of the lot last season. Had the league not guaranteed each division winner a playoff spot, by points the Southeast came the closest to having no participants, though in the end the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals limped into the post-season.

In order of their overall low finish, here's a team-by-team look at the prospects ahead for all five clubs in the 2013 bid to earn back some of that respect. There's nowhere to go but up.

 

Florida Panthers

 

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: The two men in charge of the Panthers rebuild -- GM Dale Tallon and head coach Kevin Dineen -- get big slaps on the back for getting the walls up in a hurry, but also ensuring the foundation is solid. The Panthers have arguably the best collection of prospects in the NHL, including centre Jonathan Huberdeau, Alex Petrovic, Rocco Grimaldi and Oakbank's Quinton Howden, and that makes Dineen's job of pushing his vets easier, knowing some young guns are about to push for regular work. Huberdeau may centre Florida's second line along with newcomer Peter Mueller.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN: They'll raise a Southeast Division champions banner to the rafters at Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise, but there is still convincing to be done around the rest of the NHL. The Panthers got huge years out of the likes of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg and good work from their goaltending duo of Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore. But the question now is whether they can repeat. The Panthers were the third seed in the East by virtue of capturing the division, but were just two points out of eighth. Losing Jason Garrison to Vancouver -- he provided 16 goals, nine on the power play -- leaves a gaping hole and when a club is inviting Andrei Kostitsyn and Alex Kovalev to camp to provide some offence, alarm bells should be clanging.

 

Washington Capitals

 

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: After a painful season with a coach-firing (Bruce Boudreau) and a seemingly square coach (Dale Hunter) trying to fit into a round hole (his team), the Caps figured things out just in time to barely squeeze into the post-season and make a bit of noise, dumping Boston out of the first round in a Game 7 OT thriller. Hunter opted out of the future, bringing new coach Adam Oates behind the bench, seemingly a better fit for what should be a dynamic team. Factor in a pair of promising young goalies in Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby and there may be a better level of comfort for the Caps to go where many thought they should have gone a year ago.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN: Volatile and pouty or focused and productive -- the fact there's even some doubt with star Alex Ovechkin can't help the Caps. Ovechkin may return to better form, but the only apparent improvement in the roster seems to be swapping out enigmatic scorer Alex Semin for Mike Ribeiro in a draft-day trade. Add a little lockout toxicity concerning defenceman Roman Hamrlik and you've got a few question marks in D.C.

 

Tampa Bay Lightning

 

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Some of the key pieces of a team that pushed eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston to a Game 7 in 2010-11 remain intact, including last year's 60-goal man, Steven Stamkos, plus Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier. But GM Steve Yzerman was also quick to move as some warts were exposed during last year's disappointment. The goaltending was upgraded, albeit on paper only, with the addition of 6-6 Swede Anders Lindback from Nashville. As well, both Matt Carle and Sami Salo were added in free agency while Brian Lee, who came over from Ottawa late last season, was solid after moving south.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN: Lindback may fill a lot of the net physically, but he hardly got his jersey sweaty backing up Pekka Rinne in Nashville. He's 16-13-2 over parts of the last two seasons and a huge question mark. To that end, consider this: Since winning the Cup in 2004, the Bolts have used 18 different goalies -- most in the NHL. Some of the key parts counted on here, namely St. Louis (37), Lecavalier (32), Matthias Ohlund (36) and Ryan Malone (33), Eric Brewer (33) and Salo (38) are greying at the temples.

 

Winnipeg Jets

 

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Well, games, NHL games, are reason enough for most folks in Winnipeg these days, as the honeymoon for the league's return rages on. After a year of introduction and love at first sight, the relationship will gradually take on new layers. One this year will be additions of size at forward, which surely can't hurt the team's outlook. Centre Olli Jokinen, who can play top-six minutes and has learned to be a better all-around player, is the most significant addition. Veteran Alexei Ponikarovksy also joins the forward crew. The Jets got mileage out of leading point-getter Blake Wheeler and goal scorer Evander Kane last season and there is hope for more where that came from.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN: If the Jets are unable to progress, their weakest link certainly appears to be defensive in nature. The conference's fourth-worst team in goals against has changed barely at all in the back end, with the same No. 1 goalie, Ondrej Pavelec, and a defence corps that is without emerging star Zach Bogosian for some time in 2013. New faces on Winnipeg's blue-line are limited journeymen like Derek Meech and Grant Clitsome and fresh faces Paul Postma and Zach Redmond. Two of those will have to play every night to start. The group has a lot to prove and may be so motivated but the assignment is daunting.

 

Carolina Hurricanes

 

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: The Canes made one of the biggest splashes in the off-season, landing centre Jordan Staal from Pittsburgh in a deal that sent Brandon Sutter to the Pens. He'll go from being lost in the shadows of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to centring Carolina's top line that might feature his brother Eric on the left side. Cam Ward has emerged to become one of the NHL's elite netminders and after replacing Paul Maurice with Kirk Muller, Carolina -- who lost five of its first six after the coaching change -- played with a lot more spark in the latter parts of last season. In the Staal brothers, 2010-11 rookie of the year Jeff Skinner, Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose and the talented but enigmatic Alex Semin, who comes via Washington in free agency, the Hurricanes have a collection of front-line talent that ranks among the NHL's best.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN: The special teams were subpar last year with the power play ranking 18th and the penalty kill 22nd. And after Ward, who has fought injuries in the past, the backup job falls to Justin Peters. But this is a team that has missed the playoffs for three straight years and unless it can improve on its goals against -- the Canes were 25th last year -- they may still be on the outside when the post-season begins.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2013 C3

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