The NHL's Southeast Division has long been the butt of jokes around the league, but the Carolina Hurricanes are suddenly contenders in the Eastern Conference and perhaps the league.
The Tampa Bay Lightning sport perhaps the best offensive talent in the entire league, the Florida Panthers took the Eastern champion Devils to overtime in Game 7 a year ago, Evander Kane is nothing to sneeze at in Winnipeg, and oh, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Co. still reign in the Nation's Capital.
2011-12: (33-33-16) The Hurricanes showed flashes, but a massively slow start led to a coaching change, and the resulting hole was too big for Carolina to dig out of.
Offseason changes: Carolina made a big splash at the NHL Draft, dealing for Pittsburgh center Jordan Staal. He'll pair with brother Eric to strengthen the Hurricanes' top six. Jordan wasn't cheap, as he cost Carolina a first-round pick and young center Brandon Sutter. But the trade and resulting contract extension make the Staal brothers the cornerstones of Carolina's forward group. The addition of mercurial winger Alexander Semin -- seemingly unwanted by practically the entire NHL after his deal in Washington expired -- should help the scoring balance, assuming he's coming to play in Raleigh.
Strengths: Jordan and Eric Staal make Carolina strong up the middle. Look out for Eric, who had a terrible first half, but was over a point per game and a plus player after the All-Star break. A healthy Jeff Skinner is a huge difference-maker up front. If you're a believer in Semin's talent, perhaps a change of scenery can make a difference. His contract year in Washington wasn't exactly overwhelming. Justin Faulk should be ready to emerge as one of the league's top young blue-liners.
Weaknesses: After scoring 30 goals in the 2009-10 season, Jussi Jokinen has slipped to 19 the next season, and 12 last year. Carolina doesn't have enough forward depth or wing scoring to overcome another drop-off in his production. Faulk was minus-16 and Joni Pitkanen minus-15 in 96 combined games. That won't get it done. Cam Ward is still good, but if the defensive zone play isn't more consistent, it won't matter.
2011-12: (38-26-18) Quick, who won the Southeast Division last year? Yeah, the Panthers did. Even better for the Panthers is the fact that there is no reason to think they can't do it again. This team -- at least on paper -- appears to be better than the one that found a way to claim the crown a year ago.
Offseason changes: The most significant loss is defenseman Jason Garrison, who parlayed his 16-goal season to a free-agent deal with Vancouver. The Panthers made what could be a sneaky-good signing by bringing in forward Peter Mueller. The 24-year-old has seen his career practically destroyed by concussions, but all is well so far in South Florida. If he can stay healthy, he could make a serious impact.
Strengths: The Panthers have some forward depth. Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss are the lead dogs, but guys like Mueller and Kris Versteeg can produce. Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski aren't getting any younger, but Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson should be ready for more minutes.
Weaknesses: Did I mention Campbell and Jovanovski aren't getting any younger? Neither is goalie Jose Theodore, who had himself a pretty strong run last year. Expect to see Scott Clemmensen play more if necessary. The Panthers won a lot of close games last year, and that worm could turn this year if they don't score more.
2011-12: (38-36-8) You may have heard about Steven Stamkos scoring 60 goals. Well, not much else really happened with this Lightning team. The defense was too leaky for it to consistently win games and make another run to the playoffs.
Offseason changes: General manager Steve Yzerman tried to address the goaltending issues that plagued his squad last year, acquiring Anders Lindback from Nashville. Mathieu Garon is back, but Lindback should be the No. 1 goalie for the Lightning. Yzerman also signed defensemen Matt Carle and Sami Salo, and the addition of Benoit Pouliot should bring more size and depth to the wing.
Strengths: Well, Stamkos. Oh, and Martin St. Louis proved last year he can still go. Teddy Purcell emerged with 24 goals, which helped take some of the defensive pressure off Stamkos, not that he couldn't score anyway. I think Vincent Lecavalier could have a strong season with the 48-game run. Carle and Salo, along with Lindback, should make Tampa stronger in the back.
Weaknesses: The Lightning aren't terribly deep up front, especially if Lecavalier can't stay healthy. They are also in trouble if Lindback shows he isn't ready to be a No. 1 goalie. More is needed out of guys like Victor Hedman, or the Carle signing will be nothing but a band-aid.
2011-12: (42-32-8) An early-season coaching change brought a change of style, as Dale Hunter put the clamps down on opponents. The price? His system wasn't exactly fun for Alex Ovechkin to play in. The captain scored "only" 65 points and saw a precipitous drop in minutes, especially in the playoffs.
Offseason changes: For starters, Adam Oates takes over as head coach, bringing in a system that -- at least on the surface -- would be more Ovechkin-friendly. The most significant offseason addition on the ice could be forward Mike Ribeiro, acquired from Dallas. Ribeiro is 32, but he still carries 50-60 point ability, and there's no reason to think his point total won't plateau or perhaps increase. The Stars were a non-factor on the power play last year, and Ribeiro should be able to get some point production on the man advantage with guys like Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom (if healthy) around.
Strengths: Ovechkin should thrive in Oates' system. Backstrom says he's good to go, and that's big for this team's strength up the middle. The Capitals have plenty of hard-working, two-way guys up front, and I'm looking for Mike Green and John Carlson to put up good numbers.
Weaknesses: The Capitals don't have much wing scoring outside of Ovechkin now that Semin has moved on to Carolina. Marcus Johansson seems to have the inside track to a top line spot with Ovechkin and Backstrom. There are coaches who believe that two-thirds of a line is enough to make the line elite, a theory that could be tested with the Capitals. Oates needs to find a consistent No. 1 goaltender, too.
2011-12: (37-35-10) In the first season of the NHL's return to Winnipeg, the Jets had a great home-ice advantage, were generally inept on the road, and couldn't find enough consistency in their own zone to eek into the playoffs.
Offseason changes: The Jets didn't do much, adding big veteran center Olli Jokinen and veteran Alexei Ponikarovsky in free agency. After some grumbling about potentially wanting out, forward Evander Kane inked a long-term deal.
Strengths: Kane is the big scorer, and the Jets have some complimentary pieces in place with guys like Ponikarovsky (solid in the playoffs last year for New Jersey), Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, and Bryan Little. Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian key the blue line and are big and strong.
Weaknesses: The Jets don't figure to be too much better in goal, with the tandem of Ondrej Pavelec and Al Montoya not rating much better than it did with Pavelec and Chris Mason last year. To contend for a playoff spot, especially in a short season, the goaltending has to be good. Winnipeg also must find a way to win on the road.
Predicted order of finish: Capitals, Hurricanes, Panthers, Lightning, Jets.