With the 2011-2012 season just over two months away, we're taking a division-by-division look, and handing out ratings in order to decide, which is the toughest division in the NHL. Today we finish the East Coast with the Southeast division...
Last year's winner: Washington Capitals
Teams that made the playoffs: Washington, Tampa Bay
Point differential between first and last: 35pts (Washington 107, Florida 72)
The Southeast will have a very unfamiliar look when it comes time for puck drop in early October. Primarily because the division will feature a new team, the Winnipeg Jets, and one team, the Florida Panthers, completely overhauled their roster. Even with the new faces that are coming into the division there are still the players, Alexander Ovechkin, Vincent Lecavalier, and Eric Stall, who have called the Southeast division home for the entirety of their career.
Last season, only the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning made it out of the division and into last season's playoffs, while the Carolina Hurricanes came up short failing to get the two points needed to get into the post season in their final game of the year. The Atlanta Thrashers saw their franchise pack up and move to the north, and the Florida Panthers finished another season in last place.
Washington has been the cream of the crop in the Southeast in recent history, winning the division the last four seasons. However there has been one downfall that seemed to be the Achilles heel of the Southeast powerhouse, goal tending. An issue that may have been solved during this years free agency when the Caps signed veteran, Tomas Vokoun, who will get his best shot at a cup in the crease for the Capitals.
While the Capitals have not had a continuing contention for the division title in recent history, the teams that have came in behind the Caps have continued to get better and made strides at closing that gap during this off season.
The team that took the biggest leap this off season was the Panthers, who signed ten new players, including Jose Theodore, Brian Campbell, and Kris Versteeg, to the roster. Which has brought an overwhelming veteran presence to the Panthers' locker room. Florida's other team, the Lightning, locked up important free agents, including young star, Steven Stamkos, solidifying a core group that got them one win away from a Stanley Cup finals berth last season.
The Hurricanes suffered a blow when their top center man, Erik Cole, packed his bags for Montreal, but they also picked up a vast amount of depth, and the free agency's top defense man in Tomas Kaberle. Jeff Skinner, last years top rookie, will likely fill some of the hole left by Cole's departure.
No matter how things played out with the other teams in the southeast this off season, the big news with out a doubt was the selling and relocation of the then Atlanta Thrashers and now Winnipeg Jets. A franchise that will be searching for its own identity in its first season in the NHL made a slight splash in the free agency when they signed Eric Fehr. Other than that they will be taking an Atlanta team that did not have too much success in the South, and seeing if it can thrive in the Canadiann market.
Overall this division has one prime advantage, the travel. The furthest a team will have to travel now is north of the border to the Manitoba capital, but other than that all of the teams are closely located on the lower east coast. If the additions prove to add more of an opponent for the Caps, next season's rating will be a little higher, but until then a failed franchise and team that has yet to make the playoffs in the last nine seasons have dropped this level difficulty quite a bit.