Monday, February 16, 2009

Your 2009 Mid-Season Hockey Report: Eastern Conference, Southeast Division

If I had to pick a snoozer division in the NHL, this would be it. Even though the Lightning and the Hurricanes have won championships in recent years, this division is drier than a post-rodeo cowboy crotch. It's got the most new teams, and typically the least success. I've been known to jump on a Carolina bandwagon or two, but beyond that, I posit that no division gets less focus each season than the Southeast. We will cover it, nevertheless, and like Friday's look at the Northeast, we'll start from the bottom.

The Atlanta Thrashers have fewer points than anyone in hockey, save the New York Islanders. The equivalent of that would be the 2008 Kansas City Chiefs who, thank their lucky stars, had the Detroit Lions beneath them, saving them from being the worst of the terrible. They've got the incredible Ilya Kovalchuk leading the stats brackets, and Vyacheslav Kozlov right behind him. Combined, the two have 106 points. But that's about where this team begins and ends. Their defense is about as thin as a frozen lake in Haiti, and naturally, their goaltending suffers as a result; none of their three netminders is close to playing .500 or better.

In fourth are the Tampa Bay Lightning. Five short years removed from their impressive Stanley Cup championship, they're a mere five points stronger than the Thrashers, which as we've seen, isn't saying much. As usual, Tampa Bay icons Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavelier top the ranks in offensive production, but the point tallies somewhat taper off after that. They have gotten some help from aged right-winger Mark Recchi, as well as from Vaclav Prospal and Ryan Malone, but not much else worth mentioning. The Lightning defensive pairings are stronger than most of those we've examined in the east, but not by much. To date, the Lightning keeps five goalies on the roster, none of which have stood on their proverbial heads. Thus, this crew has their work cut out for them, and realistically, should be focusing on next year.

The third-place Hurricanes are a ways ahead of the Lightning, and actually have a +.500 record. They sit in the ninth spot, and aren't far from leap-frogging the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres. Atop their offensive producers are Ray Whitney and Eric Staal. They've also enjoyed some stats from right wing Sergei Samsonov and the ageless Rod Brind'Amour. Their defense is less holey than some, but not as stout as those atop the conference rankings in either the east or the west. In the net, Cam Ward has looked better-than-average at 22-18, but he's let 109 pucks by, and will need the pairings in front of him to play some stealthier D than they've thus far been able to muster.

One notch up in the Southeast are the Florida Panthers, who only have a three-point edge over Carolina. This club is arguably the division's surprise through the "mid-point" of the campaign, and their perhaps-unforeseen success can be attributed to forwards Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, David Booth, and Cory Stillman. Additionally, they've gotten help from defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who's logged 12 goals and 18 assists. Their defense takes a bit of a drop beyond Bowmeester statistically speaking, but they do manage to lend a hand to the number of Tomas Vokoun, who's 18-16, and let less than 100 into the net with an admirable .923 goals-against average.

And in first place, the Washington Capitals, which is almost as surprising as the Panthers being in second, especially given that it's by a 13-point differential. Actually, it's not that surprising at all. They do have Alexander Ovechkin who has a staggering 41 goals and 33 assists midway through February. What is surprising has been the output of center Nicklas Backstrom, who's only lit the lamp 13 times, but has dished out an incredible 47 helpers. Left-winger Alexander "you said" Semin and defenseman Mike Green have also more than impressed with 50 points a piece. What's more is that their second-, third-, and fourth-line centers are all in the 30-point eschelon, and collectively, they have one of (if not) the best +/- differentials in the conference from the top of their roster to the bottom, which means they're scoring a ton, and giving up very litte. This, as I've been saying, always makes a goaltender look better; the Caps have four on their roster and every one of them is above .500 in wins/losses, and .900 save percentages. Former Colorado Avalanche/Montreal Canadien Jose Theodore leads the way at 21-10, and he's not yet let his 100th goal cross the line. Washington is currently tied with New Jersey for the second-place spot in the conference, and they're a solid 12 points ahead of fourth-place Philadelphia. I pity the fool that faces them come playoff time.

That's it for our look at the Southeast. Check in tomorrow as we head out west. And if you're really interested, our Atlantic scoop can be found here.