- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2007

If everything breaks right, the Washington Capitals will win the Southeast Division. The same can be said in the four other cities.

Hope is always abundant at the beginning of the season, and there is plenty of parity in the NHL to back it up. But of the six divisions, only in the Southeast can each of the five teams feel confident about finishing first — and be nervous about ending up last.

“I think it is from top to bottom maybe the most competitive division in the league,” Nashville general manager David Poile said. “I wouldn’t want to bet on who will finish first, second, third, fourth or fifth. Any of those teams could win the division.”

Ask five people in the hockey community who is going to earn the Southeast Division crown and there might be five different answers.

Atlanta is the defending champ, and the Thrashers added a pass-first center in Todd White to dish the puck to electric scorers Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa and injected some youth into a roster that faded down the stretch last season.

Tampa Bay still has one of the top forward trios in the league and added a couple of wings in Michel Ouellet and Jan Hlavac who could give the Lightning much-needed scoring depth.

Carolina still can match depth and talent up front with anyone in the NHL, and goaltender Cam Ward will be improved in his second full season as a starter. Plus, there isn’t Stanley Cup hangover to deal with.

Florida might have been the best team in the division at season’s end, and the Panthers added a world-class goaltender in Tomas Vokoun. This could finally be the year young forwards Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester blossom into superstars.

And there are the Caps, who certainly added the most talent in the division. If the newcomers fit in, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin pot a few more goals and goaltender Olie Kolzig stays healthy, a worst-to-first leap is not out of the question.

“I think every team in our division upgraded their team,” Atlanta general manager Don Waddell said. “I think it will be a great race.”

But will anyone outside these five markets notice? The apparent parity in the Southeast could make for a crazy season of teams jostling for position, rising and falling in the standings with each passing day.

More often than not, however, the happenings in the Southeast do not create much of a stir in other parts of the hockey world.

“There’s no question there is a lack of respect, and a lot of it is generated north of the border,” Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster said. “People in Canada have little time for the Southeast. We have some great, young players, but people look past it.

“People say hockey’s southern experiment isn’t worthwhile or hasn’t worked. In 2004 our division produced the Stanley Cup champion [Tampa Bay] and in 2006 our division produced the Stanley Cup champion [Carolina]. Hockey is doing well here, but people don’t like to have the facts get in the way of their argument.”

There is a vast lack of tradition in the Southeast compared to each of the other divisions, save for the Pacific. Three of the five teams are expansion franchises from the past 15 seasons, and a fourth is a transplant in its 10th year.

But two of the past three Stanley Cup champions have come from the division. And beyond that, five of the past 11 Eastern Conference representatives in the Cup finals have been teams that currently reside in the division.

There is also a stunning amount of elite talent dispersed among the five teams. Seven of the top 13 goal scorers from last season call the Southeast home.

“There are no Original Six teams, no Canadian teams and no big markets,” Waddell said. “We kind of have to work together down here. There are as many great players in this division as there are in any other, and there are great young players.”

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