Make no mistake: some familiar faces will be at the top of the heap in the Southeast Division.
Conversely, some usual suspects should be floundering amongst the NHL’s basement from the same region.
And a wild card squad could poke its head into the playoffs, or dwindle into relative obscurity.
All of these factors should make this race a tantalizing treat to watch.
Team Name: Washington Capitals
2009/10 Record: 54-15-13, 121 points, 1st in Eastern Conference, 1st in Southeast Division
Key Additions: F D.J. King, G Dany Sabourin
Key Departures: D Joe Corvo, F Brendan Morrison, G Jose Theodore, F Scott Walker
On the Rise: D John Carlson, D Karl Alzner, RW Eric Fehr
On the Hot Seat: G Semyon Varlamov, G Michal Neuvirth
Big Question: With two unproven 22-year-old netminders, can the Washington Capitals’ goaltending situation survive an entire regular season with the same success.
Outlook: Any team that boasts the likes of perennial 50-goal sniper Ovechkin is an instant threat.
However, his supporting cast is the best in the NHL, with 100-point producer Nicklas Backstrom and 40-goal scorer Alexander Semin up front.
Semin’s health will be a major question mark, though, as the 26-year-old has never played a full season in his five-year career.
Mike Knuble should flank the Ovechkin-Backstrom line and will provide some veteran grit to complement his teammates, adding to a well-balanced scoring attack.
Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann both came off solid offensive seasons in secondary roles, registering 59 and 51 points, respectively.
Eric Fehr will be a bit of a wildcard. He scored 21 goals in his third season in the NHL last year but should benefit from increased playing time.
In order to dominate the NHL like it did during the regular season, outscoring its opponents 318-233, Washington will have to rely heavily on its offence.
On the flip side, a young and inexperienced defence corps will be led by Mike Green’s versatility. The 24-year-old’s point production has increased over the last three seasons and he should quarterback the lethal Capitals’ power play and anchor his younger blue-line brethren.
John Carlson may seem like a relative unknown, but this 20-year-old has massive potential. While playing for the OHL’s London Knights in 2008-09, he produced 76 points, numbers many forwards would kill to have. He also appeared in all seven playoff games for the Caps last season, averaging over 20 minutes per game.
He has the passing skills, a great point shot, and plays with a gritty edge.
At 21, partner Karl Alzner should benefit from minimal playoff experience last season and is a fluid skater with great instincts. Alzner should help anchor a green defensive corps and should provide a solid presence in front of youngsters Varlamov and Neuvirth.
Goaltending will be the biggest uncertainty. With the loss of veteran Jose Theodore, the Caps will be relying on two young netminders with a combined 54 games of NHL experience.
This could either be a great thing, or an experiment gone completely awry. Expect Varlamov to carry the weight, but his groin will have to hold up for him to have an impact on this squad. Both goaltenders have great potential, but they still have to prove they can be successful at this level.
Prediction: 1st in Southeast Division, 105-110 points
Team Name: Atlanta Thrashers
2009/10 Record: 35-34-13, 83 points, 9th in Eastern Conference, 2nd in Southeast Division
Key Additions: F Dustin Byfuglien, F Andrew Ladd, G Chris Mason, F Ben Eager
Key Departures: F Maxim Afinogenov, F Colby Armstrong, G Johan Hedberg, D Pavel Kubina, F Vyacheslav Kozlov
On the Rise: F Evander Kane, D Zach Bogosian
On the Hot Seat: F Nikolai Antropov, F Bryan Little
Big Question: Can the Thrashers’ young offence produce in their first full season without Ilya Kovalchuk?
Outlook: The Thrashers acquired some Stanley Cup experience this past off-season with Byfuglien, Eager and Brent Sopel.
Experience is exactly what they will have to rely on if they hope to make an unlikely playoff push.
Antropov is coming off a career year, although largely played alongside Kovalchuk, so Atlanta will need to see his increased minutes translate into more scoring production.
Little dropped off from a career-high 31 goals two years ago to 13 last season, so he will have to step and shoulder a heavier workload.
Evander Kane is only 19 and has only one NHL season under his belt. Expect this kid to become a secondary scoring threat and don’t be surprised if he eclipses the 25-goal plateau.
Highly regarded Ondrej Pavelec should be the No. 1 option in net for this young squad. He was among the league’s top 10 goalies last November with a .921 save percentage before struggling in the following month.
Look out for a surprising season from this potential-filled group.
Prediction: 3rd in Southeast Division, 82-87 points
Team Name: Carolina Hurricanes
2009/10 Record: 35-37-10, 80 points, 11th in Eastern Conference, 3rd in Southeast Division
Key Additions: D Joe Corvo
Key Departures: F Rod Brind’Amour, G Manny Legace, F Ray Whitney
On the Rise: F Brandon Sutter, D Jamie McBain
On the Hot Seat: F Eric Staal
Big Question: With a thin offence and no big off-season acquisitions up front, can Eric Staal shoulder enough of the workload for the ‘Canes to be successful?
Outlook: Make no mistake, this team is thinner than a super model up front and lacks defensive depth.
Staal will have to register at least another 80-point season for the ‘Canes to see a positive result in the win column, but his supporting cast will make it difficult.
Jussi Jokinen scored 30 goals last year for the Hurricanes, but don’t expect him to repeat that performance as his previous career-high was 17 in 2005-06 with Dallas.
Brandon Sutter will have every opportunity to flourish after a 21-goal season, and a 25-goal plateau is within reach for this youngster.
Cam Ward has a Stanley Cup under his belt and a bounce-back season for the 26-year-old is imperative for Carolina.
Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo will be Ward’s last lines of defence, but they won’t be able to do it by themselves. If Jamie McBain begins the season with the big club (and all signs point to yes), he should provide a spark in a secondary defensive role, scoring 10 points in 14 games last season.
Expect this version of the Hurricanes to hover around a mediocre level.
Prediction: 5th in Southeast Division, 77-82 points
Team Name: Tampa Bay Lightning
2009/10 Record: 34-36-12, 80 points, 12th in Eastern Conference, 4th in Southeast Division
Key Additions: F Simon Gagne, D Pavel Kubina, G Dan Ellis, D Brett Clark
Key Departures: D Kurtis Foster, G Antero Niittymaki, D Andrej Meszaros, F Alex Tanguay
On the Rise: D Victor Hedman
On the Hot Seat: G Mike Smith
Big Question: Can Mike Smith recuperate after being outplayed and replaced last season by the now-departed Antero Niittymaki?
Outlook: Newly anointed G.M. Steve Yzerman began the roster overhaul immediately after a dismal season in the Sunshine State.
The biggest splash came when he acquired forward Simon Gagne from the Philadelphia Flyers. If he’s healthy, the brittle Gagne is capable of scoring 40 goals. Gagne is more fragile than fine China, but he should add to an already-impressive array of scoring forwards.
Steven Stamkos enjoyed a spectacular break-out year en route to scoring 51 goals, showing a zen-like chemistry with the rejuvenated Martin St. Louis on his wing.
Vincent Lecavalier’s numbers may have declined over the last few seasons, but Gagne should help the captain regain his scoring touch. If Ryan Malone plays alongside this duo, he should provide a big body in front of the net and cash in the loose pucks around the goal crease.
Defensively, a familiar face will anchor what should be a dangerous power play. Pavel Kubina enjoyed his best years in a Lightning uniform, scoring a career-high 17 goals during their Stanley Cup run in 2004.
Count on Victor Hedman’s extra year of experience to provide another threat from the blue-line. He will see significant minutes and has the benefit of fellow countryman Mattias Ohlund to provide leadership.
Smith and Ellis should largely share the goaltending duties, with Smith penciled in as the starter. If these two can provide any form of consistency, expect this roster to be a dangerous threat in the Eastern Conference.
Prediction: 2nd in Southeast Division, 95-100 points
Team Name: Florida Panthers
2009/10 Record: 32-37-13, 77 points, 14th in Eastern Conference, 5th in Southeast Division
Key Additions: F Steve Bernier, F Chris Higgins, D Dennis Wideman
Key Departures: F Nathan Horton, D Keith Ballard, F Gregory Campbell
On the Rise: F Michael Frolik
On the Hot Seat: F David Booth
Big Question: Can the Panthers overcome the loss of star forward Nathan Horton?
Outlook: This roster is continually engulfed in rebuild mode.
While they boast some young talent, goals will certainly be hard to come by for this edition of the Panthers.
Luckily, they have a wily veteran in goalie Tomas Vokoun, who can keep his team in games, but he won’t be able to do it all himself.
Stephen Weiss is a 65-point threat, while Michal Frolik could benefit from the departure of Horton and log heavier minutes. A 30-goal season from the 22-year-old is not out of reach.
David Booth will have to overcome a concussion-plagued season last year to regain his 30-goal touch if the Panthers are going to do anything of worth this season.
While some may say this core group of forwards have played together for several years and not attain much success, don’t be shocked if these guys can squeak into fourth place in the Southeast.