For the past several seasons, the Washington Capitals have been firmly in control of the Southeast Division. Last season, Tampa Bay got close, finishing the season with 103 points to the Capitals' 107, and ended up besting them in the playoffs.
But can any other team come as close?
The newly-formed Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers both made a lot of moves in the offseason, stocking up on free agents in efforts to make them playoff contenders.
Florida in particular got stronger offensively, but the season will have to begin in order to see if the piecemeal roster can work together to produce points. Tomas Fleischmann, provided he's healthy, could be a nice complement to the kind of numbers put up last season by Stephen Weiss and David Booth.
Should the Panthers get to the playoffs, they have extra firepower in Sean Bergenheim, who scored 11 points in last year's playoffs with the Tampa Bay Lightning, including four points in the four-game series against the Capitals.
The Panthers' blue line also benefited from the moves. The Panthers defense has never been particularly strong, but they added Stanley Cup Champion Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski via trade and free agency. Campbell was a +28 last season with the Blackhawks, and Jovanovski adds a two-way presence on the blue line.
So, the Panthers got better, what about the Thrashers-cum-Jets? They did the smart thing in the offseason by extending Andrew Ladd's contract. With 59 points last season, the Jets made it their priority to get Ladd locked down, and with a new five-year contract, Ladd should continue to lead the team in points.
Adding Eric Fehr via trade was a gamble. Fehr has good offensive ability, but yet another shoulder injury limited his games last season. Fehr had double shoulder surgery in the 2009 offseason, and had surgery again this summer to repair damage sustained during the season. But if he's healthy, he could create a lot of good chances for the Jets.
The Jets will also get a lot out of Alexander Burmistrov's sophomore season. His first season was promising, though it didn't necessarily show in the stats with 20 points in 74 games. If he steps up, it will mean a lot for the Jets offense.
Could those couple of moves help the Jets rise in the standings? Most of the moves they made were for third and fourth line players - players who can contribute a little in scoring, but who probably won't put up 20 goals per year.
With the moves the Panthers made, 2011-2012 could be the season that we finally see the Florida Panthers move out of the basement of the Southeast. They're a couple seasons away from really challenging the Capitals for ownership of the division, but they may be on their way.
The Carolina Hurricanes made a few changes for next season, bringing in Tomas Kaberle, Tim Brent, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart. But these players aren't so much an improvement as much as a replacement for players lost. Kaberle is somewhat of a replacement for Joe Corvo and Stewart is somewhat of a replacement for Cory Stillman.
Similarly, the Lightning didn't make many major changes in their lineup. They should be a playoff presence this year due to their core of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Dwayne Roloson, but can they go toe-to-toe with the Caps again? If their top offensive performers do as they should, they absolutely can. As displayed by last year's playoffs displayed, they're very capable of doing so. But in terms of the regular season, the Lightning haven't changed much from last year.
Looking at the basement, Atlanta/Winnipeg closed out the 2010-11 season with 80 points, and the Panthers with 72. The offseason has shown that the two teams are serious about improving. Even if Florida and Winnipeg don't make the playoffs, look for their point totals to rise.
As for the Capitals, expect them to remain on top.
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