While the Southeast is going to be far from the strongest division in the NHL this year, there is a good chance that it might be the most competitive. The Florida Panthers managed to dethrone the Washington Capitals as the incumbent champs last season and both of these teams appear to be weaker on paper heading into this year. Meanwhile, the other three teams in the Southeast made improvements last year and the race for the top spot could be much more entertaining than people are expecting. The 48-game season will also play a role in that because every game is going to mean much more than it does in a normal year.
I feel like the Southeast Division is arguably the hardest to predict in the NHL this season with every team being relatively close talent-wise, but something that will go a long way to determining who wins it will be how these teams play against each other. All teams will be playing within their conferences this year and 18 of those games will be intra-division. Divisional play is going to take up over 37% of the schedule which means that those wins (or points) will be even more important than usual. This could be a problem for the Hurricanes, who won only 9 of 24 divisional games last season, but this is shaping up to be a different team and a different division than it was in 2011-12.
Carolina should be better than they were a season ago and that could help them pick up some more wins against divisional foes, but let's keep in mind that they aren't the only team that improved this off-season. I mentioned earlier that both the Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning also have stronger rosters and while the Florida Panthers and Washington Captials are weaker, the Hurricanes won only one game against the Panthers last year and the Caps are always a dangerous team. In other words, the Southeast could go in just about any direction.
Just how bad was Carolina's divisional play last year, though? Find out after the jump.
Carolina Hurricanes 2011-12 Divisional Opponents
GF = Goals for, GA = Goals against, ESF = Even strength shots for, ESA = Even strength shots against, ECF = Even strength chances for, ECA = Even strength chances against
In addition to wins and losses, we are also looking at the Hurricanes goal, shot and scoring chance differentials, the latter two coming at even-strength. It's a good way to show how well the Canes played against these teams beyond wins and losses. Overall, the Canes went 9-10-5 against the Southeast, were outscored 57-70, outshot 596-629 and outchanced 307-316. In other words, they were outplayed in just about every area with scoring chances being the only category that was reasonably close. The Hurricanes will need to be much better against these four teams if they want to have a chance at the playoffs because winning only 37% of them isn't going to cut it this year.
Carolina had a lot of problems with the Florida Panthers last year, but the team who they had the most trouble with were the Winnipeg Jets. The Canes won two games against them, including a dramatic come-from-behind win on the road but they were massively outshot (-38 even strength shot differential) and outchanced (-18 even strength chance differential) by the Jets overall. Winnipeg flew kind of under the radar last year because not much was expected of them, but they were a decent team territorially that had flaws in net and on defense. They come into this season with a slightly improved forward corps featuring the likes of Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky but their goaltending remains largely the same with Ondrej Pavelec expected to start the bulk of the games. I wouldn't count them out of contending for a playoff spot, especially in the East.
The other team who Carolina struggled against last year was the Florida Panthers, winning only one game against them and getting shutout once. Their underlying stats against Florida do not appear to be quite as bad, though, as they outshot them and were outchanced by only three. Florida's goaltending shut them down in a few games and that will do you in on some nights. On that note, Jose Theodore outperformed his expectations last year and is prone to regress given his age. Florida also got weaker by losing Jason Garrison and replacing him with the older Filip Kuba, who is still good but inferior to what they had in Garrison last year. They weren't too bad of a team, though and the Panthers could be in the mix to contend if a few things go right for them again.
It might be a surprise to some that the Canes played their best hockey against the Caps last year, but they did shut them out twice and outplayed them in four of the six matchups. It is worth noting that the Capitals were missing Nicklas Backstrom in all but one of their games against Carolina last year and there is no doubt that had a huge effect on them. Backstrom is apparently having neck issues and could miss the opening part of the season but I have to think that he will be back eventually and the Caps are a much better and dangerous team with him in the lineup. Aside from that, Washington got a little worse this off-season by losing Alex Semin and replacing him with Wojtek Wolski. Semin going directly to a division rival didn't help matters, either. Dale Hunter kind of turned this team into a black hole in terms of puck possession last year and it's possible that new head coach Adam Oates could turn them around. That along with a healthy roster could make the Caps a contender this year but there isn't enough known now to guarantee that.
Tampa Bay outplayed Carolina last year in terms of shots but the Canes had the edge in scoring chances while being outscored by only one. Aside from the first game of the year where the Canes were beaten 5-1 by Tampa, Carolina played some of their better games last season against the Lightning and it was usually a fun time whenever the two teams got together. That being said, Tampa was a pretty bad team in almost all areas last year but they did a lot to get better over the summer. They have a new goaltender in Anders Lindback and an improved defense corps now featuring Matt Carle and Sami Salo. This is going to be Lindback's first year as a starter, so I'm not sure how he will perform but the Carle signing does a lot for Tampa Bay's defense. He can eat up a lot of minutes on the first pairing, give them some offense from the blue-line and play in all situations. He alone should take a lot of pressure off Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman, who had do handle all of the tough assignments for Tampa last year. Plus, they still have the best goal-scorer in the NHL, Steven Stamkos and the ageless one, Martin St. Louis who always seems to play well against Carolina. I feel that the Bolts are in the same boat as Carolina where they are coming off a bad year but have a lot of good pieces and did a lot to improve over the summer. The question is will it be enough to put them in the playoffs again? Again, it is very possible but things may go South if Lindback struggles. If there is any team who knows that bad goaltending could end your season before it starts, it's the Lightning.