Five questions, five answers series part 3: the Southeast Division

In the finale of the "Five questions, five answers" series, we're going to look at the macro instead of the micro.  We're going to take a look at the division and the state of the Southeast.  We're going to see where things stand in the eyes of Jon Jordan.

Jordan, of course, was a Lightning writer for Hockey Buzz, Hockey Independent and currently for Kukla's Korner.  He launched :Beasts of the Southeast" last week where he will be overseeing the Southeast Division as a whole as well as chipping in Lightning coverage.

Below the jump, Jon gives his thoughts on the most improved team in the Southeast, just what the Carolina Hurricanes are going this season, and on the class of the division -- the Washington Capitals.

Which southeast team has made the biggest gains this off-season, and are they enough to challenge for the division crown? 

Though I often get accused of being a homer (despite those that know me understanding that to be ANYTHING but the truth), I can't help but call the Lightning the Southeast's most improved team as we approach the 2010-11 season. For starters, the stability of Mr. Vinik's ownership and the credibility that came with appointing Steve Yzerman as GM changed the attitude throughout the organization instantly. Those of us that are around the team a lot and/or follow very closely won't soon lose sight of that but I think that will fade into the background for many others soon enough. Still, the impact of those major moves at the top will be immeasurable, from a long-term perspective.On-ice, adding Simon Gagne (at a bargain basement cost, no less) was a fantastic move that gives the Bolts as enviable a top-six forward group as there might be in the entire league. And some very underrated depth signings - Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim stick out to me - will help stabilize the rest of the forward group as well. Simply stated, there's a lot to work up front, both in terms of talent and a workman's attitude.As for the defense, shedding the contracts of Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker would have been reason enough for a hefty pat on the back, but there's some serious depth there now as well, having added Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark and Randy Jones.There's going to be some heavy competition in training camp too, with a solid mix of young guys looking to make an impression, and I believe the end result of competing internally like that is always a positive for the club moving forward.

As for taking over the division, maybe there we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. Washington's still the class of the Southeast, if for no other reason than the belt's theirs until someone takes it from them. I think the Lightning will be far more competitive and have the potential to seriously close the distance between 1 and 2 in the division but, unless the Caps suffer some serious unexpected misfortune, Tampa Bay isn't quite ready to shoot for a division crown just yet.

The Carolina Hurricanes had a horrendous start to the 2009-10 campaign but finished strongly...  Which team will show up to play this coming season -- the horrendous one from fall 2009 or the competitive one from 2010?

The Hurricanes were just obliterated by injury last year, losing 300 man games to injury, and their record suffered miserably in turn. They're taking a major shift toward reliance on youth so, the production of their kids will weigh about as heavily as their ability (luck?) to stay healthy on their success in the standings. If they can stay healthy (which is a question that applies to 29 other teams, to be fair), you'd have to think they'll fare better than last season but, again, there are other X-factors too. Namely, will youngsters like Drayson Bowman, Brandon Sutter, Zach Boychuk, Jiri Tlusty and (perhaps) others be able to handle bigger loads? And which Cam Ward will man the nets this season? The Conn Smythe-winner? Or that other guy?

The Washington Capitals are coming off an epic playoff failing after an epic season.  Are they still the team to beat in the East (let alone the SE)?

I touched on this a bit already but, yes, I think Washington is still the clear-cut team to beat in the Southeast. In fact, though I'm not committing to any prediction just yet, I think this could be the year where they take things to an even higher level. Sometimes, major post-season disappointment, a la the Caps ousting in the first round last year, is what springs clubs forward more than any other motivating factor. I have a feeling that Washington will feel that push. And again, I believe they'll also feel a push from Tampa (and maybe the Atlanta Thrashers as well), which can certainly serve as an additional motivating factor.

Atlanta has made major changes under the leadership of new GM (and former Bolts GM) Rick Dudley.  What, in your opinion, is their biggest strength right now and their greatest shortcoming?

I am impressed with the Atlanta Blackhawks, ERRRRRRR... You know... Anyway, they suddenly boast some real depth and young talent on the blueline that goes at least seven deep (and maybe eight, depending on how they use Dustin Byfuglien). Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya, Brent Sopel, Freddy Meyer, Boris Valabik... I really like what the Thrashers have done on 'D'.That said, here's another team relying on some unproven commodities for offense. We know what Nik Antropov can do and Byfuglien proved his mettle in the postseason with Chicago last year. A healthy Andrew Ladd can produce. Rich Peverley had a breakout season in 09-10. Niklas Bergfors had a solid rookie campaign. But Bergfors has to avoid a sophomore slump, Peverley has to find magic once again and players like Bryan Little and Evander Kane will have to step it up for Atlanta to avoid troubles in the goal-scoring department. A tall order, perhaps, and one that makes the decision not to bring back Max Afinogenov a little mystifying to me. Other youngsters (maybe Patrice Cormier?) could take advantage of training camp opportunities as well.

What's more likely for the Florida Panthers this season -- dark horse contention or cellar dwellers?

Florida, to me, is a tough read. I like what they've done on defense, much like I do with Atlanta, adding veterans like Mike Weaver, Dennis Wideman and Nathan Paetsch to a seasoned group that already included Bryans McCabe and Allen, and they have reason to be excited about the youth of their blueline as well, beginning with top draft choice Erik Gudbranson. Dmitry Kulikov, Keaton Ellerby and Jason Garrison all gained valuable NHL experience last season too.But, as is the case with Atlanta and Carolina, I have to wonder if the Panthers are going to be able to execute well enough offensively to hang with the high-powered squads in Tampa and Washington. A healthy David Booth will be a huge boost and you know what you're getting from Cory Stillman and Stephen Weiss. Michael Frolik topped the 20-goal mark last year as well and I think folks might be surprised by young Shawn Matthias, if he gets the right opportunity. But the Cats have some reclamation projects in Chris Higgins and Steve Bernier and they don't go very deep as far as scoring goes, on paper, so they could struggle. Steve Reinprecht and Rostislav Olesz, with 16 and 14 goals respectively last year, will be depended upon also.And who knows what becomes of Tomas Vokoun down the road? Lots of questions for the Panthers, in my opinion, in what could be a hit or miss year, as far as what direction they take in the near future goes.Altogether, I'm beyond excited about covering this division, which is in far better shape than it has been in several years

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