The preseason has begun, and we're now zeroing in at ridiculous speed on opening night of the 2010-2011 regular season. There's been a lot of debate about how much the Lightning have improved in the off season, and the consensus seems to be that this is a much more complete team then the one that fell flat on its face down the stretch last year, finally succumbing to the barrage of insanity that had been plaguing it lo the last couple years.
We can all feel confident that the Lightning will be stronger. Names like Gagne, Moore, Kubina, Clark and others should fill in some of the gaps that showed last year.
So have the Lightning improved enough to win a lot of games? Maybe even crack the top eight in the Eastern Conference? That depends a lot on the quality of opposition, and of course the opposition the Lightning will face most often are their divisional rivals in the South East.
So who are these varmints? Let's take a quick look at the four other teams, and where they stand heading into the new season.
(In alphabetical order)
Atlanta Thrashers: So begins life Post-Kovalchuk. Former Lightning GM Rick Dudley brought in former Lightning assistant coach to be the new bench boss of the Thrashers, and also brought in a significant chunk of the Cup-winning Blackhawks team to rebuild his roster. The team lost buckets of forwards over the summer, including Slava Kozlov, Todd White, Clarke MacArthur, Maxim Afinogenov, Colby Armstrong, etc, etc, and considering that Dustin Byfuglien, the biggest piece brought in from Chicago, is expected to start the season of the blueline, Atlanta is looking paper-thin up front. Second year forwards Evander Kane and Niclas Bergfors should see plenty of icetime, and Bryan Little will need to return to form. On the bright side, Atlanta made themselves better in goal by adding free agent stopper Chris Mason from St. Louis. Even so, the Thrashers are looking forward to a rough winter.
Carolina Hurricanes: Wow, were the Hurricanes awful in the first half of last season, or what? Yes, they were almost magically bad. They had injuries, they had every bad bounce the hockey demons could throw at them, and then...well, then they started getting it together. The 'Canes did finish well last year, but some important faces, including forever-warrior Rod Brind'Amour and the dependable Ray Whitney have left. We should expect their replacements to be young. Estimations place them building on their improved second half, and assuming Eric Staal and Cam Ward stay healthy, they probably will.
Florida Panthers: The second entry in the "SE Division Loves The Blackhawks" category, we have the Panthers, who will spend this season being torn down and built afresh by ex-Chicago GM Dale Tallon. It looks like the Panthers are taking the "can't get better until you get worse" approach, jettisoning good citizens like Nathan Horton and Kieth Ballard in the offseason. A lot of veteran faces were allowed to walk away, but the Panthers will still be way over the league's salary floor, thanks in part to giant contracts to players like Thomas Vokoun and Bryan McCabe, who are both certain to be gone long before the Panthers start to see serious improvement. Expect suffering and excuses this season,
Washington Capitals: Will Washington be powerful this season? Yes. Will Alexander Ovechkin be amazing to watch? If he stays healthy, yes. Does Washington coach Bruce Boudreau have any chance of getting fired this year? Oh, yes. Everyone raves about what a great coach Boudreau is, but face it, with the Caps' lineup, you would have to be terrible to not win, and if Washington bows out in the first round of the playoffs again, expect change. The Caps might be super-charged at forward, but they are vulnerable: they have defensive inconsistencies and a pair of pretty good (but not great) 22-year-olds in net. From the sheer weight of their talent they should dominate the division, conference, and possibly the league, but they are in no way unstoppable. And they have no reason to be as patient as the perennial bridesmaids in San Jose. Washington's window of time to be great will not be open forever. Anything short of the Cup Final should be a disappointment for this talented crew.
(Nolan Whyte writes for a variety of web outlets, including Raw Charge. His Lightning blog is called Frozen Sheets Hockey.)