Coming into the season, the Puck Prospectus rankings were fairly bullish on the Southeast Division. The rankings saw the Capitals as the second best team in the NHL, with the Panthers as the 13th best team, the Hurricanes as the 14th best team, the Thrashers as the 20th and the Lightning as the 26th.
While we are only through a quarter of the NHL season, team performance in the Southeast Division has been collectively disappointing. The Capitals are satisfying expectations sitting at third in the Eastern Conference, but the rest of the teams currently sit in the bottom half of the NHL standings.
Let’s take a closer look at each Southeast Division team’s performance thus far:
Southeast Division - VUKOTA vs. Actual
Team Rank (VUKOTA) Pts (VUKOTA) Pts (Actual)*
Washington Capitals 2 106 117
Florida Panthers 13 91 78
Carolina Hurricanes 14 91 45
Atlanta Thrashers 20 88 101
Tampa Bay Lightning 26 80 100
* Actual points per game, projected over 82 games
It has been so far, so good for the Washington Capitals. Puck Prospectus predicted the Capitals to be the highest scoring team in the NHL this season (VUKOTA projected them to score 277 goals) and so far, the Capitals have confirmed that prediction was indeed a good one. The Caps have scored 75 goals (3.65 goals per game) this season which ranks the team number one in the NHL goals scored department. What is most impressive though, is that the Capitals have been able to sustain high goal totals, even with Alexander Ovechkin (7.2 GVT)sidelined with a shoulder injury. For as solid as the Capitals have been on offense, Puck Prospectus was a little bit more optimistic about the team’s defense than some, and so far the Capitals defense has underperformed (30.7 shots against per game). The Capitals are in the bottom third of the NHL in goals allowed (3.05 goals allowed per game) and are on pace to allow 254 goals, which is far greater than their VUKOTA projection of 238 goals allowed. However, the team’s goaltending has played a factor in that performance, Jose Theodore’s (-1.6 GVT) save percentage is below .900 and Semyon Varlamov (2.6 GVT) has been fairly streaky.
The Capitals have been strong at even strength (fourth in the NHL at even strength scoring efficiency), on the power play (sixth in the NHL in power play percentage) but have been lacking on the penalty kill (24th in the NHL in penalty killing percentage).
All in all, the Capitals are scoring a ton and having trouble defending. Sound familiar? Expectations for the Capitals seemed to be quite accurate, but the team will have to shore up its defensive game if it wants to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup in the spring.
The Florida Panthers have been very inconsistent so far this season. The Cats were expected to be a fairly low scoring team (Puck Prospectus’ VUKOTA had Florida finishing the 2009-10 season ranked 20th in the NHL in offense) and that expectation has certainly come true thus far. The reasons the Panthers are sitting at 24th in the NHL in goals per game are many but the two biggest factors are David Booth’s (-0.7 GVT, 9 games) concussion and Michael Frolik’s (0.6 GVT) slow start. Booth is the team’s best forward and while he was struggling before his concussion, he was creating chance after chance. As for Frolik, the youngster started slow last season too, so let’s not sour on him, but he is capable of far more than his point totals (seven points in seventeen games) have indicated thus far.
Combine a weak offense (-6.8 Team Offensive GVT), with poor defense (3.41 goals against per game) and you have a bad mix. Some may wonder whether it is the team’s goaltending, rather than the defense that is to blame. That, however, has not been the case. The Cats have allowed a whopping 35.6 shots against per game and a league worst -8.3 Defensive GVT. That stat leaves the team dead last in the NHL in that regard. In fact, it is the team’s goaltending—primarily Tomas Vokoun and his team high 6.6 GVT and .922 save percentage—that has kept the team in most games they have had no business being in.
When you combine awful defensive play with a lack of scoring punch up front, you fall far short of the Puck Prospectus projection of finishing 13th in the NHL. Once Booth returns and the team should improve, but playoff expectations need to be curbed in South Florida.
If you think the Florida Panthers are falling short of expectations in the Southeast Division, the Panthers look like the 1980s Edmonton Oilers compared to the Carolina Hurricanes. In the days of the three point games and shootouts, the Hurricanes somehow just went on a fourteen game losing streak. A losing streak that, for all intents and purposes, has eliminated last year’s Conference finalists from the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
The Hurricanes are a shocking 3-12-4 after 19 games this season and sit with only ten points in the standings. To put that into perspective, the Hurricanes have 63 games remaining on the schedule and would have to finish the season with 42 wins and 21 losses (shootout losses notwithstanding) to finish the season with 94 points, or one more point than was required to finish in eighth spot in the Eastern Conference last season. That is a winning clip of 66% for the remainder of the season, so curbing expectations in North Carolina is the name of the game.
The reasons for the Hurricanes’ struggles are many. The Hurricanes sit last in the NHL in goals per game with 2.10 and last in Team Offensive GVT with a -14.6; that number is shocking considering Puck Prospectus’ VUKOTA expected the Hurricanes to finish 13th in the NHL in goals scored with 241. What’s more, the Hurricanes sit second last in the NHL in goals allowed with 3.68 per game (VUKOTA expected the Hurricanes to finish 14th in the NHL in goals allowed), and a Team Defensive GVT of -3.5. Additionally, the team cannot produce at even strength (worst five-on-five ratio in NHL), on the power play (15.3% leaves the team 25th in the NHL) and cannot effectively kill penalties (79.1% leaves the team 21st in the NHL).
Taking into account the age of this team (average age is over 30 years old), and you can expect the Hurricanes to be looking to sell veterans players in the trade market. With how disastrous this season has been, do not expect that sell now mindset to be too far off.
At least there it is not all doom and gloom in the Southeast Division. The Atlanta Thrashers sit second in the Southeast Division to the Washington Capitals and have a positive goal differential of +13 after seventeen games. The Thrashers have been, not surprisingly, a goal scoring juggernaut. In fact, Atlanta is tied with the Capitals atop the NHL standings in goals per game with 3.65. That is impressive, but even more impressive when you take into account Ilya Kovalchuk’s injury (3.3 GVT, 9 games) and the fact that Bryan Little (0.6 GVT) and Nikolai Antropov (1.9 GVT) have combined for only two goals through almost a quarter of the season.
Puck Prospectus’ VUKOTA was optimistic about the Thrashers’ scoring ability (predicting the team to finish 7th in the NHL in total goals) but was down on the team’s defense (predicting the team to finish last in the NHL in goals against). So far, the Thrashers have exceeded expectations at both ends, with a third ranked offensive in Team Offensive GVT (10.0), and a defense ranked 17th in the NHL in goals allowed per game at 2.88 and a -5.8 Team Defensive GVT. One reason for the Thrashers’ impressive play has been the team’s efficiency at even strength (10th in the NHL) and the group’s extremely dangerous power play (1st in the NHL).
If the Thrashers continue to get solid play from Zach Bogosian (1.5 GVT), Pavel Kubina (2.1 GVT), Tobias Enstrom (2.3 GVT) and Ron Hainsey (1.4 GVT) on the blue line and Onrej Pavelec (-0.2 GVT, .917 save percentage) continues to seamlessly replace Kari Lehtonen in goal, Atlanta could very well exceed their VUKOTA projection of 20th overall in the standings.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning may not be setting the world on fire, but the disaster of 2008-09 is far behind this club. With a full training camp under Rick Tocchet, the Lightning have played as a more cohesive unit than at any time last season. Coming into the season, expectations were low in Tampa Bay—Puck Prospectus’ VUKOTA had the Lightning finishing 26th overall in the NHL this season. After seventeen games so far this season, the Lightning have accumulated 20 points and are actually unbeaten at home with a 5-0-4 record. On the downside, the team is -8 in goal differential but, nonetheless, progress is being made.
The Lightning are 21st in the NHL in goals per game (2.53) and have a -2.8 Team Offensive GVT, which is slightly above where Puck Prospectus’ VUKOTA projected the Bolts to finish (projected to finish 28th in NHL in goals per game). Part of the reason for the team exceeding expectations on offense has been the emergence of sophomore Steven Stamkos (4.9 GVT, 20 points in 17 games). However, for as good as Stamkos has been, the Bolts need more from Vincent Lecavalier (1.3 GVT, 2 goals in 17 games) if the team wants to exceed expectations and compete for a playoff spot.
Defensively, the Bolts sit 14th in the NHL in goals per game (2.76), have a -3.5 Team Defensive GVT, and that is thanks to Tocchet instilling a new defensive mindset, along with Victor Hedman (0.2 GVT), Matthias Ohlund (1.0 GVT) and Kurtis Foster (-0.5 GVT) joining the fold. While the defense has been improved over last season (how couldn’t it be?) the Bolts are still in the bottom third of the NHL in shots against per game.
That is where Anterro Niittymaki comes in. The Finnish netminder has posted a .939 save percentage, a 7.4 GVT, and, for the time being, has stolen the number one job away from Mike Smith (-5.5 GVT).
If the Bolts can get some more production from Vincent Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay (0.9 GVT) and shore up a little bit more on the defensive end, the team could exceed the Puck Prospectus’ VUKOTA projection of 26th in the NHL.
Overall, the Southeast Division has two powerhouse offenses (Washington and Atlanta), one slightly below average team (Tampa Bay), one poor team (Florida) and one awful team (Carolina). The style of play in the division is actually quite exciting but the results for the division have been both surprising and expected.
Checking back halfway through the season will allow a better analysis to take place.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.