Southeast could be most talented division in NHL

Updated: October 13, 2006, 12:34 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

It may well be that the timing for this is terrible.

After all, forecasting the Southeast Division as the most exciting in the NHL with the most enthralling young players in the sport is a little trickier to argue after the Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers joined forces to produce a 1-0 hockey game Monday night.

Eric Staal
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesEric Staal, one of the league's brightest stars, is a mainstay in Raleigh, N.C.

Then there's the Florida Panthers, who have muscled up to the bar with one goal in the past two games, and that was a 5-on-3 power-play score.

The mighty Carolina Hurricanes, meanwhile, have burst out of the gate in defense of their Stanley Cup title with four goals in their first three games.

Washington? Well, Alexander Ovechkin has a goal. Two, actually.

So all is not lost. Building on Ovechkin and arguing that this division -- once the worst and probably least interesting in the NHL -- might now be not only worth watching but also not to be missed, might not be impossible.

The Bolts and Thrashers just made it a little tougher.

The fact is that the division, born in 1998 to ease the way for Nashville and eventually three other expansion teams, is currently home to the past two Stanley Cup champions, the Lightning and Hurricanes.

Surely that means something.

It terms of "watchability," meanwhile, the Southeast arguably contains more brilliant young talent than any of the other five divisions. Being crappy, of course, has a lot to do with that.

For years, Southeast clubs got kicked around pretty good, and as a result, in the past seven entry drafts, 11 players selected in the first five picks have made their way to Tampa, Washington, Atlanta, Carolina or Florida.

Just as the Quebec Nordiques morphed from an ugly hockey caterpillar into the gorgeous butterfly that was the Colorado Avalanche, so too have those drafts and those high picks gradually improved the quality of an entire division.

How much has the Southeast improved?

Well, you had the 19-win Lightning in the 1998-99 season, the 14-win Thrashers the following season and then a Carolina club that only won 22 games in the 2002-03 season.

No, it wasn't as bad as the Norris Division of the 1980s, a group that one season included a Toronto Maple Leafs club that managed only 52 points in the regular season but made the playoffs because Minnesota had 51.

The Southeast wasn't the Norris. But it was pretty bad.

Now, look at last season. Four of the five Southeast teams improved their point totals substantially, including Carolina (36 points), Atlanta (12 points), Washington (11 points) and Florida (10 points).

Only Tampa got worse, dropping 14 points compared to the season before, and the Bolts still made the playoffs.

What makes the division really compelling, however, is that every single club has eye-catching young talent.

Jay Bouwmeester
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesPanthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester hopes to build on his 46 points from the 2005-06 season.

That Tampa's Vincent Lecavalier, Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk and Ovechkin of the Capitals were all first overall picks means they were good bets to be good NHLers.

But today, they are three of the 10 most exciting players -- not just productive, but inventive and swashbuckling, players actually worth the price of admission in markets where getting people to pay the price of admission is often a chore.

Tampa, however, has not only Lecavalier but also Brad Richards. The Thrashers have a budding star in goaltender Kari Lehtonen and a proven sniper in Marian Hossa, still only 27 years old.

The Caps, in addition to Ovechkin, have Alexander Semin, who burst onto the scene this fall with four goals in his first two games. Defenseman Steve Eminger, meanwhile, is the kind of mobile, puck-moving rear guard that is flourishing these days, and Swedish forward Nicklas Backstrom was the fourth overall pick last June.

Carolina has Eric Staal, right there with Lecavalier, Kovalchuk and Ovechkin as a player who can change a game. The Hurricanes also have goalie Cam Ward, last spring's playoff MVP, a young power forward in Andrew Ladd and a charismatic scoring winger in Justin Williams.

The Panthers, finally, might have a few old coots like Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and Ed Belfour, but they also have defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and forwards Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Rostislav Olesz.

All in all, you have a division with a lot of curb appeal that's getting better and better.

Right now, you could argue the Northwest Division (Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Vancouver and Minnesota) is better top-to-bottom.

But the Northwest just doesn't have the same pizzazz as the Southeast. That said, this doesn't mean the NHL has it made south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Far from it. Almost 40 years after first sticking a toe in California, the NHL is still trying to make the game popular and commercially successful on the U.S. West Coast. With L.A., San Jose and Anaheim all looking competitive this season, it could be the league's best chance yet to make Californians commit to the game.

Then again, we've seen blips before, love affairs with Wayne Gretzky and Paul Kariya that came and went. Likewise, the Canes, Caps, Thrashers, Panthers and Bolts are all far from established franchises with deep roots.

Carolina finally made its first profit for owner Peter Karmanos last season, and it took the Stanley Cup to make that happen. Tampa Bay might have turned the corner for Bill Davidson, but the St. Pete Times Forum still has lots of tickets available many nights. Ted Leonsis has seen success and failure in terms of fan support for the Caps, a team that has been around for three decades but still hasn't won the heart of D.C. for an extended period. The dynamic Ovechkin certainly will help, as will the eight tickets he has bought for every home game this season for charitable purposes.

The Thrashers appear to have settled down internally after a nasty ownership fight, but hockey failed before in Atlanta, and the absence of a playoff berth again last season has added to the sense of urgency for the club to win soon or risk becoming irrelevant on the local sports scene.

In Sunrise, Fla., meanwhile, it's not clear at all whether the Panthers have their act together. Owner Alan Cohen has been an unpredictable proprietor, and again this fall there was controversy at the executive level when Mike Keenan was fired (or resigned) as the team's general manager on the eve of the season.

None of these five teams are among the league's most successful or profitable, and all exist in markets that have failed to demonstrate long-term affection for the sport.

That said, the Southeast does have talent at a time when skill and speed have returned as valued commodities in the game and industry.

If the NHL can't make it work now in these five cities, it might never happen.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.