Burning Southeast Division questions

JEFF FRANK, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 11:26 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- The Washington Capitals are the only team to post 50 wins in the Eastern Conference in each of the last two years, but their regular season success has not translated into postseason glory. In 2008-09, they fell to Pittsburgh in the Conference semifinals, and last year were beaten by Montreal, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to the No. 8 squad after leading three-games-to-one.

Washington decided to not re-sign goaltender Jose Theodore (replaced in the playoffs for the second straight year), and will go with a pair of untested youngsters in Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. The Capitals No. 1 question is an obvious one ...

WHICH NETMINDER WILL TAKE CONTROL COME PLAYOFF TIME?

Varlamov is the more NHL-ready of the two goaltenders, with 32 career regular season games and 19 more in the postseason. However, his playoff numbers have been far from stellar, with a 10-9 record and a 2.49 goals-against average. He also is not the most durable player, having missed two months last season with a balky groin. On the other hand, his NHL experience should give him the edge over his rival heading into the start of the regular season.

While Valarmov was Washington's main man between the pipes the last two postseasons, Neuvirth was busy leading Hershey of the American Hockey League to a pair of Calder Cup trophies with a 1.98 GAA, a .927 save percentage, and 30 victories in 40 games.

In 22 NHL contests over the last two seasons, Neuvirth is 10-5 but his peripheral numbers are below average at 2.80 and .910. However, he showed his future potential last season allowing two goals or less in 10 of his last 14 starts.

Despite his edge in experience, Varlamov is actually younger than his counterpart by a little more than a month. And even though he has been touted as Washington's future No. 1 goalie, Neuvirth was picked only 11 spots behind him back in the 2006 Entry Draft.

Look for head coach Bruce Boudreau to rotate both netminders for much of the season and then go with the hot hand come playoff time. Which one that will be is anyone's guess.

DID TAMPA BAY IMPROVE ENOUGH TO REACH THE POSTSEASON?

Tampa Bay won 10 more games last season than the year before, but still came up eight points short of the playoffs. Even with Steven Stamkos tying Sidney Crosby for the league lead in goals, the Lightning still finished 28th in the league in goal differential.

Defence and goaltending were the two main areas of concern so Steve Yzerman cleaned house, bringing in three new defencemen and a goalie to battle Mike Smith for the No. 1 slot.

The new general manager let go of both Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker - and their combined minus-25 - in separate deals with the Philadelphia Flyers. In addition, Yzerman brought back Pavel Kubina to Tampa Bay to replace power-play specialist Kurtis Foster.

Dan Ellis, who might be more famous for his recent Twitter activity than his play on the ice, could be the go-to guy in net, but the odds of him besting Antero Nittymaki's 21-18 mark are slim at best.

Tampa Bay was penalized an NHL-best 1,377 minutes last season. However, 459 of those minutes are now gone with the removal of Walker and Meszaros, along with Zenon Konapka and Todd Fedoruk. Those moves should help, since Tampa Bay was 22nd in the league in penalty killing.

The Lightning will probably finish somewhere in the seven-to-nine range in the East. Their playoff fate will depend on how well Ellis and Smith fare between the pipes.

IS CAROLINA SOLELY A ONE-LINE TEAM?

Eric Staal teamed with Tuomo Ruutu for most of 2008-09 and the latter scored 26 goals, the most in his six NHL seasons. Last year, Staal helped Jussi Jokinen produce his finest campaign to date with 30 tallies. Both skaters are expected to play opposite the Thunder Bay native on Carolina's top line.

After that, the Hurricanes are banking on improved seasons from a couple of veterans in Erik Cole and Sergei Samsanov, and the development of youngsters, such as Brandon Sutter, Jeff Skinner, Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Riley Nash, Pat Dwyer and Zac Dalpe.

Take away Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen, who moved on to Phoenix and Minnesota, respectively, and only one regular outside the top three forwards recorded more than 29 points last season.

WILL ATLANTA SCORE ENOUGH TO BE COMPETITIVE?

The Thrashers added a ton of experienced playoff performers in Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager, but if Byfuglien returns to defence, the offence could have a difficult time putting the puck in the net.

Even though Atlanta finished fifth in the Eastern Conference in goals scored last season, only two of the five forwards with 15 or more are currently still with the team. The organization is banking on Bryan Little returning to his 31- goal season from two years ago. However, will he have the linemates capable of setting him up for a bounce-back campaign?

Don't forget the three players Little skated with the most in 2008-09 - Todd White, Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk - all racked up at least 48 assists that season. Is there anyone on this roster capable of doing that in 2010-11? Outside of Nik Antropov, who has had one season in 10 with over 30 helpers, no other forward on the roster has ever recorded more than 35.

The Thrashers should be solid on the back end, but they will be one of the lowest-scoring teams in the entire NHL.

HOW LONG WILL THE REBUILDING PROCESS TAKE IN FLORIDA?

Dale Tallon has quite a task in front of him as Florida's new general manager. The Panthers, who have not made the playoffs over the last nine seasons, move into 2010-11 without their most productive winger as Nathan Horton is now a Boston Bruin.

Florida is banking on a healthy season from David Booth and improvement from Michael Frolik, but with Tomas Vokoun an upcoming unrestricted free agent, the prospects of a 10th straight year watching the playoffs from home is almost a certainty.

Nevertheless, the future is bright in Sunrise, Florida, especially in goal where Jacob Markstrom should reside for the rest of the decade. The defence should be another area of strength with recent first-round draft choices Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, and Keaton Ellerby in line for top-flight minutes.

If Booth can make a complete recovery from multiple concussions, and Frolik and Michael Grabner can become consistent 30-goal scorers, look for the Panthers to become legitimate playoff contenders come 2012-13.


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