Southeast: Panthers exceed expectations in 2011-12

By Cory Lavalette

 

Photo: Florida Panthers' forwards Tomas Fleischmann (L) and Stephen Weiss (R) were the top offensive players for the Panthers in their run to the team's first division title (courtesy of

Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI)

There may not be a more surprising playoff team from the 2011-12 season than the Florida Panthers. After years of futility, the Panthers will not only return to the postseason this year, but they also won their first ever division title. For that, they grade out as the Southeast Division’s best team for the recently completed season.

Carolina Hurricanes – A disappointing start led to another disappointing season for the Hurricanes. It also cost head coach Paul Maurice his job. But all is not bad in Raleigh. Maurice was replaced by up-and-coming coaching star Kirk Muller, who managed to transform the team’s identity and light a fire under struggling captain Eric Staal. Carolina was respectable under Muller, but their dreadful start cost them dearly and they missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Great things weren’t expected this year, but not ever really being in the playoff picture was not what the franchise had in mind, either. Grade: C-

Florida Panthers – Several new faces plus a new coach doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. But GM Dale Tallon and rookie coach Kevin Dineen made it all work in Florida. Tallon’s numerous offseason additions added skill and depth throughout the lineup — the most notable being the additions of Brian Campbell and Tomas Fleischmann — and Dineen took the group and molded them into a team capable of not only competing, but winning their division. Toss in another solid season from the always underrated Stephen Weiss, and the Panthers find themselves as the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed. Grade: A

Tampa Bay Lighting – Some short-term injuries definitely hurt the Lightning this season, but struggles in goal and on defense are what truly doomed Tampa Bay in 2011-12. After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Lightning plummeted to 10th in the conference. They allowed an NHL-high 281 goals — 17 more than 29th place Toronto — and Steven Stamkos’s 60-goal season was not enough to keep them in contention. There are still several reasons to be optimistic about the Lightning’s future, but this year proved to be a big step back after their deep run last season. Grade: D

Washington Capitals – Washington is in the playoffs, and as anyone knows that means they have a chance to finally win the Stanley Cup. But if we’re going to grade the Capitals on their regular season, there’s no denying it was a struggle. Bruce Boudreau was fired, replaced by former Capitals great Dale Hunter, and for the first time in his career Alexander Ovechkin was not a point-per-game player, registering just 65 points in 78 games. Tomas Vokoun was unable to stabilize the situation in net, and Nicklas Backstrom’s concussion issues cost him half the season and slowed the once-potent Capitals offense. All that being said, the Capitals may still be the more dangerous of the two Southeast teams that earned postseason berths. Grade: C+

Winnipeg Jets – Despite the late-season stumble, Winnipeg’s season should be considered a success. Not only did the city earn the reputation as a great host to the returning NHL team, but coach Claude Noel did an admirable job making the Jets contenders for both the playoffs and the Southeast Division for most of the season. The team has two emerging stars in Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane, and goalie Ondrej Pavelec has grown into a reliable No. 1 goalie. The main culprit in their 11th place finish: a dreadful 14-22-5 record away from the MTS Centre. Grade: B