It used to be that winning the Southeast Division was easy and that there were many easy games against the five teams in the NHL's southern loop.
Atlanta, Carolina, Florida, Tampa and Washington have all had their well documented struggles as franchises, both in terms of attendance and in the standings, but this season, the division formerly known as the "South Least" is vastly improved, as the Lightning have caught the Capitals at the top and the Thrashers and Hurricanes both continue to battle for a playoff spot.
Based on the average record of the five teams in each division, the Southeast now ranks as the third toughest and the best in the Eastern Conference:
- Central Division: 96.3 point pace
- Pacific Division: 95.2 point pace
- Southeast Division: 93.9 point pace
- Northwest Division: 88.7 point pace
- Atlantic Division: 88.7 point pace
- Northeast Division: 86.1 point pace
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said Monday that the division is as strong as it's ever been, something that makes swings through the area for visiting teams like the Leafs more difficult than they were in the past.
"By far," Maurice said. "You knew it was coming. There were a bunch of years there that we were drafting so high and eventually it's going to all click. And it is.
"Florida is in last place, but they're a very difficult opponent. The team at the bottom isn't serving up points ... And they've got three maybe four really good young players coming up. They had a heckuva draft."
That's a trend in the division, one that has seen Steve Stamkos and Victor Hedman land in Tampa, Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian in Atlanta, Jeff Skinner in Carolina and a whole host of stars in Washington. The Panthers, under new GM Dale Tallon, appear headed in that direction, too, which could shape how analysts and fans talk about hockey in the region going forward.
Maurice is a good voice for the division's progress given just how long he's been a part of it. The Southeast came in with four teams in 1998-99 (a year before Atlanta joined the league) and the former Leafs coach was there with the Hurricanes from the beginning, missing only three years (2005-08) when he was in Toronto.
"At the end of the day, I think the goaltending in our division has gotten better," Maurice said. "[Ondrej] Pavelec comes into Atlanta and he's doing pretty well, you add [Dwayne] Roloson in Tampa. I think we've got one of the best goaltenders in the world [in Cam Ward] and when [Semyon] Varlamov is on his roll [for Washington], he's done well."
As for how hockey's caught on in Raleigh, where the NHL will hold the all-star game this weekend, Maurice said it's working well.
"I think if you asked that question the day before we moved down [from Hartford], there was concern," he said. "How is this all going to work? But I think the fans were pretty accepting, from the time we finally got to Raleigh, of this new idea. I think the team has done a really good job of bringing in the right kind of people for the fans here to accept ... I'm really pleased with the way it has turned out."
The rise of Skinner
One of the major reasons for the Hurricanes' surprising success lately has been the play of 18-year-old rookie Jeff Skinner, the Calder Trophy favourite at this point with 39 points in 48 games for the scoring lead among first-year players. On pace for a 30-goal season, he doesn't turn 19 until mid-May and looks every bit as young as he is.
Even so, he's improving as the season goes along, with eight goals in 12 games in January so far.
Skinner is sitting right next to captain Eric Staal in the Hurricanes locker room this season, just as Staal did as an 18-year-old next to Rod Brind'Amour and Ron Francis when he came into the league.
"He's been the best rookie in the league in my opinion," Staal said. "Day in, day out. It's just his competitiveness, his willingness to want to be great every night. He doesn't want to just be a good player in this league, he wants to be a great player. And he's going to be.
"It's exciting to see him learn and grow and get better everyday. He's a big part of our team already."
Maurice said what's impressed him about Skinner is his worth ethic and maturity, despite coming right out of the OHL.
"He's got a pretty mean, competitive streak in him," Maurice said. "He wants to score. He barks at himself when he's not going. We're really excited about the whole package - not just that he puts the puck in the net or that he creates some offence for his linemates. This guy seems like the right kind of guy to hang onto for a long time."
If you've heard any of Skinner's back story, it may be the fact he was a figure skater growing up, as he competed at a fairly high level (attenting national championships) before giving up that sport to concentrate on hockey. Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said today that one unique thing about Skinner is his shifty skating style, which reminds him of the way Sidney Crosby moves on his feet.
"You never know which way he's going to go," Schenn said, demonstrating how Skinner often points his toes outwards in his skating stance and can evade a defender quickly in either direction.
"When I was a little kid, I was always on the ice," Skinner said.
From Markham, Ont., just outside Toronto, Skinner grew up a Leafs fan and said he looks forward to playing against the team he cheered for right up until the Hurricanes drafted him this past June.
"When I was in Kitchener [playing junior for the Rangers], I still followed them pretty well," Skinner said. "I was a pretty big fan. It was really cool playing in the ACC [in a 4-3 win just after Christmas]. As a young kid, I remember going watching games there. It's still cool playing them."
MacArthur - Grabovski - Kulemin Crabb - Bozak - Kessel Armstrong - Boyce - Versteeg Sjostrom* - Brent - Brown
Beauchemin - Phaneuf Kaberle - Schenn Gunnarsson - Komisarek
(*- Rosehill may play in Sjostrom's place)
Hurricanes lineup (based on last game)
Cole - Staal - Samsonov Larose - Ruutu - Skinner Jokinen - Sutter - Dwyer Tlusty - Carter - Bodie
Corvo - Gleason McBain - Pitkanen Harrison - White