NHL's Southeast now a division of labor

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Cheers and Jeers,Sports,NHL,Capitals,Brian McNally

Former Capitals winger Alexander Semin has taken his elite skill elsewhere after signing a one-year, $7 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes last week. And while some fans -- and possibly even a few teammates -- may welcome the change, the Caps are far from done with Semin yet.

That's because he signed with a Southeast Division rival, and that alone could affect Washington's fortunes next season. After all, the Caps finished second in the division to the Florida Panthers last year even with Semin. It was the first time they failed to win the division title since 2006-07. Now the Southeast appears to be further shedding its image as an NHL backwater. Just qualifying for the postseason could be a challenge.

Carolina added Semin to a low-risk deal hoping he can get somewhere near the 30-goal, 70-point level. They also made a shrewd trade for Pittsburgh center Jordan Staal, who joins his brother Eric Staal, the Hurricanes' captain and best player. There are still questions about Carolina's blueline, but at the very least it must be considered a contender for a division title.

It's possible that the Panthers, who ended Washington's reign atop the division, are a one-year fluke. They did lose defenseman Jason Garrison to free agency and didn't appear to make any serious offensive upgrades. But Florida also has one of the deepest prospect pools in the game and are counting on internal help from top 2011 draft pick Jonathan Huberdeau, among others.

Tampa Bay had no trouble putting the puck in the net last season. But injuries crippled a questionable blueline, and goalie Dwayne Roloson, 42, finally showed his age. So the Lightning swiped solid free agent defenseman Matt Carle from Philadelphia and added Anders Lindback, just 24 and one of the league's more promising backup goalies, in a trade with Nashville.

It's possible none of these three teams is finished yet, and the Caps themselves may do something as well. But whenever the 2012-13 season starts -- a labor battle between the owners and players is ongoing -- it's a decent bet that the Southeast will be the league's tightest race.

- Brian McNally

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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