Offseason Roadmap: Southeast Division
The Southeast is probably going to be the most boring division in hockey this offseason. Three of the teams don't have the financial capability to make the sort of splash they need, and the other two were good enough to mostly maintain the status quo.
Still, we've got two top-5 draft picks to look forward to, as well as the ongoing sagas surrounding the stars for both Florida franchises.
Atlanta Thrashers: We know (or are being told) this much: the Thrashers are hanging on to Ilya Kovalchuk. But to have a chance of keeping him around past this year, the last of his deal, they'll have to put a better team around him. With only $30.8 currently committed to 17 players, they've got the financial situation to make it happen this year. But considering that they'd be stocking up their roster in an effort to have the chance to ink Kovalchuk to a huge contract next year, they have to spend this year with an eye on ensuing seasons. In other words, they have ample cap space, but they have to ration a chunk of it on Kovalchuk in lieu of making a splash this offseason.
But they might not be too far from being competitive, anyway. They've got very solid young pieces locked up cheap in Zach Bogosian, Bryan Little, and Anssi Salmela.
They need some top-line guys to pair with Kovalchuk and a top-four defenseman. And they've got some pieces to deal, including the No. 4 pick in this week's draft and depth at goalie in a weak free agent market at the position (especially if they re-sign Kari Lehtonen, who's a restricted free agent). That won't be enough to net any real "wow" guys, but it could still improve the team's quality and depth (which is sorely lacking). With slight improvements on the roster and the continued ascension of those young guys, the Thrashers could be in the playoff chase next year, or at least show enough potential to convince Kovalchuk to stick around and watch it blossom.
Carolina Hurricanes: They've got their coach of the future (for the second time) locked up, but the Hurricanes have trouble brewing on the blue line. Dennis Seidenberg and Anton Babchuk are free agents (unrestricted and restricted, respectively), and the team is uncertain whether they can retain both, or either. After all, they have some key players to lock up at forward too -- Erik Cole, Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen, and Chad LaRose -- and would like to add a physical defenseman, as well, to diversify the back end.
This is probably a team that is going to lose some of its talent, which is unfortunate given that they were closer to the Stanley Cup Finals than their conference final against the Penguins indicated.
Florida Panthers: They took a gamble keeping Jay Bouwmeester at the trade deadline, opting to push for the playoffs instead of getting a return on their impending departure. They're still trying to get something for his negotiating rights, but first things first -- how about hiring a general manager?
The Panthers are like the Thrashers in that they won't be able to spend a lot (the team will also have to pay the rising David Booth a handsome raise in restricted free agency), so they'll be counting on the continued improvement from those like Booth, Stephen Weiss and Karlis Skrastins on top of some additions from the farm, to again get even close to the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The team is still sort of in a mess, with the biggest questions surrounding the future of Vincent Lecavalier. What direction they decide to go in, and we'll know that answer soon, will give away their concept of next season.
Dealing him means the Lightning are content with blowing it up and re-building around Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, whom they likely will select with the second-overall pick. That's not a bad duo to build around, as Hedman will probably play in the NHL from Day 1. However, by sacrificing the most iconic player in franchise history for a bounty that surely won't have equal value, it's a clear message that Lightning fans should expect another three or so years of equal misery.
They could keep Lecavalier and his enormous contract, on the other hand, and bank on Hedman and some scotch-taping to a woeful blue line being enough to allow the Lightning at least out-score their way out of the land of laughing-stocks.
Washington Capitals: This team is better than their exit point indicated, and when you've got the best scorer (arguably player) in the league and a young goalie who looks to have a bright future, you're going to be OK. And the Capitals have depth up front behind that all-world talent. Still, there's going to be some turnover here. But there will be a reliance on filling those spots from within -- Kari Alzner on defense, perhaps Chris Bourque and Keith Aucoin up front.