The Carolina Hurricanes have made headlines this off-season as one of the most improved teams in the league and with good reason, they added two legitimate top-six forwards to their arsenal and now possess a very dangerous offense. There has been a lot of talk about this team finding their way back to the playoffs and even coming out on top in their division. Considering that the Florida Panthers won the Southeast with only 94 points last year and no team in the division had a positive goal differential, it's plausible that the Hurricanes could go from the cellar to first place this season. They did a lot to bolster their top-six and will probably be a lot better than they were last season but something that might be getting overlooked is what other teams in the division have done to improve.
It is also easy to forget that teams like Washington and Tampa Bay underperformed last year and could rebound since they were very good teams in recent years. Carolina's roster also isn't without their holes either, especially on defense and that could possibly become a major problem sometime this season. When you look at all five teams in the Southeast, it's very hard to predict who will come out on top because every team has a lot of question marks. Carolina, Florida and Winnipeg all have problems on defense, Washington lost a major offensive weapon and could be depending on a largely unproven goalie. Tampa Bay and Winnipeg also have question marks in goal and that is going to have an impact on what kind of season they have. There are just too many uncertainties in the division right now to make any assumptions.
When you talk about which team improved the most in the Southeast this off-season, you can certainly make a case for Carolina being at the top of that list since they added both Alex Semin and Jordan Staal. What will their team look like next season compared to the rest of the division, though? After the jump, we will look at what the teams in the Southeast Division have done this off-season and what kind of shape they could be in heading into the year.
I have discussed Carolina's off-season moves in more detail in other posts, so this will be a quick overview of what they've done.
The Hurricanes have addressed their need of a stronger top-six by acquiring both Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin. Gaining Staal also kills two birds with one stone because he is a tough-minute center and can take over some of Brandon Sutter's workload. This team should have a very potent offense next year but there are some glaring holes present on the defensive side. Corvo should be a fine replacement for Jaroslav Spacek but they still haven't found someone to take over the tough minutes that Bryan Allen left behind. Allen was regularly used against opposing team's top lines and started the majority of his even strength shifts in the defensive zone, along with Tim Gleason, and it's tough to say who will replace him in that role. Jim Rutherford says that he expects Corvo to be Gleason's defense partner next season but I don't see it happening. Corvo was a third pairing defenseman in Boston last season and I question his ability to play top-four minutes AND be used on the PK regularly again. Either Joni Pitkanen or one of the team's younger defensemen like Justin Faulk will need to step into a tough-minute role next season to make up for Allen leaving. It could be a tough transition and it's one of the reasons why I wanted to see Allen get a one-year extension or for Rutherford to pursue a safer top-four option like Carlo Colaiacovo or Greg Zanon. It also makes losing Dumoulin a tad risky, but that's the price you pay when you acquire a talent like Jordan Staal.
The other moves made this off-season were relatively minor. Spacek is replaceable and Joslin was bought out after being horrendous last season. Gragnani could make the team out of camp next season and play a similar role to Joslin but I'm not sure if the Canes are going to want him to sit in the press box for a month before finally getting to play a game. Wallace will probably be with Charlotte next year, as well since he's spent most of his career in the NHL and the Canes do not need another fourth liner right now. Between Jeremy Welsh, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman, Riley Nash, Zach Boychuk, Chad LaRose, Jiri Tlusty, Tim Brent and Anthony Stewart, they have a surplus of bottom-sixers as it is. The Checkers had depth problems last year anyway, so I assume that's why Wallace was brought in.
The Canes also need a third line center to replace Sutter but I have to think that one of the younger forwards will take over that spot next season. It's a perfect role for Welsh or Dalpe, in my opinion. So, to sum things up, the Canes have a good enough top-six to be a competitive team but the defense could end up being a big problem, especially if an injury happens. They could also end up relying on Cam Ward more than they should, which hurt them for the first half of last season.
Washington appears to have lost quite a bit this summer but the biggest departure without a doubt is Alexander Semin. I know that he was a whipping boy for a lot of Caps fans but it's hard to match his talent and offensive production. That being said, there wasn't a need for George McPhee to commit long-term money to him with the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Stanislav Galiev and Filip Forsberg waiting in the wings. It will be another year or so before those guys are ready for the NHL but all three are potential top-sixers and will be big contributors in Washington. As for next season, Washington took a few low-risk options to help fill some of their holes.
They filled their void at second line center by traidng for Mike Ribeiro, who may need to be kept away from the defensive zone at all costs, and took a shot on Wojtek Wolski to possibly fill one of their top-two right wing spots. Wolski has plenty of talent and has a history of being a very effective goal-scorer, so Washington being able to get him for less than $1 mil. is a wise move by McPhee. The only problem with Wolski is that he is yet another player who may need protection but the Caps do have some other forwards who can eat up defensive zone draws so this may not be as big of a problem. They also need a right winger for the top-line but they have quite a few centers at their disposal so it wouldn't shock me to see someone like Marcus Johansson moved to the top line. He has some experience playing with Backstrom and Ovechkin in the past, if I remember correctly.
Goaltending might be an issue, as well since the Caps are going with a very young tandem of Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth in net, the former being inexperienced (35 NHL GP including playoffs) and the latter is coming off a bad season. Going cheap with goaltending is never a bad thing but I have my doubts with Holtby's performance in the post-season being sustainable.
The Caps didn't gain a lot this off-season but they didn't lost anything of significance other than Semin, either. Vokoun was hurt and was a UFA, Knuble didn't produce much last season, Aucoin spent most of his time in the AHL, Halpern is a fourth liner (albeit a good one) and I don't think Rechlicz played over two minutes a game last year. Washington already has a solid foundation on defense (assuming someone doesn't offer sheet John Carlson) and there wasn't much available this year who could make their forward corps monumentally better, especially with the prospects they have in their system. Their glaring needs were at second line center, which they addressed with the Ribeiro trade and finding replacement for Semin. Like I said earlier, I wouldn't be surprised if Forsberg or Kuznetsov ends up being that replacement in the long-term but I'm not sure who will play there next season. I'm also a tad skeptical about the Holtby/Neuvirth goaltending tandem but if the Caps get league-average performance out of them they should be fine.
Dwayne Roloson bottoming out last season did Tampa Bay in before the All-Star Break last season but they had problems in other areas, defense being the most obvious. The pairing of Brewer/Hedman did an admirable job at carrying most of the load on defense but both Clark & Kubina were brutal as the team's second pairing. Both are gone now and the Lightning replaced them with Matt Carle and Sami Salo, both being significant upgrades. I'm not sure how much Salo has left in the tank but he really can't be any worse than Clark was last season and Carle is a legit top-four defenseman who can be used in all situations. Having him there should take some pressure off Brewer and Hedman to play as much as they did last season. They should also be able to get a decent amount of offense from these two, which is good because TB has had little offense from their blue-liners the last couple of years.
Tampa Bay also addressed their goaltending issues by trading for Anders Lindback, who has performed well as the Predators back-up the last two years. He has starter potential but is still largely unproven, so I have doubts about him solving the Bolts goaltending problems but honestly, a league average performance from a goalie will make Tampa much better than they were last season. Similar to what Roloson did for them in 2010-11. Plus, he's there on a cheap two-year contract and can be moved if things don't work out.
Most of Tampa Bay's other moves center around acquiring forward depth. They didn't have much scoring outside of their top-six and fed most of their depth forwards to the wolves, so they needed better talent there. Acquiring Benoit Pouliot from the Bruins should help out Tampa's third line a little bit. Pouliot has gotten easy zone starts in the past but he's been able to tip possession in his favor regardless and Tampa needed more players like him. Crombeen, on the other hand, is a fourth liner but he did have experience playing a tough-minute role in St. Louis a couple years ago. It wouldn't surprise if Tampa uses him like that.
The one thing to take away from Tampa's off-season is that they didn't lose many quality players, gained a lot by adding Carle and also acquired a player with great potential in Lindback. This should help Tampa get back to where they were a couple years ago and possibly be a darkhorse in the Eastern Conference race. However, it's worth remembering that Lindback has never been a starter in the NHL before, so that may pose a problem. Taking a risk on him wasn't a bad move, though.
Florida was able to ride the OTL point train to their first trip to the playoffs in over a decade and their first SE division crown ever, but will they be able to repeat it? There are a few things standing in the way of that. First, they suffered a big loss on defense in Jason Garrison and replaced him with a 35-year old Filip Kuba. Kuba did play on the Senators top defense pairing last year but his performance was boosted by Erik Karlsson's incredible season, so I would expect him to decline. The good news is that he will probably play in a similar role this year alongside Brian Campbell so the drop off may not be as extreme as some may think. Although, Garrison was a quality tough-minute defenseman before getting moved to a more offensive role, Kuba has barely kept his head above water possession-wise the last couple of years, and that is with a lot of offensive zone starts.
The Panthers also needed to find a replacement for Mikael Samuelsson on the second/third line they should be able to get that from Peter Mueller if he stays healthy. Mueller has been a very good territorial player and still has a lot of offensive upside but he's coming off his third concussion in the NHL. If he stays healthy, then he will do fine on their third line but that's a huge if. Scottie Upshall should be able to take over the tough-minutes Samuelsson played on Goc's line if Mueller is ineffective, as well.
The only bad moves Florida made this off-season were giving George Parros a two-year contract and signing JF Jacques. Both players are your prototypical enforcers who are out there to "protect" their teammates and probably won't play more than seven minutes a game. Really, if these two play regularly then the Panthers' fourth line will essentially become useless since neither contribute much other than being able to drop the gloves whenever they see it fit. This also likely blocks one of their younger forwards from being on the team next year but I would hope that one of their forward prospects would make the team over these two if they are good enough in camp. The Panthers have an extremely deep prospect pool, so they do have depth options available if they need it.
Florida may not be able to repeat last season but they do have a decent future. I'm not sure if any of the moves they made this off-season make them any better than they were a year ago, though. Kuba is a downgrade over Garrison and Mueller's health is a big question mark. Plus, Jose Theodore is a year older and they elected to re-sign Scott Clemmensen to keep Jacob Markstrom in the minors for another year. Anything is possible in the Southeast but I don't know if I would put Florida above Tampa Bay, Washington or even Carolina right now.
It was somewhat of a quiet summer in Winnipeg but the moves they made are going to have a pretty big impact. Signing Olli Jokinen gives them a solid second line center and he could have a very good season now that he isn't going to be playing extremely tough minutes like he was in Calgary. The Ladd-Little-Wheeler line should be able to take care of that. I also like the Ponikarovsky signing because it gives the Jets more forward depth and a player who can drive possession on the third line, which handled virtually all of the defensive zones starts last season. Although, the addition of Jokinen could mean that Slater gets dropped to the fourth line and the third line will have more of an offensive role than last season, which could mean good things for Ponikarovsky.
The bad news is that the Jets are going into next season with almost exactly the same defense corps. Byfuglien and Enstrom were solid in a top-four role last season but Bogosian struggled a bit and they are still going to be banking on Ron Hainsey playing top-four minutes, which could end badly. I was a little surprised that they didn't sign another tough-minute defenseman because that would have helped them at least from a depth standpoint. Hainsey is also injury prone, so they might have to rely on Clitsome, Stuart or someone from the minors to play in the top-four if/when he gets hurt.
The Jets also signed Al Montoya to serve as a back-up to Ondrej Pavelec, who will likely be the starter in Winnipeg for the next five seasons thanks to his contract. Winnipeg is taking a huge gamble with this Pavelec extension because he hasn't proven that he is worth $3.9 mil. per year and has been a below-average goalie for most of his career. If he ends up being terrible then the Jets are stuck with him but Montoya has at least been a solid-back-up so they have someone to turn to next season whenever Pavelec goes through a rough patch.
Winnipeg was in the playoff hunt for most of last season thanks to a weak division and a outstanding home record, so it's possible that they could contend again but I'm not sure if I trust Pavelec to start 50-60 games a year and give the Jets above-average goaltending during that stretch. That being said, the team didn't lose much value this off-season and gained two very good pieces in Jokinen and Ponikarovsky. The next thing they need to do is get this Evander Kane situation squared away because he is going to be a big part of their future. All in all, I think the Jets aren't in too bad of shape for next year and their forward corps is pretty underrated if you ask me. However, a lot of their success could depend on Pavelec and it's very possible that their strong home record could just be random variance, which could make their year go South in a hurry.