Last season was not a chest-thumping campaign for the Southeast Division. Four of five teams did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Presidents' Trophy winner choked in the postseason.
NHL teams love Southern road trips as an escape to get away from cold-weather locales, but also because the Southeast Division didn't offer much in the way of difficult competition. One club has already begun to bulk up via the trade market, and three new general managers and two new coaches are eager to reverse the fortune of their respective clubs by dipping into the free agent market to address needs.
Here's a closer look at the Southeast Division clubs and what might be expected from them:
Last season: 35-34-13, out of playoffs
New GM Rick Dudley has already addressed the need for size with the acquisitions of forwards Dustin Byfuglien (6-4, 257), Ben Eager (6-2, 230) and Akim Aliu (6-3, 224), and defenseman Brent Sopel (6-1, 201) in a trade with Chicago.
The team has eight forwards under contract for 2010-11, but Jason Krog, Chris Thorburn and Jim Slater are not top-six players. Atlanta's second-leading scorer, Maxim Afinogenov (24-37-61), headlines their UFAs. The rest of the group includes Colby Armstrong, Evgeny Artyukhin, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Eric Bolton. There's better and younger offensive players among Atlanta's restricted free agents -- Niclas Bergfors, Eager, Bryan Little and Clarke MacArthur.
Defense appears to be a strength with Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya, Sopel and Boris Valabik. That group may be able to withstand the loss of UFA Pavel Kubina, which would give an opportunity to Ivan Vishnevskiy, obtained from Dallas in the trade for Kari Lehtonen, or Arturs Kulda.
Goaltending is the biggest area that needs to be addressed. Johan Hedberg and Ondrej Pavelec shared the crease last season, and they are now a UFA and RFA, respectively. Dudley can make a splash by attempting to sign one of several free agent veterans, but he has already given a vote of confidence to the Hedberg-Pavelec duo. Dudley just needs to hammer out the contracts.
Last season: 35-37-10, out of playoffs
The Hurricanes were injury-ravaged last season and missed the playoffs for the third time in four years since winning the Cup in 2006. GM Jim Rutherford began to mold the future look of the team last season by trading away Niclas Wallin, Matt Cullen, Aaron Ward, Joe Corvo, Scott Walker, Stephane Yelle, and Andrew Alberts, all in separate deals that involved draft picks coming back to Carolina.
As a result, the Hurricanes have a roster that's mostly under contract for 2010-11. The only forward that could get away on July 1 is UFA Ray Whitney, their third-leading scorer at 21-37-58. The only other UFA's are defenseman Brian Pothier and goaltender Manny Legace. The latter definitely won't be back, as the backup job to Cam Ward has already been given to Justin Peters, a RFA.
Brett Carson and Alexandre Picard are also RFAs, leaving Carolina with only four defensemen under contract -- Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason, Jamie McBain and Jay Harrison.
Rutherford probably won't be a major player in the free agent market after acquiring forward Riley Nash and defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, former first-round picks from Edmonton and the New York Rangers, respectively, at the Entry Draft.
Last season: 32-37-13, out of playoffs
On one hand, the Panthers have 12 forwards already under contract for 2010-11. On the other hand, Florida was the team with the fewest goals scored (202) in the division last season. A big boost will be having a healthy David Booth (8-8-16), who missed all but 28 games with a concussion.
New GM Dale Tallon has drawn rave reviews in his short time on the job, making 13 selections -- three in the first round -- in the 2010 Entry Draft, and engineering a deal with Boston to rid the team of talented yet disgruntled winger Nathan Horton after he asked for a trade. Tallon acquired offensive-minded defenseman Dennis Wideman, who scored 13 goals in back-to-back seasons before last year. Another trade brought young forwards Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner from Vancouver.
Florida has only five free agents, all forwards -- UFA's Steve MacIntyre and Craig Weller, and RFA's Kamil Kreps, Kenndal McArdle and Nick Tarnasky. Only McArdle is viewed as part of Florida's future.
What the Panthers appear to need most is a big-time forward to play in their top six.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 34-36-12, out of playoffs
Despite the presence of Rocket Richard co-winner Steven Stamkos and 20-goal scorers Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Steve Downie, the Lightning produced only 213 goals last season, placing 23rd in the League. From that group, only Downie is without a contract after July 1 and can be a RFA.
The entire mindset of the franchise has changed with a new braintrust of GM Steve Yzerman, coach Guy Boucher and owner Jeff Vinik, and the three are looking to win immediately, ending a two-year playoff drought.
Tampa's UFA list is lengthy -- forwards Ryan Craig, Zenon Konopka, Alex Tanguay and Stephane Veilleux, defensemen Kurtis Foster, David Hale and Mike Lundin, and goaltender Antero Niittymaki. Joining Downie among the few RFA's are forwards Teddy Purcell, Paul Szczechura and Nate Thompson, and defenseman Paul Ranger.
The offense seems in good hands, but the defense could use a few new bodies to round out a group headed by Mattias Ohlund, Andrej Meszaros, Matt Walker and young Victor Hedman.
Niittymaki appears to be a goner, and the trust in Mike Smith is not high, so a No. 1 goaltender should be Tampa's free agent target. During the Entry Draft there was a rumor that Yzerman had obtained the rights to veteran Chris Mason from St. Louis, but he denied the reports.
Last season: 54-15-13, lost Eastern Conference Quarterfinal
The high-scoring, free-wheeling Capitals were exposed in a shocking first-round playoff exit because of a deficiency on defense, and that will be GM George McPhee's area to address in free agency. The Capitals were said to covet Ottawa UFA Anton Volchenkov, but those rumors have subsided.
Defensemen under contract are Mike Green, Tom Poti, John Erskine, Tyler Sloan, Karl Alzner and John Carlson. That group needs a veteran defensive-minded minute-munching banger. The latest name linked to the Caps is Vancouver UFA Willie Mitchell. Capitals UFA defenders are Joe Corvo, Milan Jurcina and Shaone Morrisonn. The lone RFA is League plus-minus co-leader Jeff Schultz.
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau can roll three offensive lines with the best of them, but to keep the high-scoring ways in Washington continuing, UFA Eric Belanger and RFA's Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr are going to need new contracts. It appears veteran center UFA Brendan Morrison is going to walk.
To help out the defense, a more proven goaltender can be brought in as veteran Jose Theodore is likely a goner, leaving the crease to youngsters Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth (a RFA).
Contact Rocky Bonanno at email@example.com