Summer preview: Southeast Division - LA Kings Insider

First, I hope everyone is enjoying Memorial Day! As promised, here is the start of a division-by-division look at the NHL heading into the summer, in terms of what each team faces. Here’s how the division finished this season, followed by a team-by-team glance…

1. Washington Capitals, 107 points (1st in Eastern Conference)
2. Tampa Bay Lightning, 103 points (5th in Eastern Conference)
3. Carolina Hurricanes, 91 points (9th in Eastern Conference)
4. Atlanta Thrashers, 80 points (12th in Eastern Conference)
5. Florida Panthers, 73 points (15th in Eastern Conference)

Hanging around?: First of all, we’re still not certain where this team will play next season. It’s like the 2011 version of Ilya Kovalchuk. Regardless of where it plays and what it’s called, this team has a lot of work to do. The Thrashers finished 13 points out of a playoff spot and allowed the most goals in the Eastern Conference. Six of the top seven defensemen from last season remain under contract and the seventh — Zach Bogosian — is a restricted free agent who is almost certain to return. The term “mixed blessing” comes to mind here. In goal, Ondrej Pavelec is only 23 and looks to be a keeper, particularly if he can get a bit more consistent. Up front, the team can build around Evander Kane but needs to get restricted free agents Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler under contract.
Saying goodbye?: The team’s only notable unrestricted free agents are Radek Dvorak, a 34-year-old solid defensive forward who has underachieved on offense, and Eric Boulton, a 34-year-old winger who totaled six goals last season. Among defensemen, Freddy Meyer — who made little impact in 15 NHL games this season — is eligible to depart.
Draft card: Forward prospects Patrice Cormier and Carl Klingberg are still getting accustomed to the pro ranks, but both are considered strong forecheckers and could help the defense at some point.
(Restricted free agents: Zach Bogosian, D; Brett Festerling, D; Riley Holzapfel, C; Andrew Kozaek, LW; Arturs Kulda, D; Andrew Ladd, LW; Ben Maxwell, C; Spencer Machacek, RW; Ian McKenzie, RW; Rob Schremp, C; Anthony Stewart, RW; Blake Wheeler, RW.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Eric Boulton, LW; Radek Dvorak, RW; Jason Krog, W; Freddy Meyer, D; Jared Ross, W; Jaime Sifers, D; Noah Welch, D.)

Hanging around?: The Hurricanes’ playoff push went down to the end of the season, but they fell short. It’s likely that at least a moderate makeover will be in order this summer, although the Hurricanes have three clear cornerstones in center Eric Staal (33 goals), winger Jeff Skinner (31 goals) and goalie Cam Ward. The defense figures to be centered around tough guys Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason, plus the point-producing but inconsistent Joe Corvo. Is that a good thing? Even with Ward, the Hurricanes allowed 239 goals, putting them in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.
Saying goodbye?: Who isn’t? The Hurricanes have only three forwards — Skinner, Staal and Tuomo Ruutu — under contract who played more than 23 NHL games this season. Restricted free agents Troy Bodie, Brandon Sutter and Jiri Tlusty figure to return as well, but the Hurricanes have a slew of unrestricted free agents up front, most notably Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen and Cory Stillman. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, given that the Hurricanes were only an average offensive team this season. Only Cole would be a significant loss, but the question is, who will replace these guys? On defense, Joni Pitkanen is a big-ticket item at $4 million a season, but the Hurricanes would miss his minutes greatly.
Draft card: If Jokinen and UFA center Pat Dwyer move on, are a couple rookies ready to step up? Zac Dalpe had 23 goals in 61 AHL games this season. Zach Boychuk had 65 points in 60 AHL games and also got acclimated with 23 NHL games. Carolina wouldn’t seem to have many (any?) defensive prospects with the potential to step into the lineup.
(Restricted free agents: Brett Bellemore, D; Troy Bodie, LW/RW; Derek Joslin, D; Oskar Osala, LW; Bobby Sanguinetti, D; Brandon Sutter, C; Jiri Tlusty, C/LW.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Casey Borer, D; Erik Cole, LW/RW; Nick Dodge, RW; Patrick Dwyer, RW; Zack Fitzgerald, D; Jay Harrison, D; Jussi Jokinen, LW; Chad LaRose, RW; Joni Pitkanen, D; Justin Pogge, G; Bryan Rodney, D; Cory Stillman, C/LW.)

Hanging around?: When the Panthers fell out of the playoff race — it didn’t take long — the names of David Booth and Stephen Weiss got some decent circulation on the trade-rumor front, but the Panthers held onto both forwards. General manager Dale Tallon is in the early stages of a roster reshaping, but it’s very possible that he will keep both forwards. Restricted free agents Jake Skille and Mike Santorelli have top-six potential. Florida’s top four defensemen remain intact, but other than Dmitry Kulikov, they’re nothing to write home about. If unrestricted free agent Tomas Vokoun moves along, will Scott Clemmensen inherit the role? He’s been solid but rarely spectacular.
Saying goodbye?: Vokoun is 34 and is a steady No. 1 goalie, but not worth the $5.7 million he got paid this season? What will the market be like for him this summer? Clemmensen isn’t exactly awe-inspiring, and it’s presumed that the Panthers don’t yet have a prospect ready to step in and fill the role. Beyond him, the Panthers’ only notable unrestricted free agents are midseason acquisition Sergei Samsonov, a journeyman forward, and a handful of depth forwards who are replaceable. The time is right for Tallon to do some rebuilding.
Draft card: If two prospects come through, the Panthers might be able to address their long-term defensive needs through in-house promotions. Goalie Jacob Markstrom came over from Sweden and put up only average numbers in the AHL this season, but the Panthers like him, and defenseman Erik Gudbranson is talented but probably isn’t quite ready for the NHL.
(Restricted free agents: Nicklas Bergfors, RW; Steve Bernier, RW; Byron Bitz, RW; Brady Calla, RW; Michael Caruso, D; Marc Cheverie, G; James DeLory, D; Mike Duco, LW; T.J. Fast, D; Carl Hudson, D; Tim Kennedy, LW; Jordan Knackstedt, RW; Shawn Matthias, C; Kenndal McArdle, LW; Tyler Plante, G; Michal Repik, RW; Mike Santorelli, C; Jack Skille, RW.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Joe Callahan, D; Ryan Carter, W; Triston Grant, LW; Darcy Hordichuk, LW; Hugh Jessiman, RW; Jeff LoVecchio, RW; Marty Reasoner, C; Patrick Rissmiller, LW; Sergei Samsonov, LW; Alexander Sulzer, D; Bill Thomas, RW; Tomas Vokoun, G; Clay Wilson, D.)

Hanging around?: Tampa Bay scored the second-most goals in the East this season, and the offensive core returns, with veterans Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis under contract and younger players Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell — who became a mythical figure in parts of Southern California by scoring 17 goals — needing contracts as restricted free agents. There’s some young grit among the bottom-six forwards as well. Three veteran defensemen — Brett Clark, Pavel Kubina and Mattias Ohlund — are capable and are in place to help bring along young talent Victor Hedman.
Saying goodbye?: Goalies? Anyone? The Lightning used both Dwayne Roloson and Mike Smith in the playoffs, but both are now unrestricted free agents. Roloson turns 42 in October, so how much does he have left? Smith is still in his athletic prime, but in five NHL seasons he has rarely been consistently good. Tampa’s top AHL goalie, Dustin Tokarski, isn’t considered a top prospect. This will be the biggest question for the Lightning. Simon Gagne made $5.25 million in each of the last two seasons and didn’t top 17 goals in either. Eric Brewer’s leadership will make him a commodity this summer. Sean Bergenheim raised his stock with a strong playoff showing. Randy Jones is also available.
Draft card: Tampa is going to need to get younger on defense at some point, but right now the system is top-heavy with forwards. Last year’s top pick, Brett Connolly, had a 46-goal season in the WHL, while Carter Ashton and Richard Panik were both point-per-game scorers in the OHL and will look to begin their pro careers next season.
(Restricted free agents: Alex Berry, RW; Cedric Desjardins, G; Stefano Gilliati, LW; Johan Harju, LW; Riku Helenius, G; Scott Jackson, D; Blair Jones, C; Mike Lundin, D; Vladimir Mihalik, D; Levi Nelson, C; Marc-Antoine Pouliot, C; Teddy Purcell, RW; Kevin Quick, D; Matt Smaby, D; Steven Stamkos, C; Paul Szczechura, C.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Mike Angelidis, C; Sean Bergenheim, LW; Marc-Andre Bergeron, D; Eric Brewer, D; Chris Durno, LW; Mitch Fritz, LW; Simon Gagne, LW; Adam Hall, F; Randy Jones, D; Nicklas Persson, RW; Dwayne Roloson, G; Mathieu Roy, D; Mike Smith, G; Mike Verance, D.)

Hanging around?: Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin will return up front, and all are 30-goal threats. The Capitals, who allowed the second-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference this season, are expected to return six core defensemen and all three of their goalies. Anything else you need to know? The question is, will the Capitals stay with coach Bruce Boudreau’s defense-first system from this season or not? And, either way, how will they attempt to reshape the roster after yet another terribly disappointing early exit from the playoffs?
Saying goodbye?: Washington brought in veteran forwards Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm for the playoff push, but it would seem unlikely that either player will return next season. In terms of in-house free agents, the Capitals’ focus might be on retaining solid two-way forward Brooks Laich, who made just over $2 million last season. Defenseman Karl Alzner and goalie Semyon Varlamov are both due new contracts, as restricted free agents, but both should be back, unless the Capitals decide to go in a different direction in goal. Brian Willsie is also available.
Draft card: The caveat about Varlamov is tossed in because goalie prospect Braden Holtby was strong in the AHL this season and during a limited run at the NHL level. A couple of prospects with KHL experience — winger Evgeni Kuznetsov and defenseman Dmitri Orlov — were particularly strong at this season’s World Junior Championships while playing for Russia.
(Restricted free agents: Karl Alzner, D; Francois Bouchard, RW; Trevor Bruess, LW; Joe Finley, D; Josh Godfrey, D; Patrick McNeill, D; Mathieu Perrault, C; Simyon Varlamov, G.)
(Unrestricted free agents: Jason Arnott, C; Matt Bradley, RW; Sean Collins, D; Brian Fahey, D; Todd Ford, G; Andrew Gordon, RW; Boyd Gordon, RW; Scott Hannan, D; Andrew Joudrey, C; Brooks Laich, C; Michael Nylander, C; Steve Pinizzotto, C; Dany Sabourin, G; Marco Sturm, LW; Brian Willsie, RW.)