With most of the dust settled on summer free agents, I wanted to look at what each team in the Southeast has done this off season. If the NHL and NHLPA can show some common sense and come to a CBA deal, the agreement might include a restructuring of the divisions. We could be looking at the last season of the division that is sometimes called the “Southleast”. Most years I chalk those comments up to fans and media who think hockey should be played many miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. Southeast fans had to wear that title last year. Of the 16 teams who made the playoffs in 2011/2012, only two gave up more goals than they scored. You guessed it, the Panthers gave up 227 goals and were -12 while the Capitals were -8 in giving up 230 goals. The Panthers played well in the playoffs taking the Devils to a game 7 overtime and the Capitals were one game from playing for the Eastern Conference title. In fact all 5 teams in the Southeast scored fewer goals than they gave up. What I think this means is that the division is there for the taking. The Hurricanes had only 5 fewer wins than Florida and scored 10 more goals. I am not sold on Florida being a favorite in the division. I look for them to take a few steps back and for the rest of the teams to improve enough to make the last (perhaps) Southeast race a dog fight. Lets look at mid-summer grades for all the Southeast.
Hurricanes- B This grade could go to an A if Jim Rutherford adds a top winger before the start of camp. As much as I hated seeing Brandon Sutter leave, I can’t wait to see Jordan Staal play for the Hurricanes. If Kirk Muller goes with Eric and Jordan at center, the Canes have as good a 1-2 combo as there is in the league. Although Joe Corvo was not the guy I was looking for Rutherford to bring in to help the blueline, there’s no debating that Joe has played his best hockey in Raleigh. The addition of Marc- Andre Gragnani was a nice addition for defensive depth. Losing Bryan Allen hurts the blueline and team toughness. Rutherford said at the Canes FunFest on July 20 that he also wanted to add a “enforcer” to the roster. Whether there is anyone left who fits that description remains to be seen. But when you have a guy like Jordan Staal, you have a guy that is going to be there for his teammates.
Tampa Bay Lightning-A I give the Lightning an A for effort and results. This team went from being one overtime goal away from playing for the Stanley Cup in 2010/11 to giving up 281 goals last year, the most in the NHL. GM Steve Yzerman wasted no time on July 1 by signing Matt Carle for the Flyers. Carle has been a workhorse, missing only 2 regular season games in the last 3 years, while scoring close to 40 points. Yzerman also adding veteran Sami Salo from the Canucks. The biggest improvement the Lighting made was trading for Nashville back-up Anders Lindback, who will replace Dwayne Roloson. Lindback brings a 2.53 GA and a .914 SV% to Tampa Bay.
Florida Panthers-D I’m not sure what the reigning SE champs are doing this off season. They lost Jason Garrison and his 9 PP goals to Vancouver, and replaced him with Filip Kuba. Kuba had 32 points last year with the Senators and 11 PP goals. He was +26 last year, but -26 in 2010/11. Adding Peter Mueller seems like a low risk move. Mueller has been plagued with injury issues the last few years but did score 22 goals in 2007/08. Besides that, Dale Tallon has been busy turning the Panthers into the Charlestown Chiefs. I don’t think adding the likes of Geroge Parros, Andre Deveaux, and Jean- Francois Jacques gets you closer to the Stanley Cup.
Winnipeg Jets–C+ The former Atlanta Thrashers ( sorry, had to do it for all the years I had to hear WhalerCanes from ESPN), finished with 84 points in 2011/12. The Jets added Olli Jokinen and Alexi Ponikarovsky and brought back Kyle Wellwood. Jokinen scored 23 goals for the Flames last year but faded at the end of the year. Former Cane/King/Leaf /Devil Ponikarovsky had a good playoff with New Jersey and turned that into a $1.8 million contract. The Jets summer all depends on signing Evander Kane to a contract.
Washington Capitals–B It’s kind of hard to grade the Capitals. On the one hand I think it is a step forward to get rid on Tomas Vokoun. This will clear the way for Braden Holtby, who really stepped up in the playoffs or Michal Neuvirth. These young goalies might need a veteran back-up, but Vokoun was not that guy. The Caps added Mike Ribeiro from the Stars, and regardless of how you feel about the former Hab, Ribeiro teams with the Nick Backstrom to give Washington great scoring down the middle. It seems the Caps are replacing Alex Semin with a player with the same reputation that he has in Wojtek Wolski. Wolski’s best season was way back in 06/07 when he scored 22 goals while playing for the Avalanche. Getting Mike Green locked up for the next three years is a great signing if he returns to the Mike Green of 2007-2010. With these moves and a happy Great 8, the Caps should be back up to the top of the division and conference.
There is still work to be done by all the Southeast teams. No matter how things turn out, I look for 2012/13 to be a dogfight. Let’s hope the teams can make the division more “southbeast” and less “southleast“.