Persistent whispers have spread around the interwebs lately that the Washington Capitals lack of free agency "improvements" will allow the other members of the Southeast Division to compete with the Caps for the top spot this coming fall. Whether the result of the Thrashers' offensive addition of Dustin Byfuglien, or the Bolts bolstering their blue line with Pavel Kubina, an uneasy "fear" has crept into the hearts and minds of many of the Caps faithful in response to the organization's lack of free agent moves. We felt is was time to quantify the madness, and break down the division signing-by-signing to determine exactly where our opponets sit as we continue to move toward the 2010-11 season.
Signed: Chris Mason
Lost: Johan Hedberg
I see this as an upgrade but not substantial. Pavelec looked poised to be the starter and it will be interesting to see if Mason can continue to put up numbers like he did in STL with a significantly less skilled defense. I will say I see Chris Mason as being underrated by most, he won't lose you many games but he won't win you many either. Moderate Upgrade.
Acquired: Brent Sopel
Lost: Pavel Kubina
Sopel is considered a puck moving defenseman. Why I won't ever know. While I expect him to be more consistent defensively than Kubina, he still can suffer from the same issues while putting up less offensive figures. His cap hit is less than Kubina's but for a good reason too. Moderate Downgrade.
Acquired: Dustin Byfuglien
Lost: Ilya Kovalchuk
Not really a 1 to 1 as they came over at different times, but you have to look at the fact the expectations are for Buff to play 1st line Left Wing, which is where Kovalchuk played. Statistically, there is no comparison, intangibly Buff could add a good net presence and physical play. Buff played great in the post season, but you have to get there first. Can he produce more than the 34pts he's provided in the past? Some think so, either way it's still not anywhere close. Significant Downgrade.
Key Losses: Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Kubina
Still yet to sign: Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Niklas Bergfors, Maxim Afinogenov, Evgeny Artyukin, Vyacheslav Kozlov
Considering they have a new coach, a new system and some significant other signings that need to occur to before they even bring back a good chunk of their offense. They are still a ways away from being a top contender, considering they were a few points out of a playoff spot, if they are able to bring back Ladd, Bergfors, Afinogenov they'll be in a good position to make the playoffs. They do that and they could make 90-93pts.
Acquired: Joe Corvo
Lost: Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward
I am not going to add Brian Pothier in to the "Lost" category just yet as it's still possible for them to bring him back, and he played well there. Doing so will make this a "Slight Downgrade". I see CAR bringing up McBain as well to get more ice time. That being said, the defensive corps was significantly weakened by two big name players departing that contributed a lot to the team. Signing Picard could help but it's not a guarantee. If they sign Picard, keep Pothier, and use McBain, their D should be about Even. Significant Downgrade.
Acquired: Oskar Osala
Lost: Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, Rod Brind'Amour
I know Brinds was due to retire and played an ever decreasing role, but two solid contributors in Cullen & Whitney walked. Brandon Sutter will help bolster that center position next year as he's developing into a great player, though that's not a guarantee. That's a lot of production and experience that walked away. Significant Downgrade.
Key Losses: Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, Rod Brind'Amour, Aaron Ward
Still yet to sign: Brett Carson, Alexander Picard, Brian Pothier, Manny Legace
Considering that CAR announced it will be operating well under the salary cap again ($47M) I don't see much change as they are slowly going to develop some of their talent pool. I anticipate them to end up in a similar place overall with a .500 win percentage and 84-88pts. Fourth in the South East missing the playoffs.
Acquired: Dennis Wideman
Lost: Keith Ballard
This one is pretty tough, as the defenders have different roles. Ballard is more all around, while Wideman has more offensive upswing. The fact that the cap hit is slightly less with Wideman I think offsets things even if you feel Ballard is the better player. EVEN.
Acquired: Michael Gabner, Steve Bernier
Lost: Nathan Horton
The idea is to offset the loss of their 2nd most offensive producer with two moderate producers. Gabner could develop into 20-30g scorer, but that has yet to be seen as he's only played 20GP. If he does end up producing at that level it would make this deal a huge
success. As it stands it's a risk as he's small and a prospect. There's no reason to think total production wise that they can't reach the same production of Horton, but the likelihood is that it will be a decrease. Additionally, Horton ate up a lot of minutes so that will mean either more rotations or a big promotion. Slight Downgrade.
Key Losses: Nathan Horton
Still yet to sign: Greg Campbell, Jason Garrison
It's possible some of the players like Booth, Weiss and Gabner step it up, though it's very unlikely what with the depth at center on that team. I see FLA being in the bottom of the league again this year as they have made little changes and their prospects are relatively unknown. It will be pure luck if they break 80pts, that or a combination of incredible goaltending from Vokoun and timely scoring from the above.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Acquired: Pavel Kubina
Lost: Andrej Meszaros
This signing is a little strange as it's a "Glory Day" type signing. Considering what they wanted from Meszaros and how much they were paying him Kubina is a better fit as his cap hit is slightly less. Defensively it's a slight improvement in this swap, but not significantly as Kubina is still getting older and that means wingers with speed will still give him issues. Moderate Upgrade.
Acquired: Dan Ellis
Lost: Antero Niittymaki
Smith really struggled this past season, and after looking so solid in Dallas the year before. I like Dan Ellis, but statistically he and Nittymaki are an even swap. I see Ellis being able to win the starting role away from Smith, but as far as being a significant improvement over Nittymaki, that's not likely. EVEN.
Key Losses: Alex Tanguay, Zenon Konopka, Jeff Halpern, Kurtis
Still yet to sign: Steve Downie, Nate Thompson, Paul Ranger
I know that there is a lot being made about Steve Yzerman coming in, and it's possible his draft choice in Brett Connolly is able to step right onto the ice to help out that offense more, but to me that is only a part of the issue in TBL. For as much as we lament about our defense there's is significantly worse. There is a lot that needs to get done before I'm able to make a strong conclusion but right now they haven't changed much.
Atlanta Thrashers - Moderately Improved
- Last Season = 83pts for 23th in the League
- This Season Estimation = 2nd in the Southeast with 90-93pts. At Best 6th seed in the East, at worst the 8th seed.
- 15 out of 23 roster spots filled.
- They've added overall depth in exchange for individual scoring, but it remains to be seen what the new system will look like and how the additions will fit in. I could see them finishing anywhere from the 6-8 spot as they just missed the post season last year. They still have a bunch of players to sign and that will really tell if this is a Moderate or just a Slight improvement.
Carolina Hurricanes - Moderately Worsened
- 19 out of 23 roster spots filled.
- Last Year = 80pts tied for 24th in the League
- This Year = 4th in the Southeast with 84-88pts. Miss the playoffs.
- They lost out on a lot of veteran depth at the forward position. I also can see them running a smaller roster between 21 and 22. How they finish out that Top 6 will really be what make or breaks that team. If they go with prospects don't expect much change.
Florida Panthers - Even
- 21 out of 23 roster spots filled.
- Last Year = 77pts for 27th in the League
- This Year = 5th in the Southeast with 72-78pts. Miss the playoffs.
- They're building up the stable still losing Horton as one of their top producers could either be a blessing or a failing. They were pretty bad last year so the only place to really go is up, but their acquisitions don't give us any reason to think they've improved enough to break out of the bottom 10 teams in the league.
Tampa Bay Lightning - Slightly Worsened
- 15 out of 23 roster spots filled.
- Last Year = 80pts tied for 24th in the League
- This Year = 3rd in the Southeast with 84-88pts. At best 8th Seed, At Worst Miss the playoffs.
- Alex Tanguay and Kurt Foster made up for a surprisingly large chunk of offense (6th and 7th on the team). The addition of Kubina will be an offensive improvement over Meszaros which might help other producers, but they are still horribly weak on the back end and their goaltending really needs to be more consistent. I could see Ellis stepping up, but that won't be enough to carry them past the 1st round of the playoffs if by some fortune they make it there.
You’ll notice that there is still plenty of time to sign restricted free agents, add one of the remaining big names in free agency or conduct a trade, so this analysis is somewhat premature. Even as it stands though, the assumption that somehow these teams got incredibly better over night is a far cry from the net losses and gains that they actually made. While the Southeast Division is constantly improving, and in a game where a single or bounce can be the deciding factor, nothing is set in stone and the majority of these teams have the potential to improve from the bottom 5 of the league to cracking the top 16. Whether the Capitals dominance over teams like ATL and FLA will continue, and whether the competitive matches between TBL and CAR will remain close remains to be seen. At the end of the day teams that make acquisitions in free agency are still having losses that they need to replace. For the most part, these losses have been greater than the return.