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THN Free Agency Preview: Southeast Division

Will Eric Stall have Chad LaRose back as a teammate in 2009-10? (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Will Eric Stall have Chad LaRose back as a teammate in 2009-10? (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

ATLANTA THRASHERS
Cap Space –
$24.4 million

UFAs –
Eric Perrin, C.

RFAs –
Colby Armstrong, RW; Jim Slater, C; Chris Thorburn, C; Boris Valabik, D; Kari Lehtonen, G.

Needs –
To improve the roster – and fast – if they are to keep star Ilya Kovalchuk around longer than one more year. With a chunk of change available for free agents, GM Don Waddell must bring in one or two scorers to play with Kovalchuk and support him from the second line. However, Waddell has said the Thrashers are more likely to improve themselves via trade, so look for Lehtonen or Ondrej Pavelec to be shipped out of town soon for some scoring help and, perhaps, a reliable veteran defenseman.

Ready for the big time –
If he isn’t the goalie who is dealt, Pavelec will be given every opportunity to become the No. 1. The 21-year-old posted a .914 save percentage and 2.58 goals-against average in 40 games with the American League’s Chicago Wolves this year, but struggled in 12 games with the big club (.880 SP, 3.60 GAA). Angelo Esposito has to bulk up, but will be in the running for a roster spot on opening day and while fans can’t wait to see 2009 first-rounder Evander Kane in action, he would be better served returning to the Western League for one more season. Anssi Salmela, acquired from the Devils in early March, played nine games for Atlanta and will likely be a full-timer next season.

CAROLINA
HURRICANES
Cap Space -
$11.6 million

UFAs –
Erik Cole, LW; Chad LaRose, RW; Ryan Bayda, LW; Michael Ryan, C; Dennis Seidenberg, D.

RFAs –
Tuomo Ruutu, C; Dwight Helminen, C; Anton Babchuk, D.

Needs –
A true No. 1 defenseman. It’s unlikely the Canes will be able – or willing – to add such a piece via the free agent market and it is not believed GM Jim Rutherford is actively pursuing any big-ticket trades, either. Seidenberg will be gone, but Rutherford is confident the blooming Babchuk will sign an extension and assume top-four duties next year. The Canes are known for running with a grounded group of average Joes on the back end and there’s no reason to believe they’ll throw big money at the position. Perhaps, then, their biggest need is to just sign the players they currently have with expiring contracts.

Ready for the big time –
2008 first-rounder Zach Boychuk nearly made the team out of camp this year, playing two games in mid-October, so it is reasonable to think he will be in the NHL in 2009-10. A star on Team Canada’s world junior squad, Boychuk scored 57 points in 43 WHL games and has the gritty, two-way style GMs love to see in a young prospect. Another youngster who nearly made the squad last year was Drayson Bowman, a Memorial Cup winner in 2008. With 47 goals in 62 games for Spokane this year, Bowman continued to make the case he and his blistering shot are ready to jump to the NHL. Should the Canes lose LaRose, Cole and Bayda, Pat Dwyer will have a shot at a depth role.

FLORIDA PANTHERS
Cap Space -
$16.6 million

UFAs –
Jordan Leopold, D; Craig Anderson, G; Nick Boynton, D; Karlis Skrastins, D; Ville Peltonen, LW; Radek Dvorak, RW; Jassen Cullimore, D.

RFAs –
David Booth, LW; Anthony Stewart, C, Steve Eminger, D.

Needs –
A full-time GM to bring order to the chaos. Neither Stewart nor Eminger were given offer sheets, Brett McLean was waived and disgruntled defender Boynton is not expected to return. Leopold’s agent has said Florida is an attractive destination, however until the defenseman puts pen to paper, anything is possible.

The team has its core intact (Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss, Booth, Cory Stillman, Michael Frolik, Bryan McCabe, Keith Ballard, Tomas Vokoun), but time and again this group has fallen short of the playoffs, so the Panthers must change the culture and bring in fresh new faces. Without a long-term GM in place, though, this course of action seems highly unlikely and the Panthers will go into next season with a couple high-end contracts supported by cheap youth.

Ready for the big time –
Expect the Panthers to do what they do best – plug holes with rookies devoid of professional experience. The leading scorer on the Rochester Americans last year, Michal Repik, should get a roster spot out of training camp, while defenseman Keaton Ellerby is expected to put up a fight for a blueline spot after spending a year in the AHL to toughen up. With the players dropped off the blueline so far, space is there for Ellerby to step in. Forwards Kenndal McArdle and Shawn Matthias had disappointing seasons with the Amerks, combining for only 44 points and a minus-38 rating, but could find their way onto a dissolving roster.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Cap Space -
$14.7 million

UFAs –
Marek Malik, D; Josef Melichar, D; Jason Ward, RW; Janne Niskala, D; Matt Pettinger, LW; David Koci, LW; Wade Brookbank, LW; Cory Murphy, D.

RFAs –
Martins Karsums, RW; Lukas Krajicek, D; Matt Smaby, D; Noah Welch, D; Mike Lundin, D; Matt Lashoff, D; Mike McKenna, G.

Needs –
There’s no question the Lightning is in dire need of a No. 1 defenseman capable of moving the puck out of the defensive zone and controlling the play in the offensive zone both at even strength and on the power play. While their first round draft pick from this year, Victor Hedman, is expected to jump right in, it’d be good for his development to have a reliable veteran playing beside him.

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For the good of the on-ice product, the team also needs the owners to straighten out their differences and focus on a single, long-term plan for the club and avoid trying to slap together a playoff team by throwing money at second-tier players and making hasty trades they’ll come to regret, like they did last summer.

Ready for the big time –
Hedman will surely join the team and be immediately inserted on the top defensive unit. He should see ample power play time and will probably even be given duty on the penalty kill as well. Ty Wishart will make a run for a roster spot, but the 21-year-old could use another year of seasoning in the AHL while the Lightning sorts out its glut of middle-of-the-road defensemen on the pro roster. Matt Lashoff, an offensive-minded defenseman acquired from the Bruins at the deadline, couldn’t find a spot with Boston, but will be given every opportunity to crack the Lightning’s roster.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Cap Space -
$7.4

UFAs –
Donald Brashear, LW; Viktor Kozlov, C; Alexandre Giroux, C; Bryan Helmer, D; Brent Johnson, G.

RFAs –
Eric Fehr, RW; Boyd Gordon, RW; Chris Bourque, C; Shaone Morrisonn, D; Milan Jurcina, D; Jeff Schultz, D.

Needs –
With the departure of Sergei Fedorov to the Kontinental League, the Caps need a second-line center who is a threat to score to take some pressure off the top line. But don’t expect the team to go out and throw a big-money, long-term deal at anyone, as GM George McPhee has zero interest in going down that road.

Internally, the Caps have Brooks Laich, who filled in admirably for Fedorov when he was injured this season. Chris Clark will be around for the full campaign barring another injury, though his scoring ability is marginal at best and not really what you look for in a second-liner.

Without a whole lot of cap space, it is unlikely the Caps will use any money on a top-line stay-at-home defenseman to compliment Mike Green’s rushing mindset, but will instead again look within the organization at a few young options to step into the lineup.

Ready for the big time –
The leading scorer in the AHL regular season and playoffs, Alexandre Giroux should be able to make the squad in 2009-10 and will be given an opportunity to take over the No. 2 center role – if he re-signs with the team as expected. The Caps also have two intriguing young defensemen in Karl Alzner and John Carlson, who will be given a sniff in training camp. Alzner saw 30 games with the team last year, so it would be a surprise if he didn’t make the NHL from the get-go and Carlson, who was added to the Hershey Bears lineup for their Calder Cup run, has the offensive instincts that mesh perfectly with the Caps, but may spend at least part of the season becoming acquainted with pro life in Hershey.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesdays and his feature, A Scout's Life, appears every second Thursday.

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