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NHL Free Agent Preview: Southeast Division

Jose Theodore was 30-7-7 for the Capitals last season. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Jose Theodore was 30-7-7 for the Capitals last season. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

Atlanta Thrashers

Cap Space – $30.1 million

UFAs – Maxim Afinogenov, RW; Colby Armstrong, RW; Evgeny Artyukhin, LW; Eric Boulton, LW; Johan Hedberg, G; Vyacheslav Kozlov, LW; Pavel Kubina, D; Mark Popovic, D; Christoph Schubert, D.

RFAs –
Niclas Bergfors, RW; Ben Eager, LW; Scott Lehman, D; Bryan Little, RW; Clarke MacArthur, RW; Ondrej Pavelec, G; Anthony Stewart, RW

Needs – The Thrashers need to find stability in net, something they haven’t had yet in the history of their franchise. Kari Lehtonen never got over his injury troubles and was traded last season, while Johan Hedberg seems ready to test free agency. Ondrej Pavelec has been making a push for full-time duty for a few years, but are the Thrashers comfortable relying on a guy who had a 3.29 GAA last season? Also, while they are a young team with some exciting young parts, the Thrashers need an experienced scorer to help replace Ilya Kovalchuk and an experienced defenseman to log serious minutes if Pavel Kubina leaves town.

Ready for the big time – Most of Atlanta’s top youngsters are already in the lineup and it’s probably too soon for the leaders of the next pack, Patrice Cormier and Carl Klingberg, to make the jump next season. However, look for versatile right winger Spencer Machacek to start on the third or fourth line. Machacek has spent the past two seasons with the American League Chicago Wolves, putting up 20-goal campaigns in both years. Angelo Esposito will also get a look, but an injury limited him to only 12 games last season, so it’s likely he starts back with the Wolves.

Carolina Hurricanes

Cap Space – $17.3 million

UFAs – Manny Legace, G; Brian Pothier, D; Ray Whitney, LW

RFAs – Casey Borer, D; Brett Carson, D; Nick Dodge, RW; Justin Peters, G; Alexandre Picard, D; Justin Pogge, G; Bryan Rodney, D

Needs – The Canes could use a tried and true No. 1 defenseman, but are generally the type of team that runs with a blueline by committee. Joni Pitkanen and his $4 million cap hit is the default No. 1, but GM Jim Rutherford won’t rest on that. With only three defensemen signed (plus Jamie McBain set to step in full-time), look for Rutherford to add some solid shutdown depth via the free agent market.

Ready for the big time –
McBain played the final 14 games of last season for the Hurricanes, scoring a surprising 10 points. An offensive-minded blueliner, the second-rounder from 2006 will be ready to go from Day 1 in 2010-11. Up front, with Rod Brind’Amour retiring and vets Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov slowing down, expect Zach Boychuk (Carolina’s No. 1 prospect in THN’s Future Watch) and Drayson Bowman (No. 2) to get their call.

Florida Panthers

Cap Space – $13.9 million

UFAs – No notables.

RFAs – Jason Garrison, D; Kamil Kreps, C; Kenndal McArdle, LW; Tyler Plante, G; Nick Tarnasky, LW

Needs – With Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell traded, the expected movement of Stephen Weiss, concussion concerns around David Booth and the fact they finished with the third-fewest goals in the league last season, the Panthers need a front-line scorer. Sure, they are going through a rebuild all over again and have some excitable depth to start with, but if the Cats are aiming to be a playoff team, GM Dale Tallon will be searching for a true No. 1 pivot.

Ready for the big time –
The guard is changing in Florida, so expect to see a few new faces get a shot in 2010-11. The 10th overall selection from 2007, Keaton Ellerby, has been somewhat disappointing so far in his career, but will now be given a chance to earn his keep. Smallish forward Michal Repik will also see time and the Panthers hope he can develop into another scoring option. If Florida retains Kenndal McArdle it’ll be make-or-break time for another in a long line of disappointing first-rounders for the franchise.

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Tampa Bay Lightning

Cap Space – $23.8 million

UFAs –
Brandon Bochenski, RW; Ryan Craig, LW; Kurtis Foster, D; Mitch Fritz, LW; David Hale, D; Zenon Konopka, C; Antero Niittymaki, G; Mark Parrish, RW; Alex Tanguay, LW; Stephane Veilleux, LW

RFAs – Steve Downie, RW; Martins Karsums, RW; Mike Lundin, D; Teddy Purcell, RW; Paul Ranger, D; Juraj Simek, LW; Radek Smolenak, LW; Paul Szczechura, C

Needs – Goalie Mike Smith has one more year at $2.2 million left on his contract, but the Bolts aren’t about to go into a season with the goalie who lost his job to Antero Niittymaki. Without a netminder from the system ready to step up, expect GM Steve Yzerman to be a player in the thin free agent goalie market. Tampa also only has five forwards signed and needs to re-work a shoddy defense corps. Needless to say, the Lightning have a lot of work to do in the off-season.

Ready for the big time – To try and help the defense problem, Mike Lundin may return as a full-timer and 6-foot-4, 215-pound Ty Wishart, who put up 32 points in 76 games with AHL Norfolk last season, will get a long look. Carter Ashton, a 2009 first-rounder, was impressive at last year’s camp before being returned to junior and may make the squad if he impresses again, especially considering how lean the team is on right wing.

Washington Capitals

Cap Space – $15.9 million

UFAs – Eric Belanger, C; Joe Corvo, D; Alexandre Giroux, RW; Milan Jurcina, D; Boyd Kane, LW; Quintin Laing, LW; Brendan Morrison, C; Shaone Morrisonn, D; Jose Theodore, G; Scott Walker, RW

RFAs – Jay Beagle, C; Chris Bourque, LW; Eric Fehr, RW; Tomas Fleischmann, LW; Boyd Gordon, C; Jeff Schultz, D

Needs – The Caps are starting to draw some comparisons to the San Jose Sharks in their inability to put it together in the playoffs. GM George McPhee added some veteran edge at the trade deadline last season, but as a few bodies line up for unrestricted free agency, the Caps will need to look for more gritty depth. Also, if the team isn’t comfortable with a pair of 22-year-old goalies as its tandem, that position will also need to be addressed.

Ready for the big time –
Michal Neuvirth will give Semyon Varlamov a run for his money between the pipes. Neuvirth was great in the AHL with Hershey last season and led the Bears to two consecutive Calder Cup championships. Also, as the team fills out its defense corps and tries to get all the cap room it can, look for John Carlson and Karl Alzner to stick with the big club on their entry-level deals.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His blog and his column, The Boylen Point, appear regularly.

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