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Free Agency preview: Southeast Division

Tuesday, 06.26.2012 / 9:00 PM / NHL Free Agency 2012

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Free Agency preview: Southeast Division
No team in the Southeast Division scored more than its opponents last season. The teams head into free agency looking to get better on offense and defense.


The Florida Panthers in 2011-12 became the first team in five seasons other than the Washington Capitals to finish first in the Southeast Division.

Though that could be the start of something good with regard to competitive balance for the foreseeable future, let's not forget that the Southeast also was the first division post-lockout in which every team was outscored by its opponent. The Caps actually sported the best goal differential at minus-8, but the division was outscored by a whopping 129 goals last season.

Was it a lack of offense, struggles on defense, or inconsistent goaltending that led to the statistical anomaly? It was probably a combination of the three, but there's little doubt all five teams will be looking to improve via free agency.

Here is a roster-building cheat sheet for the Southeast Division teams. The salary cap figures come from Capgeek.com and are based on the $70.2 million salary cap that teams will be operating under come July 1:

FLORIDA PANTHERS
(94 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference)

Needs: Scoring depth

Wants: Re-sign defenseman Jason Garrison, offensive depth

Means: $29,555,500 in cap space with 16 players already signed

Kris Versteeg
Kris VersteeG - 2012 PLAYOFFS
Right Wing - FLA
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 5
SOG: 18 | +/-: 2
Targets: The Panthers will first look to lock up several of their own players, including restricted free agents Kris Versteeg and Dmitry Kulikov and UFA Jason Garrison. Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said he has already made Garrison an offer. There's a chance Tallon takes a shot at one of the big free agents on the market, including defenseman Shea Weber or forward Zach Parise, but don't expect him to engage in a bidding war.

Florida took the New Jersey Devils to seven games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and looks destined for a longer run in 2012-13 if the high-end prospects within the system make their mark as expected. There's no need to panic here -- the Panthers have drafted extremely well and their core is made up of players already signed long-term: Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski. The team's top pick in 2011, center Jonathan Huberdeau, appears ready for the next level.

Scott Clemmensen might be a priority considering goalie prospect Jacob Markstrom is likely to start the season with San Antonio in the American Hockey League. Clemmensen completed his third season with the Panthers as the backup to Jose Theodore. He's mulling a one-year offer the Panthers made him earlier in June.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS
(92 points, 2nd in Southeast Division, 7th in Eastern Conference)

Needs: Scoring depth

Wants: Point producers, depth at all positions

Means: $20,805,428 in cap space with 17 players already signed

Targets: Following a productive NHL Draft with the selection of six forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender, GM George McPhee named New Jersey Devils assistant Adam Oates the 16th head coach in franchise history on Tuesday. Newly elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Oates takes over a team that came within one win of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.

McPhee will need to surround Oates with the personnel needed to upgrade the power-play -- the Caps finished 18th in the League in 2011-12. The acquisition of Mike Ribeiro on June 22 filled a need for an experienced top-six center with great playmaking ability behind Nicklas Backstrom.

Power-play specialist Dennis Wideman was traded to the Calgary Flames on June 27, and there's a good chance McPhee will also lose scorer Alexander Semin and veteran Jeff Halpern to free agency. The Caps have said veteran Mike Knuble will not be re-signed. Might Washington look within its own division for Wideman's replacement -- Florida UFA Jason Garrison? If Garrison's asking price is too steep, Philadelphia's Matt Carle could be targeted.

One other question to ponder out loud would be if Zach Parise would now have any more interest in joining the Capitals considering his familiarity with Oates?

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
(84 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 10th in Eastern Conference)

2012 FREE AGENCY

Free agency previews (by division)

With free agency opening Sunday at noon ET, NHL.com takes a look at the needs of all 30 teams -- division by division -- as well as the Top 10 free agents in each division:

Needs: Defensive depth, goaltending

Wants: Mobile puck movers on defense

Means: $19,453,084 in cap space with 19 players already signed

Targets: Lightning GM Steve Yzerman wants to get faster and bigger along the blue line, so that might seem to be priority No. 1 in free agency. Surely, Yzerman is looking long and hard at the possibility of signing either Nashville UFA Ryan Suter or RFA Shea Weber. The Lightning have four blueliners signed for 2012-13, including Eric Brewer, 33, and Mattias Ohlund, 35.

Yzerman already consummated a pretty significant deal with Nashville GM David Poile when he acquired goalie Anders Lindback on June 15. Just because Yzerman traded for Lindback, however, doesn't mean the 24-year-old Swede is entrenched as the team's starter. Yzerman said the 6-foot-6 player has "the potential to develop into the No. 1 goaltender we covet."

Dwayne Roloson, who made 31 starts for the Lightning last season, saw his save percentage drop nearly 30 points (to .886) and his goals-against average increase by more than a goal a game (to 3.66). It wouldn't be surprising if the Lightning opted not to re-sign the 42-year-old with Lindback and prospect Dustin Tokarski waiting in the wings.

Perhaps lost in all the talk of deficiencies on defense and in goal is the fact Tampa Bay is not getting any younger up front with Martin St. Louis (37), Ryan Malone (32), Vincent Lecavalier (32) and Adam Hall (31). There are some good young prospects in the system, but no one is ready to make the jump. If Suter or Weber aren't possible, perhaps Parise could be lured to join Steven Stamkos.

WINNIPEG JETS
(84 points, 4th in Southeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference)

Needs: Scoring, veteran savvy

Wants: A big center, a backup goalie

Means: $27,832,042 in cap space with 16 players already signed

Targets: Despite missing out on the playoffs, the Jets did have a triumphant return to the 'Peg. The club has plenty of cap space, but don't expect GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to go on a spending spree. The Jets need to maintain their focus and remember they're in this for the long term, and at the moment they seem to be right on course.

Evander Kane, Alexander Burmistrov, Zach Bogosian and Ondrej Pavelec are vital to the team's short-term success. With the exception of 20-year-old Kane, who scored a team-leading 30 goals this past season, the remainder of that core is at least signed through next season.

Pavelec, who posted a 29-28-9 record with a 2.91 GAA in 2011-12, was certainly a co-MVP with Blake Wheeler by the end of the regular season. The 24-year-goalie was given a nice raise Monday to remain the team's starter, and Cheveldayoff also traded for the negotiating rights to Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson on June 23. "The Monster" would serve as Pavelec's backup if he is signed. Defenseman Paul Postma and forward Mark Scheifele are two prospects on the cusp of sticking with the team.

Additionally, it's possible Cheveldayoff might consider the services of UFA center Paul Gaustad. The 30-year-old would fill two needs: veteran leadership and a big, strong body down the middle.

CAROLINA HURRICANES
(82 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 12th in Eastern Conference)

Needs: Complementary scoring

Wants: A winger, veteran defenseman, a third-line center

Means: $22,530,000 in cap space with 19 players already signed

Ray Whitney
Ray WhitneY - 2012 PLAYOFFS
Left Wing - PHX
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 7
SOG: 34 | +/-: -1
Targets: Now that Carolina GM Jim Rutherford has reunited the Staal brothers with the acquisition of center Jordan Staal on June 22, it's time to start bringing in wingers to complement the former Pittsburgh Penguins third-line pivot.

For starters, how about 29-year-old right wing PA Parenteau, who established career highs with 18 goals and 49 assists last season with the New York Islanders. The Isles are loaded at forward, so the team might not challenge any serious offers on the table.

Perhaps Rutherford will jump into the Parise sweepstakes or instead make a play for Ray Whitney, who spent four seasons in Carolina before signing with Phoenix on July 1, 2010. A more potent winger will certainly help provide more time and space for the Staals down the middle.

The addition of Jordan Staal was huge for Rutherford, who now has another solid center with playoff experience and skill at killing penalties. The loss of Brandon Sutter in that trade might force Rutherford's hand into filling that hole with the signing of another center. Perhaps Gaustad, who is solid defensively and strong on faceoffs, is on his radar. Or the team could insert Jeremy Welsh or Tim Brent, who was utilized as fourth-line pivot in 2011-12, into that role.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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