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June 24, 2010
Plugging Holes
Southeast Division

by Richard Pollock

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What flaws does each Southeast Division team have and what moves can they make to fix these holes?

Plugging Holes: Washington Capitals

The Hole: More help on defense

The Capitals are coming off the wrong side of one of the biggest upsets in NHL postseason history. While there are a number of reasons for the loss to the Montreal Canadiens -- luck is legitimately one of them, too -- the Capitals still lack a shut-down defenseman. Defensemen like Mike Green, Tom Poti and John Carlson can move the puck as well as anyone, but shutdown defensemen they are not. Jeff Schultz (plus-52 goal differential at even strength) clearly made great progress last season, but he is probably more apt to fill in the No. 4 defenseman slot on the team instead of the No. 2 position.

The Fix: Sign D Willie Mitchell (UFA, Vancouver Canucks)

The Canucks' defense missed the dependable Mitchell this past postseason. The stay-at-home defenseman excels at playing a physical game against the opponents' top lines and brings terrific leadership to the table. Unlike Zbynek Michalek and Anton Volchenkov, Mitchell is not going to demand big money on the market. With Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin eating into the team's cap space, signing the 34-year-old to an affordable two- to three-year deal should be a nice addition to a team that is lacking in an area in which Mitchell excels.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Washington Capitals, click here.

Plugging Holes: Carolina Hurricanes

The Hole: A two-way guy on D

The Hurricanes had a disastrous start to last season -- and while the team put together a valiant second-half run, it was not enough to make the playoffs. Carolina, unlike many nonplayoff teams, has a lot of building blocks. The team is built around Eric Staal and has some nice-looking young players in the system in Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Brandon Sutter. With Cam Ward in net, the Hurricanes need to shift their focus to the back end.

The Fix: Trade for Denis Grebeshkov (RFA, Nashville Predators)

Grebeshkov was acquired by the Preds for a second-round draft pick this season, and while Nashville could use a defenseman like Grebeshkov (3.40 points per 60 minutes on the power play) with Shea Weber coming up on free agency after next season, the team is generally keeping costs low. So maybe the former Edmonton stud may be available via trade. The Hurricanes probably wouldn't have to give up more than a second-round selection and Grebeshkov could slide into the team's No. 3 defense spot behind Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Carolina Hurricanes, click here.

Plugging Holes: Florida Panthers

The Hole: A primarily scoring-focused forward

If you have been watching the ascension of the Chicago Blackhawks back into the NHL's spotlight, then you know that former GM Dale Tallon was the main cog in turning around that once-proud franchise. Tallon found himself on the outside looking in last summer after a couple of issues with management in Chicago and became the leader of the Florida Panthers.

In Tallon, the Panthers get a GM who has not only drafted well but has also demonstrated the ability to steal a couple of under-the-radar scoring forwards from well-managed franchises, see: Kris Versteeg (Boston) and Patrick Sharp (Philadelphia). He we won't have the cap flexibility he had in Chicago but he does have some talent to work with moving forward.

The Panthers are set in net, with arguably the best goaltender in the NHL in Tomas Vokoun. While the defensive corps does not exactly rival Philadelphia's or Chicago's, Tallon will probably shift his focus to the team's forwards. The fact is that the Panthers have trouble scoring (2.46 goals-per-game as a team last season which placed them 28th overall in the NHL) and it is almost impossible to win in today's league without putting the puck in the net.

The Fix: Sign Alexei Ponikarovsky (UFA, Pittsburgh Penguins)

Ponikarovsky produced well at even strength for the Toronto Maple Leafs and many thought he'd be a great complement to the Penguins' high-flying offensive attack; it turns out he was anything but a significant factor in the playoffs. While that may cost Ponikarovsky some free agent money, a team like Florida can become the beneficiary of such struggles. Ponikarovsky made $2.5 million last season and the Panthers should be able to sign him for around that reasonable amount and hope he helps to improve the team's stagnant offensive attack.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Florida Panthers, click here.

Plugging Holes: Atlanta Thrashers

The Hole: More goal scorers

Steve Yzerman's hire in Tampa Bay garnered all the press clippings during the playoffs, but the Thrashers' hire of Rick Dudley should not be underestimated. Many people aren't aware that Dudley was one of the men in charge of rebuilding the now-dominant Chicago Blackhawks.

His hire in Atlanta should lead to greater things.

The Thrashers exhibited a run-and-gun style under former coach John Anderson, so the fact the team was 25th in the NHL in goals against per game was not a huge surprise. Conversely, the Thrashers probably scored more goals (12th in NHL in goals for) due to their style of play and defensive indifference than sheer top-end talent. The defense is actually quite solid with Ron Hainsey, Zach Bogosian, Johnny Oduya and Tobias Enstrom as the top four. As a result, expect the Thrashers to add some offense this offseason.

The Fix: Sign Matthew Lombardi (UFA, Phoenix Coyotes)

Lombardi is a speedy center with the ability to create offense. Last season he posted 53 points in 78 games and was the Coyotes' number one center; he's only 29 years old and would add a nice skating element to the Thrashers' top-six. His 7.8 GVT last season is very respectable and his price tag should not be exorbitant. The Thrashers will need to fill the offensive holes left behind by Maxim Afinogenov and, to a lesser extent, Slava Kozlov.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Atlanta Thrashers, click here.

Plugging Holes: Tampa Bay Lightning

The Hole: Defense

Steve Yzerman was thought to be the best "free-agent" front office executive on the market. With a new owner in Jeff Vinik, the Tampa Bay Lightning courted the architect of the 2010 Canadian men's Olympic team and succeeded in their pursuit. Yzerman will be well compensated, and that is a good thing for Stevie Y, because he sure has a lot of work ahead of him.

This squad does not lack for holes this offseason, but the biggest hole is on defense. With Vincent Lecavalier (a quiet 19 even-strength goals last season), Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos (51 goals, 21.2 GVT last season) up front, the Bolts will be able to create some offense. The back end, however, is a different story.

The Fix: Trade for Tomas Kaberle, Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has let it be known that the Czech defenseman is on the market. Moreover, it is understood around the NHL that Kaberle (9.3 GVT last season) would prefer to play on the East Coast. Yzerman comes from Detroit, an organization that has always emphasized puck movement -- starting from the blue line. With the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall, puck movement was not an issue in Detroit during Yzerman's tenure in upper management. In Tampa there are far fewer options.

Kaberle and his 3.313 points per 60 minutes on the power play would be a nice fit for Tampa Bay, as he would instantly become the team's best puck-moving defenseman and he would take pressure off of youngster Victor Hedman. Could forward Ryan Malone (6.2 GVT last season) be dangled to obtain Kaberle? Malone does carry a $4.5 million cap hit, but Burke has to like his style of play and the Leafs could stand to gain some size and aggressiveness up front.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Tampa Bay Lightning, click here.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.

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