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June 17, 2011
Plugging Holes
Atlantic Division

by Timo Seppa


With the Stanley Cup heading back to Boston, it's time for every NHL team to evaluate its roster and see how it can retool for next season. The analysts of Hockey Prospectus provide some help, identifying the biggest shortcoming on every NHL roster and offering a unique suggestion on how to fix it for 2011-12. The series starts Thursday with fixes for the five teams in the Atlantic Division, where a familiar face could return to the Penguins and the Flyers may once again have the wrong guy in the crease.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The hole: Top-line winger

No team heads into 2011-12 with a bigger question mark than the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are one healthy Sidney Crosby away from vaulting themselves back to championship contention. But whether the concussion-plagued Crosby is ready for the beginning of the season or not, Pittsburgh's hole remains the same: a true top-line winger to complement its captain or pick up the slack until he's able to return. Ideally, we're talking about a veteran right winger who can improve the Pens' perennially struggling power play.

The fix: Sign RW Jaromir Jagr, UFA (12.8 GVT in 2007-08)

He's 39 years old, three seasons removed from his last NHL campaign, and has donned the colors of the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers more recently than the black-and-gold of the Pens. That said, Jaromir Jagr is a slam-dunk future Hall of Famer, former Pittsburgh captain and two-time Stanley Cup winner. Further, he posted a respectable 71 points in his final NHL campaign and in the 2010 Olympics proved that he could still hold his own against the world's elite. Based on his 42 points in 51 games in the second-best league in the world (Russia's KHL), a 60-point season would be well within reach for the Pittsburgh legend. And if Jagr could duplicate his 4.65 PPP/60 from 2008-09, he'd instantly make himself the Penguins' best option on the man advantage.

New York Rangers

The hole: First-line center

Marian Gaborik's production took a major hit in his second year as a Ranger, dropping to an anemic 0.77 points per game after having consistently stayed above a point per game since the lockout. Blame increasing age, blame the usual injuries, blame a particularly unlucky shooting percentage -- 11.5 percent versus no less than 15.1 percent in the previous five seasons -- but still, things would have turned out better if the Blueshirts had just acquired a legit playmaker to pair up with Gaborik ... as we suggested last offseason. This summer, Glen Sather is clearing cap space for a premium complement to the enigmatic winger, and rightly so.

The fix: Sign C Brad Richards, UFA (17.5 GVT)

A Stanley Cup champion with Tampa Bay in 2003-04, Brad Richards is easily the top unrestricted free agent in what is a pretty thin free-agent class. Therefore, with a modest bump expected in the league's salary cap, look for a cap-max team to pick up Richards unless Tampa GM Steve Yzerman can persuade the 31-year-old veteran to re-sign with the surprising Bolts. Yet the Conn Smythe Trophy winner would patch more deficiencies for the Rangers than his other potential suitors.

The offensively challenged Blueshirts have needed better top-six scoring punch for years, so adding a gifted pivot to distribute the puck to Gaborik would effectively boost production at two first-line positions. Richards has the right mix of skills to fit that bill, scoring at more than a point per game but with twice as many assists as goals. And with an above-average faceoff percentage and strong 5-on-4 scoring rate, Richards slots in as the center on the first power-play unit, instantly providing a boost to New York's ho-hum production on the man advantage.

Philadelphia Flyers

The hole: Proven veteran goaltender

All indications are that the Philadelphia Flyers have finally come to the conclusion that most of the rest of us came to between one to two seasons ago: that the lack of a proven, above-average goaltender is holding back the aspirations of one of the best collections of talent in the NHL. But although GM Paul Holmgren and the Flyers traded with Phoenix for the negotiating rights to Ilya Bryzgalov, it's not a done deal that the Coyotes netminder will backstop the orange-and-black next season. Don't forget that Philadelphia never signed Dan Hamhuis last offseason after similarly gaining his rights.

The fix: Trade for G Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders (29.8 GVT in 2009-10)

Although Bryzgalov is no doubt a solid netminder, he's by no means a sure thing -- consider that three seasons ago he posted an underwhelming .906 save percentage. In addition, he'll command more salary than the cap-strapped Flyers can take on without trading key contributors from among their skaters -- Jeff Carter's name keeps getting mentioned. Other top free-agent goalies such as Tomas Vokoun likely would carry the same problem.

So why not trade with Atlantic Division rival New York Islanders for Evgeni Nabokov (a career-high .922 save percentage in 2009-10 before leaving for the KHL last season), one of several surplus goaltenders whom Isles boss Garth Snow controls? The former Shark's cap hit is obviously very palatable, and a team like the Islanders at or below the cap floor might actually be able to take on a small amount of salary in the right trade.

New Jersey Devils

The hole: Top-pairing defenseman with scoring punch

It's a familiar refrain, but Lou Lamoriello's Devils still need that puck-moving defenseman who's been missing from their fold since Scott Niedermeyer left to win a Cup with Anaheim. Each successive version of the club has lacked more and more in this regard, first with Paul Martin and then with Andy Greene being the best remaining option. In 2010-11, New Jersey's woeful lack of offense stemmed from many factors, including inexperienced coaching, a critical injury and yes, the utter lack of blue-line scoring. We hate to say we told you so but, well, here's what we said in this same feature last offseason: "A couple of duds on the blue line can deflate what should otherwise be a superior offense."

The fix: Trade for D Brent Burns, Minnesota Wild (12.3 GVT)

New Jersey needs a blue-line quarterback to serve as a catalyst for its offense both at even strength and on the power play. Without unattainable free-agent fixes like Nicklas Lidstrom and Shea Weber, a trade may allow New Jersey to stay within the salary cap while acquiring a top option. Brent Burns, 26, is a legitimate top-pairing defenseman who played more than 25 minutes per night for Minnesota in 2010-11 and contributed in all phases of the game. A converted forward, Burns is gifted with scoring skills and offensive instincts that very few defensemen possess. Lamoriello no doubt would need to give up young talent at forward to land Burns, but the Devils' back end is in desperate need of a fix like this.

New York Islanders

The hole: Versatile center

With the Islanders unlikely to be in a position to consider big-ticket free agents soon, the clearest path for them to become a playoff team is through marginal improvements up and down their lineup, in particular with select upgrades to their forward corps. In better shape than you might realize on defense (particularly with their top three of Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic) and with viable options in goal past the injury-prone Rick DiPietro (like Kevin Poulin and Al Montoya), the Isles would do well to push useful wingers like P.A. Parenteau and Matt Martin down to skill-appropriate lines while upgrading over popular but limited forwards like Zenon Konopka.

The fix: Sign C Eric Belanger, UFA (5.6 GVT)

Konopka's on-the-ice skill set consists of elite faceoff ability (57.7 percent), decent defensive skills, a willingness to drop the gloves ... and not much else. With tough guys like Trevor Gillies and Micheal Haley likely returning to the island, a significantly better checking line center man is a logical target for New York. Enter Eric Belanger, who was an absolute steal for the Coyotes last season: their best penalty-killing forward who, for a depth player, scored at a fringe top-six level at even strength. The 33-year-old's faceoff skill (55.6 percent) nearly matches Konopka's, and he can actually help win the puck-possession game after the puck drops, something that's beyond the abilities of the incumbent.

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

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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