It's probably not unreasonable to concede the Southeast Division title to Washington a couple of months before the season because when you win by 38 points, you're starting in a different zip code. But the gap figures to narrow quite a bit next season now that three of the teams are being run by new and aggressive general managers.
|Dale Tallon will look to do the same job with the Panthers as he did in Chicago. (Getty Images)|
Meanwhile, Jim Rutherford, who might be the league's most under-appreciated uber-GM, has the Carolina Hurricanes younger, faster and cheaper, while in Washington, George McPhee has Alex Ovechkin.
Here's a snapshot of what the teams have done since the season ended.
Washington Capitals: If the Caps were stunned by losing to heavy underdog Montreal in the first round, they haven't reacted emotionally. Washington really had no plans to bring back goalie Jose Theodore but otherwise have spent the offseason focusing on re-signing valuable young players, and still has plenty of cap room to fill out some spots on the roster. Washington's defense needs to be better, but the Caps are inclined to give youngsters John Carlsson and Karl Alzner a chance to improve themselves before looking outside. There has been some talk that Washington might talk to Mike Modano about joining a team that fits his type of game. Heading: Sideways
Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers have a farm team in Chicago and it's not the Blackhawks. Lately though, it has seemed that way. The Blackhawks have had to dump salaries and Atlanta GM Dudley has been there to help them, taking forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager, along with defenseman Brent Sopel off their hands. All were prominent during Chicago's Stanley Cup run, and will help new coach Craig Ramsey change the backdrop in Atlanta quickly if they match their playoff intensity all season in a much less rabid environment. That may not be easy, but Atlanta also signed a pretty good goalie in Chris Mason at a discount. Heading: Up
Tampa Bay Lightning: Yzerman joins a new owner with deep pockets who has given him the mandate to shake things up in a methodical way. At some point that may involve moving Vincent Lecavalier. In the meantime, the process has begun with the hiring of a new coach, in this case Guy Boucher who came with an impressive AHL and junior record. But Yzerman's boldest moves came when the free-agent market opened and he sent Andrej Meszaros to Philadelphia opening up $4 million in cap space. Soon after Martin St. Louis was signed to a four-year extension and Tampa Bay picked up free-agent goalie Dan Ellis and defenseman Pavel Kubina. The Lightning still have eight roster spots to fill and plenty of cap space to do it, but they will be counting pennies for the time being. Still, this is already a much better Lightning team. Heading: Up
Carolina Hurricanes: The biggest news from the Hurricanes this offseason has the easing of former captain Rod Brind'Amour into retirement, something that was overdue. When Brind'Amour handed over the captaincy to Eric Staal midway through last season, it signaled the changing of the guard that is now what Carolina is all about. GM Rutherford talked about the need to get younger last year and he has been purging the roster to create more playing opportunities for those coming through the system. Carolina biggest free agent foray was bringing defenseman Joe Corvo back from Washington, but the 'Canes picked up a couple of recent first-round draftees in trades, getting Bobby Sanguinetti from the Rangers and Riley Nash from Edmonton. Heading: Sideways
Florida Panthers: It's going to be hard for the Panthers to get noticed in South Florida next winter with the Heat and its stars not far down the road. Maybe that's a good thing because the rebuilding process new GM Tallon has started probably will take some time. But fortunes have tended to change quickly in the NHL recent years. And Tallon has had a lot of cards to play early in his tenure with the Panthers. So far he's used them to load up on great draft picks while tinkering around the edges. Florida still has several holes, but their goalie Tomas Vokoun is world class and there are enough pieces in place to make the Panthers a playoff contender with the right additions. Heading: Up