Our offseason makeovers: A look at the East's non-playoff teams

April, 10, 2009

We're looking at the offseason plans for the 12 teams that were officially eliminated from the playoffs as of Friday morning. We started with the Western Conference earlier today. Now, let's look at the East:

Florida Panthers
The offseason plan isn't too complicated: Get more offense. The Panthers on Friday ranked 11th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference in scoring, and their leading scorer, Stephen Weiss, ranked 65th among NHL scorers. Not good enough. Rookie coach Peter DeBoer was a great hire and deserves huge amounts of credit for squeezing what offense he had from this lineup. Star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is likely headed out the door July 1 as a UFA, so the Panthers can use that money to spend up front, notably for a No. 2 center. They knew all along losing Bouwmeester was a possibility, which is why they picked up Keith Ballard and Bryan McCabe last summer.

Buffalo Sabres
It says here if star goalie Ryan Miller and top goal scorer Thomas Vanek don't miss a month apiece due to injury, this team makes the playoffs. Still, the way the rest of the team didn't respond when those guys were out sends red flags. There's not enough leadership in this dressing room, and that needs to be addressed. Bucky Gleason of The Buffalo News goes much further than that:

    "The roster needs a serious overhaul with a half-dozen changes, maybe more. The Sabres need leaders who make the dressing room less comfortable. They need bigger, grittier defensemen. They need scorers who don't disappear when things get tight. They need to stop dreaming."

There are calls for the heads of GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff from some Sabres fans, but we believe they deserve another season to turn this around.

Ottawa Senators
The offseason began with the signing of rookie coach Corey Clouston to a two-year extension. Good move. The team has played its best hockey in two seasons under his tutelage. Mind you, there was nothing on the line from the moment he took over. Late-season wins for non-playoff teams are sometimes dangerously overrated. So we'll see what we get next season when W's and L's matter. Hopefully by then, his GM, Bryan Murray, will have added a defenseman and another top-six forward. Those are his goals, although meeting them depends on Swedish prospect blueliner Erik Karlsson and whether he decides to make the jump from overseas.

Will Jason Spezza be around? His no-trade clause kicks in July 1. The problem with trading your No. 1 center is how you replace him when he's gone. That's not so say it's impossible with free agency, but it just means it's a huge move that needs a few levels of planning. We think Spezza stays put. A healthy Pascal Leclaire will begin his Sens career in goal in the fall, and that's a big bonus right there. The Sens have been plagued by goalie problems their entire history, but it looks as if they've finally found their masked man.

Toronto Maple Leafs
This much we can tell you: First-year Leafs GM Brian Burke and his right-hand man Dave Nonis will be among the most active men in hockey this offseason. Or at least they will try to be. And we're not just talking about having new faces in the NHL lineup this season. We're talking about major changes throughout the organization in terms of adding more prospects in the system and changing the culture of the franchise.

They've already begun the rebuilding process with a pair of U.S. college free-agent signings (Christian Hanson, Tyler Bozak), but the real dent will happen in June-July-August. We believe the Leafs will take a serious look at Bouwmeester (at 25, he fits the rebuild mold), although there will be a long list of clubs trying to sign him. One thing we're hearing from the Leafs' front office is it won't overpay for players like in years past; the high-end guys need to fit under a ceiling in order to properly build a championship roster.

For more on the Leafs' offseason plans, check out what TSN's Darren Dreger had to say recently.

Atlanta Thrashers
GM Don Waddell was able to move almost $10 million in salary this season to give himself some room to maneuver this summer. Look for him to shop for a veteran defenseman and a top-six forward, as well as a penalty killer up front. This team isn't as far away as some people think. With Ron Hainsey, Tobias Enstrom and impressive rookie Zach Bogosian anchoring the blue line, that part of the team is in pretty good shape, especially if Waddell can add a veteran presence.

Up front, Ilya Kovalchuk needs more help, although under-the-radar Bryan Little had a breakthrough season. The Thrashers also have to decide whether or not Kari Lehtonen, a restricted free agent, is their man in goal, or if Ondrej Pavelec is ready to make the jump. The big offseason question, however, will be answered by the captain. If Kovalchuk, who has one year left on his deal, declines a chance to extend his contract this summer, that could force Waddell to shop him. But Atlanta would much rather keep him.

Tampa Bay Lightning
Well, it's been a fun year in Tampa -- for the media. But let's be fair, we actually do believe there were some positives in the second half, with the improvement of rookie Steven Stamkos and the solid coaching of Rick Tocchet. But GM Brian Lawton must address the team's blue-line woes, and we know he will try. Perhaps the Lightning will get Victor Hedman in the draft; although if they win the lottery, will they be able to ignore the temptation of taking John Tavares?

Tampa Tribune columnist Martin Fennelly had this to say this week on the Lightning's offseason:

    "I'm not ruling out Vinny Lecavalier being on the block, either. Vinny is going to make $10 million next season, this for a team looking to keep payroll at around $45 million -- and get two top defensemen. Yes, one could come in the draft, but let's just say the Lightning traded Lecavalier, because, well, stranger things have happened. Ask yourself: Right now, do you really trust the owners and this GM to get the right guys in return?

    "Here comes the offseason, a large one. This franchise can't take many more years like this one and remain viable. You don't go from 30th to the playoffs, though last season the Flyers reached the Eastern Conference finals after being dead last a year earlier. The Lightning tried that ... and they're 29th. It's still up to the ownership and the general manager to make it right. They're on the clock. Now what?"

Now what, indeed.

New York Islanders
If the last-place Isles win the draft lottery next Tuesday, they will almost certainly choose Tavares first overall in June. The young offensive phenom would be a major boost to a moribund franchise testing even its most ardent fans. But with other young pieces up front, like Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, and a few other promising faces in the system, at least there's a light at the end of the tunnel. The big question for the Isles is whether they can finally get No. 1 goalie Rick DiPietro healthy enough to live up his potential and his massive contract. You have to be concerned since he's already had so many hip and knee problems, and he's only 27 years old.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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