Offseason makeovers: Eastern Conference

April, 7, 2011
4/07/11
5:27
PM ET

Carolina remains alive as of Thursday afternoon. In the meantime, we take a look at the six eliminated clubs in the Eastern Conference, what transpired this season and what lies ahead (West comes tomorrow):

Atlanta Thrashers

The Thrashers finished 10th in the East last season with 83 points and with three games left in their season this year were 12th with 78 points. Things looked much more promising in the first half with the Thrashers sitting in a playoff spot after a terrific start. But things derailed in the second half and ended in all-too-familiar fashion.

At the halfway mark, the Thrashers were media darlings, Craig Ramsay getting Jack Adams love, Dustin Byfuglien mentioned for the Norris and Ondrej Pavelec getting Vezina talk.

"It went almost the polar opposite of what was expected," Thrashers GM Rick Dudley told ESPN.com this week. "We thought we would struggle early because we had made so many changes. We thought we'd pick it up as the players got used to the coaching staff and the players got used to themselves. It didn't happen that way. We started off in the first 43 games as a very good team. We did have injuries that played a part, but those are excuses. But the one thing we did prove was that when we're playing well, we were a pretty good team. And it wasn't a five- or 10-game stretch. It was 40-plus games, which suggests you're capable of it. Therefore, we have to take a look at what happened and why. And I think we've got a good handle on it."

Yes, missing out on the playoffs is disappointing, but Dudley -- in his first full year as GM -- believes the big picture looks brighter.

"When you're building and making changes, you're trying to build an elite team," said Dudley, who has made a ton of changes since taking charge. "I would have loved to make the playoffs this year but what I care about more is that eventually this becomes an elite team, one of the five to six teams that can actually win. We are closer to that goal than one might imagine. We're not a long way off from being very good if you look at the pieces we have here. We have some young players capable of being stars."

No real unrestricted free agents of note on the Thrashers' roster but three key restricted free agents: captain Andrew Ladd, young blueliner Zach Bogosian and forward Blake Wheeler.

Looking to the offseason, Dudley won't be scared to make more moves. He made a fantastic deal last June picking up Ladd and Byfuglien from the cap-challenged Blackhawks and will look again to make a trade or two.

"We're in need of probably one top scoring forward," said Dudley. "We could probably use one top-five defenseman."

Some have questioned Ramsay's work behind the bench in the second half but Dudley says no coaching change is coming.

"No, not at all," said Dudley. "I haven't changed my mind on Craig at all. I think Craig Ramsay is a brilliant coach."

Florida Panthers

The Panthers were 14th in the 15-team East last season with 77 points. A year later they sit last with 70 points and two games to play. Make it 10 straight seasons out of the playoffs.

"Well, the first 60 games we were in every game and played hard and the effort was there," first-year GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com this week, reviewing his team's season. "The first and most important thing we wanted to do here was change the culture somehow and bring a new attitude in the locker room. I think we achieved that, set some parameters and some standards. I think overall the players bought into it. I don't think we were deep enough to offset a lot of the injuries that we had throughout the year. Having said that, I'm not happy with the results."

Tallon warned everyone he was taking the long-term view as he aggressively deconstructs and rebuilds this roster.

"We started with last year's draft, which was very successful, and we've accumulated another 10 picks for this year [including one first-rounder, two second-rounders and four third-rounders]," Tallon said.

"The important part is the draft. That puts us in good shape as far as organizational depth. We're also in a unique situation as we have money and flexibility as far as spending for next year to add pieces to help us get to where we need to get to quicker."

The Panthers, who were major sellers at the trade deadline, have only nine players on their current NHL roster signed past this season. That gives Tallon flexibility depending on how many more changes he wants to make.

"It's going to be a whole new look to our team," said Tallon. "We'll add a couple of our prospects and then add new free agents. We need to address our forward position, we need more depth up front. I like our young defensemen and we'd like to add some veteran leadership back there as well."

Veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun is the biggest name who is an unrestricted free agent.

"We haven't really sat down yet [with Vokoun's agent] but we have interest," said Tallon. "We'll see what it comes to. It's a matter of money and term, obviously."

And finally, what about head coach Peter DeBoer? There have been rumblings he might be on the hot seat. Tallon inherited DeBoer from a past regime.

"I'm going to sit down at the end of the season with everybody and we'll see what direction we're headed there," Tallon said of the coach. "We haven't made a decision on that yet."

Ottawa Senators

The Senators finished fifth in the East last season en route to a hard-fought, first-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. While some people saw somewhat of a drop-off coming, almost nobody predicted being near the basement of the league for most of this season. A late-season push raised Ottawa to 13th in the conference -- a drop of eight spots over 12 months.

"Well, disappointing to say the least," veteran Senators GM Bryan Murray told ESPN.com this week. "When we started the year looking at the predictors as well as in-house, we felt we had a very competitive hockey team that could at least contend for a playoff spot. And maybe more than that."

A brutal start killed the Senators' season, and they never recovered.

And as Murray pointed out, the motorcycle accident last August that left their team doctor in the hospital for months and the subsequent November suicide of the daughter of assistant coach Luke Richardson also seemed to take their toll emotionally on the club.

"Some unfortunate things happened throughout the course of the year, off the ice," Murray said. "It seemed to have an effect on our group."

On the ice, starting goalie Pascal Leclaire was basically a write-off this season, appearing in only 14 games as he battled injuries and inconsistency.

"That was a huge setback, not being able to replace that type of player at the most important position," said Murray.

"And like everybody, we had other key injuries, [Jason] Spezza and [Daniel] Alfredsson most notably," Murray said.

In the end, however, Murray doesn't sugarcoat it.

"Bottom line was, we didn't perform, we didn't work hard enough," he said. "It started at training camp and went all the way through. We never really recovered from a mediocre start."

Murray didn't venture into his coaching situation, but it's hardly a secret that Cory Clouston could be fired. Meanwhile, the GM signed a three-year extension with the Senators on Friday, extending a contract that was set to expire this summer.

Murray has already set the table for next season by making wholesale changes during the season. No team was busier selling off bodies.

"Now we've got a group of younger players," he said. "It looks like we have a group here now, with a few more coming, that are going to be good NHL players. We're a much quicker team now."

Murray's signature move this season has to be getting Craig Anderson from Colorado and then signing him to extension (he was UFA-bound). Anderson has been terrific since coming over.

"Getting Craig Anderson to play goal has been a big, big difference in what was going on here," said Murray. "I think every player on the team feels that was a nice upgrade for us and we have a nice starting point going forward now."

Lots of changes already, but if Murray is still GM, he still views a definite need.

"I think the biggest need right now will be a top-six forward that can bring some offense," said Murray.

The current plan is for young goalie Robin Lehner to stay in the AHL next season and play every night while the Senators look for a cheap backup to complement Anderson. At least, that's the plan if Murray remains in charge.

New York Islanders

The Islanders were 13th in the East with 79 points last season, and this year, they found themselves in 14th with 72 points on Thursday morning, having two more games to play.

But many in the industry feel that the Isles made important strides this season with their young core, especially considering the brutal injuries the club suffered right from the onset with top defenseman Mark Streit and top-six forward Kyle Okposo.

"The silver lining with injuries like that is that we get to see what an Andrew McDonald and a Travis Hamonic can do, for example on defense, and Michael Grabner up front after he came over," Islanders GM Garth Snow told ESPN.com this week.

Grabner was a real coup, Snow grabbing him off waivers and seeing the speedy winger blossom into a Calder Trophy threat.

Snow sees the evolution of a young team, pointing to another 30-goal season from Matt Moulson, the maturation of leading scorer John Tavares, the emergence of P.A. Parenteau.

"There's a lot of bright spots in a season where we had all those man-games lost and the adversity that we faced," said Snow. "It's a good sign for our fans next year."

The team's second-half performance is why Snow and Islanders fans are excited for the future.

"Absolutely," said Snow. "I think we're at a stage now where we're ready to take that next step and build off some of the success stories we've had with our club."

We've seen in the past that playing well in the second half when the pressure is off after stinking out the joint in the first half can be a dangerous thing. The real test will be next fall when the Isles must prove this year's second half wasn't a mirage.

The club has 14 expiring contracts, although most of them are restricted free agents. The most notable unrestricted free agent is Zenon Konopka.

"I don't envision too much turnover in our roster," said Snow.

The blue-line corps is set with Streit returning next season, joining Mark Eaton, McDonald, Hamonic, Milan Jurcina and Mike Mottau.

Rick DiPietro, Al Montoya and Kevin Poulin should be the returning netminders next season. The never-ending health saga with DiPietro always clouds this position on this team, but Snow insisted he saw positives this season.

"Rick missed almost two complete seasons," said Snow. "This was a good step for Rick this season to be able to play 25 games. In his case, it's all about staying healthy. And we feel the way Montoya and Poulin played, we feel we have depth at that position."

Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto's second-half playoff run lasted into the final week of the regular season, which likely surprised most people around the league.

In the end, it's a sixth consecutive season out of the playoffs for a team whose Stanley Cup drought now reaches 44 years.

Leafs GM Brian Burke, when contacted by ESPN.com Thursday, turned down an interview because he wanted to wait until next week's end-of-season news conference to share his season synopsis. Fair enough.

Here's what we see: a team that finally in our mind has turned the corner. We see a team, the second-youngest in the NHL, that has foundation pieces in place.

Dion Phaneuf was terrific in the second half and he anchors a blue line featuring Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson as the other top components. Not bad.

The Leafs have also beefed up their organizational depth with the likes of Jake Gardiner and Joe Colborne on the way. Burke added a pair of low first-round picks in trades this season for this June's draft, but of course he won't have his own pick, that belongs to Boston to complete the Phil Kessel transaction.

Kessel, Mikail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin had nice offensive seasons, but the Leafs still sorely lack both size and also a bona fide, No. 1 center, both of which will be Toronto's top priority come the offseason.

It's expected Toronto will go hard after UFA-to-be Brad Richards, but if the Leafs can't get him, they will seek the trade route to try to find a No. 1 center.

Special teams were once again woeful this season and that will be a major offseason focus going into next season. You can't make the playoffs with special teams that rank near the bottom.

Rookie goalie James Reimer was a welcome surprise, his performance in the second half winning him the starter's job for next season. He's a restricted free agent and needs a new deal, however. The backup job will go to either Jonas Gustavsson or a free-agent pickup.

And finally, head coach Ron Wilson will be back next season, Burke announced last week.

Was Toronto's second-half run just another tease like past years? We don't think so. But making the jump into a playoff spot next season will depend greatly on the Leafs' ability to improve their top-six forward group.

New Jersey Devils

Well, where to start?

A tale of two seasons, to be sure, in New Jersey where the Devils had the kind of first half that brought back memories of Mickey Mouse hockey in the swamp.

The summer-long signing saga of Ilya Kovalchuk seemed to cast a shadow over the start of the season, and the long-term injury to star winger Zach Parise felt like a knockout punch.

But the Devils rebounded in the second half with a near miraculous run that for a while looked like it might actually have a chance. The math caught up of course and in the end the Devils are 11th in the East with 79 points as of Thursday morning, a huge drop from the 103 points and Atlantic Division title of a year ago.

"We felt all along that we should have done better, the players thought that, but we didn't do better," veteran GM Lou Lamoriello told ESPN.com Thursday. "The results are what speak for themselves. I take responsibility for that. There were a lot of things that transpired both tangible and intangible that went into the problems that we were having and unfortunately it showed up in our play. Our players lost confidence, I'm sure, in certain situations and lost confidence sometimes in themselves.

"It took awhile but once they regained it, got the composure back and the Devil way of playing, I think all of that came around. The last couple of months have been an indication. ... We made every effort to get out of it and just came up short."

Clearly the offseason priority is Parise, a restricted free agent on July 1. Whispers of offer sheets from opposing teams are rife.

"No question how important he is to our team and organization," Lamoriello said. "And every effort will be made to do it as soon as possible."

The most notable UFAs are defenseman Andy Greene and goalie Johan Hedberg. All-time winningest goalie Martin Brodeur has one more year on his deal at $5.2 million, and he's indicated he's planning to honor it. Brodeur, like his team, was much better in the second half. Turning 39 in May, how much is left in the tank for the future Hockey Hall of Famer?

Still, with a healthy Parise back in the lineup next season, the second-half version of Kovalchuk (who played much better) showing up for 82 games, and the continued emergence of young players such as Mattias Tedenby, Nick Palmieri and Jacob Josefson, surely the Devils can improve from where they will finish this season.

"Some questions were answered with respect to some of our young forwards," said Lamoriello. "Some of them showed they're capable and have the ability to play in the league. Young players like Tedenby, Josefson and Palmieri showed they can play in top-nine situations. That's a positive."

On defense, Lamoriello said that's an area that required further evaluation, hinting that perhaps some tweaking was required there.

Behind the bench, it's still unclear what the future holds for Jacques Lemaire, whose hire in midseason clearly had a huge impact on the team. Lemaire and Lamoriello said they would discuss it after the season.

"It was Jacques' decision when he retired," Lamoriello said. "It will all depend on him, on where his thought process is. We'll sit down and talk about that and go from there."

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