With just a few weeks left in the 2010 NHL playoffs and 26 teams already looking towards the summer 2010 offseason and free agency market, the buzz for much of the league has been reduced to mostly rumors.
But that doesn't mean the contract discussions aren't heating up around the league, and the "needs and wants" lists aren't already being compiled. With a large number of UFA's and RFA's coming to the last few months of their contracts with teams around the league, the July free agency market may not be crowded with superstars, but it is most definitely crowded with solid players.
In the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division, which only fielded one playoff team, Washington, who was shockingly eliminated in Round One by an upstart Montreal squad, the talks have been looking forward towards mid-summer for quite a while now. While there aren't any major stars on the verge of a massive free-for-all free agency battle, it would still be quite an understatement to say the Southeast Division's five teams don't have much to deal with over the next four months.
The Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals, the five teams in the division, are prepared to deal with a whopping combined 45 unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and 33 restricted free agents (RFAs) this summer from their NHL and AHL squads. Those numbers are certainly enough to raise a few eyebrows...and get a couple general managers racking up the cell phone minutes.
So, as we inch closer to July and inch into the contract discussions of teams eliminated from the playoffs, it's time to take a look at who's worthy of staying, which positions need help, and who's available to fit their liking for each of the five Southeastern Division teams.
Today, we'll cover the Atlanta Thrashers' outlook towards the hot Georgia summer days of NHL free agency. Check the links at the bottom of the article to read the offseason previews for the other four Southeastern Division teams.
May 22 Edition—Atlanta Thrashers Offseason Preview
2010 Season: 83 Points (second in Southeast, 10th in conference)
Notable UFAs: LW Vyacheslov Kozlov (age 37), RW Colby Armstrong (age 26), C Jim Slater (age 26), RW Maxim Afinogenov (age 29), RW Evgeni Artyukhin (age 26), D Pavel Kubina (age 32), G Johan Hedburg (age 36)
Notable RFAs: C Bryan Little (age 21), RW Niclas Bergfors (age 22), G Ondrej Pavelec (age 21), Clarke MacArthur (age 24)
The Atlanta Thrashers top the division with 13 total UFAs, and that's without longtime-centerpiece and unsettled superstar Ilya Kovalchuk. They also have a few important players on the RFA list, as well, despite a much smaller number.
With just 11 players currently with contracts for next season, the Thrashers do have an estimated $32 million to work with, but they are going to have to do a lot with that sum.
The first priority should seem to be the wings. On the right side, Atlanta will have to re-sign or go find a replacement for three of their four RW's, as the expiring contracts of Afinogenov and Armstrong as well as the RFA status of Bryan Little pose quite an issue for Atlanta. While sources confirm the Thrashers management has already begun contract-extension discussions for Afinogenov and Little, Armstrong is apparently going to be let go.
This will open up a spot for a third-line RW, a position which will probably be filled by a veteran UFA asking for a salary under $1.5 million. While the league free agent list for RW is fairly dimished at the moment, possible candidates may be Minnesota's Petr Sykora, San Jose's Jed Ortmeyer, or perhaps left wing-transfers such as Pittsburgh's Ruslan Fedotenko or Boston's Steve Begin.
On the opposite side, the Thrashers will also have a few holes in their left wing group, too. Three of the four players on this side are also on the "negotiations wire", with Artyukin currently sitting as a UFA and MacArthur and Bergfors (as well as NHL-AHL borderline player Eric Boulton) all as RFAs.
With Evander Kane as the fourth and only without an expiring contract, all members of the 2009-2010 Atlanta left wings club were age 26 or under. However, if the Birds don't come to terms with one of these three, then it will open up a spot for another prime-aged, well-experienced player "off the market."
If the Thrashers want to throw out a bit more money than they'd probably prefer, 29-year-old Raffi Torres is on the market for a little over $2 million, but otherwise it seems their search query might come up just about empty.
A rough estimate says that Atlanta is probably going to have to throw around at least $8 or $9 million (and maybe more) for filling in their gaps on the wings.
Then comes the issue of goaltender, where all three players who appeared in at least one NHL game this season have expiring contracts. With the trade-deadline deal sending Kari Lehtonen to Dallas and the expiring contract of aging, inconsistent Johan Hedburg, it appears Atlanta might have to pay over $2 million alone to keep Pavelec and Peter Mannino with the franchise, and even then, they're still going to need to bring in at least one outsider. The Thrashers' need of a veteran netminder may, in truth, end of being one of the more intriguing storylines to watch.
Intermixed between these other issues, it's crucial for the Birds to jump on top of several of their would-be departing prospects, including UFAs Bryan Little, age 21, and former-Devil Niclas Bergfors, who had 17 points in 27 games for Atlanta after arriving from New Jersey. Those two will also require a decent salary themselves, as contract extensions for both might end up paying up to $4 million per season combined.
Lastly, the Thrashers are going to have to make a tough decision on top-paid, top-pairing defenseman Pavel Kubina, who, at age 32, will be entering the UFA market. The 2010 Olympian put up 38 points for the defensive veteran-lacking Thrashers this year, a minor step down from his 40 points the previous two years, but it's hard to tell whether that's worth his $5 million-per-season contract.
If Kubina is to be let go, it will open up a big spot in the Atlanta defense. Watch for early-30's, mid-range contract players such as Washington's Joe Corvo, Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov, Nashville's Dan Hamhuis, Boston's Dennis Seidenburg, or Montreal's Marc-Andre Bergeron to be scouted out for this opening.
Besides free agency, the Thrashers only other hope for filling some of these empty spots is going to be the NHL Entry Draft, coming in late June.
Sporting the eighth overall selection and then soon after getting their second pick at the 24th overall slot, it appears the Thrashers are going to have just two shots to pick up a couple risky prospects who might be able to legitimately fill a needy position, at least in the upcoming season. It might be interesting to ponder if the Thrashers are going to try to pick up a few long-term prospects with these picks, or just "go for gold".
All in all, it looks like the Thrashers are going to perhaps the busiest Southeast Division team this summer. They may have over half their available cap space to work with, but that extra cash is certainly not going to go unused...that is, unless the Thrashers don't want to build off their 2009-2010 campaign that showed a few glimpses of the future for Atlanta for the first time in a long while.
Check out other Southeastern Division team offseason previews!
Florida: Coming Soon
Tampa Bay: Coming Soon
Washington: Coming Soon
All contract information courtesy of nhlnumbers.com, all statistics courtesy of nhl.com.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the Carolina Hurricanes as well as an avid hockey follower around the NHL. In his 20 months so far with the site, he has written over 195 articles and received over 135,000 total reads.
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