We're well into the offseason now, with the draft and free agent frenzy behind us. While some teams will make various tweaks and possible additions before training camp begins in two months, the cores of the division's rosters are set.
I looked at the updated depth charts on Forecaster.ca  today to see how the division is looking, and how the competition stacks up for against Lightning. While these are not the exact lines for the respective clubs, they give you a pretty good idea of the structure of each teams. Again, these are not exact lines, but the depth charts as Forecaster lists them.
Quick analysis: If the Canes are able to get the good versions of Ruutu and Stewart, theyâ€™ve got some nice 2-way grit to go with their elite-level scorers, Staal and Skinner. If one of Ruutu-Stewart doesnâ€™t pan out, theyâ€™ve got quality insurance with Ponikarovsky. Tim Brent could be the No.3 center before all is said and done. On defense, Allen brings solid stay-at-home play, but the rest are more puck movers than people movers. The could be susceptible to teams that can forecheck well and they can be outworked along the walls. Their power play should be among the best and Ward is always solid in net. They will likely be in the 7-11 range in the conference.
Quick analysis: There is turnover everywhere, but is there a go-to guy? Weiss is a solid player, but is better suited as a No.2 center and their depth at center is mediocre at best. If they can get high-end results from their wings, they may have a chance to flirt with .500, but thatâ€™s a big â€œif.â€ Defensively, the best days of Campbell and Jovanovski are behind them and thereâ€™s not a strong defensive presence anywhere to be found. Thatâ€™s not good when your No.1 goalie has the nickname of â€œthree-or-moreâ€ and the admirable defensive style employed under former coach Peter DeBoer is gone. High turnover plus a new coach and iffy goaltending spells disaster. The Panthers will likely be back on the front row of the draft next summer after a mediocre/good start to the year.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Quick analysis: Simon Gagneâ€™s potential was not replaced in the offseason, but Gagne never reached his potential with the Lightning aside from a few spurts here and there anyway. Bergenheimâ€™s loss will be felt, mostly because he was everything a Guy Boucher player should be â€“ speed, drive, scoring, physical when he needed to be, defensively responsible, etc. Ryan Shannon will have a fine year in Tampa, but Bergenheimâ€™s size and forechecking will be missed in that role. I certainly don't fault Yzerman for passing on Bergenheim at that price. Smart fiscal decision. Gagneâ€™s opening could mean a prospect like Brett Connolly or Carter Ashton plays in the top-6 and brings offense, but with so many forwards who are waiver eligible, that may not happen for a while. Year two of Boucherâ€™s system should be better than year one for the players, too. Defensively, if Gilroy or Gervais can re-discover their offensive potential, it will go a long way toward the Lightning winning the division. When Marc-Andre Bergeron was â€œonâ€ last year, Boucher had him on the ice a lot, pushing the play. If more players are able to do this â€“ including Victor Hedman in Year 3 â€“ thatâ€™s a big plus. MAB is best suited as a No.6/7. The success of their defense is also predicated on the Lightning getting the playoff version of Mattias Ohlund, who struggled at times in the regular season. Ohlund seemed to finally thrive in the left-side role he had in the 1-3-1 by the playoffs. In net, all eyes will be on the health and endurance of Dwayne Roloson. Heâ€™s going to have his off games, but if his approach to the game and to each shot remains at the 2010-2011 level, the Lightning will go far. Mathieu Garon is a fine back-up, but if Roloson goes down, question marks come up. With their coaching, the Lightning should challenge for the division title again. It's possible they could increase their point total from last year and still miss out on the division championship, though.
Quick analysis: I fully expect Joel Ward to be on the top line at some point early in the year if he doesnâ€™t begin there. A gritty player who can make more of an impact than Knuble, heâ€™ll do a lot of the dirty work for that line with better pace than Knuble. Heâ€™s also got some hands. It was a solid signing, even if the full playoff version of Ward doesnâ€™t show up. George McPhee did a nice job adding more grit to the forward lines, which was needed, but again failed to find the proper balance on the back line. Alzner and Schultz could take another jump and become the rock-solid defensive defensemen they were projected to be, but Roman Hamrlik and Dennis Wideman add more of what failed Washington in the past â€“ lack of grit on defense. Will Bruce Boudreau continue to play to win 2-1 games, or will he open things back up again? When the going got tough against the Lightning in the playoffs, it seemed they all threw up their hands and looked at Ovechkin to do the job. Arrogance could be the teamâ€™s nemesis once again next year in the playoffs, but theyâ€™ll be favored to win the division, especially with Vokoun in net.
Quick analysis: True Blackhawks North is a team that, while there is talent, remains weak in the middle up front. They donâ€™t have a true No.1 center and theyâ€™re banking on Ladd, Wheeler, and Fehr to play at levels they havenâ€™t played at consistently. They have the potential to be fine top-6 wingers, but potential and reality donâ€™t often mix. Defensively, their top-2 is great and Enstrom will finally get more publicity in a Canadian market. Beyond the first two, however, there are more question marks. In net, Pavalec is an upper-tier goalie when heâ€™s healthy and on his game, but he doesnâ€™t stay there very long. I fully expect the excitement of the team in a new city to carry them through the first month or two, then the team will fall back like they normally do. If theyâ€™re able to make a push at the end, they could sneak into the playoffs.
As of right now, I donâ€™t expect there to be a huge difference in points among Washington, Tampa Bay, and Carolina. Winnipeg will be in its own point range at four, and Florida is likely picking in the top-3 next year. Were I forced to choose right now, I'd pick Washington to win the division by 3-4 points over Tampa Bay, with Carolina close behind the Bolts.