During the height of the Bruce Boudreau-era Washington Capitals, the Southeast Division was a joke. Florida was a middling team, Carolina hadn’t made the playoffs in three years and Atlanta/Winnipeg in five. The only real threat was Tampa Bay, but even they weren’t a formidable team beyond Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. That’s now all changing.
Tampa Bay’s been adding key pieces all summer, from Matt Carle to Anders Lindback. Carolina made their big splash by acquiring Jordan Staal. The Jets added some size with Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
But teams with an established core like Washington, or cap-conscious like Florida, are digging in the free agent bargain bins for short-term fixes and potential steals. The two teams have different reasons not to make a big splash (Washington did get Mike Ribeiro, but also had to give up Cody Eakin and a pick), but adding cheap but serviceable bodies gives them extra flexibility and the depth might just push them over the edge.
The Caps opted for former Panther Wojtek Wolski, signing him to a one-year deal worth $600,000. Florida went after another former Colorado Avalanche in Peter Mueller, hoping that the ex-Av may find the same type of sunny success in Miami as Tomas Fleischmann. Mueller agreed to a one-year, $1.725 million deal, and due to his age and experience, is still an RFA at the end of the contract.
On any other team, Wolski is a middle-of-the-road offensive winger with good speed but doesn’t like going into the dirty areas. His 50-point rookie campaign would be enough to, at the very least, land a Calder nomination in any other year, but Wolski entered the league with a bumper crop of young stars, including the three Calder nominees, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Paul Stastny, not to mention Phil Kessel, David Backes, Travis Zajac and Anze Kopitar, among others.
It’s tough to see where Wolski may line up next year, but he’s got an opportunity to play along side Ribeiro or Nicklas Backstrom. If that’s not code for a huge points spike, I’m not sure what is. Even if he ends up with Brooks Laich, Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle or Jason Chimera, at least maybe their work ethic may rub off on Wolski. The ball’s in Wolski’s court. Should he falter, the Caps have the option of promoting Stanislav Galiev or permanently playing Marcus Johansson or Mathieu Perreault in the top six.
It was interesting to see that the Avs elected to not qualify and retain Peter Mueller. I can’t say it’s surprising, given Mueller’s injury history, but more so because I get the feeling the Avs are in a state of flux again. They’re in a holding pattern to see how Matt Duchene and Erik Johnson can further develop, opting to give them both contracts with shorter terms (Duchene got two, Johnson got four) and see if they can carry the franchise. The alternative, of course, is to completely hand over the reigns to Gabriel Landeskog and build around him and Ryan O’Reilly instead.
Like Wolski, Mueller cracked the 50-point barrier as a rookie, but also ran into the same problem, having to face Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom, Carey Price and Sam Gagner in Calder voting. And, also like Wolski, Mueller has failed to re-capture any of that rookie magic. Keep in mind, Mueller is still 24 years old and has played only 254 NHL games, which is significantly less than his 2006 draft peers. Most of the players who’ve managed to stay in the NHL have already topped 300 games played. Jordan Staal and Phil Kessel will have eclipsed 500 by the end of the 2012-13 season, barring any sort of setback or injury.
This will be Mueller’s first full season since sitting out the entire 2010-11 season. He was scoring half a point per game in his return, which means there’s still lots of potential in the former eighth overall pick. Florida doctors are confident he’s completely recovered from his concussion and Mueller himself feels the best he’s ever been in quite some time. This is also a homecoming of sorts for Mueller, whose parents once lived in Boca Raton, Fla.
While Wolski will benefit from playing with some great offensive talents, Mueller is the opposite. If the Panthers want to have a fighting chance at returning to the playoffs in a division that got much better less than two weeks into free agency, Mueller has to play a significant role. There are plenty of holes in Florida’s offense, which ranked 27th in the league last year. Depending on how you view Stephen Weiss, the Panthers are still lacking a No. 1 or No. 2 centre (though that could be fixed with Jonathan Huberdeau), but other than Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and maybe Sean Bergenheim, the team lacks a ton of top six offense.
The best part is that if Mueller pans out, the Panthers need only qualify him to retain his rights. It’s a very low-risk, high-reward gamble that almost certainly has zero possibility of not panning out at all, and the same can’t be said for Wolski.