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Western lottery teams hope for postseason return

Friday, 09.13.2013 / 6:00 AM
Adam Kimelman  - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Getting into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Eastern Conference proved a difficult task for the Winnipeg Jets, who have made it to the postseason once in the 13-season existence of the organization, dating to its days as the Atlanta Thrashers.

Will the move this season to the Western Conference help?

The Jets are one of seven teams that will play in the Western Conference this season that sat out the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The question the unlucky seven have been asking themselves since the end of April is what they can do to change those fortunes and go from postseason misses to playoff hits.

With training camps opening this week, NHL.com examines why fans of the subpar seven from a season ago can harbor dreams of top-eight finishes in 2013-14.

WINNIPEG JETS

Last season: 24-21-3, 51 points, four points out of eighth place in the East

How it ended: A loss to the Montreal Canadiens on April 4 dropped the Jets from first in the Southeast Division and third in the Eastern Conference to 10th, and despite finishing 6-2-1 they couldn't make up enough ground on the teams in front of them.

Offseason changes: The Jets added a top-six forward in Devin Setoguchi in a trade with the Minnesota Wild, and another who potentially could play up there in Michael Frolik, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2013 NHL Draft. The Jets also added to their forward depth with free-agent signings Matt Halischuk and Andrew Gordon.

Why they could get in: Being in a more geographically sensible division could be the only difference the Jets need to get to the postseason for the first time since moving to Manitoba. Ondrej Pavelec is more than solid in goal, and the defense should get a boost from talented 2012 top pick Jacob Trouba, who should make his NHL debut this season. And with 2011 top pick center Mark Scheifele ready for full-time NHL work after seeing part-time duty the past two seasons, the Jets could compete with the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild for one of the playoff spots behind the Chicago Blackhawks in the new Central Division.

PHOENIX COYOTES

Last season: 21-18-9, 51 points, four points out of eighth place in the West

How it ended: The Coyotes won four of five to get within two points of a playoff spot April 8, but went 3-2-3 the rest of the way.

Offseason changes: The biggest offseason news was the final settlement of the ownership situation, with Renaissance Sports & Entertainment taking control of the franchise from the NHL. As they neared completion of that deal, the franchise was able to retain general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett. The latter proved beneficial as top free-agent center Mike Ribeiro made Phoenix his choice in large part because of his history with Tippett. The club also was able to re-sign goalie Mike Smith to a six-year contract, keeping him off the free-agent market. Thomas Greiss was signed away from the San Jose Sharks to replace Jason LaBarbera as Smith's backup. Brandon Yip and Tim Kennedy were added for depth among the team's forwards.

Why they could get in: With the ownership saga finally settled, talk can turn solely to hockey. And that talk should be positive with Tippett staying, Smith's long-term deal and Ribeiro's arrival. With a true No. 1 center in place, the Coyotes should see an increase in their offense. And with Smith backstopping Tippett's solid defensive plan, plus a defense led by elite puck-movers Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, it's easy to see the Coyotes in the running for the Pacific Division lead.

DALLAS STARS

Last season: 22-22-4, 48 points, seven points out of eighth place in the West

How it ended: A five-game win streak had the Stars in the conference's top eight April 14, but Dallas closed the season 1-5-1.

Offseason changes: There were changes throughout the organization from the front office to the new design of the uniforms. General manager Joe Nieuwendyk was fired and replaced by former Detroit Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill. Next went coach Glen Gulutzan, who was replaced by former Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. Nill identified center as an area of weakness and made two trades to bolster the position. Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley were acquired from the Boston Bruins in exchange for left wing Loui Eriksson and three prospects, and then the Stars traded defenseman Philip Larsen to the Edmonton Oilers for Shawn Horcoff. Also up front, power forward Valeri Nichushkin, the team's top pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, has a chance to play a significant role. The Stars also added veteran experience on defense by trading for Sergei Gonchar and signing him to a new contract. Goaltender Dan Ellis was signed as a free agent to compete for the backup job behind Kari Lehtonen, while Richard Bachman, who was last season's backup, left as a free agent. Also departing was forward Eric Nystrom.

Why they could get in: Seguin returning to his natural position of center on a top line with Jamie Benn certainly is a good start for a potential playoff team. Peverley is versatile enough to play anywhere in the top nine and Horcoff will bring solid veteran experience. The same can be said for Gonchar, acquired from the Ottawa Senators after a season that saw him score 27 points while averaging 23:59 of ice time per game. Gonchar also is expected to help mentor Nichushkin, the talented Russian right wing taken with the 10th pick of the draft who bolstered his hopes for an opening-night roster spot with a strong showing at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. With Lehtonen backstopping what should be an improved defense under Ruff, there's no reason to think the Stars won't be in the mix for a playoff spot.

EDMONTON OILERS

Last season: 19-22-7, 45 points, 10 points out of eighth place in the West

How it ended: A five-game win streak that carried into early April had the Oilers in the top eight April 3, but they won just three times in their final 12 games.

Offseason changes: General manager Craig MacTavish started to put his stamp on the organization when he fired coach Ralph Krueger after one season and replaced him with Dallas Eakins. MacTavish pledged to change the culture of his team and started by dealing captain Shawn Horcoff to the Dallas Stars in exchange for young defenseman Philip Larsen. Days later he acquired talented left wing David Perron from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for forward Magnus Paajarvi and a draft pick. He also added to the team's defense by signing veteran Andrew Ference away from the Boston Bruins and adding Denis Grebeshkov, who had spent the past three seasons playing in Russia. Jason LaBarbera and Richard Bachman were signed to compete for the backup goalie spot behind Devan Dubnyk, a spot that came open when Nikolai Khabibulin signed with the Chicago Blackhawks. The team also signed free-agent center Boyd Gordon, who won more than 57 percent of his faceoffs last season with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Why they could get in: Top center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could miss the first month of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, but the Oilers' young core looks poised to be playoff contenders this season. A healthy Perron could score 20-25 goals and Taylor Hall could move into the 35-goal realm. With Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov, the Oilers have the making of a strong, speedy, skilled group of forwards. The addition of Ference on defense will add smarts and stability on the ice and strong leadership in the locker room. And in goal, Dubnyk showed last season he could be a quality full-time starter, posting career-best numbers in goals-against average and save percentage. It's not hard to envision the Oilers in the mix for one of the top three spots in the new Pacific Division.

CALGARY FLAMES

Last season: 19-25-4, 42 points, 13 points out of eighth place in the West

How it ended: The Flames were four points out of a playoff spot March 8, but then won just five of their next 17 games to end any hopes of returning to the postseason.

Offseason changes: General manager Jay Feaster pushed the team into full rebuilding mode at the trade deadline, shipping out captain Jarome Iginla and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. Knowing goalie Miikka Kiprusoff was unlikely to return -- he announced his retirement earlier this month -- the team signed free-agent goalie Karri Ramo, who played well the past four seasons in Russia. Power forward David Jones and physical defenseman Shane O'Brien were acquired in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for forward Alex Tanguay and defenseman Cory Sarich. The Flames also added three players in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft, a list headed by center Sean Monahan, the No. 6 pick, who could start the season with the team. The franchise also added depth in the front office, hiring Brian Burke as president of hockey operations.

Why they could get in: Ramo didn't do well in his first NHL stint, but the past four seasons in Russia he's had a goals against average of 2.11 or lower, with two seasons under 2.00. Last season he had a 2.00 GAA and career-best .929 save percentage. Now more mature at 27 years old, Ramo and Joey MacDonald, the backup last season, could form a solid pair in net. Monahan is the big, strong, two-way center the team can use as a foundation for future success. He's just one of a number of young players that should receive plenty of playing time this season, among them Sven Baertschi and Mikael Backlund, recent first-round picks who have shown strong play in short stints. With so much youthful energy, a coach with a track record for success in Bob Hartley and a chip on their collective shoulder that will come with predictions of a fifth straight season out of the playoffs, the Flames could be a surprise contender for one of the final postseason spots in the Western Conference.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Last season: 16-23-9, 41 points, 14 points out of eighth place in the West

How it ended: On Feb. 22, the Predators were fourth in the Western Conference, but went 8-18-4 in their final 30 games.

Offseason changes: With an average of 2.27 goals per game, tied for the fewest in the League last season, the Predators' chief offseason goal was upgrading the offense. While the Predators didn't go after the big names in free agency, the hope is Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom, Matt Hendricks and Viktor Stalberg can complement the returning pieces. Cullen is coming off his best season, based on points-per-game, since 2007-08; Nystrom had 16 goals two seasons ago; Hendricks adds grit and skill to the lower lines; and Stalberg, who had 23 points in 47 games last season, was a key part in the Blackhawks' run to the Stanley Cup. In addition, Carter Hutton was signed to back up Pekka Rinne in goal, and with the fourth pick in the draft, the Predators selected defenseman Seth Jones, who could play in the team's top two pairings. Adding depth behind the bench, Phil Housley joined the staff as an assistant coach after a successful stint leading the United States to a gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Why they could get in: Missing the playoffs last season snapped a three-year run of play into the spring, but with the talent assembled by general manager David Poile, it could be just a blip on the radar. The Preds are stacked from the back-end out. Despite a dip last season, Rinne, healthy after offseason hip surgery, remains among the best in the League at his position. A potential top-four on defense of Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Jones and Ryan Ellis could, by season's end, be the envy of the League. And while few of the names up front will jump off the page, coach Barry Trotz always seems to wring just enough offense out of his players for them to find their way to the postseason. The exception to that rule, however, could be burgeoning star Filip Forsberg, who is ready for full-time NHL work after a five-game cameo last season. The Cullen signing gives the Predators depth and skill up the middle, and with Patric Hornqvist, Mike Fisher and a blossoming Colin Wilson, it's easy to envision the Predators right back in the playoff hunt.

COLORADO AVALANCHE

Last season: 16-25-7, 39 points, 16 points out of eighth place in the West

How it ended: The Avalanche were three points out of a playoff spot when February ended, but went 8-17-4 the rest of the way, including three winless skids of at least four games.

Offseason changes: The changes in Colorado started right at the top, with Josh Kroenke, son of owner Stan Kroenke, taking over as team president. His first hire was Hall of Fame member and franchise legend Joe Sakic to serve as executive vice president of hockey operations. Sakic then hired his former teammate and fellow Hall of Fame member, Patrick Roy, as coach and vice president of hockey operations. On the ice the big acquisition was center Nathan MacKinnon, the first pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. The team also traded for forward Alex Tanguay, part of the last Stanley Cup winner in Colorado, and defenseman Cory Sarich from the Calgary Flames for David Jones and Shane O'Brien. The Avalanche also added Andre Benoit and Nate Guenin to the defense through free agency. Veteran forwards Milan Hejduk and Chuck Kobasew were not retained.

Why they could get in: Sakic and Roy helped the Avs win two Stanley Cups as players, and now they'll bring their expertise to building another winner in Denver. That could come fast as the Avlanche are stacked with talented forwards, including MacKinnon, who dazzled last season while leading the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to the Memorial Cup championship. In Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, the Avs have three potential 30-goal scorers, and outstanding set-up men in PA Parenteau and Paul Stastny. The biggest beneficiaries of Roy's arrival could be goalies Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Varlamov has shown flashes of being a dynamic No. 1 goaltender, and with Roy available to put the finishing touches on him, he could backstop the club into the running for one of the wild-card playoff spots in the West.

Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

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