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East: Which playoff misses could turn into hits?

Tuesday, 08.17.2010 / 5:01 PM / NHL Insider

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

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East: Which playoff misses could turn into hits?
Seven teams from the Eastern Conference missed the playoffs last season. Which ones have the best chance of enjoying a long spring of hockey in 2011?
Summer may be the most enjoyable time of the season for many people, but when it comes to NHL teams, they want to put off the start to the fun times as long as possible.

For the seven Eastern Conference teams that missed out on the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoff party, their goal since the second week of April has been figuring out how to extend their seasons into May -- or even June, like the conference champion Philadelphia Flyers.

So how can the teams that missed the fun turn into postseason hits? With about a month until training camp opens, NHL.com today examines why fans of the unlucky seven can hold onto their playoff hopes.

NEW YORK RANGERS

Last season -- 38-33-11, 87 points, 1 point out of eighth place

How it ended -- The Rangers went into the final day of the season with a chance to clinch a playoff spot. But Olli Jokinen missed on the final shot of the shootout in Philadelphia, which started the Flyers' miracle run to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Offseason changes -- Two-time 30-goal scorer Alexander Frolov and Todd White, who had 22 goals and 73 points two seasons ago, were added to help improve an offense that scored just 219 goals last season, 16th in the League. Goalie Martin Biron was signed to back up Henrik Lundqvist, who appeared to tire down the stretch after playing 73 games. Derek Boogaard was added to replace Jody Shelley in the toughness department.

Why they could get in -- Despite their offensive struggles, the Rangers still went into Game 82 with a chance to make the playoffs, so the talent clearly is there. Frolov should be hungry to return to the goal-scoring form he had earlier in his career with the Kings, plus he's working on a one-year contract. The biggest acquisition, however, could be Biron. While his numbers didn't look good last season with the Islanders, Biron is a competent, veteran goaltender who will make the locker room a better place just by his presence. Also, coach John Tortorella will have the confidence to play Biron 15-20 games during the season, which will make for a more rested Lundqvist -- and when Lundqvist is on his game, there aren't many better in the League.

ATLANTA THRASHERS

Last season -- 35-34-18, 83 points, 5 points out of eighth place

How it ended -- The Thrashers had a little bounce after the Ilya Kovalchuk trade, but they won just three of their last 10 games to finish as playoff observers once again.

Offseason changes -- Rick Dudley was promoted to GM, where he replaced Don Waddell, who became team president. Dudley then went to work reshaping the roster, with a big hand from his previous employer, the Chicago Blackhawks. Dudley acquired forwards Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager and defenseman Brent Sopel off the Hawks' Stanley Cup roster in two separate trades, and added to that group free-agent goalie Chris Mason. Dudley then hired the highly respected Craig Ramsey to coach the group.

Why they could get in -- The hope is the former Blackhawks will bring a championship mentality to a young team that has almost no playoff experience. Byfuglien and Ladd bring a big, tough, physical element to the offense that will give it a different look than last season's group, which was led by Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov. Nik Antropov is coming off a career-best season, Niclas Bergfors was a very solid return on the Kovalchuk deal, and Evander Kane had 14 goals as a rookie -- not bad for the youngest full-time player in the League last season. Sopel will provide a veteran's touch to a young blue-line group led by Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom. Mason, who won a career-best 30 games last season, will be a nice complement to Ondrej Pavelec in net, solidifying the crease in a way the oft-injured Kari Lehtonen never could.

CAROLINA HURRICANES


Last season -- 35-37-10, 80 points, 8 points out of eighth place

How it ended -- A season that started with the high hopes generated by a trip to the 2009 Eastern Conference Final started badly (3-6-3 in October) and ended only slightly better -- 8-7-4 in their last 19 games to miss the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons.

Offseason changes -- The biggest change is the departure of Rod Brind'Amour, who retired during the summer. Brind'Amour's play clearly had slipped over the last two seasons, and Eric Staal already had replaced him as team captain, but Brind'Amour remained a strong veteran presence in the locker room. Filling that void won't be easy, nor will replacing the scoring of Ray Whitney, who took his 21 goals to Phoenix. The only additions were defensemen Anton Babchuk and Joe Corvo, who were brought back to add juice to a defense group that scored just 26 goals last season.

Why they could get in -- The Hurricanes have been stockpiling young talent, with players like Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman and Jamie McBain getting small tastes of NHL action over the last couple of seasons. That should change in 2010-11, with that youthful core being expected to play a big role in helping Staal and Brandon Sutter lead the team going forward. When the Canes started their youth movement last season, their fortunes improved, to the tune of a 21-10-3 mark after Jan. 21. That group has experience now, and with an improved season from goalie Cam Ward, the playoffs might not be a pipe dream.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Last season -- 34-36-12, 80 points, 8 points out of eighth place


How it ended -- As rumors of dissension at all levels of the organization filtered down onto the ice, the season ended with an 8-12-1 finish, despite wins in the final three games.

Offseason changes -- New owner Jeff Vinik wasted little time clearing out the old regime, as coach Rick Tocchet and GM Brian Lawton were let go. Detroit legend Steve Yzerman was hired as GM and he began reshaping the club, starting with hiring Guy Boucher, coming off a successful stint in the AHL, as coach. He cleared payroll space by shipping defenseman Andrej Meszaros to Philadelphia, and then helped the Flyers find cap space by convincing two-time 40-goal scorer Simon Gagne to waive his no-trade clause. Dan Ellis was added to help Mike Smith in net, and defenseman Pavel Kubina was signed with the hope a return to the scene of his best seasons could reinvigorate his career. Top penalty killer Dominic Moore also came aboard.

Why they could get in -- The Lightning are the chic pick for a 2011 playoff spot, and all the good feelings that started with Yzerman's hiring haven't worn off. Gagne's addition gives the Lightning a strong top six, with 51-goal scorer Steven Stamkos centering Steve Downie and Martin St. Louis on one line, and Vincent Lecavalier centering Gagne and Ryan Malone on another. Gagne's presence alone should help Lecavalier, as the two have known each other since their youth hockey days. Boucher is regarded as one of the top young coaching minds. With all the turmoil that went on last season long gone, a breath of fresh air could blow the Lightning right into the postseason.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Last season -- 34-37-11, 79 points, 9 points out of eighth place

How it ended -- The Islanders finished on a bit of a high, winning five of their final eight games, including three straight wins against Philadelphia, Ottawa and Montreal, all of whom made the playoffs.

Offseason changes -- GM Garth Snow worked hard to bulk up his undersized defense over the summer, signing Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina before trading for James Wisniewski. That should ease the burden on goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who will turn 41 a week into the season. Up front, Snow is hoping P.A. Parenteau can be the same kind of under-the-radar signing 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson was a season ago. Zenon Konopka, who led the NHL with 265 penalty minutes last season, will add a major dose of toughness.

Why they could get in -- Stamkos went from 23 goals as a rookie to 51 last season; John Tavares had 24 goals last season, and the hope is he can have, maybe not the same rocket climb as Stamkos, but a marked improvement now that the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft has gotten a full taste of the NHL life. He'll have Moulson back on his wing to help, and Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo are a year older and a year more experienced. Eaton was an underrated and underappreciated part of Pittsburgh's blue line, and Mark Streit is one of the League's better offensive threats from the blue line. Roloson isn't the average 40-year-old, and if goalie Rick DiPietro can return to health and anything approaching the form that made him an all-star just three seasons ago, the playoffs are a possibility.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

Last season -- 32-37-13, 77 points, 11 points out of eighth place

How it ended -- A 3-2 overtime win at San Jose on March 13 raised expectations that their eight-season playoff drought could end, but they won just four of their last 15 games.

 
Offseason changes -- New ownership brought in Dale Tallon as GM, with the hope that the main architect of the championship team in Chicago could do the same in South Beach. Tallon started his roster makeover by trading away forwards Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell and defenseman Keith Ballard for defenseman Dennis Wideman, forwards Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner and a pair of 2010 first-round draft picks. At the draft the Panthers got bigger, faster and nastier by tabbing defenseman Erik Gudbranson and centers Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden. Tallon said speed and skill with a good helping of size was what he looked for with the Blackhawks, and this year's draft was more of the same. Christopher Higgins, who suffered through a miserable 2009-10 after three straight 20-goal seasons in Montreal, was signed with the hope he could resurrect his career.

Why they could get in -- Much like Yzerman in Tampa Bay, there only have been positives in Florida since Tallon came on board. The return to health of David Booth, who was limited to just 28 games due to a concussion, will embolden an offense that finished 28th in the League at 2.46 goals per game last season. Higgins has a track record for scoring, Michael Frolik has back-to-back 21-goals seasons and Bernier, Grabner and Stephen Weiss know how to put the puck in the net. The defense, with the massive Gudbranson as a building block, is solid, and Tomas Vokoun always is reliable in goal. It took Tallon three seasons to get the Blackhawks back to the playoffs; he might have better talent in Florida now than he did then in Chicago.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Last season -- 30-38-14, 74 points, 14 points out of eighth place

How it ended -- The Leafs lost their first eight games to start the season, and things never really got better after that. They won just four of their final 10 games, including three one-goal losses, to finish with the fewest wins and points since 1997-98.

Offseason changes -- Taking advantage of Chicago's fire sale, GM Brian Burke acquired two-time 20-goal scorer Kris Versteeg. The Leafs also upped their grit and toughness by signing free-agent forward Colby Armstrong. They didn't have a first- or second-round pick to start the 2010 Entry Draft, but made a deal to move into the second round to pick Portland forward Brad Ross, a prototypical Burke forward -- 27 goals and a WHL-leading 203 penalty minutes. The Leafs made almost as many headlines for one change they didn't make -- Tomas Kaberle is staying put, as Burke failed to find a suitable deal during the summer window where Kaberle's no-trade clause was not in effect.

Why they could get in -- The Leafs' defense remains a strength, as a healthy Mike Komisarek will return to team with Kaberle, Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn and the promising Carl Gunnarsson. Center Tyler Bozak made major strides, finishing with 16 points in 21 post-Olympic games. Phil Kessel and Versteeg know how to put the puck in the net, and the future looks bright for young forwards Nazem Kadri and Jerry D'Amigo. Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson make a fine pairing in net, especially with Giguere motivated by being in his contract year. It won't be easy for the Leafs to break their five-year playoff drought, but the seeds for success look to be in place.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com






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