For the seven Western Conference teams that missed the 2011 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 Vancouver Canucks.
So how can the teams that missed the fun turn into postseason hits? With about a month until training camp opens, NHL.com examines why fans of last season's unlucky seven can hold onto their playoff hopes:
|DALLAS STARS||42-29-11, 95 points, 2 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: The Stars won four straight to have a shot at a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, but a loss to the Minnesota Wild left them out of the playoffs for a third straight season.
Brad Richards, and opted for quantity to replace him. Michael Ryder had a strong performance last spring for the Bruins, and the hope is that carries over, possibly on a line with former teammate Mike Ribeiro. The Stars also greatly improved the depth of their lower two lines. Radek Dvorak adds skill and a smart defensive presence, Vernon Fiddler can win faceoffs and kill penalties and Jake Dowell brings a toughness and Stanley Cup experience. On defense, Sheldon Souray adds a hard-shooting, low-risk/high-reward option on defense for new coach Glen Gulutzan.
Why they could get in: Making up for Richards' loss is difficult, but not overwhelming. In the 10 late-season games he missed with a concussion, the Stars went 5-4-1, proving they can win without him. A full season of Souray and Alex Goligoski on the points likely will improve the power play. A top line of Ribeiro centering Ryder and Loui Eriksson should generate lots of goals. The Stars also have other depth up front with captain Brenden Morrow, Steve Ott, the emerging Jamie Benn and Dvorak. They remain solid defensively, while goaltender Kari Lehtonen had his best professional season in 2010-11 and at age 27 is just entering his prime. The Stars' 95 points last season left them just two out of the playoffs, so it's not hard to imagine them picking up one more win at some point this season and getting back to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
|CALGARY FLAMES||41-29-12, 94 points, 3 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: They won three straight to start April to get within two points of the final spot, but a strong second-half run ended with an overtime loss to the Canucks in the final game of season.
Offseason changes: Rather than gut his roster, Jay Feaster took stock of what he had when he replaced Darryl Sutter as GM on Dec. 28. Since he hasn't been too active this summer, he must have liked what he saw -- including a 25-11-9 mark after he took over. The biggest move was trading defenseman Robyn Regehr to the Buffalo Sabres. That allowed the Flames to re-sign Alex Tanguay and Brendan Morrison, who helped captain Jarome Iginla score 43 goals last season. Curtis Glencross, who set career-highs of 24 goals and 43 points, was re-signed, as was defenseman Anton Babchuk and backup goalie Henrik Karlsson. The Flames also added toughness in acquiring Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond from the New Jersey Devils.
Why they could get in: Feaster knows how to build a winner, as evidenced by the Stanley Cup he won with the Lightning in 2004. With the season-ending run after he took over, it's clear the talent is there and willing to play hard for coach Brent Sutter. Miikka Kiprusoff remains an elite goaltender, and Iginla showed he still knows how to put the puck in the net. A solid start to the season is a must, but the Flames showed for most of the second half of last season they can be a playoff team.
|ST. LOUIS BLUES||38-33-11, 87 points, 10 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: The injury-riddled Blues never could gain traction in the West, alternating wins and losses over their final eight games of the season.
Jason Arnott (Devils, 2000) and Jamie Langenbrunner (Stars, 1999; Devils, 2003), and defenseman Kent Huskins (Ducks, 2007). The Blues also added grit in veteran forward Scott Nichol. Matt D'Agostini, who had a career-high 21 goals last season, was re-signed to a two-year contract.
Why they could get in: The Blues were one of the younger teams in the League last season, with 15 players age 25 or younger seeing action. Combine that youth with a total of four playoff games in the last six seasons, and the recipe for what to do in tight games could be missing -- the Blues went 14-13-11 in one-goal games, with a .368 winning percentage that was the third-worst in the League. That should change now with their veteran additions. Arnott has 61 career game-winning goals -- plus a Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal -- 10th-most among active players, and Langenbrunner has 55. The Blues already look like a good team. They have a high-quality goaltender in Jaroslav Halak, good firepower up front -- all six of their 20-goal scorers from last season return -- a healthy T.J. Oshie, and the makings of a good power play, with young defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo on the points and power forward Chris Stewart working the front of the net. Combine that with the veteran know-how they imported, and it's not hard to imagine the Blues getting back into the West's top eight.
|MINNESOTA WILD||39-35-8, 86 points, 11 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: The Wild won four of their last seven games and spoiled Dallas' hopes by winning their season finale, but they've finished out of the playoffs for a third straight season.
Offseason changes: No team in the Western Conference did more to change its roster than the Wild. The first night of the draft, the Wild dealt defenseman Brent Burns to the San Jose Sharks for forward Devin Setoguchi, top prospect Charlie Coyle and the 28th pick of the 2011 Entry Draft. That same night, the Wild drafted puck-moving defenseman Jonas Brodin and, with the pick acquired from the Sharks, chose high-scoring center Zack Phillips. A week later, the Wild acquired former 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley from the Sharks for forward Martin Havlat. The Wild also picked up Darroll Powe, a gritty, physical penalty killer, from Philadelphia. Minnesota bought out the final year of Cam Barker's contract, and allowed forwards Andrew Brunette and Chuck Kobasew to leave as free agents. Goalie Josh Harding, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, was re-signed, which allowed Jose Theodore, last year's backup to Niklas Backstrom, to leave as a free agent. Leading them will be new coach Mike Yeo, hired in June to replace Todd Richards. Yeo brings Stanley Cup experience from his time as an assistant to Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, and in his first season as a coach led the Wild's AHL team, the Houston Aeros, to the Calder Cup Final.
Why they could get in: GM Chuck Fletcher saw his team as too much of a pass-first outfit last season, but with Setoguchi and Heatley on the roster, that mentality has been changed to shoot-first. Heatley had just 26 goals last season, but has averaged 41 goals and 265 shots since the 2005-06 season. Setoguchi has scored at least 20 goals three straight seasons, and had 7 in 18 playoff games last season. There's also Cal Clutterbuck, who showed he could do more than run around and hit people by scoring a career-high 19 goals, and a healthy Guillaume Latendresse, who had 25 goals in 55 games two seasons ago before a serious groin injury limited him to just 11 games last season. With top-flight set-up men in Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc-Bouchard, the seeds for two solid lines are in place. Niklas Backstrom remains a top-flight goaltender, and even without Burns a solid defense remains. The Wild have the early look of a team that could compete for a top-eight spot in the conference this season.
|COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS||34-35-13, 81 points, 16 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: A season that started with a promising 14-6-0 start fell apart, ending with a six-game winless skid (0-4-2).
Jakub Voracek to Philadelphia for 40-goal scorer Jeff Carter, then gave defenseman James Wisniewski a six-year, $33 million deal. But Howson didn't stop there -- he signed veteran forward Vinny Prospal to add depth to the offense and supplemented his defense by signing Radek Martinek. Mark Dekanich and Curtis Sanford were signed to compete for the backup goalie spot behind Steve Mason that came open when Mathieu Garon left. The team allowed defenseman Jan Hejda and forward Scottie Upshall to leave in free agency, and dealt disappointing 2008 top pick Nikita Filatov to Ottawa.
Why they could get in: The Blue Jackets look stronger down the middle than at any point in their history, which Howson believes bodes well for their playoff chances. "If you look at all the top teams in the NHL -- all the true contenders -- they're strong down the middle," he said. "Whether it's Vancouver, Philadelphia, Chicago, -- they're all really good down the middle, and we feel now with Jeff (Carter), with Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard, and Sammy Pahlsson, Derek MacKenzie and with Ryan Johansen coming, we have a chance to be very strong down the middle." A top line of Carter centering Prospal and Rick Nash could be among the most explosive in the League. And with RJ Umberger, Vermette, Brassard and Johansen, the fourth pick of the 2010 draft, the Jackets have depth offensively that only will grow when Kristian Huselius returns from injury, likely in December. Wisniewski and Martinek could be a solid defense pairing, and 2009 first-rounder John Moore may be ready to make an impact on the blue line. Mason showed flashes last season of his Calder Trophy-winning form of 2009, and if coach Scott Arniel can get a full season out of his players at a similar level as he did in the first 20 games of last season, the Jackets could be playing hockey well into April.
|COLORADO AVALANCHE||30-44-8, 68 points, 29 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: David Jones' overtime goal prevented a seven-game, season-closing winless skid, but the Avs finished with the fewest points since the club relocated to Denver.
Offseason changes: The Avs continued to assemble young assets, most notably goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who they traded two draft picks to Washington to acquire and then signed to a three-year contract. Varlamov showed flashes of stardom during his three seasons with the Capitals, especially in the playoffs, but health seemed to be a recurring issue. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, now 35, was signed to serve as his backup. There were big changes on defense, as the Avs bid farewell to captain Adam Foote, who retired after spending 17 of his 19 NHL seasons with the organization, and John-Michael Liles, who was traded to Toronto. They added Jan Hejda, who had a personal-best five goals with Columbus last season, and Shane O'Brien. Tomas Fleischmann, who had 21 points in 22 games after being acquired in a trade with the Capitals before his season ended in January due to blood clots in his lungs, left for the Panthers. To replace him, the Avs signed three-time 20-goal scorer Chuck Kobasew. Gabriel Landeskog, the second pick of the 2011 Entry Draft, was thought by many scouts to be the most NHL-ready prospect in this year's draft class, and his skill and physicality could make him a top-six forward option. Defenseman Duncan Siemens, a big, physical defenseman who the Avs took with the 11th pick in June, also could have a shot to make the team.
Why they could get in: With Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, the Avs are strong down the middle. Milan Hejduk is a yearly lock for at least 20 goals, Jones showed what he could do when healthy by scoring 27 times and Landeskog should be productive as a top-six forward. The Avs are solid defensively, led by Erik Johnson, but the key will be in net. When Varlamov has been healthy, he's shown he can play at a high level. The last time the Avs had this solid a performer in net, it was Craig Anderson two seasons ago -- and the Avs made the playoffs. If Varlamov stays healthy, there's no reason to think the Avs can't compete for a playoff spot.
|EDMONTON OILERS||25-45-12, 62 points, 35 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: A second straight season with the fewest points in the League ended on a three-game winless streak, including a final-day overtime loss to the Avalanche.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first pick of the 2011 Entry Draft. The thought of Nugent-Hopkins setting up last year's No. 1 pick, left wing Taylor Hall, is tantalizing but might not happen until the 2012-13 season, as Nugent-Hopkins might need another season of junior hockey to get bigger and stronger. Big defenseman Oscar Klefbom, taken with the 19th pick of the draft, likely will spend another season in Sweden before coming to the NHL. GM Steve Tambellini added some veteran parts around that young talent, led by four-time 30-goal scorer Ryan Smyth, who wanted to return to the club he started his career with. The Oilers also added toughness when they signed Ben Eager to replace Zack Stortini. Eric Belanger, who won 55.3 percent of his faceoffs, will help a team that finished last in the League at 44.2 percent last season. In that department he's an upgrade on Andrew Cogliano, who was dealt to Anaheim after winning just 41.2 percent of his faceoffs. Cam Barker, the third pick of the 2004 draft, was signed after his contract was bought out by the Wild, and the Oilers also added Andy Sutton, acquired in a trade with Anaheim for Kurtis Foster. Jim Vandermeer, who had 14 points and a minus-15 rating in 62 games last season, signed with the Sharks.
Why they could get in: The Oilers' core of young talent -- Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi -- got a big taste of the NHL life last season, and fared well. Hall led the team with 22 goals, while Eberle had a team-best 43 points. All that trio has done is gotten a year older and a year more experienced. They also should have some pretty motivated players around them. Smyth requested a trade back to Edmonton, the team with which he spent the first 10-plus seasons of his career, and he's out to prove he still can be an impact player at age 35. Barker wants to get his NHL career back on track and show he was worthy of his high draft status. Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is out to prove problems he had on and off the ice last season are behind him. Nugent-Hopkins will hit training camp motivated to show he can play in the NHL at 18. That's a lot of motivation for a lot of key players. That extra energy could be enough to propel the Oilers from the bottom of the conference standings into a top-eight spot.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK