But for the seven Eastern Conference teams that missed out on 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 Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
So how can the teams that missed the fun last season 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:
|CAROLINA HURRICANES||40-31-11, 91 points, 2 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: An 8-2-1 run gave them a chance to make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, but a home loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning ended those hopes.
Tomas Kaberle, who upgrades the team's offense from the back end and should improve a power play that finished 24th in the League. The team also re-signed three of its four unrestricted free agents -- defenseman Joni Pitkanen and forwards Chad LaRose and Jussi Jokinen. The only one to depart was Erik Cole, who took his 26 goals to Montreal. However, the hope is Anthony Stewart and Alexei Ponikarovsky can fill that void. Tim Brent will add speed and sandpaper to the bottom two lines, and Brian Boucher gives coach Paul Maurice a reliable veteran behind franchise goalie Cam Ward. Besides Cole, the only other key departure was defenseman Joe Corvo, who was traded to the Bruins the same day Kaberle was signed.
Why they could get in: It seems like Kaberle has been part of trade rumors for the last decade, but now that he's settled in one spot, it should be fun to watch what he can do without those distractions. He gained invaluable postseason experience in winning a Stanley Cup with Boston last season, and now he's back playing for a coach he's had success with in Maurice. The same could go for Ponikarovsky, who had two strong seasons in Toronto playing for Maurice but has foundered elsewhere. The key summer signing could be Boucher, who has proven the last few seasons in San Jose and Philadelphia to have the perfect mentality as a backup. Maurice will be able to give Boucher as many as 20 starts, keeping Ward, who played a League-high 74 games last season, well-rested for a playoff push.
|TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS||37-34-11, 85 points, 8 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: A two-month run from Feb. 2 to April 2 saw them go 18-7-5 and pull within three points of the final playoff spot, but the Leafs came up short in their final three games (0-2-1) to miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
Offseason changes: The Leafs landed what they believe was the second-best center option in free agency in Tim Connolly, and then added potentially another strong middle man in Matthew Lombardi in a trade with Nashville. The Leafs also upgraded their defense, trading a 2012 second-round pick to Colorado for John-Michael Liles and getting Cody Franson from Nashville as part of the Lombardi trade, which saw defenseman Brett Lebda depart. With the emergence of goaltender James Reimer -- who signed a three-year contract extension prior to the start of free agency -- veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere was allowed to leave.
Why they could get in: In his first extended NHL action, Reimer had the look of an outstanding goaltender. Liles is an offensive whiz who will help improve a power play that was 22nd in the League last season. GM Brian Burke also was very happy with acquiring the 6-foot-5, 213-pound Franson, touting his size, mobility and powerful shot. Connolly signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract, and Burke said his well-known injury history is based more on bad luck than nagging issues. The real coup, however, could be Lombardi. A serious concussion limited him to just two games last season; Lombardi said his goal is to be healthy for training camp. If that happens, the Leafs could have two 50-point scorers anchoring their top two lines, and potentially the end to a playoff drought that dates back to the 2005-06 season.
|NEW JERSEY DEVILS||38-39-5, 81 points, 12 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: After a horrendous start -- the Devils won just nine of their first 34 games -- there was a meteoric rise when coach Jacques Lemaire took over, as they won 23 of 28 games during one stretch to climb within six points of eighth place. In the end, though, their early hole was just too deep and they finished 5-7-1 to miss the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons.
Peter DeBoer was hired to replace Lemaire, who retired following the season. After a terrible start under coach John MacLean, Lemaire worked wonders just to get the team in the playoff equation. Now it's up to DeBoer, who missed the playoffs in all three of his seasons with the Florida Panthers, to continue Lemaire's work. Defenseman Adam Larsson, NHL Central Scouting's top-rated European skater, was taken with the fourth pick of the 2011 Entry Draft and will be given a chance to make the team. Zach Parise, the team's top offensive performer the last five seasons, avoided arbitration by signing a one-year contract, with the hope of a long-term deal coming in the future. Andy Greene was re-signed to help anchor the blue line, and Johan Hedberg, who more than proved his value when Martin Brodeur was injured, was brought back in the same role. Brian Rolston, who went from the waiver wire to a top-six forward last season, was traded to the New York Islanders for Trent Hunter. The Devils then bought out Hunter and defenseman Colin White.
Why they could get in: Last season's run under Lemaire proved to GM Lou Lamoriello that his core group was a playoff contender. Brodeur remains Brodeur, even at age 39. The Devils were last in the League offensively, averaging just 2.08 goals per game, but that number is bound to go up with the return of a healthy Parise, who was limited to just 13 games due to a knee injury, as well as Ilya Kovalchuk, who should be more comfortable in his second full season with the Devils. Young forwards Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby gained valuable experience, Patrik Elias remains a solid scorer and Travis Zajac is due for a bounce-back season. A strong start and good luck injury-wise should put New Jersey back in its traditional place among the top eight in the conference.
|WINNIPEG JETS||34-36-12, 80 points, 13 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: At the All-Star break, the former Atlanta Thrashers were eighth in the conference, but they won just 10 of their final 40 games.
Offseason changes: The biggest obviously is the move from Atlanta to Manitoba. There's a new GM (Kevin Cheveldayoff) and a new coach (Claude Noel), but the roster mostly remains intact, led by re-signing team captain Andrew Ladd to a five-year contract. Eric Fehr was acquired for a prospect and a 2012 draft pick, and will boost the offense if he can put his shoulder injury behind him. Rick Rypien and Tanner Glass add toughness, while Randy Jones and Derek Meech are solid defensively. Anthony Stewart and Radek Dvorak, who combined for 21 goals, departed in free agency.
Why they could get in: This team looked like a playoff contender in the first half of last season, and all those parts remain in place, including another year of maturity for emerging star forward Evander Kane. Ondrej Pavelec proved solid in net, Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom were deserving All-Stars and Ladd had a breakout season. Noel has a strong group in place, and has done a solid job in the past coaching in the minor leagues. Adversity built from last season's slide could power this season's group into the East's top eight.
|OTTAWA SENATORS||32-40-10, 74 points, 19 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: The Senators won three of their final five games, including victories against playoff-bound Montreal and Philadelphia.
Paul MacLean as the team's fifth coach since the start of the 2007-08 season. Most of the Senators' remodeling came at the trade deadline, so the majority of the roster that finished the season remains in place. The biggest playing addition was Zenon Konopka, who's led the League in penalty minutes each of the last two seasons, but also was fourth in the League in faceoff winning percentage in 2010-11 (57.7 percent). The team chose three players in the first round of the 2011 Entry Draft, topped by Swedish center Mika Zibanejad at No. 6. One other intriguing addition is Nikita Filatov, the sixth pick of the 2008 draft who had fallen out of favor in Columbus. A talented offensive performer, he has yet to show it at the NHL level. The Senators will give him that shot.
Why they could get in: MacLean may be a first-time NHL coach, but he spent eight seasons assisting Mike Babcock, burnishing his resume. His top two assistants also are NHL first-timers, Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds. They were highly respected junior coaches, and the players they'll have this season won't be too much older than the juniors they had. A few of those young players -- defensemen Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen, goaltender Robin Lehner, and forwards Zibanejad, Peter Regin and Bobby Butler -- have promise. Goaltender Craig Anderson proved in Colorado in 2009-10 that he can carry a team into the postseason, and with veterans Jason Spezza and a healthy Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek, the building blocks for a quick turnaround are in place.
|NEW YORK ISLANDERS||30-39-13, 73 points, 20 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: A rough season closed with just one win in the final eight games.
Offseason changes: The team's only major addition in free agency was third-line center Marty Reasoner. Brian Rolston, who had 12 goals in his final 44 games, was acquired from New Jersey for Trent Hunter. The defense will have a new look following the departures of Radek Martinek and Bruno Gervais; they acquired the rights to Christian Ehrhoff but couldn't sign him, and now look like they'll go with young guys like Calvin de Haan in those slots. High-scoring center Ryan Strome was taken with the fifth pick of June's draft, but he's likely ticketed for a return to Niagara of the Ontario Hockey League.
Why they could get in: Could this be the season the Islanders' youth matures into a playoff team? Going into his third season, John Tavares looks like a franchise building block. Nino Niederreiter, who made the opening-day roster last season and showed flashes of brilliance, likely will have a full season to showcase his outstanding offensive skills. Their defense looks solid if Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald are healthy and Travis Hamonic continues to develop into a top-four performer. Matt Moulson has emerged as a 30-goal scorer and Frans Nielsen, with his skill and speed, is a threat to score any time he has the puck. The team played well under coach Jack Capuano (26-29-10), who replaced Scott Gordon in November, and if recent first-round picks Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and de Haan can become consistent contributors -- and another first-round pick, goaltender Rick DiPietro, stays healthy -- there's no reason to think the Isles can't be in the playoff hunt.
|FLORIDA PANTHERS||30-40-12, 72 points, 21 points out of eighth place|
How it ended: The Panthers closed the season with a 1-0 win against Washington, the team with the best record in the conference, but it also snapped a 10-game winless streak.
Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski. Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann and Sean Bergenheim were signed to add offense, along with Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky, who were acquired in trades. Matt Bradley and Marcel Goc also were signed to add depth up front. And when GM Dale Tallon couldn't re-sign goalie Tomas Vokoun, he added Jose Theodore as his replacement. Add to those new faces Kevin Dineen, who was hired as coach in May. The team also drafted high-scoring center Jonathan Huberdeau with the third pick of last month's draft, and could insert him into the opening-day lineup. Another first-round pick, defenseman Erik Gudbranson, the third pick of the 2010 draft, likely will play a top-four role this season.
Why they could get in: The core the Panthers had been going with wasn't working, but this new one could. Tallon brought in three Stanley Cup winners from his time in Chicago (Versteeg, Kopecky, Campbell) and Upshall, Jovanovski, Bradley and Bergenheim all have played deep into the playoffs. The top four defensemen look solid in Jovanovski, Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Gudbranson. Theodore and Scott Clemmensen could form a solid duo in net, with top prospect Jacob Markstrom waiting in the wings. With Upshall, Versteeg and Fleischmann, plus holdovers David Booth, Mike Santorelli and Stephen Weiss, the potential is there for as many as six 20-goal scorers. It took three seasons for Tallon to build the Blackhawks into a playoff team; he might not need as much time in Florida.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK