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Sabres, Lightning potential new East playoff teams

Wednesday, 07.18.2012 / 11:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

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Sabres, Lightning potential new East playoff teams
Offseason moves could foster a return to the playoffs for the Eastern Conference teams who failed to qualify last season.

Summer may be the most enjoyable time of the year for many; but when it comes to NHL teams, they want to put off the start of the summer vacation for as long as possible.

But for the seven Eastern Conference teams that missed out on the 2012 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 conference champion New Jersey Devils.

So how can the teams that missed the fun turn into postseason hits during the upcoming season? With about a month until training camp opens, NHL.com examines why fans of the unlucky seven can harbor playoff hopes for 2012-13:

BUFFALO SABRES

Last season: 39-32-11, 89 points, three points out of eighth place

How it ended: A five-game win streak had the Sabres in a playoff spot March 28, but they lost three of their next four to finish outside the top eight.

Steve Ott
Steve Ott
Center - BUF
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 39
SOG: 108 | +/-: 5
Offseason changes: After a noisy offseason last year, the Sabres were a bit quieter this summer. Their big move was trading center Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars for forward Steve Ott and defenseman Adam Pardy. Along with the addition of rugged defenseman John Scott, the Sabres became a far tougher team to play.

Why they could get in: The Sabres were hampered by injuries to key players last season, among them goalie Ryan Miller, defensemen Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff and forward Tyler Ennis. Even with so many key assets out of the lineup, the Sabres barely missed a playoff spot. Miller remains an elite goaltender, and they found a dynamic scoring line with Ennis centering Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno. If they can avoid the injury problems that short-circuited last season, they should be able to compete with the Bruins and Senators for the division title.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Last season: 38-36-2, 84 points, eight points out of eighth place

Anders Lindback
Anders Lindback
Goalie - TBL
RECORD: 5-8-0
GAA: 2.42 | SVP: 0.912
How it ended: The Lightning struggled to find consistency all season long, and after a seven-game winless skid to start January, never really threatened the playoff race.

Offseason changes: The Lightning's biggest issues last season were in goal, but they believe that's been solved with the addition of Anders Lindback from Nashville. GM Steve Yzerman also addressed his team's defensive deficiencies, signing free agents Matt Carle and Sami Salo.

Why they could get in: Lindback is big and athletic, and ready for the opportunity to be a full-time starter. The defense in front of him has been improved, and with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis leading the offense, it's easy to see the Lightning in the hunt for the Southeast Division title.

WINNIPEG JETS

Last season: 37-35-10, 84 points, eight points out of eighth place

Olli Jokinen
Olli Jokinen
Center - WPG
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 38 | PTS: 61
SOG: 223 | +/-: -12
How it ended: The Jets went 10-3-1 in December and finished the 2011 portion of their schedule seventh in the Eastern Conference. They went 18-21-5 the rest of the way to miss the postseason for the 11th time in the franchise's 12 seasons.

Offseason changes: The Jets got bigger up front, signing free-agent forwards Alexei Ponikarovsky and Olli Jokinen. They also settled their goaltending situation for the foreseeable future by re-signing Ondrej Pavelec to a five-year contract. They also added Al Montoya as Pavelec's backup, replacing Chris Mason.

Why they could get in: Jokinen, coming off his best season in years, gives the Jets the No. 1 center they've been missing. Evander Kane had the first of what could be many 30-goal seasons, and playing on a line with Jokinen certainly will help. Pavelec is a top-end goalie, and he's got a solid defense in front of him. It's easy to envision the Jets contending for one of the final four playoff spots in their second season in Winnipeg.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

Last season: 33-33-16, 82 points, 10 points out of eighth place

Jordan Staal
Jordan Staal
Center - CAR
GOALS: 25 | ASST: 25 | PTS: 50
SOG: 149 | +/-: 11
How it ended: The Hurricanes struggled out of the box, sitting at 8-14-4 when coach Paul Maurice was fired. They went 25-20-12 under Kirk Muller, but the early hole was too deep.

Offseason changes: The cost was high, but trading for Jordan Staal to center the second line behind brother Eric makes Carolina bigger and more skilled down the middle. Signing Alexander Semin could be the steal of the summer. He's scored at least 25 goals in six of the last seven seasons, including a career-best 40 in 2009-10. They also brought back offensive-minded defenseman Joe Corvo, who has had two of his best seasons playing for the Hurricanes.

Why they could get in: Sibling rivalry with the Staals should raise each player's game. A change of scenery could be just what Semin needs, and his presence adds a dynamic element to the top line. Cam Ward is a fine goaltender and Corvo is due for a bounce-back season. Muller showed what he could do in three-quarters of a season with the 'Canes. With a full training camp to implement his systems, there's no reason the Hurricanes can't get back into the playoff hunt.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Last season: 35-37-10, 80 points, 12 points out of eighth place

James van Riemsdyk
James van Riemsdyk
Left Wing - TOR
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 24
SOG: 121 | +/-: -1
How it ended: After a start that saw them lead the Northeast Division one month into the season and sit sixth in the conference at the holiday break, the Leafs finished 17-24-6 to extend their playoff drought to seven seasons.

Offseason changes: The Leafs added size and skill up front with the acquisition of James van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia, and the early plan could see him shift to center between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. The cost was defenseman Luke Schenn, but the Leafs have a number of potentially NHL-ready blueliners to replace him, among them Korbinian Holzer, Jesse Blacker and 2012 first-round pick Morgan Rielly. Backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson left for Detroit, giving Ben Scrivens first crack at earning playing time behind James Reimer.

Why they could get in: A top line of Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Lupul could be among the highest-scoring trios in the League. Looking back at the first two months of last season, the talent certainly is there. If Reimer can get back to his form of two years ago, the Leafs could compete for one of the conference's final playoff spots.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, 13 points out of eighth place

Lubomir Visnovsky
Lubomir Visnovsky
Defense - NYI
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 21 | PTS: 27
SOG: 112 | +/-: 7
How it ended: The Isles lost 15 of 20 to start the season (5-11-4), including six shutouts. They were better the rest of the way (29-26-7), but even a March surge only got them to the fringes of playoff contention.

Offseason changes: The Isles focused on improving their blue line this summer, trading for offensive-minded Lubomir Visnovsky, getting tougher with free-agent signing Matt Carkner, and then spending all seven of their draft picks on defenseman, topped by Griffin Reinhart, the fourth pick who could start the season with the team. They lost PA Parenteau, but versatile forward Brad Boyes adds skill up front, and forward Eric Boulton brings toughness.

Why they could get in: John Tavares is a star on the rise, and Matt Moulson is a three-time 30-goal scorer. Their special teams are good, the blue line is vastly improved, and if goalie Evgeni Nabokov stays healthy, this is a team that could surprise people and claim a postseason berth.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Last season: 31-35-16, 78 points, 14 points out of eighth place

How it ended: A rough start saw the Habs win 14 of their first 39 games ended with three wins in their final 11 as the Canadiens finished last in its conference for the first time in franchise history.

Colby Armstrong
Colby Armstrong
Right Wing - MTL
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 3
SOG: 14 | +/-: -8
Offseason changes: Changes started at the top, as Marc Bergevin was hired to replace Pierre Gauthier as GM and immediately started putting his stamp on the organization. The development and scouting staffs were bulked up, and Michel Therrien was hired as coach. Forward Colby Armstrong adds sandpaper up front, as does Travis Moen, who was re-signed before the start of free agency. Alex Galchenyuk, the third player picked at the 2012 NHL Draft, likely will be given a chance to make the team despite sitting out all but two games last season because of a knee injury.

Why they could get in: In 2010-11, with pretty much the same roster, this team finished eighth in the conference and won the first two games in the first round against the Boston Bruins. Last season was a combination of injuries, poor play in many areas and a lot of bad luck -- a League-high 16 overtime/shootout losses. It's hard to imagine that much bad luck hitting a team twice in a row, so it's not hard to imagine this team turning it around quickly.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

Quote of the Day

We think that Randy is a very good coach. Our players think that Randy is a very good coach. We think that he's going to get the most out of this group. With the addition of the two assistants, a bit of a different dynamic, we're very comfortable that this is a quality coaching staff that's going to maximize the potential of this team.

— Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis on head coach Randy Carlyle and his staff