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Hope for the non-seeds

by Brad Holland
If any of the teams on this list don't believe the playoffs are possible, they should look to the trail blazed by the 2007-08 Philadelphia Flyers for hope that not only should the playoffs be a goal, but the Stanley Cup as well.

Left for dead after a disastrous 2006-07 season that saw them finish with the fewest points in the League, the Flyers re-emerged as a dominant team in 2007-08 and came within three wins of making the Stanley Cup Final.

Such dramatic changes obviously are not common, but they are possible through savvy coaching and managing. Every team on this list has a very good shot to return to the postseason as early as this season.

Here is's list of reasons for why teams that missed the 2008 playoffs should have hope for an invitation to the 2009 postseason dance.

Carolina Hurricanes -- 2007-08 rank: No. 9, missed playoffs by 2 points.

The Hurricanes' success always has been based on team depth, especially during their Stanley Cup victory in 2006, and this season is no exception. Joining mainstays Eric Staal, Rod Brind'Amour, Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen on the Hurricanes' top two lines could be Tuomo Ruutu, Scott Walker, Sergei Samsonov or Patrick Eaves, who all have top-six talent. Samsonov especially seemed to thrive last season in Carolina's up-tempo attack; in 38 games after being claimed off waivers from Chicago, he had 14 goals and 32 points. The additions of super-skilled defensemen Joe Corvo (a late-season addition in 2007-08) and Joni Pitkanen (summer trade with Edmonton) also should help the Hurricanes' power play, which was eighth in the League last season at 18.8 percent.

Just two points separated Carolina from the final playoff berth in 2007-08, but with some roster additions, some re-tooling and a re-dedication in 2008-09, a return to the playoffs seems more than likely.

Buffalo Sabres -- 2007-08 rank: No. 10, missed playoffs by 4 points.

The question is not whether the Sabres will return to the playoffs, but when -- there might not be a team in the League as deep in prospects as Buffalo, and surely no team as adept at developing them. The Sabres' potential top line of Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek (all home-grown prospects) rivals that of any other line in the League for offensive explosiveness, and the second and third lines feature players with top-line potential. Goaltender Ryan Miller already is among the League's best and still getting better.

A major issue with the Sabres was their inability to hold leads, as evidenced by their .800 winning percentage (No. 25 in the NHL) when leading after two periods, but a year of development throughout the lineup should shore that number up; if so, a return to the postseason should be all but guaranteed in 2008-09.

Florida Panthers -- 2007-08 rank: No. 11, missed playoffs by 9 points.

The old maxim still holds water -- offense wins games, but defense wins championships. The Florida Panthers have decided to go that route in 2008-09, and the result is one of the strongest (and most underappreciated) defensive corps in the League. Newcomers Nick Boynton, Keith Ballard and Bryan McCabe join mainstay Jay Bouwmeester to create a top-four that will provide more than enough protection for All-Star goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Only the Atlanta Thrashers allowed more than Florida's 33.6 shots against per game.

With fewer shots and less time spent in the defensive zone, the Panthers should have enough defensive depth to overcome the loss of center Olli Jokinen and earn the five extra wins it would have taken for a return to the postseason.

Toronto Maple Leafs -- 2007-08 rank: No. 12, missed playoffs by 11 points.

No roster was overturned more than the Leafs', but if you listen to Toronto fans, no roster was more in need of overturning. Familiar faces are gone, and in their stead step fresh-faced rookies and a number of hard-working free-agent signings that make one thing certain in Toronto -- the Leafs will be a difficult team to play against.

In front of some of the League's best goaltending from Vesa Toskala, the Leafs will aim to play a hard-working, hard-forechecking offensive style that is the calling card of new coach Ron Wilson. Wilson also is known for his dedication to the defensive side of the puck and his commitment to penalty killing systems; in fact, Wilson's Sharks finished first last year in penalty-killing percentage; by comparison, the Leafs finished No. 29, and also allowed the most power-play goals (77).

The hope is Wilson's influence will raise their standing in those categories, as well as another important stat -- winning percentage. Whether that will be enough for a return to the playoffs remains to be seen, but what's certain is the new-look Leafs will surprise more than one team this season looking for an easy opponent.

New York Islanders -- 2007-08 rank: No. 13, missed playoffs by 15 points.

The Isles made a conscious decision to focus on their youth and development only a few seasons ago, and now the effects of that developmental commitment is beginning to take root on the big club. Kyle Okposo and Jeff Tambellini headline an emerging group of players filled out by the likes of Chris Campoli, Blake Comeau and Sean Bergenheim, plus 2008 first-round pick Josh Bailey and second-round pick Corey Trivino. In fact, the Islanders made 13 picks in June, more than any other team in the League. And the Islanders boast one of the League's elite goaltenders in Rick DiPietro, who has the talent to keep the Islanders in any game.

The wave is building in Long Island, and a new coach (2008 AHL Coach of the Year Scott Gordon), new direction and new focus could translate into playoff success as early as this season.

Atlanta Thrashers
-- 2007-08 rank: No. 14, missed playoffs by 18 points.

The Thrashers have emerged as a much better team defensively in 2008-09, with a lot of mobility on their back end. The arrival of All-Star Mathieu Schneider rounds out a corps of Schneider, Ron Hainsey, Tobias Enstrom and rookie Zach Bogosian. Each is adept offensively, each can skate, and each would be a valuable addition to any team's blue line. They should be able to get the puck up to the Thrashers' forwards more easily than previous Atlanta defensive groupings.

That forward group that includes super-sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who should see his burden lessened some with the Thrashers' new outlook on defense and a little more depth on offense, but the dynamic Russian again should be good for 50-plus goals this season. If so, with the Thrashers' expanded depth and mobility on defense, challenging for the playoffs and the Southeast Division title could be a reality in 2008-09.

Tampa Bay Lightning -- 2007-08 rank: No. 15, missed playoffs by 23 points.

What is clear is that the Tampa Bay Lightning will improve on their NHL-worst 31 wins and 71 points from a season ago. What isn't clear is by how much they'll improve -- and whether the Lightning's biggest challenge will be in making the playoffs, claiming their division, or winning the Stanley Cup.

Gone are two key members of last season's team in defenseman Dan Boyle and former Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Brad Richards. In their place steps Steven Stamkos, Radim Vrbata, Ryan Malone, Olaf Kolzig, Mike Smith, Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle, among others.

No team in the League has more reason to expect a turnaround than the Tampa Bay Lightning, and in fact their rapid roster reload is reminiscent of the Philadelphia Flyers' reloading a year ago. The Flyers' project ended in the Eastern Conference Finals. Where will the Lightning's season end? Only time will tell.

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