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Hope for West teams that missed the playoffs

by Brad Holland
The goal for every team in the National Hockey League is the Stanley Cup.

But to get there, you have to make the playoffs.

And if you want the playoffs, you need regular-season wins. To those who say the regular season doesn't matter should take a look at the 1995-96 New Jersey Devils, that season's defending Stanley Cup champions, who missed the playoffs by two points, beaten out by the Tampa Bay Lightning for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference on the last day of the season.

An argument could have been made that the Devils' brand of hockey and the fact that their team largely was intact from the previous season would have made them a Stanley Cup favorite -- if only they had made the playoffs.

Regular-season victories indirectly lead to Stanley Cup championships. The teams on this list were only a few wins shy last season. This season, things could be different.

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.

Edmonton Oilers -- 2007-08 rank: No. 9, missed playoffs by 3 points.

Perhaps the best indication that a return to the postseason might be that the young Oilers went 14-5-1 in their final 20 games. They also finished without first-line center Shawn Horcoff, top defenseman Sheldon Souray, team captain Ethan Moreau, and a host of other players who were sidelined with injuries.

In 2008-09, developing talents like Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson, Tom Gilbert and Andrew Cogliano will take some of the burden off older, established stars, which should translate into fewer injuries. Meaning the reloaded Oilers are no longer young and inexperienced; they're simply young and hungry, and poised for a return to the postseason for the first time since their magical run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

Chicago Blackhawks -- 2007-08 rank: No. 10, missed playoffs by 3 points.

Optimism in Chicago is undergoing a renaissance, with hopes hinging on the dynamic duo of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews -- but that's not all. Emerging talents like Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, James Wisniewski, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have the city buzzing about the team's prospects in 2008-09. Their 88 points in 2007-08 left them 3 points shy of the postseason, but the silky-smooth Brian Campbell, the rock-solid Cristobal Huet, and the powerful Ladd, in addition to their already impressive group, should translate into at least a 3-point increase in 2008-09, and possibly much more.

If Martin Havlat can stay healthy, the Hawks might not just challenge for a playoff spot, but challenge the Detroit Red Wings in the Central Division.

Vancouver Canucks -- 2007-08 rank: No. 11, missed the playoffs by 3 points.

Just how tight was the Northwest Division in 2007-08? The five teams were separated by only 10 points, with three earning playoff berths (Minnesota, Colorado and Calgary) and two within 3 points of the postseason. Such parity makes it difficult for each of the teams' playoff chances, as there are only so many points to go around. But with the development of the Oilers and the re-commitment to offense in Vancouver in 2008-09, as many as four teams might crack the top eight from the Northwest.

Already boasting one of the world's premier goaltenders in Roberto Luongo and a very solid top-four defensive crew, the Canucks will look to Steve Bernier, Pavol Demitra and last-season's late acquisition of Matt Pettinger to help support the Sedin twins and balance the Canucks' offensive attack. It could be the key to their return to playoff contention in 2008-09.

Phoenix Coyotes -- 2007-08 rank: No. 12, missed playoffs by 8 points.

The Coyotes know what they have going into 2008-09 -- developing youngsters and depth, backed up by a goaltender they know they can rely upon to keep them in games. That left one thing -- a proven No. 1 center to play alongside long-time captain Shane Doan. The Coyotes feel they got their man in Olli Jokinen, acquired by Florida for a pair of defensemen.

Peter Mueller proved he can be a reliable scoring threat, and Daniel Carcillo showed he is just as adept with his gloves on -- 10 goals in his last 20 games -- as he is with his gloves off. Newcomers Kyle Turris, Kevin Porter, Chad Kolarik, Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov will bring a youthful fire and a depth at forward regardless of whether it takes one or two or more years for their impact to be felt.

The Coyotes look to write a new chapter in their history in 2008-09, one that ends with a berth in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Columbus Blue Jackets -- 2007-08 rank: No. 13, missed playoffs by 11 points.

There might be more optimism for the Columbus Blue Jackets than any other team on this list. The offseason overhaul orchestrated by GM Scott Howson addressed the Jackets' lack of defensive depth and gave coach Ken Hitchcock a far deeper forward crew with which to support superstar forward Rick Nash. With Nash, newcomer Kristian Huselius and last season's playoff surprise R.J. Umberger on the top line, the Jackets boast a legitimate top-echelon scoring unit for the first time in their history.

Hitchcock will look to ride an improved defense corps, the stellar goaltending of Pascal Leclaire and their revamped offense to earn the first playoff berth in franchise history in 2008-09.

St. Louis Blues -- 2007-08 rank: No. 14, missed playoffs by 12 points.

There might only be one team in the Western Conference with more superstar-caliber players in its stable, and it's the only team that finished below the Blues in 2007-08. But that will change quickly since young players these days are making their mark in the League quicker than ever before. On St. Louis, that means players like Brad Boyes, David Backes, David Perron, Patrick Berglund, and T.J. Oshie soon will be the ones counted on for the bulk of the team's offense, while veterans Paul Kariya and Andy MacDonald lead by example.

Developing a culture of winning normally takes time, but as last season's Philadelphia Flyers showed, a team can change its fortunes very quickly, meaning the veteran Blues should have hope that with the young cavalry on its way, a return to the postseason, even in the crowded Western Conference, could be a reality sooner rather than later.

Los Angeles Kings --
2007-08 rank: No. 15, missed playoffs by 20 points.

Like the Blues, the Kings boast an embarrassment of riches in their stable of youngsters. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Patrick O'Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Teddy Purcell, Brian Boyle, Colton Teubert, Thomas Hickey, Jonathan Bernier and Vyacheslav Voinov each is age 25 or younger, and each has "NHL Star" written all over him.

In goal, the Kings will look to a talented tandem of veteran Jason LaBarbera and the surprising Erik Ersberg to shoulder the load and keep the team in games until the youth in the system learns just what winning at the NHL level all about. Whether or not it happens this season, the Kings are very close to not just challenging for the playoffs, but for their division, the Western Conference, and in a few seasons, maybe the Stanley Cup.

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