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How East's playoff outsiders get back in postseason

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which begins Wednesday, Oct. 7.

Summer may be the most enjoyable time of the season for many people, but NHL teams want to put off its start for as long as possible.

For the eight Eastern Conference teams that missed out on the 2015 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 Chicago Blackhawks.

So how can the teams that missed the fun turn into postseason hits? With the regular season nearing its start, NHL.com today examines why fans of the unlucky eight can hold onto their playoff hopes:

BOSTON BRUINS

Last season: 41-27-14, 96 points, two points out of final East wild card.

How it ended: The Bruins had possession of the second Eastern Conference wild card on April 8, but lost that night to the Washington Capitals, starting a three-game losing streak (0-2-1) that cost them a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

How they get in:

1. Keep Krejci healthy -- When David Krejci was in the lineup the Bruins went 25-14-8 and averaged 2.70 goals per game. But Krejci played 47 games; in the 35 games he missed because of injury, the Bruins were 16-13-6 and scored 2.34 goals per game. The Bruins are shallow through the middle, so having a healthy Krejci allows Patrice Bergeron to focus his efforts on eliminating the other team's top line rather than being needed to do that and produce offensively.

2. Shoot more, shoot better -- In 2013-14, when the Bruins won the Presidents' Trophy, they were fourth in 5-on-5 shots with 2,323, and scored on 8.1 percent of their shots, according to war-on-ice.com. Last season those numbers plummeted to 1,978 shots and a 7.1 shooting percentage that tied for third-worst in the NHL. The Bruins attempted to find more accurate shooters during the offseason, acquiring Jimmy Hayes (8.11 shooting percentage) from the Florida Panthers and signing Matt Beleskey (11.08), who was fourth among forwards with at least 800 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time last season.

3. Push the pace -- Coach Claude Julien will try to have his defensemen skate the puck out of the defensive zone this season to get a quicker start in transition. However, that means older defensemen (Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg when he returns from back surgery), or ones who don't generally rely on their speed (Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller) will have to approach things differently. In theory the adjustment should allow the Bruins' forwards to build speed through the neutral zone and enter the offensive zone with more speed. Maintaining that approach for 82 games is the challenge.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

Last season: 38-29-15, 91 points, seven points out of final East wild card.

How it ended: The Panthers got as close as one point out of a playoff spot Jan. 13, but never were able to take that final step.

How they get in:

1. Young players take another step -- Nick Bjugstad, who led the Panthers with 24 goals, is 23 years old. Jonathan Huberdeau, who led them with 59 points, is 22. Aaron Ekblad, who was second on the Panthers in average ice time per game (21:48) and tied for the lead in plus/minus (plus-12), is 19. Also part of the core group is Brandon Pirri, 24, who scored 22 goals last season; Aleksander Barkov, 20, who had 16 goals and 39 points last season; and Lawson Crouse, 18, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound power forward selected by the Panthers with the 11th pick of the 2015 NHL Draft who could challenge for a roster spot this season. A youth movement that has been building since Dale Tallon was hired as general manager in 2010 is beginning to pay off, and the result could be not just a return to the playoffs this season, but a sustained run of postseason contention.

2. Luongo keeps rolling -- Since returning to the Panthers on March 4, 2014, Luongo has a .931 save percentage at 5-on-5, seventh among goaltenders to play at least 2,000 minutes at even strength in that span, according to war-on-ice.com. The 36-year-old allowed two goals or fewer in 37 of his 61 games last season. He also provides an outstanding security blanket for a young roster, allowing them to take chances to make plays with the confidence their goalie will cover any mistakes. Luongo was 4-3-3 last season when facing 35 or more shots in a game, and his .863 save percentage on high-danger shots at 5-on-5 was sixth in the League, according to war-on-ice.com.

3. Ekblad continues to grow -- Ekblad lived up to every bit of hype that goes with being the first pick of the draft; his 12 goals and 39 points were third in NHL history among 18-year-old defensemen, trailing Hockey Hall of Fame members Bobby Orr and Phil Housley. He also had a plus-12 rating while averaging 21:48 of ice time per game and was awarded the Calder Trophy. The next step is having more of an impact on the defensive side of the game. Ekblad averaged 25 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game and started 60.7 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone. If Ekblad can impact the game defensively while continuing to produce offensively, the Panthers' road to the postseason could be a smooth one.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Last season: 42-35-5, 89 points, nine points out of final East wild card.

How it ended: The Blue Jackets finished on a 12-0-1 run but it wasn't enough to dig them out of the early hole they fell into.

How they get in:

1. Everyone stays healthy -- Last season the Blue Jackets were decimated by injuries; they used a League-high 39 skaters and three goaltenders started at least five games. Among the toughest losses: center Boone Jenner played 31 games because of a broken hand and a back injury; defenseman Ryan Murray was limited to 12 games because of lower-body injuries; forward Brandon Dubinsky missed the first two months of the season recovering from surgery for a sports hernia; and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky missed six weeks because of a broken finger (the Blue Jackets were 6-10-1 during that span). If the Blue Jackets are able to put their best lineup on the ice, it should be enough for them to return to the playoffs.

Columbus acquired two-time Stanley Cup champion Brandon Saad from Chicago this offseason, and signed him to a six-year contract. (Getty Images)

2. Saad shows he's more than a product of the system -- In parts of four seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, left wing Brandon Saad could fly under the radar when superstars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith were the focus of attention on and off the ice. But after the blockbuster trade that sent him to Columbus and the six-year contract he signed, Saad has shifted into the spotlight. He'll be expected to play on the top line with center Ryan Johansen and produce at least at the level he reached last season, when he had 23 goals and 52 points in 82 games, and eight goals and three assists in 23 postseason games to help Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.

3. Tighten up defensively -- If the Blue Jackets are healthy there should be no problem scoring goals. But to win consistently they'll need to do a better job preventing them. Last season they allowed 3.02 goals per game, sixth-most in the League, and allowed 33.4 shots per game, third-most in the League. The Blue Jackets will bring back the core of that defense, including Murray, the second pick of the 2012 draft who is expected to play a major role. Though there are no standouts among the group, there are the seeds for a solid six-man unit to emerge. Health certainly will play a role, and not just from the fact David Savard and Jack Johnson were the only defensemen to play more than 70 games. A healthy crop of forwards should improve puck possession offensively, and having the puck 200 feet from your goal is the most effective way of playing defense.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Last season: 33-31-18, 84 points, 14 points out of final East wild card.

How it ended: On March 7 the Flyers were leading the Bruins and 15 seconds from pulling within two points of Boston for the final East wild card. But the Bruins rallied to win in overtime and the next day the Flyers lost to the New Jersey Devils. After that weekend the Flyers finished 5-6-5.

How they get in:

1. Find secondary scoring -- Wayne Simmonds (28 goals), Claude Giroux (25) and Jakub Voracek (22) combined for 75 goals, and Voracek (fourth, 81 points) and Giroux (tied for 10th, 71 points) were among the League's top point producers. However, the Flyers had one other player reach 20 goals and Simmonds was the only other forward to reach 50 points. Salary-cap constraints kept the Flyers from improving their offense, so it's incumbent upon the holdover players to step up. Sean Couturier scored a personal NHL-best 15 goals last season despite starting 39.89 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone, fewest among regular Flyers forwards. He signed a six-year contract July 28, so more will be expected of him. Brayden Schenn had 18 goals and a personal NHL-best of 47 points last season, and Matt Read had at least 22 goals in two of his first three seasons before slumping to eight goals last season, partly because of his decision to play through a high ankle sprain. Vincent Lecavalier is sixth among active players with 411 goals and should have a clean slate playing for a new coach, as should Sam Gagner, acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in June. The pieces are in place; now they need to produce.

2. A Mason repeat performance -- Steve Mason didn't get any serious Vezina Trophy consideration last season, but his play in 2014-15 was better than people might realize. According to war-on-ice.com, among goaltenders to play at least 2,000 minutes, his .944 save percentage at 5-on-5 was the best in the League, and he was one of only three goaltenders to have top-11 save percentages against low-, medium- and high-danger shots. He faced an average of 30.6 shots at even strength per game, sixth-most in the League, but his 2.25 goals-against average was better than the 2.29 he had in 2008-09, when he won the Calder Trophy. The Flyers will return most of a defense group that struggled last season, so Mason will need to stay at a similarly high level this season for the Flyers to make the playoffs.

3. A better start to the season -- The Flyers have spent training camp learning the way new coach Dave Hakstol wants them to play. Picking it up fast will be critical because slow starts have been a big reason the Flyers have missed the playoffs two of the past three seasons. In 2012-13 they started 2-6-0, in 2013-14 they started 1-7-0 but recovered to make the playoffs, and last season they started 1-3-2. General manager Ron Hextall believes the energy it takes to dig out of an early hole can have repercussions later in the season. Though the Flyers can't clinch a playoff spot in October, getting one in April will be easier with a stronger start.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Last season: 32-36-14, 78 points, 20 points out of final East wild card.

How it ended: The Devils' season-long offensive struggles ended with 17 goals in the final 13 games, when they went 1-7-3.

How they get in:

Adam Henrique's 43 points last season were tied for the lowest in the League among those leading their team in scoring. (Andy Marlin/NHLI)

1. Finding some offense -- Adam Henrique led the Devils with 43 points last season, tied for the lowest team-leading point total. Mike Cammalleri had 27 goals, but two other players scored more than 15. The Devils' 2.15 goals per game were the third-fewest in the League, and they generated 24.5 shots on goal and 36.3 shot attempts per game, both the second-fewest in the League. Who steps up? Kyle Palmieri, acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in June, should be motivated by playing closer to where he grew up in Montvale, N.J. Patrik Elias is 39 but is a 1,000-point scorer who had 13 goals last season. Travis Zajac needs to bounce back from the worst offensive season of his NHL career. Pavel Zacha, the sixth pick in 2015, will be given a chance to boost the offense as will Stefan Matteau and Reid Boucher.

2. Carried by Cory -- Entering last season the question was whether Cory Schneider was ready to be an undisputed No. 1 NHL goalie. He certainly answered it, ranking in the top 10 in GAA (2.26) and save percentage (.925) despite facing the third-most shots in the League (1,982). He also faced some of the toughest chances in the League; according to war-on-ice.com he faced 412 high-danger shots at 5-on-5, tied for third-most in the League, but among goalies to play at least 2,000 minutes at even-strength, his .854 save percentage on those shots was No. 7. With the Devils' potential offensive shortcomings, Schneider will have to be at his best again this season if there's any hope of a playoff push.

3. Quick development -- One of the strengths of John Hynes' coaching career has been his ability to develop young talent. In New Jersey he'll have a number of younger players to work with. Zacha, 18, nearly was a point-per-game scorer with Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League last season. Matteau, 21, the 29th pick of the 2012 draft, has two goals in 24 games in two stints in the NHL. Boucher, 22, has been a strong player in the American Hockey League who likely will get a chance to show his skills in the NHL. Defensemen Damon Severson, 21, Adam Larsson, 22, and Eric Gelinas, 24, are being counted on as the cornerstones of the defense. If Hynes can have a positive impact on those players, as well as the veterans, the Devils could push for a playoff spot.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

Last season: 30-41-11, 71 points, 27 points out of final East wild card.

How it ended: The Hurricanes started November on a 5-0-1 run but went 5-17-1 in a 23-game stretch to end the 2014 portion of the schedule and things never really improved.

How they get in:

1. Lifted by the cornerstones -- Forward Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward are the final two players remaining from the 2006 Stanley Cup championship team and have been the faces of the Hurricanes for nearly a decade. But each are entering the final seasons of their contracts with no assurances they'll remain in Carolina beyond this season. Staal likely will move full time to left wing and try to improve on the 23 goals and 54 points he had last season. Ward had a solid 2014-15 after struggling with injuries and inconsistent play the previous two seasons but he'll have to battle Eddie Lack for playing time. For Carolina to return to the postseason, it will need strong seasons from both players.

2. Support scoring needed -- Eric Staal was the only Hurricanes player with more than 20 goals and 50 points. Elias Lindholm, the fifth pick in 2013, had a strong second season with 17 goals and found solid chemistry with center Victor Rask, who had 11 goals and 33 points in 80 games as a rookie. They'll need more like that this season. Two veterans being counted on to step up are forwards Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal. Skinner, a two-time 30-goal scorer, slipped from 33 goals in 2013-14 to 18 last season, while Staal had six goals in 46 games after missing the first three months of the season recovering from a broken leg. They are healthy entering the season and have shown in the past they can perform at a high level. They'll have to do so again if the Hurricanes have any hope of competing for a playoff spot.

3. Turn chances into goals -- The Hurricanes were sixth in the League last season in 5-on-5 shot attempts, but their even-strength shooting percentage of 6.2 was the second-worst in the League. What that shows is coach Bill Peters' puck-possession system was successful in creating offensive opportunities, but now it's on the players to make smarter, skillful plays and finish their chances.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Last season: 30-44-8, 68 points, 30 points out of final East wild card.

How it ended: On Jan. 6, the Maple Leafs were 21-16-3 and had the second wild card. That day they fired coach Randy Carlyle, and under interim coach Peter Horachek they won nine of their final 42 games.

How they get in:

Mike Babcock takes over as coach in Toronto after a 10-season run with the Detroit Red Wings that included five division titles and a Stanley Cup championship. (Andy Marlin/NHLI)

1. Keep Kadri and Lupul together and on the ice -- According to puckalytics.com, the Maple Leafs' most efficient offensive players last season weren't the top-line tandem of Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk; it was the second line, which featured Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul. Last season when Lupul and Kadri were on the ice together the Maple Leafs averaged 2.28 goals per 60 minutes vs. 1.75 goals when they weren't. With Kessel and van Riemsdyk on the ice Toronto averaged 1.97 goals per 60 minutes vs. 2.12 goals when they were off the ice. Injuries limited Lupul to 55 games last season, but if he can stay healthy and Kadri can continue his positive development, there's a case to be made that they get more ice time than van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, who along with the departed Kessel made up the Maple Leafs' top line.

2. Find a goalie -- Coach Mike Babcock said he wants to determine a No. 1 goaltender and stick with him during the season, so it's been an open competition during training camp between James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier. Neither stood out last season; Bernier had a 2.87 GAA and .912 save percentage in 58 games (55 starts), while Reimer had a 3.16 GAA and .907 save percentage in 35 games (27 starts). Neither goalie got much support however; according to puckalytics.com, the Maple Leafs had a 46.1 shot-attempts percentage (SAT%) when Bernier was on the ice, and 47.0 SAT% when Reimer played. The goalies' career numbers also are similar: Bernier has 76 wins and a 2.63 GAA in 175 NHL games, while Reimer has 74 wins and a 2.91 GAA in 175 NHL games. They each have been productive in the past, however, and with an improved team in front of them either is capable of being a solid goaltender. All one of them has to do is take the job.

3. Strength through the middle -- The Maple Leafs haven't had a true No. 1 center since Mats Sundin left after the 2007-08 season. Kadri, the seventh pick in 2009, is 24 and has scored at least 18 goals in three straight seasons. Could he eventually fill that role? Bozak had an NHL career-best 23 goals last season, but how much of that was related to playing almost exclusively with Kessel? It could be Mitchell Marner, the fifth pick of the 2015 draft, but it won't be this season; the 5-foot-11, 160-pound forward was returned to his junior team, the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, on Sept. 27. Someone needs to emerge as a centerpiece in the middle; competing for a playoff spot will be difficult until that happens.

BUFFALO SABRES

Last season: 23-51-8, 54 points, 44 points out of final East wild card.

How it ended: The Sabres won one of their first eight games and things never really got on track as they finished with the fewest points in the League for the second straight season.

How they get in:

1. Evander Kane reaches his goals -- Evander Kane scored 30 goals in 2011-12 with the Winnipeg Jets; having reached that milestone, he's talked about scoring 40 or 50 this season. Is it possible? At his 9.0 career shooting percentage he'd have to take 444 shots to score 40 goals. But if Kane, who hasn't played since Feb. 2 following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, returns to the fast, physical force he was at his best in Winnipeg, a 30-goal season certainly would bolster the Sabres' playoff hopes, and more would be even better.

2. O'Reilly fills the middle -- The Sabres acquired Ryan O'Reilly for a number of reasons. First is his smarts and skills on the ice; he made his mark in the League with the Colorado Avalanche as a checking center and developed into a 20-goal scorer who can play on the wing or in the middle. O'Reilly's presence also takes pressure off the Sabres' other young centers, among them Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. With O'Reilly or veteran David Legwand available to take the difficult matchups and faceoffs, it allows coach Dan Bylsma to judiciously use Jack Eichel, the second pick in 2015, and Sam Reinhart, the second pick in 2014, and maximize their offensive potential.

3. Lehner proves he's No. 1 -- Robin Lehner never was able to seize the top goaltending spot during his five seasons with the Ottawa Senators, but the Sabres are banking on him being ready for that role now, acquiring him June 26 for the 21st pick of the 2015 draft. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Lehner fills and the net and is athletic enough to make any save. He's also fully recovered from the season-ending concussion he sustained during a game Feb. 16. His injury opened the door for Andrew Hammond to emerge as a surprise star, and Hammond's ascension made Lehner available for the Sabres. The Sabres have used eight starting goalies the past two seasons; the hope is Lehner stops the goaltender carousel.

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