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How East's playoff outsiders get back in this season

by Adam Kimelman continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which begins Wednesday, Oct. 8.

Summer may be the most enjoyable season for many people, but when it comes to NHL teams, they want to put off the start to their summers as long as possible.

But for the eight Eastern Conference teams that missed out on the 2014 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 conference champion New York Rangers.

So how can the teams that missed the fun turn into postseason hits? As opening night of the regular season nears, today examines why fans of the unlucky eight can hold onto their playoff hopes:


Last season: 38-30-14, 90 points, three points out of final wild-card spot in the East.

How it ended: The Capitals were second in the Metropolitan Division at the December holiday break, but an 8-9-5 record from then until the Olympic break, including an 0-5-2 skid in mid-January, left them out of the playoffs.

Offseason changes: Sweeping changes led to the firings of general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates. Brian MacLellan was promoted from assistant GM to replace McPhee, and he hired long-time Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz to replace Oates. MacLellan spent big on improving his defense, giving big-money, long-term contracts to free agents Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. He also traded goaltender Jaroslav Halak for a draft pick and signed Justin Peters as the backup to Braden Holtby. The spending in other places meant second-line center Mikhail Grabovski was allowed to sign elsewhere.

Why they could get in: Any team with Alex Ovechkin is an automatic playoff contender. Now supporting that offensive firepower is a strong six-man defensive group with the additions of Niskanen and Orpik, plus Trotz's well-known defensive system. Young forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky could replace Grabovski and energize the offense. One of the most important offseason moves could be the hiring of goaltender coach Mitch Korn, who has helped develop, among others, Dominik Hasek and Pekka Rinne. If he can help Holtby maximize his potential, combined with a stronger defensive team in front of him, the Capitals should be in the hunt for a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division.


Last season: 35-29-18, 88 points, five points out of final wild-card spot in the East.

How it ended: Five shootout losses in their final 10 games was the difference between getting into the postseason and watching from the sideline. The Devils had two regulation losses in their final 13 games but went 6-2-5.

Mike Cammalleri
Left Wing - NJD
GOALS: 26 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 45
SOG: 191 | +/-: -13
Offseason changes: The Devils got more offensive during the offseason, adding proven goal-scorers Mike Cammalleri and Marty Havlat. Havlat should arrive with extra motivation: He was bought out of his contract by the San Jose Sharks after three disappointing seasons, and now gets to play with three fellow Czechs, including close friend Patrik Elias. Cory Schneider signed a long-term contract extension in July, which spelled the end of the Martin Brodeur era in New Jersey. Scott Clemmensen was signed to compete with Keith Kinkaid for the backup spot behind Schneider. On defense, Anton Volchenkov was given a compliance buyout and Mark Fayne left for the Edmonton Oilers. However, one area of strength for the Devils is young defensemen, and those departures could mean more ice time for Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas.

Why they could get in: Schneider, at age 28 and with the shadow of Brodeur cleared, is more than ready to be a No. 1 goaltender for the first time. Cammalleri and Havlat should upgrade an offense that brings back an ageless Jaromir Jagr, Elias, a healthy Ryane Clowe, Dainius Zubrus and talented centers Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique. Defenseman Marek Zidlicky remains a power-play threat and Gelinas isn't far from joining him. Larsson and Merrill should be ready to make strong contributions to the defense as well. In a wide-open Metropolitan Division, the Devils should be in the running for a top-three spot.


Last season: 37-31-14, 88 points, five points out of final wild-card spot in the East.

How it ended: With two wins in 11 games after the Olympic break (2-7-2), the Senators went from one point out of the second wild-card spot to nine out.

Alex Chiasson
Right Wing - OTT
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 22 | PTS: 35
SOG: 144 | +/-: -21
Offseason changes: The Senators entered a rebuilding mode with the trade of center Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars for second-year forward Alex Chiasson and two prospects. They also let forward Ales Hemsky, acquired before the NHL Trade Deadline, leave in free agency. To add depth up the middle they signed center David Legwand.

Why they could get in: Two seasons ago the Senators were ravaged by injuries to a number of key veterans, including Spezza, and they made a surprising run to a playoff spot. Could that process repeat itself? Kyle Turris replaces Spezza as the No. 1 center; at 24 and coming off the best season of his career, he's ready for the increased ice time and responsibility. Bobby Ryan will be 100 percent after sports hernia surgery ended his season in March, and along with Milan Michalek, Ottawa has an impressive top-line scoring presence. Chiasson had 13 goals and 35 points in 2013-14, his first full NHL season, while playing up and down the lineup; he'll be in a top-six role this season and could build chemistry playing alongside Turris or Legwand. Defensively the Senators should be solid and will get a nice offensive injection from Erik Karlsson. And with a strong tandem in net in Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, a wild-card spot is a possibility.


Last season: 38-36-8, 84 points, nine points out of final wild-card spot in the East.

How it ended: On March 16 the Maple Leafs were second in the Atlantic Division. They then lost eight straight and 10 of their final 12.

Offseason changes: Brendan Shanahan was hired as president in April and spent the summer adding an advanced analytic presence to the organization, including the hiring of assistant general manager Kyle Dubas. The Leafs got tougher defensively with the signing of Stephane Robidas and the addition of Roman Polak from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Carl Gunnarsson. Dave Bolland left a hole in the middle when he signed with the Florida Panthers but the Leafs signed center Mike Santorelli, who was on his way to a strong season with the Vancouver Canucks before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury in January. Also signed was Petri Kontiola, who had played well in Russia the past few seasons and will start the season in the American Hockey League. Forwards Jay McClement, Nikolay Kulemin and Mason Raymond left in free agency, but Leo Komarov was brought back after one season in Russia and Matt Frattin was re-acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets. David Booth was signed after receiving a compliance buyout from the Vancouver Canucks but will start the season on injured reserve with a broken foot. 

The Maple Leafs were in position to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013-14, but Jonathan Bernier sustained an injury down the stretch and the team failed to qualify. (Photo: Getty Images)

Why they could get in: Jonathan Bernier proved last season he is capable of backstopping a team to the postseason, where it appeared Toronto was headed until Bernier got hurt in early April and the season fell apart. Minor changes might be all the Maple Leafs need as they return two of the more dynamic offensive players in the League in Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. They have strong supporting offensive pieces in Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri, plus William Nylander, the eighth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. And Year 2 of David Clarkson almost certainly has to be better than Year 1. Defensemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are quality puck-movers, and Polak and Dion Phaneuf have the strength to give opposing forwards a rough go in Toronto's end. If Bernier stays healthy and the offense produces like it has in the past, the Maple Leafs should be in the hunt for a top-three spot in the Atlantic, or at worst one of the conference's wild-card spots.


Last season: 36-35-11, 83 points, 10 points out of final wild-card spot in the East.

How it ended: The Hurricanes went 10-4-0 in January but 11-15-2 the rest of the way.

Offseason changes: After 20 years Jim Rutherford stepped down as general manager and was replaced by Ron Francis. In his first major decision Francis fired coach Kirk Muller and replaced him with Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Bill Peters. However, those were the only major changes. Manny Malhotra departed, but the team got grittier in its bottom-six forward group with the additions of Jay McClement and Brad Malone. Tim Gleason returned to add depth on defense.

Why they could get in: The Hurricanes certainly have the pieces for a playoff team in place, starting on the top line with Eric Staal centering Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin. All three players are healthy and expected to have bounce-back seasons. Jeff Skinner is coming off a career-best 33-goal season and promising Elias Lindholm is a year older and more mature. Losing Jordan Staal until January certainly hurts, but a healthy and motivated Cam Ward in goal should help any drop-off in offense. If Ward can get back to the top-flight goaltender he was a few seasons ago and the Hurricanes adapt well to Peters' puck-possession style, they should be in the hunt for a wild-card spot and a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.


Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, 14 points out of final wild-card spot in the East.

How it ended: After a rough start the Islanders showed some life in January, starting out 8-3-0 to get within five points of a wild-card spot, but they won one of eight games leading into the Olympic break to fall 12 back and never really challenged again.

The New York Islanders solidified their goaltending this offseason with the additions of Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson. (Photo: Getty Images)

Offseason changes: Few were more aggressive since the end of last season than Islanders general manager Garth Snow. He moved to solidify the team's goaltending by acquiring Jaroslav Halak from the Washington Capitals and then signed him to a four-year contract, and on the first day of free agency added a solid backup goalie in Chad Johnson. That allowed veteran Evgeni Nabokov to leave in free agency. TJ Brennan, the top defenseman in the American Hockey League last season, will get a shot to add to the Islanders' NHL depth at the position. And to bolster the offense the team signed forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. Forwards Cory Conacher and Jack Skille were added for depth up front. There also was a change at the top of the franchise with the announcement that former Washington Capitals co-owner Jon Ledecky and investor Scott Malkin had purchased a minority stake in the team and in two years would become majority owners.

Why they could get in: By itself, the return to health of star center and captain John Tavares will push the Islanders up the standings. Combined with the Islanders' aggressive offseason, it could propel them even higher. Halak has a career 2.38 goals-against average and a history of getting teams into the postseason. A top line of Tavares between Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson is big and skilled; a second line of Grabovski with Kulemin and Ryan Strome or Anders Lee has strong offensive potential; and a third line of Frans Nielsen between Josh Bailey and Michael Grabner is full of quickness and defensive skill. Adding Brennan and top prospect Griffin Reinhart, the fourth pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, improves a solid defense corps that already features Travis Hamonic plus offensive-minded Calvin de Haan and Lubomir Visnovsky. With all the changes and improvements the Islanders should be in the running for a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division.


Last season: 29-45-8, 66 points, 27 points out of final wild-card spot in the East.

How it ended: A disappointing season ended with a 5-14-1 skid in their final 20 games.

Jussi Jokinen
Left Wing - FLA
GOALS: 21 | ASST: 36 | PTS: 57
SOG: 172 | +/-: 12
Offseason changes: General manager Dale Tallon hired Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Gerard Gallant to replace interim coach Peter Horachek, and then set out to re-make his roster. He added skill, experience and toughness to his forward group with the free-agent signings of Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton and Derek MacKenzie. After buying out the contract of veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski, two-time Stanley Cup champion defenseman Willie Mitchell was signed away from the Los Angeles Kings. Mitchell also will serve as a mentor for defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the first pick of the 2014 NHL Draft who likely will start the season in the NHL. Goaltender Al Montoya was signed as the backup to Roberto Luongo.

Why they could get in: The last time Tallon re-worked the Panthers roster this much was three seasons ago, and the result was a Southeast Division title in 2011-12. This summer's rebuilding effort was a bit different as Tallon focused on leadership and toughness rather than skill; that's already in place as Florida's young core starts to mature. Jonathan Huberdeau is determined to prove his sophomore slump was a one-season bump in the road, and 2013 top pick Aleksander Barkov was getting Calder Trophy consideration until he was hurt at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Nick Bjugstad showed he could be a No. 1 center and Vincent Trocheck had an impressive NHL debut late last season. Ekblad bolsters a defense led by Erik Gudbranson, Brian Campbell and Dmitry Kulikov. With a full season of Luongo backstopping their efforts, it's possible the Panthers could rise up the standings rapidly and fight for one of the conference's wild-card spots.


Last season: 21-51-10, 52 points, 41 points out of final wild-card spot in the East.

How it ended: The Sabres went 0-6-1 in their final seven games to finish with the fewest points in the League.


Offseason changes: General manager Tim Murray continued to remake the roster during the summer. Forward Ville Leino and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff received compliance buyouts, and forwards Cory Conacher, John Scott and Zenon Konopka, as well as defenseman Henrik Tallinder, were not re-signed. Free agency saw veteran forwards Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson and defenseman Andrej Meszaros sign on, and defenseman Josh Gorges was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for a 2016 draft pick. At the 2014 NHL Draft center Sam Reinhart was selected with the No. 2 pick, and he likely will be a big part of the team this season.

Why they could get in: Things have to be better for the Sabres in 2014-15, and that starts with having a full season of Ted Nolan as coach. And there is a significant amount of talent the new players will be joining, starting with Cody Hodgson. He was moved to the wing for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Championship and tied for the team lead with six goals. He'll have a top-six forward spot, as will Moulson, a three-time 30-goal scorer. Reinhart, the fourth-leading scorer in the Western Hockey League last season, got a taste of professional life during a stint at Canada's World Championship training camp and likely will be a top-two center along with Tyler Ennis. The Sabres will be young all over the ice, including a defense that could feature giant 2013 first-round picks Rasmus Ristolainen (No. 8) and Nikita Zadorov (No. 16). Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth have shown flashes of being able to carry the load as a No. 1 goaltender. It won't be easy, but with a mix of solid veterans and young, energetic players, combined with a coach who specializes in maximizing his players' talents, it could add up to a memorable run for a wild-card spot.


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