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How West'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 six Western 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 six can hold onto their playoff hopes:

LOS ANGELES KINGS

Last season: 40-27-15, 95 points, four points out of final West wild card.

How it ended: The Kings entered April 6 in possession of the final wild card into the playoffs from the West but lost that night in a shootout at the Vancouver Canucks. They won one of their final three games and missed the postseason for the first time since 2009.

How they get in:

1. Make the most of the extra rest -- The previous three seasons ended with the Kings winning the Stanley Cup sandwiched around a trip the Western Conference Final. However that included seven players skating in at least 200 regular-season games, more than another other team in the League. And nine players skated in at least 60 playoff games during that span; no other player in the League skated in more than 57. Add in the number of key players that took part in the 2014 Sochi Olympics and that's a lot of hockey in a short period of time, which appeared to catch up to the Kings last season. Having a playoff-free summer might not have been good in the short term, but the extra rest and recovery could be a huge benefit this season.

2. Take advantage of young legs -- The offseason saw the departures of forwards Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll, each 33 years old, and defenseman Robyn Regehr, 35. But the Kings are stocked with young talent. Valentin Zykov, 20, and Adrian Kempe, 19, will start the season in the American Hockey League but are proven goal-scorers who could push for NHL jobs. Among the defense, Derek Forbort, 23, is 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, and has had two strong seasons in the AHL. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson were rookies who injected needed offense when the Kings won the Cup in 2014, and another crop of young players could help them this season.

3. Reinvigorate Milan Lucic -- The Kings acquired the power forward from the Boston Bruins and have placed him at left wing alongside center Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, who moved to right wing. That's created a top line with size, skill and power that could wreak havoc on the opposition. However, that depends on Lucic returning to being the board-rattling forechecker who had 56 goals in a two-season span between 2010-11 and 2011-12. Lucic was limited to 18 goals last season but some of that can be attributed to the injury absence of David Krejci, his regular center. And if being traded from his only NHL team wasn't enough motivation for Lucic, 2015-16 is the final season of his contract and he can be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in July 2016.

DALLAS STARS

Last season: 41-31-10, 92 points, seven points out of final West wild card.

How it ended: On Feb. 19, the Stars were four points behind the Kings for the final wild card but lost their next six games (0-4-2). Despite going 14-5-0 in their final 19 games, the hole was too big to dig out.

How they get in:

1. Championship experience -- Forward Patrick Sharp is a four-time 30-goal scorer, defenseman Johnny Oduya is a dependable minutes-eater and goaltender Antti Niemi is fourth among goaltenders in wins since the 2009-10 season. But as important as their on-ice contributions have been, all have won the Stanley Cup at least once. The Stars have a talented roster but most of it lacks significant playoff experience; having the championship knowledge Sharp, Oduya and Niemi provide could be just as valuable as anything they do on a game-to-game basis.

2. Healthy Nichushkin -- As an 18-year-old rookie in 2013-14, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound right wing scored 14 goals to help the Stars make the playoffs, and his mix of skill and physical play gave the impression of a promising future. Last season was mostly a lost one when hip surgery limited him to eight games. Nichushkin told the Stars website in August he feels 100 percent and is focused not just on the playoffs, but winning the Stanley Cup. That might be a bit of a stretch in 2015-16, but a healthy Nichushkin playing like he did as a rookie will go a long way toward giving them a chance.

3. Strong goalie competition -- Kari Lehtonen has played more games (130) than any goalie the past two seasons, mostly because coach Lindy Ruff didn't feel he had an effective backup. That changes this season with the acquisition of Niemi, whose 189 wins are fourth among all goalies the past six seasons, and his 32 shutouts are tied for third. Each goalie is used to a lot of ice time; Niemi is tied for fourth among goalies in games played (125) the past two seasons. This season less could turn out to be more, as an even split of games could keep each goalie fresh for a playoff push.

COLORADO AVALANCHE

Last season: 39-31-12, 90 points, nine points out of final West wild card.

How it ended: The surprise 2013-14 Central Division champions got off to a 1-4-2 start, won four of their first 17 games (4-8-5) and never seemed able to get going.

How they get in:

1. MacKinnon steps up -- As an 18-year-old rookie in 2013-14 Nathan MacKinnon dazzled, winning the Calder Trophy after he had 24 goals and 63 points. Last season those numbers slipped to 14 goals and 38 points. One reason for the drop-off could have been a shift to his natural center position after playing right wing as a rookie. The Avalanche added centers Carl Soderberg and Mikhail Grigorenko during the offseason but coach Patrick Roy will start the season with MacKinnon in the middle. MacKinnon told the Denver Post that he put on 10 pounds of muscle since last season, which could make him even better equipped to play along the wall. Wherever he plays, MacKinnon has game-breaking ability. If he can return to the form he displayed as a rookie the Avalanche could have the scoring punch to grab a wild card.

2. A rebuilt defense -- Last season the Avalanche allowed 2.72 goals per game and also struggled getting the puck out of their zone, as evidenced by their 43.18 shot-attempts percentage (SAT%), the second-worst in the League. General manager Joe Sakic made the Avalanche harder to play against in the defensive zone with the additions of Francois Beauchemin and Nikita Zadorov. He also acquired defenseman Brandon Gormley from the Arizona Coyotes. Gormley, 23, has yet to stick in the NHL but has displayed strong puck-moving skills in the AHL as well as during his junior career with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which played numerous times against coach Patrick Roy's Quebec Remparts. If Gormley, Zadorov, Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie can activate the offense from the back end, the Avalanche's talented group of forwards should be able to score enough to get them into playoff contention.

3. Discovering their power -- It's tough to believe a team with the offensive firepower of the Avalanche could have the League's second-worst power play last season at 15.0 percent. Soderberg, acquired from the Bruins, could help raise that number. He had five power-play goals last season and was on the ice for 58.38 scoring chances per 60 minutes on the power play, according to war-on-ice.com, a number that would have put him more than 10 percentage points ahead of the highest-ranked Avalanche skater. Whoever ends up playing with the man-advantage, they need to get the puck on net; last season the Avalanche had 596 shot-attempts on the power play, third-fewest in the League according to war-on-ice.com.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

Last season: 40-33-9, 89 points, 10 points out of final West wild card.

How it ended: On Jan. 31 the Sharks were second in the Pacific Division with 60 points. But they went 3-8-2 in February and finished the season on a 13-16-3 run to the miss the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons.

How they get in:

1. Listen to the new voice -- In seven seasons with Todd McLellan as coach, the Sharks won 311 games, third-most of any team in that span. But after missing the playoffs last season, McLellan and the Sharks agreed it was time for a change, and Peter DeBoer was brought in to replace him. DeBoer doesn't have McLellan's resume, but he is well-respected and rarely has had the talent the Sharks possess. When he's had a strong roster he's produced results; he took a New Jersey Devils team that featured Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. These Sharks have comparable offensive talent. Could it be as simple hearing the same message told a different way?

2. Answering the question in goal -- Martin Jones played 34 games in two seasons as Jonathan Quick's backup with the Kings, but he had seven shutouts. The Sharks traded their first-round pick at the 2016 NHL Draft and a prospect to the Bruins on June 30 for Jones, then signed him to a three-year contract, so they believe he's ready to be a full-time starter. A deep defense, led by a top pairing of Brent Burns and free agent addition Paul Martin, should help, but it's on Jones to show he's ready for the challenge of being a No. 1 goalie and getting the Sharks back to the playoffs.

3. Offensive depth -- Rather than trade their older, veteran forwards and look to the future, the Sharks kept Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and signed free agent Joel Ward. Those three, combined with Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Tommy Wingels, Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto give the Sharks the kind of scoring attack that could bridge the gap back to the postseason. Some luck also would help; the Sharks had the fifth-most 5-on-5 shot attempts in the League last season but had a 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 7.1, tied for the fourth-lowest in the League.

EDMONTON OILERS

Last season: 24-44-14, 62 points, 37 points out of final West wild card.

How it ended: The Oilers were a respectable 6-8-1 on Nov. 9 but then lost their next 11 and 22 of 24 (2-14-8).

How they get in:

1. More than McDavid -- No player since Sidney Crosby a decade ago entered the League with the level of attention facing Connor McDavid, 18, the first pick of the 2015 NHL Draft. But the Oilers can't rely on McDavid alone to carry them to postseason contention. Taylor Hall had 27 goals and 80 points two seasons ago but was slowed by injury last season; Jordan Eberle has at least 24 goals and 60 points in three of the past four seasons; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins set a personal NHL best with 24 goals last season; Benoit Pouliot scored an NHL career-best 19 goals last season; and Nail Yakupov has shown flashes of game-breaking skill during his three seasons. If the other talented Oilers forwards do their job and McDavid approaches expectations, contention for a wild card is a possibility.

2. Defense steps up -- As good as those high-scoring forwards are, the Oilers can't take the puck end-to-end every shift. They need defensemen who can retrieve pucks and start the play up the ice. And with Andrej Sekera and Justin Schultz, they have two who should be strong in transition. Sekera's offensive numbers were down last season but he still was a solid possession player, and his 54.22 shot-attempts percentage would have been the best among Oilers defensemen to play at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5. In addition Darnell Nurse, the seventh pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, will start the season in the American Hockey League but might not be there long. He has the makeup of a young Chris Pronger; he's big, strong and nasty to play against but showed a nice passing touch and an underrated offensive game in junior. With improved defensive play the Oilers' offense could be even better this season.

3. Can Cam do it -- The Oilers have had seven starting goalies the past two seasons, tied for the second-most in the League in that span. To stop the goaltender carousel they traded three picks at the 2015 draft to the New York Rangers for Cam Talbot. The 28-year-old has excelled in place of Henrik Lundqvist the past two seasons, including a 23-game stint last season that saw him go 16-4-3 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .929 save percentage when Lundqvist was out because of a vascular injury to his neck. Talbot has 57 games of NHL experience entering the season, but he could play at least that many this season. He won't have the Rangers' defense in front of him, but the Oilers are banking that Talbot will be good enough to get them close to playoff contention.

ARIZONA COYOTES

Last season: 24-50-8, 56 points, 43 points out of final West wild card.

How it ended: The Coyotes were 15-19-4 on Jan. 3 but won nine of their final 44 games (9-31-4) to finish at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

How they get in:

1. Carried by the kids -- Max Domi and Anthony Duclair are 20, Christian Dvorak is 19 and Dylan Strome is 18. That foursome has 18 games of NHL experience, all belonging to Duclair. But they're the future of the Coyotes and that future could start this season. Duclair had one goal and six assists with the New York Rangers last season before joining Domi to form a dominant line for Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. Domi had 32 goals and 102 points for London of the Ontario Hockey League, and his teammate, Dvorak, who was returned to London on Sept. 27, had 41 goals and 109 points. Strome, playing for the Erie Otters, led the OHL with 129 points and was third with 45 goals. If they can be productive at the NHL level and complement the Coyotes' veteran talent, there's a chance they could make a run at a wild card.

2. Smith bounces back -- In 2011-12, Smith won 38 games and finished in the top 10 in the League in goals-against average and save percentage. He's struggled since then, going 56-75-20 with a 2.83 GAA and .910 save percentage. This season he'll have a new goalie coach, Jon Elkin, and some extra bulk in front of him in newly acquired defensemen Nicklas Grossmann and Zbynek Michalek. The Coyotes need the 2011-12 Smith to return to have any hope of competing for a playoff spot.

3. Finish strong -- The Coyotes' 50 third-period goals were the fewest in the League, and the 107 third-period goals they allowed were the most. A young team should have extra energy and be able to push the pace better late in games this season.

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