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How eight Eastern Conference teams can get back into playoffs

Islanders, Lightning, Flyers among those who didn't qualify last season

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

For the eight Eastern Conference teams that missed the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, their goal since the second week of April has been figuring out how to extend their season into May, or even June, like the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

NHL.com examines how those eight teams can take the next step and qualify for the playoffs this season:

 

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Last season: 41-29-12, 94 points, one point out of second wild card

How it ended: The Islanders went 24-12-4 after Doug Weight took over as coach Jan. 17, including six straight wins to close the season, but their 17-17-8 start under former coach Jack Capuano left them too far behind.

Biggest offseason change: Forward Jordan Eberle was acquired in a trade from the Edmonton Oilers for forward Ryan Strome on June 22. The Islanders are banking on Eberle creating chemistry with center John Tavares on the top line. They've had success playing together at international tournaments in the past, including winning a gold medal for Canada at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship. It could result in more than the one extra win they needed to make the playoffs last season.

Why they could get in: Any team with Tavares as its centerpiece remains a viable Stanley Cup Playoff contender, and he'll be motivated to improve on the 28 goals and 66 points he had last season, his fewest in each category in a full NHL season since he was a rookie in 2009-10 (24 goals, 54 points). Tavares won't have to carry the offense by himself. Eberle has scored at least 20 goals five times in six full NHL seasons; forward Anders Lee was tied for 10th in the NHL last season with 34 goals; and talented young forwards Joshua Ho-Sang, 21, and Mathew Barzal, 20, are ready to help. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak returned from a stint in the American Hockey League at the end of 2016-17 and went 6-1-0 with a 1.58 goals-against average and .949 save percentage in seven games. If he can play near that level and the offense produces like it should, a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division is possible.

Video: John Tavares takes the No. 6 spot

 

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Last season: 42-30-10, 94 points, one point out of second wild card

How it ended: Tampa Bay was one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card after a 4-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens on April 7, but the Maple Leafs won the next day to eliminate the Lightning.

Biggest offseason change: Forward Jonathan Drouin was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman prospect Mikhail Sergachev on June 15. Drouin was seeking a big payday as a restricted free agent, and the Lightning used the money they saved to sign RFA forwards Tyler Johnson (seven years, $35 million; July 10) and Ondrej Palat (five years, $26.5 million; July 14). Sergachev, the No. 9 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, could get top-four ice time this season.

Why they could get in: Top-line center Steven Stamkos is healthy after missing 65 games with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. Stamkos was third in the League with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) at the time of his injury, and he should return near that level. Andrei Vasilevskiy proved he's a No. 1 goaltender when he was given the job after Ben Bishop was traded to the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 26, going 12-4-2 with a 2.27 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 18 games. With the long offseason allowing a few players extra time to heal from injury, among them Johnson, Palat, forward Ryan Callahan and defenseman Anton Stralman, the Lightning should be near the top of the Atlantic Division.

Video: TBL@CHI: Johnson goes top shelf on Crawford in 3rd

 

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Last season: 39-33-10, 88 points, seven points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Flyers pulled within five points of the second wild card after rallying for a 4-3 overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 19, but they never got closer than six points after that despite going 6-3-2 in their final 11 games.

Biggest offseason change: Goaltender Brian Elliott signed a two-year contract July 1 and is expected to bring more consistency in a time-share with Michal Neuvirth than Steve Mason did with Neuvirth last season. Elliott has experience sharing the net, having done so with Jake Allen (St. Louis Blues) from 2012-16 and with Chad Johnson (Calgary Flames) last season.

Why they could get in: Center Claude Giroux is skating better and is motivated to show that he remains an elite player after he had 58 points (14 goals, 44 assists) in 82 games last season, his lowest total in a full NHL season since 2009-10 (47). Forwards Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek are top-level talents and will be supported by an infusion of youth, led by center Nolan Patrick, the No. 2 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft who turns 19 on Tuesday. The Flyers scored 128 goals at 5-on-5 last season, fourth-fewest in the League, but they should be better with forwards Valtteri Filppula and Jordan Weal getting more ice time. Filppula's 12 goals last season, including five in 20 games with the Flyers after they acquired him in a trade from the Lightning on March 1, all came at even strength. Weal scored seven even-strength goals in 23 games after being called up from Lehigh Valley of the AHL on Feb. 11. The defense will be more mobile with the addition of two from a promising prospect group of Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim, Philippe Myers and Mark Friedman; none is older than 22. Morin, 22, the No. 11 pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, and Hagg, 22, impressed in one-game NHL call-ups last season. With an improved defense making life easier for Elliott and Neuvirth, the Flyers should compete for a wild card.

Video: Wayne Simmonds named No. 18 on the Top 20 Wings list

 

CAROLINA HURRICANES

Last season: 36-31-15, 87 points, eight points out of second wild card

How it ended: A 2-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 30 extended the Hurricanes' point streak to 13 games (9-0-4) and got them within four points of the second wild card, but they won one of their final six games (1-4-1) and missed the playoffs for the eighth straight season.

Biggest offseason change: Goaltender Scott Darling was acquired in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks for a third-round pick in the 2017 draft on April 28, and they signed him to a four-year, $16.6 million contract May 5. Darling was tied for sixth in the NHL last season (minimum 30 games) with a .932 even-strength save percentage. Last season, the Hurricanes allowed 171 even-strength goals, second-most in the League, and had a .913 even-strength save percentage, second-worst in the League.

Why they could get in: Darling, defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk and forwards Marcus Kruger and Justin Williams bring a combined seven Stanley Cup championships to a roster that was the sixth-youngest in the League last season at 26.8, according to Hockey-Reference.com. With Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin, the Hurricanes potentially have one of the better defenses in the League, plus a growing young forward group led by Jeff Skinner, 25, Victor Rask,24, Elias Lindholm, 22, and Sebastian Aho, 20. The pieces are in place for the Hurricanes to end their postseason drought.

Video: DET@CAR: Faulk finds twine on drive from the circle

 

FLORIDA PANTHERS

Last season: 35-36-11, 81 points, 14 points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Panthers were 11-10-1 and two points out of a wild card when coach Gerard Gallant was fired after a 3-2 loss at the Hurricanes on Nov. 27. He was replaced by Tom Rowe, but they won one of Rowe's first six games (1-2-3) and went 23-24-7 the rest of the season.

Biggest offseason change: Dale Tallon returned as general manager April 10 and hired Bob Boughner as coach June 12. Tallon had been named president May 16, 2016, and Rowe was promoted to GM. Rowe gave up the GM job when he replaced Gallant, and when the season ended, Tallon went back to being GM, Rowe was made a senior adviser, and Boughner, an assistant with the San Jose Sharks the previous two seasons, was hired.

Why they could get in: No. 1 defenseman Aaron Ekblad (concussion/neck) and top-line forwards Aleksander Barkov (upper body, lower body) and Jonathan Huberdeau (Achilles tendon) are healthy after missing significant time because of injury. Barkov and Huberdeau could join with Evgenii Dadonov to form a high-scoring top line. Dadonov signed a three-year contract July 1 after finishing in the top five in the Kontinental Hockey League last season with 30 goals and 66 points. Forwards Vincent Trocheck, Nick Bjugstad and Radim Vrbata, who signed a one-year contract July 1, each could score 20 goals. The defense should be more cohesive, with each of the top six in games returning after major upheaval following the 2015-16 season saw Keith Yandle, Mark Pysyk and Jason Demers brought in to replace Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson. The Panthers are two seasons removed from winning the Atlantic Division and a number of key players remain on the roster, so with good health they should be able to compete for a top-three spot in the division.

Video: FLA@ANA: Ekblad nets PPG with slapper from high slot

 

DETROIT RED WINGS

Last season: 33-36-13, 79 points, 16 points out of second wild card

How it ended: A 4-1 loss at the Hurricanes on March 28 ended Detroit's run of 25 straight seasons in the playoffs.

Biggest offseason change: Defenseman Trevor Daley signed a three-year contract July 1. He's healthy after injuries limited him to 56 regular-season games last season and could play on the top pair, getting more ice time than the 20:22 he averaged last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Why they could get in: Henrik Zetterberg at 36 isn't the elite center he was 10 years ago, but he led the Red Wings with 68 points and played all 82 games for the second straight season in 2016-17. Detroit should get more from its impressive crop of young forwards. Tomas Tatar, 26, led the Red Wings with 25 goals. Anthony Mantha, 23, had 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in 60 games as a rookie, and the big forward (6-foot-5, 221 pounds) could bust out in his second NHL season. Dylan Larkin, 21, is poised for a bounce-back season after slipping from 23 goals and 45 points as a rookie in 2015-16 to 17 goals and 32 points last season. Goaltender Petr Mrazek (his 3.04 GAA and .901 save percentage last season were the worst of his NHL career) should be motivated entering the final season of his contract after being left unprotected in the NHL Expansion Draft. The roster has talent, and if the players meet their potential and the goaltending is solid, the Red Wings could start another playoff streak as soon as this season.

Video: DET@CAR: Tatar finishes Nyquist's feed for PPG

 

BUFFALO SABRES

Last season: 33-37-12, 78 points, 17 points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Sabres lost No. 1 center Jack Eichel to an ankle injury during the final practice before the start of the season and went 7-9-5 in the 21 games he missed. That left them last in the Atlantic Division and unable to recover.

Biggest offseason change: Jason Botterill was named general manager May 11 and hired Phil Housley as coach June 15. They replaced GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma, who were fired April 20. Botterill, a three-time Stanley Cup champion as assistant GM of the Penguins, and Housley, who started his Hockey Hall of Fame playing career with the Sabres in 1982 and as an assistant helped the Nashville Predators reach the Cup Final last season, hope to bring their winning pedigree to Buffalo. 

Why they could get in: Injuries kept the ideal lineup from taking the ice at any point last season, from Eichel's ankle injury and forward Evander Kane's cracked ribs sustained in the season opener, to forward Kyle Okposo's season-ending concussion symptoms and subsequent hospitalization for an adverse reaction to sleep medication in March. Forward Johan Larsson (wrist) and defensemen Zach Bogosian (knee, ribs), Josh Gorges (hip) and Dmitry Kulikov (back) each had an extended absence because of injury. With the exception of Kulikov, who signed with the Winnipeg Jets on July 1, all the key players remain and are healthy. The defense should be better with potential Norris Trophy candidate Rasmus Ristolainen being joined by Nathan Beaulieu (Montreal Canadiens) and Marco Scandella (Minnesota Wild), each acquired in a trade. Eichel, whose 57 points (24 goals, 33 assists) were 10th in the NHL after Nov. 29, his first game, is an elite player and motivated to prove to it to any doubters. Kane, when healthy, is a dynamic forward capable of scoring 30 goals, as are Okposo and center Ryan O'Reilly. There's also other emerging young talent, among them forwards Justin Bailey, 22, and Alexander Nylander, 19, and defenseman Brendan Guhle, 20. If the goaltending (Chad Johnson, Robin Lehner) holds up, the additions on defense work well, and everyone stays healthy, the Sabres should compete for a wild card.

Video: Jack Eichel is named No. 37 on the list

 

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Last season: 28-40-14, 70 points, 25 points out of second wild card

How it ended: A 3-2 win against the Islanders on Feb. 18 left them four points out of the second wild card. They went 0-8-2 their next 10 games, followed by a four-day break, and didn't win again until March 16, by which time they were 14 points out.

Biggest offseason change: The Devils selected Nico Hischier with the No. 1 pick of the 2017 draft. He could be their first premier No. 1 center since Scott Gomez left as a free agent after the 2006-07 season. Hischier also should help invigorate an offense that was 28th in the League in scoring last season (180 goals), the fifth straight season they've ranked in the bottom four in the League. Hischier will have help from forwards Kyle Palmieri, 26, Taylor Hall, 20, and Adam Henrique, 20, who each scored at least 20 goals. It was the first time the Devils had three players score at least 20 in the same season since 2011-12 (Ilya Kovalchuk, 37; Zach Parise, 31; David Clarkson, 30; Patrik Elias, 26; Petr Sykora, 21). New Jersey also added forward Marcus Johansson, who had an NHL career-high 24 goals last season, in a trade from the Washington Capitals on July 2.

Why they could get in: Cory Schneider is an elite goaltender capable of stealing games. He has a .919 save percentage in four seasons with the Devils, but three goalies have faced more than the 6,467 shots Schneider has faced during that span and have a better save percentage (Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask, .921). Combine that with an upgraded offense, and there could be enough for a rapid rise in the standings.

Video: CAR@NJD: Schneider extends his blocker to rob Skinner

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