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Last year's also-rans having unprecedented success

by Dave Lozo
Perhaps you've read the headline and become upset with the premise of the story. "Why is this guy breaking out his Jump To Conclusions Mat on Oct. 20?" After all, no one likes a premature prognosticator.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, who haven't made the postseason since 2003-04, are 4-0-1 and sit atop the Northeast Division. The Dallas Stars are 4-1-0 after missing the playoffs the past two seasons. The once-downtrodden Tampa Bay Lightning are 4-1-0 under new coach Guy Boucher and new GM Steve Yzerman.

But it's not just those three teams turning things around. The 14 teams who missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season are having unprecedented success this season and history has shown they have reason to believe they can stay there.

It's quite the amazing turnaround. The proof is in the numbers:

The overall record of last season's 16 playoff teams: 40-35-12 (1.06 points per game)

The overall record of last season's 14 also-rans: 37-23-7 (1.21 points per game)

That puts those 14 teams on an average pace for 99.1 points, more than enough to qualify for the postseason. Only one of those 14 teams -- Anaheim -- has lost more games than it has won this season. Of the six current division leaders, four missed the playoffs last season.

How big of a turnaround is this for the also-rans? Here's the same comparison for playoff/non-playoff teams at this point the previous two seasons. It represents a complete 180 from what we're seeing this season:

The overall record of 2008-09's playoff teams: 50-32-8 (1.20 points per game)

The overall record of 2008-09's also-rans: 30-28-12 (1.03 points per game)

The overall record of 2007-08's playoff teams: 44-29-11 (1.18 points per game)

The overall record of 2007-08's also-rans: 31-25-10 (1.09 points per game)

This year's early-season shift in power is nothing short of staggering. Think it's too soon to start judging the numbers? At this point last season, 11 of the 16 teams sitting in playoff positions -- including 7 of 8 in the East -- went on to make the postseason. In 2008-09, 12 of the 16 teams slotted in playoff spots stayed there. In 2007-08, it was 10 of 16.

If the season ended today -- yes, it would set a record for shortest season in NHL history -- seven teams would make the playoffs after failing to do so last season. Last season, six teams made the playoffs after missing the previous season. In 2008-09 and 2007-08, only five teams pulled off the feat.

No one is saying fans of the New York Islanders should start waiting in line for playoff tickets, but there's nothing wrong with getting a little excited about the possibility of late-April hockey in October.

Two weeks of play is an extremely small sample size to be sure, but there were plenty of experts who believed the Colorado Avalanche, after finishing last in the Western Conference in 2008-09, would eventually fade into the mist even after they sat at 6-1-1 on Oct. 20 of last season. The Avs went on to finish eighth in the West and prove a resurgent season can happen when it's least expected.

But if you ask Avs captain Adam Foote, it didn't take a handful of games to know his team was for real. Foote says he knew it during training camp and the hot start just confirmed his beliefs.

"We knew if we played with confidence, we had a shot at it, for sure," Foote said. "I remember a guy in Denver on the radio, a local guy, was pretty much, not laughing at us, but saying 'come on.' I don't blame him with how young we were. He wasn't being a smart aleck or anything like that. He was actually looking at the facts. We were just so young."

Foote looked around the locker room in the preseason and saw guys like Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, the Avs' first two choices in the 2009 Entry Draft, and knew they could play. He felt the same way about T.J. Galiardi, who was also embarking on his first full season with the team.  Having rookies who can contribute immediately is a big part of a team turning things around quickly because, as Foote says, those are the players who will play key roles that used to go to veterans.

"I think the new League is relying so much on the youth to play third- and fourth-line where in the old days it was guys who were experienced," Foote said. "If you have youth who can play, like Ryan O'Reilly who can be a checker and also chip in, if you can read that he's capable of doing, then you're all right. Adding (goaltender Craig) Anderson was big too."

Young players in key roles. A new goaltender that was an upgrade over the old one. A last-place finish in the conference the previous season. Are we talking about the 2009-10 Colorado Avalanche or the 2010-11 Toronto Maple Leafs?

Much like the Avs of a season ago, the Leafs are leaning on young players to play important roles. Tyler Bozak, who played 37 games a season ago, is centering the Leafs' top line in his first full NHL season. Defenseman Luke Schenn is hardly a rookie, but the 20-year-old is logging important NHL minutes while other players his age are toiling in the minors. Sometimes it's easy to forget that sniper Phil Kessel is only 23.

And it's no coincidence the Avs found their way into the playoffs after the arrival of Anderson, who played 71 games and posted a 2.64 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. Could goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere play that same role with the Leafs this season? So far, he has. He's 3-0-1 with a 1.96 GAA and .911 save percentage.

"Things are going well," Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek said. "Guys are loose and guys are confident. We believe in each other. But we're not really sitting back and dwelling on our record because it's a long year."

The Edmonton Oilers, who were eliminated from playoff contention before the trade deadline last season, are also showing signs of life thanks to their excellent crop of rookies. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi have been electrifying at times in Edmonton, giving fans a reason to believe the playoffs are possible after a mere 2-2-0 start.

The average age of the Dallas Stars is 27.7, not exactly a young team in comparison to the Leafs (26.6), Oilers (26.1) or even the Avs (25.8). The 23-year-old James Neal has been excellent to start the season, but the No. 1 difference in Dallas is between the pipes.

Goaltender Kari Lehtonen has been superb, going 4-1-0 with a not-so-impressive 2.91 GAA but a fantastic .921 save percentage after taking over the job from Marty Turco, who struggled in his final two seasons with the Stars before joining the Chicago Blackhawks this summer.

"It is really building," Stars coach Marc Crawford told reporters after Lehtonen's 41-save performance in a 3-2 win against the Blues on Saturday. "Your goaltender builds such a foundation for your team. Tonight was a case where we did not have much going other than him. The belief that was built by him tonight was infectious."

The Lightning are winning despite goaltenders Mike Smith and Dan Ellis allowing 18 goals in 5 games. The Islanders are finding a way to get by without defenseman Mark Streit and forward Kyle Okposo. But the bottom line is last season's 90-pound weaklings are the ones kicking sand in the faces of the League's perennial bullies.

Yes, it's still early enough that most people probably haven't picked out their Halloween costume yet. But history has shown a fast start can be all it takes to jump-start a team that wants to get back to the playoffs.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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