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Leafs, Jets will still be playing after regular season

by Dan Rosen and E.J. Hradek

Will New Jersey get back into the playoffs after missing for the first time since 1996? Can Carolina find its way in after back-to-back seasons of being on the outs? Will Winnipeg give its fans a gift that the people in Atlanta received only once in 10 seasons? What about Toronto, Ottawa, Florida and the Islanders?
Which team or teams from the Eastern Conference that didn't make the playoffs last season will get their ticket punched this season?
Our opinions on the who differ, but we both believe there will be a dark horse team that emerges and catapults itself into the top eight in the Eastern Conference:
Toronto Maple Leafs

Brian Burke has been building the team his way since taking over as GM and President in 2008. The Leafs finally have the pieces in place to keep Air Canada Centre open into spring time.
Burke addressed Toronto's need for centers this offseason by signing Tim Connolly and trading for Matthew Lombardi.
To be sure there are some giant question marks here as Connolly has always been prone to injury and Lombardi still hasn't been officially cleared after missing the final 80 games last season with a concussion. But, in taking the optimistic point of view, I see Connolly has someone who will work well with Phil Kessel and Lombardi as the ideal No. 2 center provided he is healthy.
All indications are that Lombardi is on track to play this season, and he might return when the Leafs need him most.
Even without Lombardi, I like what the Leafs have down the middle. Mikhail Grabovski is coming off his strongest season in the NHL (29 goals, 29 assists) and Tyler Bozak had an 82-game lesson last season in what the NHL grind is all about. Both could and should be better this season.
In front of James Reimer, who proved himself as an NHL goalie last season, is a defense that is better than most will give it credit for being.
Dion Phaneuf is the anchor of a blue line that is young and bursting with potential when you consider Cody Franson and Carl Gunnarsson are only 24 years old, while Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie are just 21. Franson and John-Michael Liles, a pair of offseason acquisitions, will add an offensive element to the Leafs' blue line that could be dangerous.
This is by far the best team Burke and Ron Wilson have had in Toronto, but it'll only work for them if they get off to a strong start. The Leafs won 18 of their final 33 games last season, but that was after they won just 19 of their first 49 games.
Don't sleep on the Leafs, especially if they make some noise early.
Winnipeg Jets

Evander Kane
Left Wing - WPG
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 24 | PTS: 43
SOG: 234 | +/-: -12
In the days leading up to last Christmas, the Thrashers were dreaming about a trip to the playoffs, not a permanent relocation to Winnipeg. After whipping the Leafs, 6-3, in Toronto on Dec. 20, the Thrashers were on a 12-2-2 roll which pushed them to 19-11-5 overall. They were holding down a postseason berth and they seemed ready to take a step forward.
But, instead, they slid backwards, going 15-25-7 in their final 47 games, missing the playoffs for the 10th time in their 11 seasons. A few months later, the moving vans arrived for the trip north.
The move, I believe, will be for the better. The group of players that made the trip from Atlanta to Winnipeg includes talent young goalie Ondrej Pavelec, improving young winger Evander Kane and puck-moving defenders Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom. These guys can play, and they aren't alone.
Captain Andrew Ladd, who already has been part of Cup winners in Carolina and Chicago, can score goals and create space with his physical play. Young defenseman Zach Bogosian, who inked a new deal last week, seems poised to be more of an impact player on the blue line. And clever forward Bryan Little, just 23, has potted 62 goals in his last three seasons.
While many of the players on the ice remain the same, the franchise's hockey management team will be completely different. New coach Claude Noel, who had a brief interim stint in Columbus, gets his first real shot at the NHL level. Noel, who'd also been an assistant coach with the Jackets, had enjoyed success at the AHL level. If he can get his troops to tighten up their act in the defensive zone, he'll be standing behind the bench of a playoff team in April.
From an intangible standpoint, I think the franchise is going to benefit big time from the move to hockey-crazy Winnipeg. They'll be playing in front of standing-room only crowd every night at the MTS Centre. That place is going to be rocking from the first pre-season game all the way until the end of the year. That kind of excitement is contagious.
Plus, Eastern Conference teams are going to have to make the long (for them) cold trip into the 'Peg. I think these Jets are ready to make that an even more difficult road trip.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl. Follow E.J. Hradek on Twitter at: @EJHradek_NHL

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