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West: Which playoff misses could turn into hits?

by Adam Kimelman
Summer may be the most enjoyable time of the season for many, but when it comes to NHL teams, they want to put off the start to the fun times as long as possible.

But for the seven Western Conference teams that missed the 2010 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 about a month until training camp opens, today examines why fans of the unlucky seven can hold onto their playoff hopes:


Last season: 40-32-10, 90 points, 5 points out of eighth place

How it ended:
When Davis Payne replaced Andy Murray as coach, the Blues went on the upswing, going 23-16-3 after Payne took over Jan. 2, including 12 wins in their final 19 games.

Offseason changes: The biggest move came in net, where the Blues traded a pair of prospects for Canadiens playoff hero Jaroslav Halak. It's been about a decade -- since Chris Osgood wore the Blue Note -- that the Blues have had a goaltender of Halak's skill, and he'll be the unquestioned No. 1, something that likely wasn't going to happen with the Canadiens. Paul Kariya was not offered a new contract and Keith Tkachuk retired, allowing for more ice time for younger players up front.

Why they could get in: GM Doug Armstrong must have been satisfied with the talent already on the roster, because adding Halak was the only significant offseason move. The Blues are betting big on Halak, who backstopped the Canadiens past the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals and Stanley Cup champion Penguins in a remarkable playoff run. And while many were focused solely on his postseason numbers, Halak did finish in the top five in the League in the regular season in save percentage (.924) and top 10 in goals-against average (2.40) and shutouts (five). Add to that a blossoming young offensive corps led by T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Backes and David Perron, plus top-prospect defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, and a jump up the standings is a possibility.


Last season: 40-32-10, 90 points, 5 points out of eighth place

How it ended: After the Olympics, the Flames went just 10-10-0, including four straight losses to end the season.

Offseason changes: It was like old-home week this summer, as the Flames brought back center Olli Jokinen and left wing Alex Tanguay. The move was panned by media and fans, but GM Darryl Sutter felt he was getting two pretty good players at bargain prices. Veteran center Craig Conroy also signed on for another season, and defenseman Ian White, the centerpiece of the Dion Phaneuf trade, avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal. The Flames also got a lot tougher with the signings of Tim Jackman and Raitis Ivanans.

Why they could get in: The Flames' hopes start from the goal out. Miikka Kiprusoff had one of his better seasons in 2009-10, posting a 2.31 goals-against average. Jay Bouwmeester, now in the second year of his monster contract, should be able to re-discover the form that made him one of the League's elite blueliners. The rest of the defense -- White, Robyn Regehr, Cory Sarich, Steve Staios and Mark Giordano -- is pretty solid. Up front, team captain Jarome Iginla should do well with help from Jokinen and Tanguay, who were productive in their times in Calgary -- Jokinen had 50 points in 75 games spanning the last two seasons, while Tanguay had 40 goals and 139 points in 159 games from 2006-08. With a healthy Daymond Langkow, plus Rene Bourque, Matt Stajan and promising youngster Mikael Backlund, the Flames have offensive depth. If they get enough offense, having Kiprusoff in net could bolster a playoff run.


Last season: 39-32-11, 89 points, 6 points out of eighth

How it ended: A two-month stretch from mid-October to mid-December saw them go 10-12-6, which made too big a hole to crawl out of, despite a 9-3-3 finish to the season.

Offseason changes: Captain Scott Niedermayer retired, leaving a gaping hole on the blue line and in the leadership department. Teemu Selanne, however, signed on for another season, as did Saku Koivu, shoring up the second line. James Wisniewski joined Niedermayer as former Ducks on defense, but Toni Lydman, Andy Sutton and Danny Syvret were signed to fill the void. Also, highly regarded Cam Fowler was surprisingly available for the Ducks at No. 12 in the 2010 Entry Draft, and he'll have an excellent chance at making the team and sticking past the nine-game threshold. Bobby Ryan remains a restricted free agent, which is the last bit of summer work left on GM Bob Murray's plate.

Why they could get in: A top line of Ryan, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf could combine for 90 goals and 200 points if all three stay healthy. And a second unit of Selanne, Koivu and either Jason Blake or Joffrey Lupul -- hopefully healed from the back surgery that ended his season in early December -- isn't bad, either. Jonas Hiller has developed into a fine goaltender, so if the defense comes together, a rise in the standings wouldn't be a surprise.


Last season: 37-31-14, 88 points, 7 points out of 8th

How it ended: The Stars won six of their last 10, including a pair of shootout wins, against the Ducks and the Wild, to close the season.

Offseason changes: It was a major summer of change for the Stars, who officially bid farewell to goalie Marty Turco and watched franchise icon Mike Modano leave for Detroit. Jere Lehtinen, another long-time Star, remains a free agent. With Adam Burish brought over from Chicago, plus Steve Ott, the Stars might be the League's most annoying team. Andrew Raycroft was signed to back up goaltender Kari Lehtonen, but more work remains for GM Joe Nieuwendyk -- top forward James Neal and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Nicklas Grossman remain restricted free agents. Ownership issues have made Nieuwendyk's job harder than usual, but those are three key players.

Why they could get in: If Lehtonen is healthy -- always an issue -- he's shown he can help a team reach the playoffs. His best numbers (34 wins, 2.79 goals-against average) came in 2006-07, when he helped the Thrashers reach the playoffs for the first time. Brad Richards had a marvelous 2009-10, finishing seventh in the League with 91 points, and with Loui Eriksson, Neal, Ott, captain Brenden Morrow and promising youngster Jamie Benn, the Stars have depth and skill up front. Coach Marc Crawford knows what it takes to get a team into the postseason, so a rise up the standings isn't out of the realm of possibility.


Last season: 38-36-8, 84 points, 11 points out of eighth place

How it ended:
A season of adjustments to a new style of play and organizational philosophy ended with a 3-5-2 finish, a second straight season out of the playoffs and the fewest points since the 2005-06 season.

Offseason changes: It was a fairly quiet summer in the State of Hockey, with former Stanley Cup winners Matt Cullen and John Madden the big additions. Cullen, a Virginia, Minn., native, has posted five straight 40-point seasons, while Madden just won his third Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks and remains a solid defensive presence at center. Derek Boogaard and his toughness were allowed to leave as a free agent, the only key departure from last season's roster.

Why they could get in: Martin Havlat and Pierre-Marc Bouchard both have something to prove this season, and that hunger could work in the Wild's favor. Havlat wants to justify the big contract the Wild gave him last season to be Marian Gaborik's replacement, but he had just 18 goals; he should be better in Year 2 in Minnesota. Bouchard suffered a concussion opening night and never returned, but when healthy, he's been a productive player, with four straight 40-point seasons. Mikko Koivu makes the team go, Andrew Brunette remains a garbage-goal expert, and Guillaume Latendresse will be out to prove his remarkable rise with the Wild -- 25 goals in 55 games after just 2 goals in 23 games with the Canadiens -- was no fluke. Defensively, a healthy Brent Burns certainly will help solidify the unit in front of goalie Niklas Backstrom. Season 2 of coach Todd Richards' up-tempo style should be better than last season, and the Wild's fortunes could rise with it.


Last season: 32-35-15, 79 points, 16 points out of eighth place

How it ended:
A tough season came to a close with just three wins in the last 11 games.

Offseason changes: Scott Arniel was hired to replace interim coach Claude Noel, and that was about it for the Jackets. GM Scott Howson said his biggest offseason goal was finding a fourth-line center, and he did that by claiming Ethan Moreau off waivers from the Edmonton Oilers. Moreau, a captain in Edmonton, had 14 goals two seasons ago, so he could still be a productive player. At the draft, the Blue Jackets surprised many by choosing big center Ryan Johansen with the fourth pick. In his first season in the WHL, the 6-foot-2 Johansen had 25 goals and 69 points. He skates well and could get stronger when he fills out. Could he be the long sought-after top-line center for Rick Nash?

Why they could get in:
Arniel preaches hard work and will demand that out of his players. He'll tighten up some of the defensive issues, which should help goalie Steve Mason return to the player who won the Calder Trophy two seasons ago. We've seen just how well Mason can play when he's confident, and there's no reason to think he can't return to that high level. Rick Nash remains an elite scorer, but the wild card is Nikita Filatov. The 2008 first-round pick has a world of talent, but he clashed with coach Ken Hitchcock early last season and returned to Russia. Filatov is said to have gotten stronger since last season, but needs to be committed to playing in Columbus. If he -- and the rest of the team -- plays up to its talent level, a return to the postseason is a real possibility.


Last season: 27-47-8, 62 points, 33 points out of eighth place

How it ended: While the season as a whole was pretty sour, the Oilers did win three of their last four, including an overtime defeat of the Avalanche and a shootout win against the Kings, both playoff teams.

Offseason changes: After the worst season in franchise history, Pat Quinn was moved from the bench to a consultant role to GM Steve Tambellini. Tom Renney rose from his assistant spot to lead what should be a young group. Ethan Moreau, Patrick O'Sullivan, Robert Nilsson, Mike Comrie, Ryan Potulny and Fernando Pisani all were dismissed, with three first-round draft picks expected to replace them -- Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Taylor Hall. Kurtis Foster, who finished 20th in scoring among all NHL defensemen, was signed July 1 and Jim Vandermeer was brought in for toughness on defense. Colin Fraser, a skilled player who never got to show it on a deep Chicago team, was acquired for a draft pick and will get the chance for more ice time. Unhappy defenseman Sheldon Souray remains, but if he's healthy and things start well, he could turn into a nice part of the rebuilding process.

Why they could get in: Hall and Eberle were elite scorers in junior and Paajarvi has experience playing against men for three seasons in the Swedish Elite League. Sam Gagner remains a solid young talent, as does Andrew Cogliano, an unsigned restricted free agent who likely will re-sign with the team at some point before camp. A return to health of Ales Hemsky will be a huge boost to the offense, which scored just 206 goals last season, the fourth-fewest in the League. A kid line and a line of Hemsky, Gagner and Dustin Penner, who had a break-out 32-goal season, aren't too shabby. Goaltending remains a question mark, mostly because of Nikolai Khabibulin's back and off-ice issues, but back-ups Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk got to taste NHL action last season, and the club signed veteran Martin Gerber as insurance. It's a long climb for the Oilers, but if the kids get off to solid starts and confidence builds, anything is possible.

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