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How six Western Conference teams can get back into playoffs

Jets, Kings, Stars among those who didn't qualify last season

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

For the six Western 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 six teams can take the next step and qualify for the playoffs this season:

 

WINNIPEG JETS

Last season: 40-35-7, 87 points, seven points out of second wild card

How it ended: A 6-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche on March 4 left the Jets two points out of the second wild card, but they lost their next four (0-3-1) to fall 10 points out

Biggest offseason change: Goaltender Steve Mason signed a two-year, $8.2 million contract July 1. The Jets allowed 31.0 shots on goal per game last season, 11th-most in the League, and goalies Connor Hellebuyck (.907) and Michael Hutchinson (.903) were 45th and 48th in save percentage among the 54 goalies to play at least 20 games. Mason brings veteran experience, and he finished last season going 9-4-2 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in 15 games for the Philadelphia Flyers after March 1. 

Why they could get in: The Jets averaged 3.0 goals per game (seventh) despite ranking 21st in the NHL in faceoff winning percentage (.485) and 21st in shot attempts percentage (.493). If the Jets can win more faceoffs, they should control the puck more, which means more scoring chances for their elite forward group, led by Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler. With Mason solidifying the goaltending, the Jets are poised to move up the Central Division standings and compete for a wild card.

Video: PHI Recap: Mason strong in 1-0 OT loss to Devils

 

LOS ANGELES KINGS

Last season: 39-35-8, 86 points, eight points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Kings were three points out of the second wild card March 12, but that started a 10-day span when they went 1-3-1. That left them eight points out on March 23 and they never got any closer.

Biggest offseason change: Coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi were fired April 10. Assistant GM Rob Blake replaced Lombardi that day, and assistant John Stevens was promoted to coach April 23. Defenseman Drew Doughty was one of several players who said there's a better vibe around the team with Blake and Stevens in control.

Why they could get in: Goaltender Jonathan Quick appears healthy after missing 59 games last season because of a groin injury. Center Anze Kopitar looks refreshed and ready for a bounce-back season after a lack of production (12 goals and 52 points were his fewest in a full NHL season) and his first season as captain wore on him. Forward Tyler Toffoli is healthy after a left knee injury that limited him to 63 games was surgically repaired during the offseason, and Tanner Pearson is coming off his best NHL season with 44 points (24 goals, 20 assists) in 80 games. Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez are the foundation of a solid defense, and if the Kings can maintain their top-ranked SAT percentage (.550) while improving their No. 28 shooting percentage (7.8 percent), they should contend for a top-three spot in the Pacific Division.

Video: LAK@ANA: Quick robs Rakell with great pad save

 

DALLAS STARS

Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, 15 points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Stars started February three points out of a wild card but went 1-7-0 in their first eight games of the month, and after a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 16, they were seven points out.

Biggest offseason change: Ken Hitchcock was hired as coach April 13, four days after Lindy Ruff was fired. Bringing back Hitchcock means the Stars will go into each game with a well-conceived plan and structure, and players will buy in or they won't play. Hitchcock led the Stars to the 1999 Stanley Cup and back to the Final in 2000, and his 781 wins are one behind Al Arbour for third in NHL history.

Why they could get in: Goaltender Ben Bishop was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings on May 9 and signed to a six-year contract three days later to improve the Stars' biggest weakness. Bishop has been a Vezina Trophy finalist twice in the past four seasons. With Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi the past two seasons, the Stars allowed 488 goals, fourth-most in the League. Lehtonen will be the backup this season because Niemi had the final season of his contract bought out. The Stars also added balance to their offense to lighten the load on forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin with the signing of Alexander Radulov to a five-year contract July 3. He'll likely play right wing with Benn and Seguin to form one of the top-scoring lines in the NHL. Dallas also signed center Martin Hanzal to a three-year contract, and he should join Jason Spezza, Devin Shore and Radek Faksa to provide a more diversified offense. Hanzal and defenseman Marc Methot, acquired in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights, will improve the penalty kill, which was last in the NHL at 73.9 percent. The Stars addressed every area of weakness and should compete for a top-three spot in a tough Central Division.

Video: Ben Bishop discusses new deal with Stars

 

ARIZONA COYOTES

Last season: 30-42-10, 70 points, 24 points out of second wild card

How it ended: A 3-11-2 record in December left the Coyotes 13 points out of a wild card when the month ended.

Biggest offseason change: On June 23, the Coyotes acquired defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Connor Murphy and forward Laurent Dauphin, and got center Derek Stepan and goaltender Antti Raanta in a trade with the New York Rangers for defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the No. 7 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. General manager John Chayka said he found a No. 1 center, a No. 1 goaltender and solidified his No. 1 defense pair with the trades.

Why they could get in: Hjalmarsson adds leadership and a presence to a defense group that features offensive-minded Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alex Goligoski. Raanta could do for the Coyotes what another former Rangers backup, Cam Talbot, did for the Edmonton Oilers when he got a chance to be the No. 1. The Coyotes will be driven by their young forwards. Max Domi, 22, Tobias Rieder, 24, and Christian Dvorak, 21, were three of the top six in points last season, and joining them on a full-time basis this season should be Brendan Perlini, 21, Christian Fischer, 20, Dylan Strome, 20, and Clayton Keller, 19. All have been big performers at lower levels; now they'll need to show they can produce in the NHL. New coach Rick Tocchet will be tasked with keeping everyone focused through the ups and downs of an 82-game season. His abilities as a teacher were lauded during his time as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins and his two seasons as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning (2008-10). If he can keep things positive and the young players reach their potential, the pieces are in place to push for a wild card, or even a top-three spot in the Pacific Division.

Video: ARI@TBL: Ekman-Larsson rifles one in off the post

 

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Last season: 30-43-9, 69 points, 25 points out of second wild card

How it ended: A 3-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Jan. 25 gave the Canucks the second wild card spot, but they went 3-9-1 in their next 13 games, and when February ended were eight points out of a playoff spot.

Biggest offseason change: Travis Green was hired as coach April 26, replacing Willie Desjardins, who was fired April 10 after three seasons. The Canucks want to get younger, which is why Green, who spent the previous four seasons as coach of Utica, the Canucks' American Hockey League affiliate and knows most of the players, was the only candidate to interview for the job.

Why they could get in: Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin are 36, entering the final season of their contracts, and are motivated to prove their struggles last season were anomalies. Henrik's 50 points were his fewest in a full season since 2003-04 (42 points); Daniel's 15 goals were his fewest since 2002-03 (14). Center Bo Horvat, who led the Canucks with 52 points (20 goals, 32 assists) and signed a six-year, $33 million contract on Sept. 8, and forward Brock Boeser, the No. 23 pick of the 2015 NHL Draft who scored four goals in nine games after leaving the University of North Dakota, are poised for a breakout season. Sam Gagner, Loui Eriksson, Brandon Sutter and Sven Baertschi should provide quality depth scoring. If one of the goaltending options, Jacob Markstrom, Anders Nilsson or top prospect Thatcher Demko, plays like a No. 1, the Western Conference could be open enough for them to compete for a wild card.

Video: Discussing Bo Horvat's extension with the Canucks

 

COLORADO AVALANCHE

Last season: 22-56-4, 48 points, 46 points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Avalanche had a winning record in October (4-3-0) but couldn't sustain it, going 8-20-1 in their next 29 games and were 15 points out of a wild card after a 6-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Dec. 31.

Biggest offseason change: Goaltender Jonathan Bernier signed a one-year contract July 1 to back up Semyon Varlamov, who had season-ending surgery on his right hip Jan. 26 and a procedure on his left hip four weeks later. The Avalanche need Varlamov playing at a level closer to 2013-14, when he led the NHL with 41 wins and was second in Vezina Trophy voting to Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins. Playing him fewer games because of more trust in Bernier should help.

Why they could get in: If the Avalanche don't trade center Matt Duchene, they could start the season with Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon and Tyson Jost, the No. 10 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, centering their top three lines. They also look solid on the wings, with emerging forward Mikko Rantanen, who led the Avalanche with 20 goals last season, and Gabriel Landeskog, a four-time 20-goal scorer in six NHL seasons. The defense should be better with a healthy Erik Johnson joining Tyson Barrie and Nikita Zadorov, plus promising prospects Chris Bigras and Duncan Siemens. Coach Jared Bednar will have a full training camp to install his systems, something he didn't get last season, when he was hired Aug. 25, 2016, about two weeks before training camp started, after Patrick Roy abruptly resigned. With a high-powered offense, a healthy goaltender and a more settled experience early in training camp, the pieces could be in place for the Avalanche to compete for a wild card.

Video: STL@COL: MacKinnon uses nifty hands for SO win

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