Seven East lottery teams hope for postseason return

Friday, 09.13.2013 / 6:00 AM

By Adam Kimelman -Deputy Managing Editor continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Getting into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Western Conference proved a difficult task for the Columbus Blue Jackets. They have made it to the postseason once in their first 13 seasons.
Will the move this season to the Eastern Conference help?

The Blue Jackets are one of seven teams that will play in the Eastern Conference this season that sat out the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The question the unlucky seven have been asking themselves since the end of April is what they can do to change those fortunes and go from postseason misses to playoff hits.
With training camps opening this week, examines why fans of those subpar seven from a season ago can harbor dreams of top-eight finishes in 2013-14.
Last season: 24-14-7, 55 points, lost eighth spot in Western Conference on a tiebreaker
How it ended: The Blue Jackets won eight of their final nine games to tie the Minnesota Wild for eighth place in the West, but lost the tiebreaker for having three fewer non-shootout wins.
Offseason changes: In his first foray into free agency, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen made a huge splash when he signed free-agent forward Nathan Horton to a seven-year, $37.1 million contract. Kekalainen knew Horton needed shoulder surgery when he signed the deal, but figures it'll be worth the wait once Horton debuts, possibly as soon as sometime in December. He also eliminated any issues with goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, signing the restricted free agent to a new two-year contract. The Jackets also added depth to the bottom of the roster by signing free-agent forward Jack Skille.
Why they could get in: The Jackets have the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in net in Bobrovsky, a deep defense corps that could add Ryan Murray, the second pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, who is fully recovered from a shoulder injury that ended his 2012-13 season in November and a full season of star sniper Marian Gaborik. The Jackets played a scrappy, underdog style last season that nearly got them into the postseason. Now, with the move the Eastern Conference and the easier travel that goes with it, the franchise's second-ever trip to the postseason should be within reach.
Last season: 23-22-3, 49 points, six points out of eighth place in the East
How it ended: The Flyers struggled through most of March, and when they finally strung together their longest win streak of the season, four straight in the first week of April, they responded with four straight losses and missed the playoffs for the second time since 1994.

Offseason changes: To open cap space, the Flyers used their compliance buyouts on forward Daniel Briere and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. With that money that saved, they traded for puck-moving defenseman Mark Streit from the New York Islanders and signed him to a new four-year contract. Goaltender Ray Emery signed a one-year deal to share time in net with Steve Mason. And when Vincent Lecavalier surprisingly hit the free-agent market, the Flyers pounced with a five-year contract. Training camp invitees Daniel Cleary and Hal Gill will have chances to earn contracts.
Why they could get in: With Emery and Mason replacing the polarizing Bryzgalov, the Flyers have a similar goaltending situation to what Emery had with Corey Crawford in Chicago, which certainly worked well for the Blackhawks. Lecavalier joins Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier to give the Flyers remarkable skill and depth up the middle. Philadelphia has a wealth of offensive talent and if the injuries that decimated the blue line last season -- six veteran defensemen finished the season on the injured list -- can be avoided, a return to postseason play should be a real possibility.
Last season: 19-19-10, 48 points, seven points out of eighth place in the East
How it ended: A 10-game winless skid from the end of March through the middle of April saw the Devils plummet from sixth in the Eastern Conference to 11th, and they never were able to recover.
Offseason changes: The summer started on a high when the team made the stunning acquisition of goaltender Cory Schneider from the Vancouver Canucks. However, things went the other way when David Clarkson left as a free agent for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Days later, Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL three years into a 15-year contract. The team added forwards Jaromir Jagr, Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder and Rostislav Olesz in free agency with the hope that they can fill some of the offensive losses. The team also re-signed defenseman Marek Zidlicky, which allowed them to trade veteran defenseman Henrik Tallinder to the Buffalo Sabres for a minor-league forward.

Why they could get in: With Schneider and future Hall of Fame member Martin Brodeur, the Devils could have the best goaltending tandem in the League, and the pair will more than make up for any offensive deficiencies. And the cupboard isn't completely bare up front. Adam Henrique's points were down from his rookie season in 2011-12, but he was on a 21-goal pace over 82 games, which is more than the 16 he had in his first season. Jagr still has the ability to contribute in a top-six role and on the power play. If Clowe is healthy from his concussion issues last season, he is a dominating power forward with a skill set similar to Clarkson's. Combine them with Ryder, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and Dainius Zubrus, and the Devils have the makings of at least two very good lines. Add in their goaltending riches and a return to the postseason would not be a surprise.
Last season: 21-21-6, 48 points, seven points out of eighth place in the East
How it ended: The Sabres finished strong, winning eight of their final 12, but the hole dug by an awful start proved too deep to escape.
Offseason changes: Sabres general manager Darcy Regier put most of his offseason work into upgrading the team's defense. With its two first-round picks the team selected giants Rasmus Ristolainen (6-foot-4, 207) and Nikita Zadorov (6-5, 221), and appears willing to give both a chance to make the team out of training camp. In addition, veteran defenseman Henrik Tallinder was reacquired in a trade with the New Jersey Devils; he played his first eight NHL seasons with the Sabres.
Why they could get in: Coach Ron Rolston had the Sabres' level of play improved so much by the end of last season that they were able to enter the fringes of playoff discussion. Tallinder's return should help Tyler Myers get back to the form he showed when they were paired in Myers' rookie season. The club still has an elite goaltender in Ryan Miller and a dynamic offensive force in Thomas Vanek. If some of the Sabres' other talented offensive players can bounce back, the foundation is in place for a team that could grab one of the final two spots in the East.
Last season: 19-25-4, 42 points, 13 points out of eighth place in the East

How it ended: The Hurricanes were leading the Southeast Division on March 3 when goalie Cam Ward sustained a season-ending knee injury. Without him, they finished the season 7-17-3.
Offseason changes: GM Jim Rutherford built from the back end out over the summer. He signed Anton Khudobin to replace Dan Ellis as Ward's backup in goal. To bolster the blue line he traded Jamie McBain and a draft pick to the Buffalo Sabres for Andrej Sekera and signed free agent Mike Komisarek after he was bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Joe Corvo, who led the team's defensemen last season with 17 points, left for the Ottawa Senators in free agency. Also departing from last season's blue line were Bobby Sanguinetti, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Marc-Andre Gragnani. The big loss, however, was top defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who will miss the season as he continues to recover from a broken left heel sustained in April.
Why they could get in: The Hurricanes were a first-place team when Ward got hurt, but in his absence things went downhill fast. He's healthy now, and with Khudobin backing him up, coach Kirk Muller will have a more reliable option to go to if he wants to give Ward a night off. Carolina should be able to survive the loss of Pitkanen with the arrival of 20-year-old offensive dynamo Ryan Murphy, the team's top pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, as well as the additions of Komisarek and Sekera. With Eric Staal healthy after his knee injury at the World Championship, the Hurricanes again will have one of the top first-lines in the League -- Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty combined for 54 goals last season. There's also a nice support group behind them, including Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner and 2013 first-round pick Elias Lindholm, who is expected to at least start the season with the Hurricanes. With a healthy Ward in net and the defensive changes, the Hurricanes should be in the hunt for one of the wild-card playoff spots in the East.
Last season: 18-26-4, 40 points, 15 points out of eighth place in the East
How it ended: The Lightning started with six wins in their first seven games, but went 12-25-4 the rest of the way.
Offseason changes: The Lightning finished third in scoring in the regular season, but general manager Steve Yzerman's biggest offseason moves involved upgrading the offense. The team made longtime captain Vincent Lecavalier a compliance buyout, and with the cap savings signed free agent Valtteri Filppula to a five-year contract. And with the third pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, the team picked high-scoring left wing Jonathan Drouin, who was the Canadian Hockey League's player of the year last season and could start 2013-14 on the team's top line.

Why they could get in: Defenseman Radko Gudas isn't a well-known player around the League, but his arrival from the American Hockey League last season added a missing physical element and helped cut the team's goals-against (3.12 in 25 games without him, 3.00 in 23 games after his call-up). Also helping with be a full season of Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop sharing time in goal, and as each looks to earn the No. 1 job, the competition should benefit the team's win/loss record. Even without Lecavalier, the offense will be outstanding with Steven Stamkos likely again in the running for the Rocket Richard Trophy and the ageless Martin St. Louis sharing his wisdom with the ultra-talented Drouin. Filppula makes the Lightning younger and potentially more skilled on the second line. Coach Jon Cooper has done a lot of winning in his coaching career, and there's no reason to think he won't continue those ways in his first full season in charge of the Lightning.
Last season: 15-27-6, 36 points, 19 points out of eighth place in the East
How it ended: A never-ending spate of injuries kept the Panthers from icing the team that won the Southeast Division in 2011-12, and the Panthers finished with the fewest points in the League for the first time in franchise history.

Offseason changes: The big departure was veteran Stephen Weiss leaving as a free agent for the Detroit Red Wings after 11 seasons in Florida. Also allowed to seek jobs elsewhere were goalie Jose Theodore and forward Peter Mueller. To fill the gap among the top six forwards the team used the second pick of the 2013 NHL Draft on Finnish center Aleksander Barkov, with the hope that the big, skilled forward can become a full-time lineup fixture starting this season. Veteran Scott Gomez was signed to a one-year deal and Brad Boyes, who had a resurgent season in 2012-13 with the New York Islanders, will have a chance to earn a contract as a training-camp invitee.
Why they could get in: Panthers general manager Dale Tallon opted to keep his team mostly intact this summer, believing that the storm of injuries that decimated the roster was the biggest reason his club sunk in the standings. Tallon also is ready to turn over his roster to a number of on-the-rise young players, starting with top prospect Jacob Markstrom, who is ready to take the reins as the No. 1 goaltender. Adding Barkov to a top-six forward group that likely will include Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau and talented 2010 first-round pick Nick Bjugstad sets the foundation for a rapid rise up the standings.