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From The Point: Fringe festival

Who's going to win the Stanley Cup?

Really, it's the only question worth asking with a new NHL season around the corner. But then again, you can read about the “who's the best team” debate anywhere (even, say, in the latest issue of The Hockey News, our annual Season Opener special, now available on a newsstand near you!)

Instead, let's take a skate down the path less Zamboni-ed and look at the chances of last year's also-rans in 2007-08. In other words, which teams that missed the playoffs last year are ready to rise up and make a post-season charge this time around?

We'll do the Eastern Conference this week; check back here next week for the Western lowdown.

Here, in order of their likelihood to rebound, is a look at last season's non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference:

Carolina

The Hurricanes missed the playoffs in 2007 with virtually the same lineup that won the Stanley Cup in 2006. The Canes also have a history of alternating good seasons and poor seasons.

That track record, combined with the humiliation of an extended off-season one year after winning the Cup, points to the Canes winning the Southeast Division and earning the No. 3 playoff seed in the East.

Plus, if you haven't heard, goalie Cam Ward dropped 20 pounds over the summer. He must've finally shaved that Grizzly Adams playoff beard from '06.

Philadelphia

The bottom fell out in Philadelphia last year, as the Flyers dive-bombed to the bottom of the standings. They set an NHL record for the biggest drop in points from one season to the next, falling from 101 to 56.

Fortunately, GM Paul Holmgren reacted decisively and quickly, taking advantage of the uncertainty in Nashville and scooping up ex-Preds Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen. Daniel Briere, one of the summer's top free agents, was signed to an eight-year deal.

Defensive depth also was brought in and goalie Martin Biron was signed to a contract extension.

Getting back into the playoffs isn't a given, but a huge improvement over last year is.

Washington

Considering their youth and inexperience the past couple of seasons, the Capitals did a good job of remaining competitive. They managed to put up back-to-back 70-point campaigns, mostly riding the coattails of Alex Ovechkin and Olaf Kolzig, but also thanks to a strong work ethic instilled by coach Glen Hanlon and executed by the likes of Chris Clark and Brian Sutherby.

The expectations for 2007-08, though, have been heightened. Another 70-point season won't cut it. The defense corps, while still no great shakes, at least is older and NHL-ready. Blueliners Brian Pothier and Tom Poti are the free agent-added veterans, while Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina, Steve Eminger and Mike Green all are under 25 and will only get better.

But the big news is up front, where Ovechkin and Alexander Semin have some help in the form of Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov and rookie Nicklas Backstrom.

Making the post-season is a stretch – but nobody will want to face Ovechkin and the Caps if they do sneak in.

Florida

The Panthers, who haven't seen the playoffs since 2000, didn't add a lot in the off-season. But they did bring in one key component in goalie Tomas Vokoun, who should help ease the pain of that awful Roberto Luongo trade of a year ago.

If Florida is going to make a playoff run – and it's definitely possible considering they play in the Southeast, the NHL's weakest division – it will be because their young guns start delivering.

Jay Bouwmeester stepped up his game last season; more good things are anticipated. Up front, the heat is on the likes of Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton and Rostislav Olesz to help out captain Olli Jokinen, the active NHLer who has played the most regular season games (closing in on 650) without ever making the playoffs.

Florida also has put together impressive runs in the late stages of the past two seasons; basically, sneaking back into the outer fringes of the playoff race long after they were left for dead. A winning streak in late March this season should lead to games in late April.

Toronto

Can the Leafs' best players stay healthy? Can the defense perform consistently? Is Vesa Toskala a true No. 1 goalie? Can free agent signee Jason Blake approach 40 goals again? Are the young Leafs ready to take on a leading role? Is there enough scoring depth up front?

There's no shortage of questions surrounding Toronto, but the playoffs are within reach if the answers go their way. They've shown an ability to play well when their best players are out with injury; the trick is to play that way when everyone's healthy.

They won't be lacking for motivation; Toronto hasn't made the playoffs since 2004 – and this might be the last kick at the can for longtime captain Mats Sundin.

Montreal

Like the Leafs, the hockey hotbed that is Montreal is facing a number of questions about its NHL team. If only they had a crystal ball.

They do have a Cristobal, but which Huet will appear in 2007-08 – the one that leads the NHL in save percentage, or the one that gets hurt and misses half the season? If Huet does go down again, are young stoppers Jaroslav Halak or Carey Price ready to step in full-time? Is a defense corps that's headed up by Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik and Mike Komisarek – and then there's a definite drop off in terms of quality D-men – good enough?

The Habs have some fine young forwards in Michael Ryder, Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse and Andrei Kostitsyn; their progress could go a long way in dictating whether or not the Canadiens are playing in the spring.

And then there's Alexei Kovalev, who's either the best player on the team, or the worst. When he's on and into it, he can still dazzle.

Boston

The B's shored up their goaltending by bringing in Manny Fernandez from Minnesota; you might say he's gone from Wild to wilder in joining Boston.

The Bruins don't have a lot of depth; Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward are the two guys behind Zdeno Chara on the defense depth chart.

Up front, veterans Marc Savard and Glen Murray lead the way, with young guns Patrice Bergeron and Phil Kessel on the rise.

New coach Claude Julien will demand the most from his charges; problem is, that just won't be enough.

Sam McCaig's From The Point appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Have a point to make with Sam McCaig? You can reach him at smccaig@thehockeynews.com.

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