Pekka Rinne (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Five of the the 14 teams that missed the NHL playoffs in 2012-13 (Colorado, Dallas, Columbus, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay) qualified for a playoff berth last season. Here are five teams on the outside looking in during the 2014 playoffs that – in this writer’s opinion – have the best chance at making the post-season this year:
5. Arizona Coyotes. The Yotes missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year last season – the first time that’s happened since 2007-09 – and that organization is famous for making the most out of a budget-conscious blueprint for success. They finished only two points behind the eighth-place Stars, and with new No. 1 center Sam Gagner in town, captain Shane Doan fully healthy and stellar young blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson continuing to blossom, they could have just enough in the tank to make it back into the post-season.
4. Washington Capitals. Few teams made bigger off-season splashes than the cannonballing Capitals, who cleaned out their front office and went on a free agent spending spree that secured the services of former Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. Washington had just one fewer regular-season win than the eighth-place Red Wings did in the Eastern Conference; if new coach Barry Trotz can improve their (21st-ranked) defense and get more consistent goaltending out of Braden Holtby, the Caps will be on the right side of the playoff bubble this time around.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs. There was much sturm und drang in Leafs Land after another abysmal collapse, but Toronto’s roster isn’t as bereft of talent as some might lead you to believe. Management took the salary cap space of the departed David Bolland and used it to make some savvy smaller signings that improved the franchise’s depth of their bottom six forwards and third-pairing defensemen. That depth should allow embattled coach Randy Carlyle to avoid leaning on his best players as much as he has in his time in Toronto – and that may be sufficient to push the Leafs back into the post-season.
2. New York Islanders. For years, the Isles have been seen as a one-player (John Tavares) team, but the reality is that, when Tavares was injured at the Sochi Winter Olympics and missed the remainder of the regular season with a knee injury, they went 12-7-3 in his absence. That’s an indication players such as Kyle Okposo and Travis Hamonic are coming into their own. And if speedy new acquisitions Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin give the roster a shot in the arm at the same time new goalies Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson improve the defense, this team has a real chance to surprise people and secure a playoff berth.
1. Nashville Predators. The Preds were the Western Conference’s hottest team (7-1-2) in the final 10 games of the season before falling just three points short of the eighth playoff spot. A big reason for their struggles in the standings can be attributed to their dismal 2-9 shootout record – something that, in turn, can be chalked up to the injury that cost star goalie Pekka Rinne 51 games last year. With Rinne back to full health – and new additions that include coach Peter Laviolette, forwards James Neal, Mike Ribeiro and Olli Jokinen, and defenseman Anton Volchenkov – Nashville has enough talent to challenge the Stars and Coyotes for a lower playoff seed in the West.