Last season there were three new teams to make the playoffs from the 2010 ‘second season’. That was the lowest total since 2001, when there were only two new playoff teams from the year prior. Prior to last season, there had been an average of five teams per year to make the playoffs that hadn’t made it the year before.
Put simply, there are new playoff teams every year. Of the 14 teams that failed to crack the top eight of the respective conference last season, who is the most likely to get in this year? New Jersey Devils
Not that their late-season success is going to carry over, but the 28-10-3 record they posted in the second half is too hard to ignore. That, and the fact that this is an organization that has been a perennial contender since the mid-1990’s. There are plenty of question marks with this Devils team. How will the team react to Peter DeBoer, another new coach? Is Martin Brodeur’s gas tank running on empty? Who will fill Travis Zajac’s void early in the year?
Equally, there are reasons for optimism in Newark. Zach Parise, who missed 69 games last year due to a knee injury, is healthy again. Parise’s presence will significantly help an offense that finished dead last in goals scored a year ago. Also, Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract woes are a thing of the past, as he ignited the Devils on their late-season run.
If Brodeur stays healthy, look for New Jersey to make their 14th playoff appearance in the last 15 seasons.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues are a team that has made the playoffs just once in the last six seasons; in that time, they have had three different head coaches. So why have they been a trendy pick in recent seasons? It’s simple. They have a budding young core that is on the verge of busting through. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when it will happen.
They certainly have the right man steering the on- and off-ice leadership now. That man is David Backes, who is one of the more underappreciated players in the NHL. He leads a young nucleus that includes Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk, among others. This summer, the front office added some pieces to give the roster a needed veteran presence.
Backes and company play in hockey’s most grueling division. But they are ready to take that challenge by the horns and emerge in the West.
Toronto Maple Leafs
GM Brian Burke has done an admirable job in the last three years of putting together the team he wants. Will his hard work finally pay off this season? It remains up in the air, but this seems to be the Leafs’ best chance at making the postseason in Burke’s tenure with the organization.
We know the Leafs have a talented duo in Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel; but the additions of Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi give Toronto a respectable trio of centers (much more so than recent years). Behind Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson have the defense looking legit going into the year. If all of the pieces fall in place, there is only one more hurdle to get over: James Reimer repeating last year’s performance.
This Maple Leafs team is going to compete for a playoff spot this year. If they get in, it will be their first appearance since 2004.
On the contrary, which playoff teams from 2011 are the most likely to miss the postseason in 2012?
Some pundits believed the Coyotes would fall off last year. It didn’t happen. Head coach Dave Tippett once again did a masterful job getting the most out of his team. Unfortunately, for their sake, they will fall off in 2011-12.
The loss of Ilya Bryzgalov will be significant for the Coyotes. He is a goalie that can steal victories. Mike Smith, Bryzgalov’s replacement, is not. Smith may not lose you games, but he won’t win you many, either. If you combine the shaky goaltending with the ongoing ownership issues – which will come to a breaking point at mid-season – this Coyotes team will be distracted, especially if they aren’t winning like they have been the last two years.
For the last three seasons, Montreal has been living well on the playoff bubble. In 2010-11, Carey Price’s performance was just enough to keep the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference’s top eight. The problem I see with them this year, though, is that everyone around them got better, while Montreal did not.
Erik Cole is a nice addition, but he’s not a difference-maker. Unless Michael Cammalleri proves he can stay healthy (and consistent), they still lack a go-to goal-scorer. Moreover, other than P.K. Subban, the defense is fragile and aging.
Similarly to Phoenix, a few breaks have helped the Canadiens get into the playoffs in recent years. This may be the year the hockey gods turn the tables.
This is not to say Barry Trotz’s Predators are not a playoff team. But the Western Conference is deep, and the Preds’ playoff success in 2011 won’t act as a free pass to their seventh postseason in the last eight years.
A season ago, the Predators used their favorable March schedule as a crutch. 12 of their final 15 games came on home-ice, and the team went 11-3-1 in that stretch. They won’t have that luxury this time around, as nine of their final 14 games will be played away from Smashville. Additionally, this is still a team that will have to grind out those 3-2 victories once again, so the margin for error is small.
Trotz’s gang will probably make the playoffs – but the task is more difficult in 2011-12 than it was in 2010-11.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.