Jim Neveau, Reporter-at-Large
If there is one given in the National Hockey League, it is that there are no givens.
Every year, there are at least one or two teams that come out of nowhere and make it into the post-season. Last year saw the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Phoenix Coyotes, and Colorado Avalanche all went from non-entities to elite status last season. Even though none of those four teams made the second round, the point remains the same: a team will come out of nowhere and surprise folks on the way to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Who will those teams be this year? Which teams made the acquisitions to compete, and have the developing talent necessary to supplant one of last year’s playoff teams and make it into the big dance?
Here are four teams that have the potential to make the leap from nobodies to somebodies this season.
Last Season’s Conference Finish: 11th
The Ducks have seen their point total decrease each year since they won the Stanley Cup in 2007, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism with this team.
Their young core of skilled forwards is one such source. Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry are both elite level scorers in the NHL, and each is quickly maturing into superstars. Another 20-something star, Ryan Getzlaf, missed 16 games last year, but he will be looking to help the team in a playoff run as well.
Another young star (and quite possibly the most critical piece to the team’s fate this year) is manning the crease, as Jonas Hiller will be looking to improve on his 30-23-4 record from last season. He did allow 2.73 goals per game last season, and a lot of these goals came on the penalty kill. The Ducks finished 24th last season in penalty killing, and they were tied for the worst PK unit in the Western Conference.
If the Ducks can improve their penalty killing unit (and really, there’s no other way to go than up), they should be able to score enough goals to be competitive in the Western Conference, and a three-spot jump in the standings could be on the horizon.
Last Season’s Conference Finish: 10th
An old expression goes “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. The Atlanta Thrashers took that sentiment to heart this off-season, but instead of merging with the Chicago Blackhawks, they traded for four members of the 2010 Stanley Cup champions.
These players are part of a newly found depth of talent for the Thrashers, who will be looking to move confidently forward into a post-Ilya Kovalchuk era. They are led by two new defensemen, including shot-blocking specialist Brent Sopel and big bodied Dustin Byfuglien, who brings a rare mix of offensive explosiveness and bone-crunching checking ability.
Add to that new wingers in Ben Eager and Andrew Ladd, and the Thrashers have picked up four really solid role players. They also replaced the unreliable Ondrej Pavelec with the more consistent Chris Mason.
Their defensive corps continues to mature, with Zach Bogosian entering his third season, and the team hopes that prospect Johnny Oduya, who they picked up in the Kovalchuk trade, will help their blue line.
Will new coach Craig Ramsey find success without one of the league’s biggest superstar? The answer to that question is unclear, but one thing is known: this team is certainly deep enough that they could make some noise in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
St. Louis Blues
Last Season’s Conference Finish: 9th
The St. Louis Blues have been one of the teams on the rotating carousel of Central Division teams that make the playoffs each year. Last year, they finished just out of the playoffs, as Nashville was the third team from the Central to make it. The year before, the Blues were one of four Central teams to make it as the Preds spent April on the golf course instead of the ice sheet.
Could this year be different? St. Louis may still have trouble scoring goals this season (even though Brad Boyes should have a rebound season after a horrifyingly bad year last year), but their big advantage may just be the guy that they just added to patrol the blue paint between the pipes.
Jaroslav Halak, who Montreal Canadiens fans are still lamenting the loss of, will be the new goaltender in St. Louis after signing a four year contract in the off-season. He brought the Habs to the Eastern Conference Finals last year as an eight seed, and the Blues will be looking for the same type of team-carrying production that Halak gave Montreal.
The Blues’ defense should help in that endeavor, as Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer will continue to provide one of the league’s most physical defensive groups. Barrett Jackman is also back there for added “punch”, so to speak.
Can the Blues overcome two of the last three Stanley Cup champions, and make a run into the post-season this year? With Halak in the crease, and maturing youngsters like David Backes and TJ Oshie on offense, anything is possible.
Last Season’s Conference Finish: 12th
The selection of the Lightning as a “surprise team” may not be much of a surprise, considering nearly every pundit is talking the team up before the season begins, but the praise is certainly warranted.
The Lightning improved quite a bit this off-season, with one of the biggest moves being the acquisition of Dan Ellis. He was unceremoniously dumped in favor of Pekka Rinne in Nashville, and he will undoubtedly be looking to prove something to his new club.
As for the offense, the continued maturation of Steven Stamkos will help the team immensely, and having veteran guys like Martin St. Louis and Vincent LeCavalier will also score their fair amount of markers. Newcomer Simon Gagne, while not an offensive dynamo by any stretch, did have pretty good numbers in limited time last season, so he should help create some offense for the Lightning.
The defense may be a question mark for Tampa this season, but the continued maturation of Victor Hedman, as well as the steady veteran presence of newly-acquired Pavel Kubina and Mattias Ohlund, should help the blue line be solid.
GM Steve Yzerman has been busy remaking the Lightning this summer, and it will be only a matter of time until it is revealed whether his efforts have done the trick, or merely duped the masses into false hope about the Bolts’ chances this season.