The Next Step: Five NHL Teams Ready to Leap into the Playoffs in 2012-13

One of the benefits of the “post-lockout” NHL is the parity that now exists throughout the league. Since the 2004-05 work stoppage, 29 of the 30 NHL teams have made the playoffs, and the divisional races and playoff seeding in every season are determined by just a few points.

With the constant turnover of teams who make hockey’s “second season”, a bad season, or a few of them, certainly doesn’t guarantee another season that will end after just 82 games. Here are five teams that missed the playoffs last season that have the best chance to return to the playoffs in 2012-13.

1. Carolina Hurricanes (33-33-16, 82 Points, 12th Place in Eastern Conference in 2011-12)

Although the Hurricanes missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, they have the pieces to be a contender in the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference. Two seasons ago, the Hurricanes were one win away from making the postseason as the 8th seed in the East.

Last season, just like in 2009-10, the Hurricanes had a horrendous start to the year, and head coach Paul Maurice was fired after 25 games. His replacement, Kirk Muller, guided Carolina to a 25-20-12 record after taking over, including a 15-8-7 mark after February 1st.

Jordan Staal Penguins hockey player
The addition of Jordan Staal will boost the Hurricanes’ playoff chances in 2012-13 (Icon SMI)

In the offseason, Carolina made two huge splashes to bolster their lineup. The first one was acquiring Jordan Staal from the Penguins on the first night of the NHL Draft. The second one was signing Alexander Semin in the hopes that he will rebound from two disappointing seasons in Washington, and be the player that scored 30 goals in three of the first four years of his career.

After spending last season in Boston, Joe Corvo returned to the Hurricanes for his third tour of duty in Carolina. The Hurricanes hope his addition will improve the defensive corps in front of Cam Ward, who like many of his teammates, struggled throughout last season.

If the additions that the Hurricanes made pan out, and stars like Ward and team captain Eric Staal can bounce back from a down season in 2011-12, the Hurricanes will not only make the playoffs in 2012-13, but contend for the Southeast Division title.

2. Minnesota Wild (35-36-11, 81 Points, 12th Place in Western Conference in 2011-12)

Last season, the Minnesota Wild had one of the best records in the NHL in early December. Yet as quickly as the Wild moved to the top of the NHL standings, their descent was just as rapid.

A 14-23-5 record after New Year’s Day brought the Wild out of the Western Conference lead, out of the Northwest Division lead, and ultimately out of the playoffs altogether. After four consecutive non-playoff years, the Wild forked over the money necessary to bring the two most coveted free agents of this year’s offseason to Minnesota.

Zach Parise Devils
Zach Parise (Mark Goldman/Icon SMI)

The signing of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year $98 million contracts gives Minnesota a much-needed upgrade on both sides of the puck. With the exception of his rookie year, and when he missed all but 13 games in the 2010-11 season, Parise has scored at least 30 goals in every year of his career. This will help the Wild, who finished last in the league in goals per game with 2.02 in 2011-12.

That’s not to say that the Wild don’t have talent up front. Both of Minnesota’s top two centers, Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, missed significant time with injuries last year. Dany Heatley struggled last year, but managed to lead the team with 24 goals and 53 points. And Kyle Brodziak set career-highs in goals with 22 and points with 44. Also, 2010 first-round pick Mikael Granlund was signed to an entry-level deal, and he could very well be in the mix up front this year for Minnesota.

On the blueline, the presence of Suter gives a huge lift to the entire defense corps in Minnesota. The Wild had 12 defensemen play at least one game last season, and none of them have the combination of offensive ability and defensive stability that Suter has.

The team’s strong suit is its goaltending. Both Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding had solid seasons last year, and with the added help on offense and defense, there will be less pressure on them to carry Minnesota every night.

With the addition of Parise and Suter, the Wild will make the transition to a playoff team in 2012-13.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning (38-36-8, 84 Points, 10th place in Eastern Conference in 2011-12)

Two seasons ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were one game away from representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. Last season, the organization took a step back, and missed the playoffs.

With the majority of the 2010-11 roster still intact for the 2011-12 season, it wasn’t hard to find a reason why the Lightning struggled mildly last year. The goaltending of Dwayne Roloson, which was superb in getting Tampa Bay to the Eastern Conference Finals, faltered last year. Tampa Bay finished 30th in the NHL in goals against per game, and Roloson wasn’t re-signed by the Lightning this offseason.

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman took steps to address the team’s defensive woes. The first move was acquiring Anders Lindback from the Predators. The Lightning believe that the 24-year-old Lindback, who did a superb job as Pekka Rinne’s understudy for two seasons in Nashville, can be their long-term solution in between the pipes.

In addition to trading for Lindback, Yzerman signed defensemen Matt Carle and Sami Salo, two veteran presences who will make it much tougher to play in Tampa Bay’s end.

On the other side of the puck, the Lightning have one of the most vaunted offenses in hockey. Tampa Bay finished 9th in the NHL in goals per game last season, and were led by Hart Trophy nominee Steven Stamkos, who scored 60 last season. In addition to Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Teddy Purcell, team captain Vincent Lecavalier, and Ryan Malone all scored 20 goals last season, and they will all be back with the Lightning in 2012-13.

With the additions made in net and on the blueline, there’s no reason to believe that Tampa Bay will return to the playoffs next year.

4. Calgary Flames (37-29-16, 90 Points, 9th place in Western Conference in 2011-12)

For the Calgary Flames, the final result in 2011-12 was the same as it was in the two seasons prior: 90 points in the regular season, but no trip to the playoffs.

Although the Flames are confident that they can make the playoffs with the same core that came close so many times recently, Calgary did make a few significant changes this offseason. Olli Jokinen, the team’s second leading scorer in 2011-12, and defenseman Scott Hannan were allowed to leave as free agents. Their replacements are Jiri Hudler and Dennis Wideman.

Hudler scored a career-high 25 goals in 2011-12, and will fit in on the Flames’ second line. Calgary acquired Wideman’s negotiating rights in a trade with the Capitals, and general manager Jay Feaster signed the defenseman to a five-year $26.25 million contract. Wideman, who was tied for 10th in the NHL in points for a defenseman, fills the void of an offensive defenseman that existed on Calgary’s blueline.

But the biggest change in Calgary is behind the bench. Brent Sutter’s contract was not renewed after last season, and Feaster replaced him with Bob Hartley. “Bob Hartley is a winner,” Feaster said. “Bob has won at every level he has coached, from the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) to the AHL to the NHL…and we are confident he is going to continue his winning ways in Calgary.”

With the solid group of players he is inheriting in the “Heart of the New West”, Hartley should be able to bring the Flames back to the postseason.

5. Anaheim Ducks (34-36-12, 80 Points, 13th place in Western Conference in 2011-12)

2011-12 had it all for the Anaheim Ducks. A terrible start led to trade rumors about Bobby Ryan (which still persist), the firing of head coach Randy Carlyle, the hiring of Bruce Boudreau (who had been fired two days prior by the Capitals), and a frantic comeback that ultimately fell short of the postseason.

Many of the Ducks stars struggled, but none as mildly as captain Ryan Getzlaf, who scored 11 goals and recorded 57 points, the lowest totals in any full season of his career. If he, Ryan, and 2010-11 Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry can regain their form, the Ducks should look more like the team that finished 11th in the NHL in goals in 2010-11 than the team that finished 23rd in 2011-12.

Sheldon Souray Dallas Stars
The Ducks hipe that Sheldon Souray’s booming shot will give them additional offense from the blueline.

Since Anaheim is relying on the same top-six group of forwards as last season to provide their usual amount of offense, their major changes this off-season came on the blueline, with the signings of Sheldon Souray and Bryan Allen.

With Boudreau behind the bench for a full season, the Ducks will contend in a very tight Pacific Division.

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