The Stanley Cup Playoffs display what is great about the NHL: parity. All teams push hard through their 82 game seasons to qualify for the postseason. Once you get in the postseason anything can happen.
There are some teams looking to make the field of 16 that weren’t there last year and there is reason to believe they could make it this year.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues are such a team. Not only did they play well enough to make the playoffs (if they were in the Eastern Conference), but the acquisition of playoff breakout star Jaroslav Halak could prove to be the missing piece.
Halak, 25, gives them a top goaltender that could allow the rest of the team to play a more aggressive attacking style of offense (17th in goals last season). His affordable contract ($3.75 million) also fits well into the team’s salary cap.
With almost $12 million dollars in cap space, the Blues could also add important pieces before the trade deadline or re-sign key players during the season. They feature a roster with 11 of their current 25 playing in their contract year that includes captain Eric Brewer and T.J. Oshie so re-signing players is an obvious priority for a team that finished on the cusp of making the playoffs last year.
Some of things this young team suffered from last year could change as they continue to mature and with the addition of Halak. For instance, the team suffered 10 overtime losses and were anemic offensively. The poor offensive output could be attributable to the talent between the pipes last season.
Another factor that could push them into the postseason would be the re-emergence of Brad Boyes. With a subpar season, by his standards, Boyes, 28, should rise back up to his 30-plus goal level and could provide goals sorely missed last season.
Their tight defense, which touted the top penalty killing unit in the game, could be matched by its offense and this could mean the playoffs are just an 82 game season away.
Tampa Bay Lightning
With the emergence of Steve Stamkos and the second season of Victor Hedman, the Tampa Bay Lightning may be poised to make their return to the playoffs. Their talent infusion comes courtesy of their past seasons of ineptitude, but holdovers Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis can remember when the Lightning hoisted the Cup.
Lecavalier and St. Louis are more than just throwbacks to a better time in Tampa Bay’s history, they are still highly productive players with great seasons still in the tank. The combination of forwards on the roster make for two good-to-great top scoring lines that could feature pairings like Malone-Stamkos-Gagne, and St. Louis- Lecavalier-Downie. These lines could provide enough offense to make up for the poor offensive showing last season (23rd in goals scored) and mask their deficiency in the crease (27th last season).
With cap space to burn the mediocre goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis could be just a temporary holdover until the Lightning either acquire a proven netminder or promote one of three young goaltenders (Dustin Tokarski, 21, Riku Helenius, 22, or Jaroslav Janus, 20) in their system.
The return of Pavel Kubina to the Lightning’s blueline could help in the maturation process of the talented Victor Hedman. Kubina also played a part in the Lightning’s lone championship. His experience and size (6’4” and 250 lbs.) could create an interesting pairing with the taller Hedman (6’6” and 220 lbs.). These two should be the top pairing for the 2010-11 Lightning team.
Steve Downie wasn’t just a fantasy revelation last year. He was also really good and took tremendous strides in his young career. Downie, 23, showed glimpses of becoming a top power forward and may be ready to join the top line this season. Look for a continuation in the progression of this budding complimentary force.
The Southeast division, outside of the Washington Capitals, could make for an easier schedule that could result in a playoff berth and a shot at ascending to the mountain top? It all could hinge on finding a goaltender.
Going over teams that look ready to burst on the scene for the first time with their new look or first time in a while. Maybe the Maple Leafs? Or how about the Panthers? Could it be the upstarts like the Oilers or the Thrashers? None of these seem ready at this time.
But what about a retread like the Flames?
The Flames have the feel of a punched out boxer with very little left in the tank and not enough youth in front of their careers. Jarome Iginla, 33, seems to be on the downside of his career (his point total was the lowest since 2005 and his shot on goal were the lowest since 2000) and Miikka Kiprusoff, 33, is quickly approaching the age when numbers begin to sag and platoon status is more than the grumbling of the misinformed.
Olli Jokinen is no longer a top guy, but was he ever to begin with? Jokinen, 31, was considered to be the alpha dog of a team that went nowhere, but maybe his destiny was meant to be a secondary guy on a contender. Not a huge mystery, but still worth pointing out.
This could be Jokinen’s first first time in quite awhile knowing he won’t be shopped early in the season. Jokinen could fill a formidable scoring line with Iginla and Alex Tanguay. Jokinen’s passing could compliment Iginla’s goal scoring prowess and Tanguay could complete the Flames premier line.
On the blueline, Jay Bouwmeester, like Jokinen, is ready to prove they were better than their underwhelming performances last season (29 points was his lowest output since 2004). Without Dion Phaneuf, Bouwmeester has the opportunity to lead a veteran blueline group that is sure to perform well under head coach Brent Sutter.
Does any of what was said here convincing? Maybe not, but the Kipper still has a run in him, Iginla has one too, and ditto for Jokinen.
Couldn’t they happen this year?
Given that teams like the Coyotes and Kings took the next step ahead of schedule, the Flames could benefit from their falter. Sutter is also due to rebound and his coaching ability ranks among the best.
So with the optimism of a new slate of 82 games and a sense of parity in the air, this could be a big year for these teams. Make sure to not count them out.