If the playoffs began Wednesday, five teams that were on the outside looking in a year ago would be part of the first-round carnival. That's about a 30 percent turnover, which seems like a lot but, given the parity in the league these days, is pretty much par for the course.
So it won't be a surprise if, a year from now, five new teams are looking for postseason glory (or at least looking forward to collecting some of that much-needed playoff revenue).
Who's most likely to join the postseason parade next year? Well, without even considering that any of these teams could land Auston Matthews or one of the other young studs available at the top end of the draft, let's take a look at the top five contenders to rebound in 2017.
We're going to start with a team I had picked -- foolishly, as it turns out -- to return to the playoffs this season. I admit that I got sucked in by last year's dramatic run to the postseason, which ended in the second round against the Anaheim Ducks. Some of the Flames' backsliding this season was because defenseman Mark Giordano took time to rebound from a torn biceps muscle that cost him the last third of last season and the 2015 playoffs. T.J. Brodie was injured earlier this season and Dougie Hamilton took longer to adjust to life with the Flames than expected. But let's be honest: Much of what plagued the Flames was between the pipes. Calgary ranks dead last in goals allowed per game -- in spite of the fact that they allow the eighth-fewest shots per game. So priority No. 1 for GM Brad Treliving is finding a starting goalie. Maybe it will be James Reimer, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Or, with a potential expansion draft a year away, perhaps the solution will be a veteran goalie with whom a team looking to protect a younger netminder might be willing to part. The Flames would need to get their goals-against average down from its current 3.16 to at least 2.80 (that's where the Dallas Stars are at now, highest of the current playoff teams). It's a tall order, but given the offense and the personnel overall in Calgary, it's not beyond the realm of possibility.
The Devils hung around longer than expected this season. They never really recovered offensively from the long-term loss of Mike Cammalleri up front and then took a hit when All-Star goalie Cory Schneider got banged up. Still, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic about the Devils as they try to restock a cupboard that was left pretty much bare before GM Ray Shero took over this season. Rookie head coach John Hynes is the real deal, and this is a team that's hard to play against. The Devils were top 10 in goals allowed per game and in penalty killing. The challenge is finding enough goals to become a playoff team; the Devils rank dead last in goals per game, so they'll need to come up with an additional .40 goals or so per game next season. A healthy Cammalleri will help and Shero will have some money to spend on the free-agent market to augment the revelation that is Kyle Palmieri. Shero might also be able to leverage veteran talent from teams that are thinking ahead to an expansion draft. Given how well the Devils defend -- and that starts with Schneider, who is arguably a top-five goalie -- they are not going to have to travel too far to get back in the mix in the Eastern Conference.
OK, so you're rolling your eyes. The Sabres? Really? Here's why I think this is entirely possible next season: First of all, the Eastern Conference is not exactly awash with dominant teams, so getting into the top eight isn't quite as daunting a task as it is in the Western Conference. And yes, I did wonder halfway through the season -- when the Sabres were looking again like a draft lottery team without a clue -- whether they were becoming Edmonton East. But kudos to coach Dan Bylsma for not just keeping this team focused but actually moving it up in the standings. The Sabres have gone 6-2-2 in their past 10 games, closing in on a .500 record (yeah, I know -- it's a nebulous thing with three-point games, but still) and might be playing their best hockey of the season, even though the playoffs became an afterthought long ago. And that bodes well for next season. The defense has gotten better, and of course the offense is led by super rookie Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane. The big question mark is not just the health of goalie Robin Lehner but whether he's good enough when he is healthy. The jury is still out on this crucial matter. If Lehner can stay healthy and deliver quality starts for an entire season -- especially during the early going, so the Sabres aren't chasing the pack -- then this is a team that should be playing meaningful games a year from now.
Last season, the Jets were one of the surprise teams in the NHL.
They snuck into the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference thanks to a big, fast, hard-working squad that seemed to foreshadow more good things to come. Instead, Winnipeg went from being tied for 10th in goals allowed per game last season to being tied for 22nd and plummeted to the bottom of the conference standings. Some of this has to do with injuries and the departure of captain Andrew Ladd at the trade deadline once the playoffs looked like a pipe dream. In spite of all that, the Jets continued to be a good possession team, sitting 10th (and sixth-best in the West) in the enhanced stat of shot attempts percentage. A year ago they led the league in this category. But, as with Calgary, the key issue in Winnipeg seems to be in goal. Ondrej Pavelec went from a .920 save percentage, while facing a whopping 1,053 shots in 50 games last season, to a desultory .906 save percentage on 864 shots in 31 games this season. Maybe Connor Hellebuyck is the answer, or perhaps Pavelec will bounce back. Regardless, the Jets -- as we saw a year ago -- should not be where they are now and they do have the tools to get back at it next season.
It seems too simple to say that, assuming Carey Price gets back to 100 percent health, the Canadiens will be back to where they were before Price was injured. And maybe it is. But the fact still remains that when Price was dominating the awards show in Las Vegas last June, the Canadiens were a legitimate playoff team. Maybe not a Cup contender, but a playoff team nonetheless. Price played just 12 games this season and the Habs fell apart. There are certainly holes in this lineup -- most notably down the middle -- and the defensive depth is a problem. But those issues were there at the start of the season, when the Habs won nine consecutive games out of the gate and 13 of their first 16. So maybe it's not too much of a stretch to make the following connection: a healthy Price equals a return to the playoffs.