No team says, OK, let's just stagger around for 20 games and get it going after that, especially when likely facing a 48- or 50-game slate. But here are five teams for which a quick start is imperative for a number of reasons:
Coach Bruce Boudreau proved to be a shot in the arm for the listless Ducks after Randy Carlyle was dispatched 24 games into the 2011-12 season. But after a spirited charge that saw the Ducks go from 20 points out of eighth place to within four points of the final playoff berth in late February, they settled into 13th place in the Western Conference, 15 points out of a playoff berth. A strong start would do wonders for the Ducks' confidence, especially for big guys Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry -- forwards who are integral, naturally, to the Ducks' rejoining the playoff discussion.
We were on the Panthers' bandwagon in a significant way last season, given new coach Kevin Dineen and a smorgasbord of new talent acquired by general manager Dale Tallon, and the Cats rode a hot start to a shocking (for some) Southeast Division title and their first playoff appearance since 2000. If the Panthers got a little more goaltending, they would have defeated New Jersey in the first round, a closely fought series that went the full seven games. The Southeast looks to be a tough place to hang out this season, with Carolina and Tampa both showing signs of being playoff-ready, and of course perennial division leader Washington looking to avenge last season's fall from grace. A fast start is crucial to the Panthers in the standings and to reinforce to a long-slumbering fan base that they are for real.
It is the only team that has been held out of the playoffs every season since the 2004-05 lockout. The offseason created only more questions as critics continued to decry the Maple Leafs' lack of depth down the middle and the lack of NHL-caliber goaltending. If the Leafs can get out of the gate in solid fashion and build themselves a cushion, it will go a long way to ending this streak of futility.
When a team "earns" the first overall draft pick three straight times, you know that (A) the team should be chock-a-block with top-end young talent, and (B) you pretty much stink every season. Is this the year that top-end talent (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz, Nail Yakupov) morphs into something approaching a playoff contender? The young Oilers got a good taste of AHL hockey while the lockout was sorting itself out, and players like Jordan Eberle, Hall and Schultz thrived there, piling up points at an impressive rate, so they shouldn't have as much trouble getting their sea legs under them. And with upbeat rookie coach Ralph Krueger, a fast start could see the Oilers join the postseason fray for the first time since 2006.
The Stars have missed the playoffs four straight seasons, but GM Joe Nieuwendyk is slowly building the team he wants, jettisoning Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott in the offseason, while acquiring Derek Roy and signing free agents Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr to join top talent Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson. New owner Tom Gaglardi is determined to rebuild a relationship with fans, and the best way to do that is to put some W's up on the board as early as possible.