How seven Western Conference teams can get back into playoffs

 

[RELATED: How eight Eastern Conference teams can get back into playoffs]

 

ST. LOUIS BLUES

Last season: 44-32-6, 94 points, one point out of second wild card

How it ended: The Blues went 1-4-1 in their final six games to miss the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.

Biggest offseason change: The Blues invested big in center depth, acquiring Ryan O’Reilly in a trade from the Buffalo Sabres and signing unrestricted free agent Tyler Bozak. O’Reilly is a four-time 20-goal scorer who should benefit from a change in scenery after three seasons in Buffalo, and Bozak was a productive player who showed he could skate anywhere in the lineup during nine seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. With Brayden Schenn, O’Reilly, Bozak and top prospect Robert Thomas, center has become a position of strength in St. Louis. The Blues also added secondary scoring with the signings of forwards Patrick Maroon (one-year contract), who scored 27 goals two seasons ago with the Edmonton Oilers and 17 last season with the Oilers and New Jersey Devils, and David Perron (four-year contract), who had an NHL career-high 66 points (16 goals, 50 assists) with the Vegas Golden Knights last season.

Why they could get in: The Blues could be an offensive juggernaut after they scored 223 goals last season, 24th in the NHL. Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz could score 90 goals between them. O’Reilly, who coach Mike Yeo said will get a chance to play center on a line with Tarasenko, is motivated to show what he can do on a team with playoff hopes, and Maroon, a St. Louis native, is out to earn a long-term contract with his hometown team. If goalie Jake Allen plays more like he did in his first 26 games of last season (17-6-2, 2.53 goals-against average, .913 save percentage) rather than his final 33 (10-19-1, 2.93 GAA, .900 save percentage), the Blues could challenge for a top-three spot in the Central Division.

Video: Blues land at No. 8 in Prospect Pipeline

 

DALLAS STARS

Last season: 42-32-8, 92 points, three points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Stars held the first wild card entering a home game against the Ottawa Senators on March 5. They lost 3-2 in overtime, starting a 1-7-3 run that dropped them out of playoff contention.

Biggest offseason change: Jim Montgomery will be the third Dallas coach in three seasons, and he’ll inherit most of the same group that neither Lindy Ruff nor Ken Hitchcock could get into the playoffs the previous two seasons. One player Montgomery likely will have that his two predecessors didn’t is rookie defenseman Miro Heiskanen, the No. 3 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Heiskanen, 19, had 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 30 games last season with HIFK in Liiga, Finland’s top pro league, and was named the league’s best defenseman.

Why they could get in: The Stars have one of the top lines in the NHL with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. They also have an elite goaltender, Ben Bishop. What they need is more secondary scoring. Forward Valeri Nichushkin, who returns after scoring 27 goals in two seasons with CSKA in the Kontinental Hockey League, should help. They also need a bounce-back season from center Jason Spezza, who had 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists) in 76 games, his lowest total since he had 21 points in 33 games as a rookie in 2002-03. With added production from Nichushkin, Spezza and forwards Radek Faksa and Martin Hanzal, plus good health for Bishop, a top-three spot in the Central Division is a possibility.

Video: Josh Bogorad previews the Stars’ season

 

CALGARY FLAMES

Last season: 37-35-10, 84 points, 11 points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Flames were three points out of a wild-card spot entering a game against the San Jose Sharks on March 16 but lost 7-4, the first of seven straight losses (0-7-0) in a 2-9-0 finish to the season.

Biggest offseason change: After missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, Bill Peters was hired as coach April 23 to replace Glen Gulutzan. Peters spent the previous four seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes and has a few of his former players with him in Calgary. Forward Elias Lindholm and defenseman Noah Hanifin were acquired in a trade from Carolina for defenseman Dougie Hamilton, forward Micheal Ferland and defenseman prospect Adam Fox on June 23, and unrestricted free agent center Derek Ryan signed a three-year, $9.375 million contract July 1. The Flames also signed free agent forward James Neal to a five-year, $28.75 million contract July 2. He scored 25 goals last season, his 10th straight with at least 21, and he could play right wing on a line with center Sean Monahan and left wing Johnny Gaudreau.

Why they could get in: The Flames scored one goal or fewer seven times in their final 11 games, but offense shouldn’t be a problem this season. A top line of Gaudreau, Monahan and Neal is capable of 90 goals between them, and Lindholm, Ryan, Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund will add enough secondary scoring. Mike Smith is a top-end goalie capable of carrying a team a long way. The Flames have enough talent to be a top-three team in the Pacific Division.

Video: James Neal will provide leadership for the Flames

 

EDMONTON OILERS

Last season: 36-40-6, 78 points, 17 points out of second wild card

How it ended: A four-game winning streak got the Oilers within four points of a wild card spot entering the Christmas break, but they went 1-6-1 in their next eight games and never got close to playoff contention again.

Biggest offseason change: The Oilers focused on supplementing their core with the signings of free agent forwards Tobias Rieder and Kyle Brodziak. Rieder scored 12 goals in 78 games with the Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings last season and will add speed to the bottom six. Brodziak had 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists) in 81 games with the Blues, and most importantly for Edmonton, he won 52.1 percent of his face-offs; the only Oilers center on the roster who won more than 50 percent of his face-offs last season was Leon Draisaitl (56.1).

Why they could get in: The same core group of Oilers who missed the playoffs last season reached the Western Conference Second Round two seasons ago. It’s hard to bet against a team with center Connor McDavid, the back-to-back NHL scoring champion, and Draisaitl developing into an outstanding power forward. If Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Strome and Rieder can contribute the secondary scoring Edmonton lacked last season and if goaltender Cam Talbot can rediscover his 2016-17 form (42 wins, 2.39 goals-against average, .919 save percentage, seven shutouts in 73 games), the Oilers could push for a wild card.

Video: Connor McDavid lands at No. 1 on the list

 

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Last season: 33-39-10, 76 points, 19 points out of second wild card

How it ended: Chicago held the second wild card after a 2-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 12 but went 0-3-1 in its next four to fall to last place in the Central Division.

Biggest offseason change: The Blackhawks worked around the edges of a core that still is led by three-time Stanley Cup champions Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Goaltender Cam Ward was signed to provide better backup play behind Corey Crawford, defenseman Brandon Manning signed a two-year contract to add physicality, and forward Chris Kunitz was brought in to upgrade the bottom six. Chicago also traded Marian Hossa to the Arizona Coyotes, and among the players coming back is forward Marcus Kruger, who won the Cup twice with the Blackhawks and likely will play a similar role to his first stint in Chicago, when he was used as a checking center and top penalty-killer.

Why they could get in: If Crawford is healthy, the Blackhawks have a chance at a playoff spot. They were 17-13-5 and one point out of a wild card when Crawford (upper-body injury) played his final game Dec. 23. Without him, they went 16-26-5. The core group remains capable but doesn’t have to win games alone. Forward Alex DeBrincat led the Blackhawks with 28 goals last season as a rookie, Brandon Saad is a proven top-six power forward, and Nick Schmaltz is developing into a capable second-line center. A long offseason after missing the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons will provide the motivation, and with a healthy Crawford, it’s possible the Blackhawks could find themselves playing deep into the spring again.

Video: Are the Blackhawks on the right path?

 

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Last season: 31-40-11, 73 points, 22 points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Canucks were third in the Pacific Division after a 3-0 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 5 but went 1-7-1 in their next nine games to fall five points out of a playoff spot.

Biggest offseason change: The retirement of Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin means it’s time for their younger players to take a larger role. To support them, Vancouver signed three experienced bottom-six forwards, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Tim Schaller. Beagle, who was the fourth-line center for the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, also will help a penalty kill that ranked 21st in the NHL (78.3 percent). Beagle won 53.9 percent of his shorthanded face-offs, and his 131 shorthanded face-off wins led the NHL.

Why they could get in: With forwards Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson and Adam Gaudette, defenseman Olli Juolevi, and goaltender Thatcher Demko, the Canucks have the building blocks in place to make a serious playoff run during the next few seasons. If that young talent can develop quickly and the Canucks get bounce-back seasons from veteran forwards Loui Eriksson and Brandon Sutter, there could be enough for a wild-card push this season.

Video: Canucks come in at No. 2 in Prospect Pipeline

 

ARIZONA COYOTES

Last season: 29-41-12, 70 points, 25 points out of second wild card

How it ended: The Coyotes’ 0-10-1 start to the season led to them missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season.

Biggest offseason change: The Coyotes added two 30-goal scorers during the offseason to address an offense that scored 206 goals last season, second fewest in the NHL behind the Buffalo Sabres (198). Alex Galchenyuk will start the season as the second-line center after being acquired in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens on June 15. He scored 30 goals in 2015-16 and was third on the Canadiens with 19 goals last season, a total that would have been second on the Coyotes behind Clayton Keller (23). Michael Grabner, who signed a three-year contract July 1, scored 27 goals in 80 games with the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils last season. He scored an NHL career-high 34 goals with the New York Islanders in 2010-11 and has scored at least 20 four times. Of his 54 goals the past two seasons, 51 have come at even strength, with the other three while shorthanded. The Coyotes also acquired forward Vinnie Hinostroza in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks on July 12. The 24-year-old had 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 50 games last season and should have a full-time role in Arizona. 

Why they could get in: The Coyotes got better as the season went on, going 17-9-3 in their final 29 games. Most of their young players took steps forward, including Keller and forwards Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak and Christian Fischer, and it’s likely Dylan Strome, the No. 3 pick of the 2015 NHL Draft who had nine points (four goals, five assists) in 21 games last season, is ready to make an impact. Galchenyuk is out to prove he can be a full-time center after never really getting that chance in Montreal, and with Derek Stepan and Strome, he gives the Coyotes good depth up the middle. Antti Raanta proved he could be a top No. 1 goaltender last season, with a 2.24 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage that led NHL goalies (minimum 40 games played). If the Coyotes can increase their scoring and are able to sustain their season-closing level for 82 games this season, they could contend for a wild card.

Video: Looking at the contract extension for Ekman-Larsson

Article source: https://www.nhl.com/news/western-conference-teams-that-can-get-back-into-playoffs/c-300015820

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