Tomorrow I will give my thoughts on each of the first round match-ups, slated to begin on Wednesday. Today, however, I will give my thoughts on the fourteen unfortunate squads which did not qualify for the chance to sip of Lord Stanley’s.
Despite being out of the races, for some teams there were a number of compelling stories heading into the final weeks and days of the 2011-2012 NHL season. Would Stamkos reach sixty goals? Could the Jets make the playoffs, to the delight of everyone, in their first season back in Winnipeg? Would Toronto earn (a dubious use of the word, to be sure) a lottery pick at this years entry draft? These were just a few of the plot lines worth following for any hockey fan.
Here are my thoughts on each of the teams that failed to make the playoffs, given in reverse order of the final standings. Here we go:
#30 Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets promised their fans a lot last off-season. They added Jeff Carter to create a dynamic first line with Rick Nash and signed free-agent offensive defenseman James Wisniewski to bolster an anemic power play. Carter was sour about being traded and Wisniewski spent the first eight games of the season suspended. The power play finished 24th in the league (15.5%), Carter was gone at the trade deadline and somehow GM Scott Howson is still employed.
#29 Edmonton Oilers: It’s no surprise that the Oilers, once again, finished near the bottom of the league. What is a surprise is that they did so despite a huge breakout season by Jordan Eberle (34G 42A), a notable sophomore performance from Taylor Hall (27G 26A) and a Calder worthy first year from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (18G 34A). I mean, what kind of contribution do the Oilers need to climb out of the basement? Oh right, they have no defense.
#28 Montreal Canadiens: It may not be surprising that the Habs missed the playoffs. What is surprising was the way they missed. Despite career years from Eric Cole and Max Pacioretty, the Habs could not get anything together. They stumbled out of the gate and spent the majority of the season at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, exactly where they would finish. The teams ill fortunes likely stemmed from the mishandling of affairs by GM Pierre Gauthier, whose bumbling would eventually cost him his job. How bad would they be without Carey Price? Have a look:
#27 NY Islanders: Another once proud organization that has been mired in mismanagement saw little change on that front this year. Charles Wang continues to run his team like the dear leader and the fans there (the ones left) must have some pretty thick skin. The positives: PA Parenteau and John Tavares had breakout seasons, Matt Moulson quietly hit thirty goals for the third year in a row (don’t lie, you had to look it up to see if it’s true) and Mark Streit quarterbacked the Islanders power-play to a top ten finish with his 47 points. The down side? The Islanders had four of the six worst plus/minus players in the league with Milan Jurcina leadingthe charge with a minus 36. Ouch.
#26 Anaheim Ducks: Has Teemu Selanne played his last NHL season? If so he’s going out on a high note having scored 26 goals and 40 assists to lead the Ducks with 66 points at the tender young age of 41. The fact that he outscored his far younger superstar teammates Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and last years Hart trophy winner Corey Perry was likely a major factor in the Ducks downfall. A team that underachieved for so much of last season before squeaking into the playoffs opted for the same strategy this year. This time around they waited until far too late to rally and it cost coach Randy Carlyle his job.
#25 Toronto Maple Leafs: Speaking of Carlyle, he took over the reigns in TO after head coach Ron Wilson was mercifully relieved of his duties. Whether it was Wilson or the fans who received the mercy is the subject of debate. Toronto got off to a good start with a 7-4-1 record in October. They held a playoff spot until early February, despite one of the leagues worst goals against totals and penalty kill percentage, when the wheels came off and the team won twice in a span of seventeen games. The good news? Burkie didn’t trade away the clubs first round pick. Lottery time!
#24 Minnesota Wild: The Wild are another team that started things off so well. On the 10th of December they were first overall in the league. Then came the injuries (also, reality). They lost nine of ten to finish 2011 and another six of seven to begin 2012. Perhaps things would have been different had Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Guillaume Latendresse and Mikko Koivu all remained healthy for the full year. Then again, this happened:
#23 Carolina Hurricanes: Carolina was one of many teams that struggled early and cost their head coach his job. Kirk Muller was the replacement for the dispatched Paul Maurice, but he couldn’t right the ship which seemed to be sinking along with its captain, Eric Staal. Staal, through the first sixteen games of the season, went 3-2-5 and minus 16. Speculation was rampant that his play had declined as a result of the injury he had inflicted on his borther, Marc, during the previous season. Marc Staal returned to action and so did Eric, finishing the year with 24G, 46A and 70P. Unfortunately the hole was too deep and the ‘Canes will have to try again next year. At least they managed to unload that horrible Tomas Kaberle contract.
#22 Winnipeg Jets: Ah, the Cinderella story. A team brought out of obscurity to dance with the prince (of Wales… ew). Unfortunately, in life as in the stories, the clock struck midnight and this carriage turned back into a pumpkin. Did we really believe they were a playoff team? The Jets were the feel good story of the year for many fans. One wonders how long they can ride mediocrity into such fanfare, however. At least they can probably afford some upgrades.
#21 Tampa Bay Lightning: Season headline: Lightning Crashes. Conference Finals one year, Eastern Conference basement the next. To be fair, the team rallied, led by Stamkos and his 60 goals, but there was just not enough left in Old Rollies legs to get this team into the playoffs. Forget all that though, lets see some dingers:
#20 Colorado Avalanche: Here we are getting into the almost ran teams. Colorado ultimately missed out on a playoff spot, but they do have a few bright spots in their future. Notably winger Gabriel Landeskog who will, in taking after his team, almost win the Calder trophy this year. He emerged, late in the season, with center Ryan O’Reilly and newcomer Steve Downie, to form a formidable line. Add in the play of goaltender Semyon Varlamov and it appears GM Greg Sherman almost knows what he is doing.
#19 Buffalo Sabres: When signing Ville Leino to a multi-year lucrative contract is supposed to put your team over the top… Anyway, the Sabres tried to put a championship caliber team together the way the New York Rangers used to do it. Grab whichever free agents are available at whatever the cost and hope it fits. I think the Sabres have to feel lucky at this point that Scott Gomez was already signed. Maybe if they learned from the Rangers mistakes like so many other teams have. Most notably, the Rangers.
#18 Dallas Stars: You have to feel bad for a team that comes so close to the playoffs only to miss out in the fading moments of the season two years in a row. Then again, “Why no one should feel bad for the Stars, ever” Exhibit A:
#17 Calgary Flames: Another almost decent year, another almost decent draft selection. Meh. With their recent draft record, who’s complaining?
That wraps up this segment. Tomorrow we’ll look at the first round match-ups and see if we can wrangle a prediction or two.