For the seven Eastern Conference teams that missed the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, their goal since the regular season ended has been determining how to extend their seasons into June, like the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
So how can those teams make the next step? As training camps continue this month, NHL.com today examines why fans of the unlucky seven can hold onto their playoff hopes (teams listed in alphabetical order):
Last season: 15-34-7, 37 points, 34 points out of fourth place in MassMutual East Division
How it ended: An 18-game losing streak (0-15-3) from Feb. 25-March 29 led to the Sabres missing the playoffs for the 10th straight season.
Biggest offseason change: Core players Sam Reinhart (Florida Panthers) and Rasmus Ristolainen (Philadelphia Flyers) were traded, and captain Jack Eichel could be the next to go with Buffalo looking to retool around a group that includes forwards Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson, and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. Don Granato, who went 9-16-3 after replacing Ralph Krueger as coach March 17, was given the full-time job June 29.
Why they could get in: Even without Eichel, who was placed on injured reserve because of a herniated disk in his neck and removed as captain Sept. 23, the Sabres have talented forwards, including Mittelstadt and Thompson, who each excelled after Granato took over as coach. Following the switch, Mittelstadt scored 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) in 28 games and Thompson scored 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in 25 games. The Sabres also have Dahlin, who agreed to a three-year contract Sept. 22 and is poised to emerge as an elite defenseman. Aaron Dell and Craig Anderson will likely start the season as Buffalo’s goalies, but Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, a second-round pick (No. 54) in the 2017 NHL Draft, could push for playing time. Still, a lot of things would have to go right for the Sabres to contend for a wild card in the East this season.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Last season: 18-26-12, 48 points, 16 points out of fourth place in Discover Central Division
How it ended: The Blue Jackets were tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for fourth place in the Central on March 20, but they went 5-14-5 the rest of season to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2015-16.
Biggest offseason change: Coach John Tortorella, who instilled a culture that helped Columbus qualify for the playoffs in four straight seasons, including winning a playoff series for the first time in its history in 2019, announced May 9 that he and the Blue Jackets had mutually agreed to part ways. Brad Larsen, a Blue Jackets assistant the previous seven seasons, was named coach June 10. He’ll be in charge of a team missing two of its best players from last season after forward Cam Atkinson (Flyers) and defenseman Seth Jones (Blackhawks) were traded in the offseason.
Why they could get in: Forward Patrik Laine remains an elite goal-scorer, and Columbus found a top playmaker to pair him with in forward Jakub Voracek, who was acquired from Philadelphia in the Atkinson trade July 24. Laine and Voracek, who is sixth among NHL players in assists (396) since 2012-13, will lead a deep offense that includes forwards Jack Roslovic, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Gustav Nyquist, who will be back after missing last season because of shoulder surgery. The Blue Jackets also should be able to transition the puck out of their defensive zone well with defensemen Zach Werenski and Adam Boqvist, who was acquired in the Jones trade July 23, leading the way. Columbus will have a different feel without Tortorella, but Larsen has good pieces to work with, which could make a wild card possible.
DETROIT RED WINGS
Last season: 19-27-10, 48 points, 16 points out of fourth place in Discover Central Division
How it ended: The Red Wings won five of their first 21 games (5-13-3) and never got closer than nine points out of a playoff spot the rest of the season.
Biggest offseason change: Detroit solidified itself in goal by acquiring Alex Nedeljkovic in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on July 22. Nedeljkovic was 15-5-3 with a 1.90 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and three shutouts in 23 starts last season. He led all goalies to play at least 20 games in GAA and save percentage, and was third in voting for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
Why they could get in: The Red Wings allowed 3.00 goals per game last season (20th in NHL), but they should be better defensively with the additions of Nedeljkovic and defenseman Nick Leddy, who was acquired in a trade with the New York Islanders on July 16, and the ascension of top prospect Moritz Seider, who was named the best defenseman in the Swedish Hockey League last season and at the 2021 IIHF World Championship. Seider, 20, won’t be the only young player ready to make an NHL impact with Detroit, though. Among those potentially ready for larger roles are forwards Michael Rasmussen, 22; Joe Veleno, 21; and Lucas Raymond, 19. If they can deliver alongside veteran forwards Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi, that combined with the Red Wings’ defensive improvements could put them in the running for a wild card.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Last season: 19-30-7, 45 points, 26 points out of fourth place in MassMutual East Division
How it ended: The Devils started the season well (4-3-2), but they went 4-10-2 in their first 16 games after missing more than two weeks because COVID-19 protocols and were 12 points out of a playoff spot by March 14.
Biggest offseason change: Defenseman Dougie Hamilton signed a seven-year contract July 28. New Jersey received 15 goals from its defensemen last season, tied for third fewest in the NHL, while Hamilton leads all players at the position with 59 goals since 2017-18. Hamilton also is a plus-47 in even-strength goal differential the past two seasons, second among NHL defensemen to Ryan Graves (plus-50), who New Jersey acquired in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche on July 15.
Why they could get in: Hamilton, Graves, Ty Smith, Damon Severson, P.K. Subban and Jonas Siegenthaler give the Devils arguably the deepest group of defensemen in the NHL. And with goalie Jonathan Bernier signing a two-year contract July 28 to partner with Mackenzie Blackwood, New Jersey has its best goaltending tandem in several seasons. Add to that the continued development from their foundational centers, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, and the pieces are in place for the Devils to push for a wild card, or perhaps even a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Last season: 27-23-6, 60 points, 11 points out of fourth place in MassMutual East Division
How it ended: A three-game winning streak got the Rangers within four points of a playoff spot April 27, but they lost five of their final six games (1-5-0) to miss the postseason for the third time in four seasons.
Biggest offseason change: A change in leadership led to a change in how the roster was built. President John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton were fired May 5, with Chris Drury taking over both roles. Coach David Quinn was then fired a week later, and Gerard Gallant was hired to replace him June 16. Regarding their roster, the Rangers acquired forwards Barclay Goodrow (from the Tampa Bay Lightning), Ryan Reaves (Vegas Golden Knights) and Sammy Blais (St. Louis Blues), and signed free agent defenseman Patrik Nemeth, showing a focus on making them a harder team to play against.
Why they could get in: Their mix of skill and toughness, together with Gallant’s track record for success — he led the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season in 2017-18 — could make the Rangers one of the more dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference this season. The physicality supplied by Reaves, Goodrow and Blais could give Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and New York’s other talented forwards more room to operate. Adam Fox was voted the winner of the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL last season, and he and Ryan Lindgren will split all the difficult matchups with a solid second pair of K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba. If goalie Igor Shesterkin can stay healthy and reach his full potential, New York should battle for a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Last season: 23-28-5, 51 points, eight points out of fourth place in Scotia North Division
How it ended: The Senators won two of their first 15 games (2-12-1), so despite posting a .561 points percentage the rest of the way (21-16-4), their early hole was too deep to climb out of.
Biggest offseason change: Ottawa added experience and stability at defenseman with the additions of Nick Holden and Michael Del Zotto. Holden, who was acquired in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights for forward Evgenii Dadonov on July 28, has a plus-16 rating in 10 NHL seasons and scored seven points (two goals, five assists) in 15 Stanley Cup Playoff games last season. Del Zotto, who signed a two-year contract July 28, scored 13 points (four goals, nine assists) and led Blue Jackets defensemen with a plus-5 rating in 53 games last season.
Why they could get in: The Senators’ key young players — forwards Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and Tim Stutzle, and defensemen Thomas Chabot and Erik Brannstrom — took steps in their development last season, and more young talent could be close to making an impact as well, including defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker and forward Shane Pinto. If its young players continue to progress, and goalie Matt Murray can play closer to the form he showed in helping the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017, Ottawa could push for a wild card.
Last season: 25-23-8, 58 points, 13 points out of fourth place in MassMutual East Division
How it ended: The Flyers began March in fourth place in the East, just three points out of first place. They then went 6-10-1, and when the month ended, they were three points out of a playoff spot and never found a way to get back on track.
Biggest offseason change: Philadelphia rebuilt its core group of defensemen during the offseason by adding Ryan Ellis (trade with the Nashville Predators on July 17), Ristolainen (trade with the Sabres on July 23) and Keith Yandle (signed a one-year contract as a free agent July 28), and subtracting Shayne Gostisbehere (traded to the Arizona Coyotes on July 22), Philippe Myers (part of Ellis trade) and Robert Hagg (part of Ristolainen trade). Ellis is expected to play on the right side of the top pair with Ivan Provorov and fill a lot of the holes left by Matt Niskanen, who retired after the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ristolainen will add physicality, and Yandle brings veteran experience and some pop for the power play.
Why they could get in: The revamped defense should allow the Flyers to get back to playing the way they did prior to the season being paused in 2019-20, when they were one point behind the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division. A more consistent group of defensemen should also allow Carter Hart to play more like the goalie who helped Philadelphia reach the second round of the 2020 playoffs, rather than the one who had the worst GAA (3.67) and save percentage (.877) among goalies to play at least 20 games last season. If the new pieces fit the way the Flyers expect them to, Philadelphia could push for a top-three spot in the division this season.