Friday, May 18, 2018

Which team that missed this year's playoffs could be in next year's conference finals?

On one level, there aren’t a lot of surprises among this year’s four conference finalists. Three of the teams went into the playoffs as the top seed in their division, and the only one that didn’t — the Winnipeg Jets — were the second-best regular-season team in the league. In terms of the pre-playoff seeding, this year has been remarkable free of upsets.

But step back a little further and consider what last season looked like, and this year’s final four takes on a decidedly unexpected mix. You’ve got the Capitals, who haven’t made a conference final in 20 years. But at least Washington made the playoffs last year. None of the other three teams even managed that.

So if three teams that missed the playoffs in 2017 (or didn’t even exist) can make the conference finals, what might next season hold? Could at least one of the 15 teams that missed this year’s post-season could be one of the last teams standing this time next year?

History tells us that it’s possible and maybe even likely. The question is which team is best positioned to do it. So let’s take those 15 playoff misses from this season and divide them into three groups based on their chances for next year. As luck would have it, the Lightning, Jets and Golden Knights give us three handy categories to use.

The Tampa Bay Tier

The Lightning missed the playoffs last season, falling short by a single point. But they weren’t anybody’s idea of an underdog in 2017–18; oddsmakers had them as co-favourites to win the Atlantic before the season began.

So let’s start there — with five teams that have only been out of the playoffs for one year, and could make a relatively quick return to top contender status.

Chicago Blackhawks

Why they could make it: While things fell apart in 2017–18, this is a team that won the Central just a year ago and still has most of the core from three Stanley Cups. It’s also worth remembering that the Blackhawks didn’t really fall out of contention this year until Corey Crawford missed time. If he’s healthy next year, it’s not hard to imagine them being back in the conference finals next year.

Why they won’t: That championship core is older and more expensive now, which complicates things, and the Central looks brutal with the Jets and Predators blocking the way out. And it’s not like this team just missed this year; they were almost 20 points back.

New York Rangers

Why they could make it: They went to the conference final in three of the last seven seasons, and are just one year removed from posting three straight 100-point seasons. They’ve parted ways with some of the players who made those seasons happen, but they still have Henrik Lundqvist.

Why they won’t: It’s not clear they want to. Jeff Gorton wants to rebuild, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean tearing it all down, the Ryan McDonagh trade suggests that the focus isn’t on the Cup in 2018–19.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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