Late last week Mike Chen of From the Rink gave his three picks for possible “breakout” teams for the 2010-11 season. I personally agree that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers show some promise, but while it cannot get much worse for the Columbus Blue Jackets, they don’t scream “breakout” to me. (Then again, the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes showed few signs of life aside from adding a new coach last summer, so Chen’s logic might be pretty sound there.)
That post got me thinking about other candidates. I’m going to cheat a bit by taking a look at all the teams who missed the playoffs rather than the most hopeless teams to see who might have the best chance to jump. The one big exception, though, is that I need to think that each team has a genuine chance to make the playoffs.
St. Louis Blues
Why they might make the playoffs: Much like the Blue Jackets, the Blues were a Central division playoff surprise in 08-09 that came plummeting back to earth last season. The difference is that St. Louis boasts (in my opinion at least) a much stronger roster than Columbus. While they lack a top-end star like Rick Nash, I might take their deeper rotation of quality forwards (David Backes, TJ Oshie, David Perron, etc.) instead. Especially when you consider their superior defensive and goaltending groups.
Glass-half-empty points: That being said, the Central division is a beast. Chicago and Detroit are still the cream of the crop and Nashville is scrappy enough to make third place a tough spot to earn. If Chen is right about the Blue Jackets, that means the division won’t have an obvious weak team, unless that might be the Blues after all.
Why they might make the playoffs: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jonas Hiller and (hopefully) Bobby Ryan plus the two old Finns (Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu) gives the Ducks a nice group in the big minute spots. The Pacific division is unpredictable but might be a little bit less wicked next season with the Sharks a little weaker, the Coyotes primed for a possible regression, the Stars in disarray and the Kings missing out on the Kovalchuk sweepstakes.
Glass-half-empty points: Still, the Ducks might be called the “Ucks” since they have no D. (Like what I did there? Took a page out of the “He’s Ason Kidd because he has no J” book of insults.) Seriously, though, their defense is awful.
Why they might make the playoffs: They still have some talent, maybe. Obviously, there’s Iginla and Kipper plus Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr. I didn’t hate the cheap addition of Alex Tanguay and while I snickered at the Olli Jokinen signing, maybe he can score some filler goals to increase their chances at a playoff berth. Plus, the Sutter brothers are under some serious pressure. Sometimes that brings the best out of people.
Glass-half-empty points: Most hockey people see the Flames as a sinking ship. I have to admit I lean in that direction, but I thought the Flames might be worth mentioning even if it’s just because they’re one of the best teams that didn’t make the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Why they might make the playoffs: Like the Flames, their are a lot of heads that could roll if they don’t make the playoffs. The team will get a training camp to congeal after Brian Burke’s many moves (I’d recommend handing out name tags). While I disagree with many of Burke’s transactions, he did get Kris Versteeg for very little and the team is better on paper. Versteeg, Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and the could-be-better goalie duo of J.S. Giguere and “The Monster”? They won’t rock the world, but this is the Eastern Conference, after all.
Glass-half-empty points: Much like with the Flames, I had to strain to be positive about the Leafs. They’re under a lot of pressure and spending a lot of money to fight for the 7th or 8th spot in the East. The odds are high that the bottom of that conference won’t boast a sleeping giant in the bottom ranks like the Flyers again next summer, but making the playoffs would be quite the change of pace for the moribund Leafs franchise.
So those are my four guesses for teams who might “break through” next season, even if the Ducks and Flames were a bit of a cheat. Did I miss anyone? Share your thoughts in the comments.