While the margins for non-playoff teams are significantly slimmer and thanks to the loser points even further muddled, the East is far more rigid. Sure the Leafs and Devils had late pushes last year, Carolina hung-around (somehow) and Atlanta, despite a hot start, tailed off; but the fact is the difference between playoff bound teams and those getting an early start on golf season was more vast in the East. Some of these teams will manage to do even worse this upcoming season, and some will move up in to the relm of playoff qualifiers, but one thing is for sure: they've all gotten better due to a couple decent draft years.
It's hard to imagine the wild UFA market won't alter my findings but lets examine the six eastern conference non playoff teams from last year and where they might be headed:
CAROLINA: Missing by just two points they were buoyed by my darkhorse MVP pick Erik Staal and Calder winner Jeff Skinner along with always steady goaltending from Cam Ward. The three represented the Canes at home in the All Star Game but this is not a sign of immediate success. The Canes locked up puck mover Joni Pitkanen and a great depth guy in Chad Larose, but have announced they can't afford to bring back Erik Staal. They'll need to lock up Jussi Jokinen atleast, and he, along with Tuomo Ruutu will be counted on with Skinner and Staal for offense. It's an underrated quartet of scorers, but not enough to elevate them in to the postseason. Next season will prove to be one of the greatest youth movements of the New NHL. Youngsers like Drayson Bowman, Zack Dalpe, Troy Bodie, Riley Nash and Zach Boychuck will all likely be amongst the Canes' forward regulars -- it's a good group of players but they'll be hard pressed to make the jump. Carolina has only a few D-men signed for next year, and again with a solid core of prospects coming up including: Justin Faulk, Danny Biega, Mark Alt, Bryan Dumolin, Michal Jordan, Ryan Murphy, they will in years to come be formidable but this year is going to be a growth spurt, and probably an awkward one, look for them to drop back in the rankings, perhaps as low as 13. In two years though they will definitely make the playoffs and form in to a very solid team.
TORONTO: The late season push, I believe, is indicative of things to come for Toronto. I believe the four big scorers: Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clark MacArthur will improve on last years totals, and Nazem Kadri's season with the Marlies showed he could be a full time pro -- If jofrey Lupul can cement himself as a powerplay catalyst and the depth forwards (Tim Brent, Joey Crabb, Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong) do what they showed they can last season then Toronto has a great forward corpse, and likely will add some talent. Christian Hanson is ready for full time duty and the Leafs, like all good teams, are strong down the middle. They addressed their puck-moving weakness by adding transitional and PP specialist John Michael Liles to an already gritty and solid defense, and James reimer is the real deal - The Leafs could place as high as sixth in the East next season, but I'm sure their fanbase would be equally as happy with 7th and 8th.
NEW JERSEY: Their horrible start sunk them, despite the teams best efforts down the stretch. They'll bring Parise back, somehow, and Jacob Josefson will be everything they hoped he could. If Tampa can bring back Stamkos it might keep New Jersey out of a playoff spot, but, if Stammer finds a new address then Tampa will fall and Jersey could squeak in to eighth. Even if Parise comes back this team needs a better transition game and is going to have to work to recouperate from last years debaucle. If they do get in they'll probably be peaking at the right time and looking like a potential cinderella team.
WINNIPED (Nee ATLANTA): This team has a ton of talent, loaded on the back end with young skill the likes of 20 goal man Dustin Byfuglien, smoothe puck mover Tobia Enstrom, but they do need to lock up Zack Bogosian. The trade with Boston that brough in Blake Wheeler as a much needed addition of offense. Alex Burmistrov and Evander Kane should continue to improve, and they'll hopefully lock-up Ladd, but it's not enough scoring in what is going to be a tougher Eastern Conference next season. Pavelec can be a star if he's healthy, but he can't stop enough pucks to land the new Jets in the playoffs, and there isn't enough offense in the forseeable future to think WNP will have a storybook playoff appearance in either of the next two seasons unless they land a major UFA
OTTAWA: I can't believe they weren't last in the East last year -- over the course of the playoffs I forgot there were worse teams than Ottawa. One thing is for sure: nobody looked more defeated, or maybe that was just Cory Clouston. It was sad to see the way Ottawa had fallen. How their UFA acquisition Sergei Gonchar dissapointed. How their veterans aged somewhat gracelessly. And how little they got for Danny Heatley. Ottawa has a star in the making though, a legitimate future Norris winner Erik Karlsson. Maybe Gonchar can regain form (and Chris Phillips and Philip Kuba) and that would give them a respectable back end, and I think Craig Anderson can be a solid number one guy between the pipes next year, but the offense is thin, paper thin, and the prospect pool isn't great. Adding a former high first round pick in Nikita Filatov for a third rounder was a great gamble by management, one that will probably pay off as Filatov's skill set is undeniable and he will be given room to grow with a decen pivot, Jason Spezza. Jared Cowen and David Runblad are a year or two away from makin Ottawa a playoff threat again...they need to find more scoring though. No playoffs in site, and they should manage to bottom out this year to 15th in the East, possibly last over all in the league.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: These guys are going to be playoff material next season -- guaranteed! They need to stop the goaltender turnstall and burry dipietros contract in the minors. Al Montoya and Kevin Poulin could be a solid platoon in the net and if they can sign Christian Ehrhoff then their back end will have great offense with him and Mark Streit. Andy McDonald looked great last year and will work with a lunch pale group that will get the job done in all zones. Upfront we could see a blossoming of young talent with great prospects in Ryan Strome, Nino Neidereiter and Kiril Kabanov coming up and hopefully the arrival of Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo. The depth forwards like Franz Nielsen and Zenon Konopka are underrated defenders, and the re-signing of Trevor Gillies means this team is not going to be fun to play against. They'll make a run in the tough Atlantic Division and bump their cross-state rival Rangers out of the playoffs next year, and for years to come. Tavares, Grabner and Moulson are going to be up their with Toews-Sharp-Kane or Malkin-Staal-Crosby.
FLORIDA: The Panthers will likely re-sign Tomas Vokon short term and let Jakob Markstrom develop (as they should). They have some young potential on D and a lot more coming in the likes of Erik Gudbranson, Alex Petrovic, Colby Robak, Evan Oberg and Rasmus Bengtsson. This year's first rounder Jonathon Huberdeau joins solid forward prospects Drew Shore, Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howdon, but the immediate forecast is calling for short season in FLA. They'll chase Ottawa to the bottom this year, and are a few years away from the playoffs still.
Much depends on the UFA market, and especially two big RFA's: Parise and Stamkos, however, both of those refer mostly to whether or not NJD will make the playoffs this year. Either way look for Toronto, New Jersey and the Islanders to improve in the rankings, Florida and Ottawa to fall.