With the 2011-12 NHL regular season coming to an exciting close on Saturday evening, several teams were left on the outside looking in on the sixteen teams who performed well enough to extend their season's onward to the playoffs. Some of these teams were surprised to not be included in the playoff picture this campaign, while others seemingly packed it in and started their "Fail for Nail" campaigns early. Regardless, with so much parity in the NHL these days, many of the outsiders should find themselves in contention and even in the playoffs a year from now.
At the beginning of the 2011-12 season, there were big expectations for teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Buffalo Sabres and of course the Toronto Maple Leafs, but for whatever reasons their respective playoff hopes were dashed at some point along the way. Out West it was surprise starts by the likes of the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild that had fans scratching their heads at how the season was going to end up.
Not all of the teams left out of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be contenders for next year's run (barring a lockout), but there are a select few that could swap in for spots in 2013.
John Bain is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnBainSports
The Colorado Avalanche made huge strides in 2011-12 to try to return to their glory days. Finishing out the season with 88 points—20 more than a year ago—and just seven points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference impressed many this season.
With Ryan O'Rielly and Steve Downie stepping up for the Avs this season as well as Gabriel Landeskog—the NHL's rookie scoring race winner and potential Rookie of the Year who led the team in goals with 22 and plus-minus at an astounding +20—the Avalanche have a bright future.
When the 2012-13 season begins, the Avs will welcome a healthy Matt Duchene into the lineup, and it will significantly bolster their positioning in the West. Along with Duchene and the rest of the Avs' youth movement, there is a strong back-end anchored by Erik Johnson.
If the Avalanche can get consistent goaltending by Semyon Varlamov next season, and can deal with aging star Milan Hejduk's drop in production, they should find themselves in the bottom two seeds in the Western Conference playoff tree in 2013.
Among the contenders in the Eastern Conference entering the 2011-12 season with some of the highest expectations to produce a winning year were the new-look Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres went out last offseason and acquired defenseman Robyn Regher from the Calgary Flames. They also signed potentially the top free-agent defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a long-term deal with hopes that it would take some pressure off all-star goaltender Ryan Miller this season.
Despite all efforts to keep the puck out of the net this season, the Sabres could not keep their opponent from outscoring them. Ryan Miller had another 30+-win season, but it comes down to more than a goalie to be a playoff-bound team. Expect the Sabres defense to be more comfortable in Lindy Ruff's (should he keep his job) system, and perform better next year.
Despite being outscored this season 230-218 by their opponents, the Sabres offense is nothing to be ashamed of. With rising stars Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson ready to play full seasons with the team in 2012-13, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek coming off decent years and Tyler Myer expected to have a bounce-back year, the Sabres will be in fine shape come playoff time in 2013.
They missed the playoffs by just 3 points this year, but should be battling for a bottom-five position in the East next year.
There is one word to describe the Anaheim Ducks' 2011-12 season: disappointment. Everything that could go wrong for the Ducks this season went wrong. Whether it was the firing of Randy Carlyle, trade rumors surrounding their young star Bobby Ryan or their atrocious power play numbers, the Ducks season that started off with Anaheim hovering around first in the West plummeted all to hell in the second half of the season. Luckily for the Ducks, next season is a new season, and everyone starts at 0-0-0.
The Ducks' top scorer with 66 points in 2011-12 was Teemu Selanne, and although the 42 year-old veteran clearly still has the legs to play in the NHL, his decision to continue his career has yet to be made. Anaheim has the offensive presence to win in the West with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan leading the way, but they need to improve their defense in the off-season.
Rookie defenseman Cam Fowler was forced to shoulder much of the load and was a dismal -28 in the process. If the Ducks can bulk up their back end and Francois Beauchemin bounces back, the Ducks shouldn't have a drop-off like they did this year, and with Jonas Hiller in net, they should battle for the Pacific Division title in 2013.
Since the NHL lockout of 2004-05, the only team in the entire NHL to not make the playoffs in the eight seasons following is the Toronto Maple Leafs of the self-proclaimed Mecca of the hockey world. After so many years of struggle and change, Leaf Nation may be able to breathe easy in 2013. This may come as a dark horse pick to many, but with the wonders Brian Burke has worked on his resume, you can't put it past the Leafs to finally return to the postseason next year.
The Leafs started the season 9-3-1 before eventually cooling off, and ultimately falling near the basement of the Eastern Conference. Like many teams out of the playoffs in 2012, goals allowed killed the Leafs this season. The Leafs ranked second in goals against this season with 259. Part of the reason for that was their constant goaltending cycle. Toronto split time between Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer all year and never seemed to have a true starting goaltender. In addition, the Leafs had zero positive defensemen in their lineup this year.
Up front, the lack of a true number one center for Phil Kessel is still hankering the Leafs offense, but they can still put up points.
Some big changes are necessary for the Toronto Maple Leafs to make a return to the post season in 2013, but with a fresh start for new coach Randy Carlyle, and James Reimer expected to return as a full time starter, they aren't too far away.
If GM Brian Burke works his magic and they have a solid draft and the Toronto Marlies do well in the playoffs and produce some new young standouts for the Leafs this year, they could be in eighth position in the East in 2013.
There is no doubt that the Tampa Bay Lightning felt the biggest downward spiral in the NHL this season. Coming off a year in which the Lightning came within a win of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Lightning's age appeared to finally catch up with them, and left them out of the playoff picture in 2012.
If the Lightning walk away with anything positive from the 2011-12 season, it will be Steven Stamkos' historic 60 goal season, but other than that, it's a season they need to forget, and fast.
Injuries could be partially to blame for the Lightning's lack of success this season, but in reality it comes to age. Once their star player, Vincent Lecavlier is in the midst of a long-term deal and is struggling to both put up points and stay healthy. In addition to Lecavlier, the 42-year-old seemingly invincible goaltender Dwayne Roloson's dream career came to a close at season's end. Aging defenseman Mattias Ohlund also got knocked out for the year early on in the season, and was unable to return.
The Lightning have plenty of talent in Stamkos, Brett Connolly, Victor Hedman, Ryan Malone and Marty St. Louis to name a few, but they will need an upgrade in net as Dustin Tokarski is not ready for primetime yet. A few adjustments to the blue line and the Lightning will be right back in the Cup hunt in 2013.
Should there be a season in 2012-13, there are some notable teams that should be in the post season that were not included in the 16 teams advancing in 2011-12. Most of these teams could have the opportunity to compete for hockey's holy grail in June of next year.
There are also some teams absent from this list that aren't quite ready to make the jump into the post season in 2013, but more likely 2014 or 2015. The likes of the youthful cores of an Edmonton Oilers team, a solid core group in the Montreal Canadiens, or the well-worshiped Winnipeg Jets don't quite have the stability to make the playoffs next year, but their time will come.
Other teams like Calgary, Columbus, and Carolina need to take a hard look at the rebuilding process, as it is inevitable in order for them to find success in the NHL.
All the teams in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs totally deserve to be there, and will surely put on a show for hockey fans around the world, but in 2013 there will be new teams representing their fan bases, and entertaining the masses.
John Bain is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnBainSports