We've entered the Stanley Cup Final in what has been a tremendously entertaining NHL playoffs. With the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers battling for supremacy, it's time to revisit our series of teams that failed to make the postseason. This week we will close out the Eastern Conference with another pair of Metropolitan Division clubs.
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The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs for five straight years and they've failed to qualify for the NHL's second season in seven of the past eight campaigns since they lifted the Stanley Cup.
As a result, there was bound to be changes and head coach Kirk Muller was fired after Jim Rutherford stepped down as General Manager and Ron Francis took over. Carolina still doesn't have a coach in place for next year, but whoever takes over will inherit a squad that underperformed in 2013-14.
Slow starts aren't uncommon for Eric Staal, but a knee injury at the World Championships probably hindered him further. Jiri Tlusty didn't duplicate the success he had during the lockout-shortened season, while Alexander Semin played through injuries and was limited to 65 games. Jordan Staal hasn't been much of an offensive factor since coming over from Pittsburgh, but he would benefit greatly from more supportive and skilled linemates. Jeff Skinner was productive in bursts and his ability to take the next step could be the deciding factor in getting Carolina back to the postseason if his teammates can stay healthier and get back on track.
Carolina was also held back when their top two goaltenders, Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin, went down with injuries. Justin Peters had to step in and he got off to a rocky start with five consecutive losses before recording a 7-4-4 record the rest of the way. Khudobin outplayed Ward when the two of them were fit to play, which earned him a two-year, $4.5 million extension. If the Hurricanes are able to find a team willing to take the remainder of Ward's contract, which has two seasons left with a $6.3 million cap hit, then there's a good chance that he'll be playing elsewhere next year. It's probably more likely that he'll try to reclaim his number one role in Carolina and compete with Khudobin for starts.
Andrej Sekera proved to be an excellent addition to the team's back end and he excelled as Justin Faulk's defense partner. Toronto cast-off John-Michael Liles performed well for the team after he was acquired in January, but the Hurricanes desperately need depth on the blueline. Brett Bellemore was able to crack the big club's roster this past season and Ryan Murphy could be in line for permanent NHL residence in 2014-15. His offensive skills from the point would go a long way to improving a power play that ranked 28th in the league, with a meager 14.6% success rate.
Let's take a brief look at the troubling seasons that Carolina's key offensive contributors had:
Eric Staal - Staal led the Hurricanes with 61 points in 79 games, but that total was the lowest he's scored in a full season since his rookie campaign in 2003-04. He also barely surpassed the 20-goal mark when he scored twice in Carolina's regular-season finale to hit 21 markers. Staal tallied just one goal on the power play, which is baffling because he used to routinely score in the double digits during those situations earlier in his career. His name did surface in trade rumors, but he wants to stay with the Hurricanes and it's likely that he'll be given a chance to bounce back in 2014-15. The 29-year-old center is still a dependable scorer and he has the potential to be a great bargain pickup on draft day.
Cam Ward - As stated above, Ward was plagued by injuries in 2013-14. He said afterward that he felt like he was playing catch up all season and he was never able to establish a rhythm after getting hurt. Ward has been limited to 47 games over the past two years and his play on the ice hasn't inspired confidence either. Ward posted an .898 save percentage and a 3.06 goals-against average in 30 appearances, while picking up only 10 wins. He's left the door wide open for Anton Khudobin to enter the 2014-15 campaign as Carolina's starter. Ward is a risky bet to rebound next year, so hitching your wagon to Khudobin is probably the better play if you are considering selecting a Hurricanes goalie.
Jordan Staal - Staal was more productive offensively on the third line in Pittsburgh than he's been during his brief tenure with Carolina. He registered 15 goals and 40 points in 82 games last season after he produced 10 markers and 31 points in 48 games during the truncated campaign. An initial thought was that he might play alongside brother Eric, but that wasn't part of former coach Kirk Muller's playbook. He preferred to match Jordan up against tough competition as a second-line center, which was probably a move to help compensate for the team's lack of depth down the middle. Carolina will need prospects like Elias Lindholm to step up and then maybe the Staal brothers can be united for an extended trial period. Staal is just 25 years of age and he still has plenty of time to work out his offensive kinks.
Jiri Tlusty - Tlusty meshed brilliantly with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin during the lockout-shortened season, but his 19.7 shooting percentage was not something many pundits expected to see duplicated this year. Still, more was expected from him. He dropped from 23 goals and 38 points in 48 games to 16 markers and 30 points in 68 outings. Much of his success is dependent on the play of Staal and the two of them should be expected to have more productive seasons in 2014-15.
New York Islanders
Higher expectations were placed on the Islanders after they made the playoffs for the first time in six years last season. However, the club was out of the postseason picture fairly early after a devastating slide from November 5th to December 17th. New York posted a 3-14-4 record over that span, which placed them into a chasm that was far too deep to dig out from and they ended up placing 27th overall in the league.
The team's on-ice struggles contributed to them losing the services of a pair of potential unrestricted free agents, which was another bitter pill to swallow. The Isles acquired Thomas Vanek from Buffalo in an attempt to bolster their lineup and he played well alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, but he ended up getting shipped to Montreal at the trade deadline after he turned down a lucrative contract offer. New York also shipped ice time leader Andrew MacDonald to Philadelphia prior to the deadline for the same reason. MacDonald ended up signing an extension with the Flyers just before the playoffs began.
New York finished 28th in the league with 3.18 goals against per game and their penalty killed ranked 29th overall with a 78.1% efficiency rating. Goaltending and team defense were the determining factors in both of those horrid showings.
Evgeni Nabokov spent some time on the sidelines due to injury, which placed Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson in the spotlight. However, they proved that neither of them was ready for NHL duty just yet. Nilsson bolted for the KHL a little over a week ago and Nabokov could become an unrestricted free agent next month, so the Islanders acquired Jaroslav Halak from Washington in exchange for a fourth-round pick. He was promptly signed to a four-year deal worth $18 million to serve as the team's number one option between the pipes. New York also landed the negotiation rights to pending unrestricted free agent Dan Boyle from San Jose for a conditional draft selection. Getting him into the fold would help improve a defense corps that would benefit from his leadership and experience.
The Islanders received strong contributions from their young players down the stretch, which is encouraging and the team closed out the year with an 8-2-2 record. The players credited coach Jack Capuano for their improved play and the Islanders will have him back behind the bench next season.
John Tavares was on pace for a career year before he suffered a torn MCL and a torn meniscus in his left knee during the Winter Olympics. He wasn't able to play when the NHL resumed play, but he should be ready for training camp. Kyle Okposo also had a breakout year ended due to injury, but he will likely be ready for next season as well.
New York will be looking for more from these players in 2014-15:
Josh Bailey - Bailey was given a five-year, $16.5 million contract last summer and he responded with a career high 38 points in 77 games in 2013-14. That's not the kind of production or improvement that the Islanders were hoping for. He also dropped to eight goals which was his lowest total since his rookie season in 2008-09 when he had seven. Bailey's ice time increased significantly at the end of the season when he played on the top line due to injuries to Okposo and Tavares. He possesses offensive upside, but it's still probably too early to gamble on him.
Michael Grabner - Grabner hasn't been able to replicate his 34-goal, 52-point season from 2010-11. This past season, he didn't even come close with 12 goals and 14 assists in 64 games. Grabner has speed to burn, which makes him very dangerous on the penalty kill, but he often struggles to finish the plays he starts. His extended scoring slumps throw up red flags and it's growing increasingly harder to expect to see progress from him.
Lubomir Visnovsky - Visnovsky was limited to 24 games because of concussion issues. He collected 11 points and 34 shots when he played. He's hoping to be available for the start of next season. If the Islanders sign Boyle then they would like to pair him with Visnovsky on the power play, which could be an effective tandem. The 37-year-old defensemen still know how to quarterback a power play. Visnovsky should be able to contribute plenty of points from the back end, most of which will come with the man advantage, if he stays out of the infirmary.
Casey Cizikas - Cizikas tallied two goals and two assists in six games against Pittsburgh during the playoffs last year. It looked like something to build off, but he barely surpassed his point total from lockout-shortened season in 2013-14. Cizikas generated six goals and 16 points in 80 games following a 15-point performance in 45 outings the campaign before. He averaged just 13:22 of ice time per contest, but saw his minutes increase down the stretch. Unfortunately, for him it didn't result in more offense. He plays a good two-way game, but likely won't have much in the way of fantasy relevance.