Since the shootout debuted back in 2005, there has been much more parity among NHL clubs (due to the arrival of the three-point game). Although some will argue that this parity is artificial, it has increased the competition for playoff spots in both conferences. The Florida Panthers missed the playoffs last season, even though they had an identical record to eighth-seeded Montreal (41 wins and 93 points). Buffalo was only two points back of Florida, and they had 41 wins as well. In the West, Anaheim finished in eighth with 91 points, two up on Minnesota, and three up on Nashville. As the above situations illustrate, there is not a whole lot of difference between making and missing the playoffs in today's NHL. Montreal was buoyed by late-season acquisition Mathieu Schneider and Anaheim rode the hot goaltending of Jonas Hiller. Who will be the difference maker(s) for the bubble teams in 2009-10?
Predicting the final standings in either conference is a tough task, especially in September. However, there are a few locks and some teams will have better chances than others. One could logically assume that Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Philadelphia will make it into the playoffs. That leaves 10 teams in the East. One could also logically assume that Long Island misses the playoffs. That leaves nine bubble teams: Carolina, New York, Montreal, Florida, Buffalo, Ottawa, Toronto, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay.
Why? The Hurricanes are deep up front, have one of the better goalies in the league, and have a trio of impressive forward prospects (Brandon Sutter, Zach Boychuk, and Drayson Bowman) itching to earn a spot up front. Update: Bowman was cut on September 22, but he should see some NHL action this season once injuries occur.
Why not? There are some up-and-coming teams in the Southeast Division, as it won't be a two-horse race between the Hurricanes and Capitals for much longer. Cam Ward needs to prove last season was not a fluke, and Carolina needs some young defensemen to step up after losing both Anton Babchuk and Dennis Seidenberg this off-season.
Fantasy X-Factor – Erik Cole had an awful 2008-09 season in Edmonton, and his offensive slump continued even after returning to Carolina. He will be lining up with Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu on the top line. Why is he so important to the Hurricanes? Ruutu had a breakout season last year but is injury-prone. After that, the ageless Ray Whitney is b