Let's just state the obvious: playoff teams score more goals than their opponents over the course of a season, and typically the difference is significant. If we go back to the 1999-2000 season, there have been 144 playoff teams in the NHL, and of those teams, 134 finished the regular season with a positive goal differential (more goals for than against). Ninety-one finished with a differential greater than plus-20, and only two of the 10 exceptions finished with a differential worse than minus-10.
What does that mean for last year's non-playoff teams? Let's take a look.
Since the '99-00 season, only two teams have finished the regular season with a differential greater than plus-20 and missed the playoffs (the 2001-02 Oilers and the 2006-07 Avalanche). That said, let's go ahead and say that if you finish the season plus-20 you are, at the very least, in serious contention for a playoff spot. After all, since the start of the decade, 91 of the 93 teams that finished with such a mark made the playoffs. It's also important to keep in mind that you can qualify for the postseason with a differential worse than that, but for the purpose of this exercise (how can the non-playoff teams get back in?) we'll stick with a number that should make the playoffs pretty close to a guarantee.
How can the teams in question get to that magic number?
The first three teams we're going to look at are the three non-playoff teams from a year ago that finished with positive goal differentials: Minnesota, Buffalo and Florida, all of which missed the postseason by no more than two points in the standings. Florida missed due to a tie-breaker with Montreal.
2008-09 goal-differential: +19
Needed Improvement: one-goal improvement -- Statistically, not much improvement (if any) needed here. The biggest offseason loss for Minnesota was forward Marian Gaborik, a player who rarely saw the ice a season ago due to injury. In his place comes free agent acquisition Martin Havlat, a player who is also prone to missing more than a few games over the course of a season. It's also an entirely new coaching staff and system, which could play a role in how many goals the Wild scores and, of course, how many it gives up.
2008-09 goal-differential: +16
Needed Improvement: four-goal improvement -- Like Minnesota, not much improvement needed. Buffalo was right on the line and missed the playoffs by just two points a season ago. Had it not lost Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller to injury late in the year, it's possible -- if not likely -- that Buffalo would have been a playoff team. The Sabres were 3-5-1 without Vanek (with a goal differential of minus-nine in those games) and 7-14 in games not started by Miller.
2008-09 goal-differential: +3
Needed Improvement: 17-goal improvement -- Losing defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, the team's work-horse on the blue line the past four years, is going to be a rather large hole to fill, while the Panthers have been one of the teams connected to free agent forward Alex Tanguay.
Now we get into the teams that will need a rather large improvement. Edmonton, Nashville, Ottawa, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles all finished with differentials ranging between minus-14 and minus-27, which would require an improvement of anywhere between 34 and 47 goals. If we look at the same time period of 1999 through 2008, 49 teams improved their differential by at least 30 goals from one season to the next, while 33 improved by at least 40 goals. In other words: it can be done.
2008-09 goal-differential: -14
Needed Improvement: 34-goal improvement -- Nikolai Khabibulin should help in net; adding a two-time 50-goal scorer would have been ideal.
2008-09 goal-differential: -20
Needed Improvement: 40-goal improvement -- Despite its worst goal differential in over five years (minus-20), the Predators were still knocking on the door for the postseason, missing out on the No. 8 spot by just three points as they slumped down the stretch.
2008-09 goal-differential: -20
Needed Improvement: 40-goal improvement -- The Senators' differential has declined each of the past four years, while the only storyline of the offseason has been Dany Heatley's trade demands. That's probably not a good sign.
2008-09 goal-differential: -23
Needed Improvement: 43-goal improvement -- The Thrashers' top-four on defense, featuring Zach Bogosian, Pavel Kubina, Ron Hainsey and Tobias Enstrom, is probably the best group they've had in years -- if not ever -- while free agent signing Nik Antropov should provide an upgrade offensively to go with Ilya Kovalchuk, Bryan Little and Colby Armstrong. On paper, it's been a productive offseason for Atlanta. Productive enough to improve the team by at least 43 goals?
2008-09 goal-differential: -27
Needed Improvement: 47-goal improvement -- The biggest factor for the Stars, to me, is whether or not Marty Turco can return to form between the pipes coming off what was, statistically, the worst season of his career. Getting Brenden Morrow and Brad Richards back from injury will be huge as well.
Los Angeles Kings
2008-09 goal-differential: -27
Needed Improvement: 47 goal improvement -- Excellent young team. Talented forwards, young defense, they spent the offseason adding experience and grit (Ryan Smyth, Rob Scuderi) and if they can get even competent goaltending, the playoff drought could end in Los Angeles.
Toronto Maple Leafs
2008-09 goal-differential: -43
Needed Improvement: 63-goal improvement -- Brian Burke's first offseason in charge of the Maple Leafs has been rather busy. He overhauled the defense by bringing in free agents Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, signed a talented young goalie from Sweden (the Monster, Jonas Gustavsson), and brought in a fighter with the addition of Colton Orr. Gustavsson is still an unknown at the NHL level, but the additions on the blue line, combined with the continued development of Luke Schenn, should help a team that finished with the worst goals against average in the league a season ago.
2008-09 goal-differential: -44
Needed Improvement: 64-goal improvement -- The only way the Coyotes have worked their way into the news this offseason is when the location of their 2009 home opener has been discussed. On the ice, they made a few moves but they're probably not enough to get the club back into the postseason.
2008-09 goal-differential: -58
Needed Improvement: 78-goal improvement -- The 1-2 punch of Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene should be great for the next decade (and hopefully beyond) but it's clearly a rebuilding team in Colorado right now.
Tampa Bay Lightning
2008-09 goal-differential: -69
Needed Improvement: 89-goal improvement -- Tampa Bay started this offseason the same way it started last offseason ... with a cannonball into the free agency pool by signing defenseman Mattias Ohlund to a seven-year contract on July 1. He should be a nice partner for No. 2 overall pick, and fellow contryman, Victor Hedman.
New York Islanders
2008-09 goal-differential: -78
Needed Improvement: 98-goal improvement -- We're looking at a nearly 100 goal improvement here, and since 1999-00 only three teams have actually improved their differential by 100 goals in one season: The '02-03 Islanders, the '06-07 Penguins, and the '07-08 Flyers. The Islanders brought in two new goalies, Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson, and selected the new face of the franchise, John Tavares, but that's not likely to be anywhere near enough to make the type of improvements needed to get into playoff contention this season.