Why does goal differential matter? The obvious answer: good teams outscore their opponents, and great teams outscore their opponents by a lot.
Of the 160 playoff teams since the 1999-00 season, only 12 have finished the regular season with a negative differential, and only three have been worse than minus-10. The magic number over that time period to get into the playoffs has been right around plus-20. Of the 102 teams that have finished with such a mark, 100 of them (98 percent) have qualified for the postseason.
Here's a look at how much improvement last year's non-playoff teams need to reach the magic number of plus-20.
-- If you're a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, well, best of luck this upcoming season. If you're a Thrashers, Hurricanes, Wild, Panthers, Islanders, Lightning or Blue Jackets fan, you can probably find some optimism from the fact we saw some incredible one-year turnarounds this season, including the Avalanche (plus-69), Coyotes (plus-67) and Los Angeles (plus-49). In other words: it can be done. Even if it is a long shot.
-- Halfway through the offseason, you have to love what Steve Yzerman has been able to accomplish in Tampa Bay by adding Simon Gagne, Brett Clark, Dan Ellis and Pavel Kubina to go with a core that already includes Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Vincent Lecavalier. If you asked me right now which team might have the best shot at making a drastic improvement and getting back into the playoffs, it would probably be this group.
-- Another team that's been extremely active has been the Atlanta Thrashers, trading for Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd, while also signing free agent goaltender Chris Mason. After trading Ilya Kovalchuk last February, the Thrashers allowed fewer goals per game, but didn't score anywhere near as many (obviously). Mason should be an upgrade in goal, and the hope is that Bryan Little will have a nice bounce-back season to go with promising and talented youngsters like Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane. But will it all be enough to get the Thrashers back into the playoffs for just the second time in their existence?
-- After being a surprise playoff team during the 2008-09 campaign, the St. Louis Blues struggled out of the gate this past season, but managed to remain in the playoff hunt, falling just five points short. The Blues made a huge splash this offseason by acquiring goaltender Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens without having to give up anyone off of their NHL roster. It would be unfair to expect him to repeat his playoff performance from last year over the course of an entire season, but he could still be a difference-maker between the pipes for St. Louis.