Why the Blues, Flames, and Panthers will return to the playoffs next year
Scott Rovak / National Hockey League / Getty

The 2018 NHL playoffs consist of seven teams who were not in the postseason a year ago. This turnover is evidence of just how much parity is in the league.

While it's unlikely seven non-playoff teams will return to the postseason next year, these three seem likely to do so.

St. Louis Blues

Pending UFAs: Carter Hutton, Kyle Brodziak, Scottie Upshall
Projected cap space: $12.3 million
Needs: Second-line center, goalie

The Blues missed the playoffs by a single point this year after losing to the Avalanche in the final game of the regular season.

If they believe Robby Fabbri - who missed all of 2017-18 - is better suited for the wing, they need a No. 2 center behind Brayden Schenn. If they can't land one of the top free agent centers - such as John Tavares, Joe Thornton, or even former Blue Paul Stastny - they have blue-chip prospects in Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou who could garner a huge return, or potentially make impacts at the NHL level next year.

Regardless, general manager Doug Armstrong expects to be busy this offseason.

The blue line is fine, but if Hutton doesn't return, they will need to add a goaltender as well - ideally one better than Jake Allen.

With good health and a bounce-back year from Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues are primed to not only return to the playoffs next year, but possibly become one of the better teams in the Western Conference - even in a tough Central Division.

Calgary Flames

Pending UFAs: Matt Stajan, Kris Versteeg, Chris Stewart, Matt Bartkowski
Projected cap space: $12.5 million
Needs: Top-six winger, scoring depth, backup goalie

The Flames were in a playoff spot for most of the season, but collapsed down the stretch. They were 29-19-8 prior to Mike Smith's injury, but went 8-16-2 the rest of the way.

Calgary needs to invest in a quality backup netminder. Not only for when the injury-prone Smith goes down, but so the 36-year-old can get more games off, which would theoretically help prevent injuries. Smith's cap hit is only $4.25 million, so they shouldn't be afraid to ante up for another goaltender. Anton Khudobin or Jonathan Bernier would fit nicely.

Without a pick in the first three rounds of the draft, Calgary doesn't have much to dangle on the trade market unless they're willing to move one of their top-4 D, so free agency is their best route to find forward depth. David Perron would be a nice fit in their top-six as a skilled, right-handed shot. So too would Thomas Vanek, Derek Ryan, and Michael Grabner, to a lesser extent.

Their defense doesn't need any upgrading. While Travis Hamonic struggled in his first year in Calgary, the Flames can expect him to be better in year two with the club.

A new voice behind the bench wouldn't hurt either, as Glen Gulutzan's temper tantrums likely grew old with his players. Nonetheless, the Flames aren't far from returning to the postseason, despite finishing with only 84 points.

Florida Panthers

Pending UFAs: Radim Vrbata, Connor Brickley
Projected cap space: $9.6 million
Needs: Second-pairing D, depth

Unlike the previous two teams on this list, the Panthers had a rough first half adjusting to a new coach in Bob Boughner, but were one of the best second half teams, going 24-8-2 in their final 34 games.

While they don't have a whole lot of cap space to work with, they don't really need to add much either. Roberto Luongo and James Reimer are a fine tandem in net; they have three very good defensemen; and a strong forward nucleus.

They could use a second-pairing defenseman which would move Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic down to the bottom pairing. Adding another forward or two wouldn't hurt either, but it's not a necessity.

The Panthers are in an Atlantic Division surrounded by three very good teams, and four awful teams. If they can keep their head above water against the top teams, they should have no problem beating up on the four poor teams to punch their ticket to the playoffs.

(Contract information courtesy: Cap Friendly)

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

Why the Blues, Flames, and Panthers will return to the playoffs next year
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