Under the direction of first year coach Guy Boucher and the front office leadership of Steve Yzerman, the Tampa Bay Lightning made a 23-point improvement in the standings from 2009-10 to 2010-11. That improvement was enough to take them from the 12th spot in the Eastern Conference in 2009 to the No. 5 playoff seed in 2010.
From there, the Lightning eliminated the top two favorites in the East -- Pittsburgh and Washington -- and took the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins to a seventh game in the Conference Finals, falling one goal short of completing what would have been an almost improbable run to the finals.
Perhaps even more impressive than the jump in the standings was how much they improved their goal differential from one season to the next.
During the 2009-10 campaign the Lightning were outscored by 43 goals over the course of the season, the third-worst mark in the league. In 2010-11, the Lightning actually outscored their opponents by seven goals, which was an improvement of 50 goals, the largest jump in the entire league. The second-best improvement belonged to Boston, which improved its differential by 45 goals (going from plus-6 to plus-51).
The 1-3-1 system of Boucher, an MVP-caliber season from Martin St. Louis, the continued development of Steven Stamkos and a number of astute additions (like the mid-season trade for goaltender Dwayne Roloson) helped the Lightning to score 30 more goals and allow 20 fewer than they did the previous year.
A team's goal differential is important. The more you outscore your opponents the more games you're going to win and the more points you're going to accumulate in the standings. Every team that made the playoffs this past season had a positive goal differential, and of the 16 teams, 10 of them outscored their opponents by at least 20 goals. I've found in recent years that tends to be the magic number to pretty much guarantee yourself a spot in the playoffs.
Since the 1999-00 season 113 teams have finished the regular season with a goal differential of plus-20 or better, with 111 of them qualifying for the playoffs. The only two clubs that didn't were the 2006-07 Avalanche, which missed the postseason by one point in the standings (every team that qualified ahead of them in the Western Conference had a better goal differential) and the 2000-01 Oilers, who missed by two points in the standings.
Over the past two offseasons I've taken the non-playoff teams and looked at how much of an improvement they needed to make in order to reach that magic number, and here's an updated list taking a look at last year's non-playoff team and how much they will need to improve to hit the plus-20 mark. Keep in mind, it is possible to make the playoffs with a mark worse than that, but we're just looking at what it's going to take to all but guarantee a trip to the postseason.
|Improving goal differential|
|Team||2010-11 Differential||Improvement Needed|
|St. Louis Blues||+6||+14|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||-33||+53|
|New Jersey Devils||-35||+55|
|New York Islanders||-35||+55|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||-43||+63|