Every year, there are hockey teams that just can't lose, and teams that just can't get out of the basement. But there are also teams on the verge, the ones who have endured years of losing, of rebuilding, of getting bad to get good who are about to break through and, perhaps, take that giant step into the playoffs. Two seasons ago, it was Boston and Washington. Last season, it was Chicago and Columbus. This year, it could be Atlanta and Los Angeles. We talked to three players who started with their now-humming teams when times were thin, and picked their brains about the differences between winning and losing clubs, and how to make the transition.
The Hawks had made the playoffs just once in 10 years, and had missed in five consecutive seasons, before last season's storybook run to the Western Conference Finals. Sharp was traded to Chicago by the Flyers in December of 2005. That season, the Hawks won just 26 games and finished second-to-last in the West.
The Capitals had missed the playoffs three years in a row before making the playoffs in 2008. Last season, they finished second in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the furthest they'd gone since losing in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998. Laich was traded to Washington by Ottawa in February 2004, a season in which the Capitals won just 23 games and finished fifth in the Southeast Division and second-to-last in the East.
The Blue Jackets squeaked into the playoffs last year for the first time since joining the NHL in 2000. Chimera was traded to Columbus by Phoenix in October of 2005. That season, the Blue Jackets finished 13th in the West.