10 NHL Teams That Will Challenge for the Stanley Cup in 2012

Adam Rickert@adam_rickertAnalyst IIDecember 29, 2011

10 NHL Teams That Will Challenge for the Stanley Cup in 2012

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    The Stanley Cup is the most prized trophy in sports.

    Players dream of being able to raise the Cup over their heads, having been crowned champions after a season-long grind and getting their names etched into hockey lore forever.

    Continuing with the trend of sports predictions for the coming year, I will review the 10 teams that I believe have the best chance of getting their hands on Lord Stanley's Cup.

10. Dallas Stars

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    There are some teams that I left out of this list that I could have put here instead of the Dallas Stars.

    But, I believe that the Stars may be one of those teams like the 2010 Flyers or the 2004 Flames that could turn some heads in the playoffs.

    This team is hungry after losing out on a playoff berth the last game of the season last year, and the Stars are showing that they want redemption.

    Jamie Benn is becoming a superstar, Loui Eriksson and Michael Ryder have been terrific, and Sheldon Souray is making an unbelievable comeback.

    The team has been in somewhat of a funk lately, but the return of Kari Lehtonen will be a huge boost as the Stars try to prove that they are for real.

9. St. Louis Blues

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    The St. Louis Blues should probably be ranked higher than this, but they need to prove that they can win in the playoffs, if they can get there for only the second time since the lockout.

    The defense and goaltending has been phenomenal, but the inconsistent offense could use some help.

    St. Louis does not seem to have enough experience to win the Cup, but a trade for a dynamic forward to boost the offense could definitely propel them near the top of the conference.

8. San Jose Sharks

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    The San Jose Sharks are a great hockey team with one of the best fanbases in the league.

    Year in and year out, the Sharks seem to have the experience and talent necessary to win the Cup, but they can never find a way to get past the Western Conference Final.

    The reason that the Sharks are so low on this list is that I believe that last year's team was better than this year's, and the Sharks still need to find better offensive replacements for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.

7. Philadelphia Flyers

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    Despite being this low on the list, I believe the Philadelphia Flyers have a very good chance of playing hockey in June.

    Claude Giroux may be the best player in the league right now, and this team is scoring a lot more than I expected them to at the beginning of the year.

    However, several problems still need to be addressed.

    The injury of Chris Pronger will hurt come playoff time, and the team will need to find a replacement or it may have trouble facing some of the other Eastern Conference powerhouses.

    Also, fans still do not seem to have much confidence in Ilya Bryzgalov, and a clutch goaltender is crucial in order to win the Stanley Cup.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins have definitely shown that they can win without Sidney Crosby.

    In the regular season.

    With that being said, they are still one of the top teams in hockey, and James Neal and a healthy Evgeni Malkin will definitely help them come playoff time.

    There is also the possibility that Crosby could be back for the playoffs, automatically making Pittsburgh one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

    Until then, however, we will see how things play out in an ultra-competitive Eastern Conference.

5. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Before anyone calls me out on putting the Chicago Blackhawks this low, take a look back at last season.

    This is basically the same team that made the playoffs on the last day of the year. The Hawks are first in the Western Conference right now, but they were near the top during much of the season last year as well and eventually found themselves battling for a return to the playoffs come April.

    With that being said, Chicago has the best top six in hockey in my opinion, especially due to the contributions of Viktor Stalberg to go along with superstars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.

    The problem is that the goaltending situation has been a huge dilemma, the defense has been below average and the third and fourth lines are not very deep.

    If the top six tire later on because of their efforts in the first half, I have trouble seeing the third and fourth lines stepping up and picking up the team.

4. Vancouver Canucks

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    The Vancouver Canucks have a great shot at winning their second consecutive Western Conference title.

    They can score, hit, fight, skate; you name it.

    The flaw that I see in this team is that I still don't trust Roberto Luongo in a clutch playoff situation. Yes, Vancouver went to the Stanley Cup Final last season, but Luongo showed great signs of weakness and inconsistency, especially on the road.

3. Boston Bruins

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    In my opinion, the Boston Bruins have the best shot at back-to-back Stanley Cups of any defending champion since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

    They still have all of the tools that they had during their Stanley Cup run last season, and they have proven that they are still the team to beat in hockey.

    I have them this low on the list simply because of the fact that repeating as Stanley Cup championships is one of the most difficult things to do in sports and because of the grind of two grueling playoff runs.

    This is the team that everyone wants to beat, and any miscue can cause trouble come playoff time.

2. Detroit Red Wings

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    The Detroit Red Wings have proven, year in and year out, that they are always a threat to win the Stanley Cup.

    I firmly believe that this year's team is the best team out of Detroit since the 2008 Stanley Cup champions, and the incredible forward and defensive depth could help them raise a 12th banner to the rafters of Joe Louis Arena.

    Detroit's current problem is winning road games: They are a remarkable 14-2-1 at home and 9-10-0 on the road.

    With experienced stars like Nicklas Lidstrom and a smart coach in Mike Babcock, I believe that the Wings will find a solution to this problem and again return to the top of the standings.

1. New York Rangers

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    At the beginning of the year, I said that the key to the New York Rangers' success was the health of Marian Gaborik.

    He currently leads the NHL with 22 goals, and the Rangers are a point out of first place in the Eastern Conference.

    Obviously, Gaborik is not the only reason for this team's success. The youth and depth at every position are key contributors, as well as Henrik Lundqvist, who is the league's best goalie in my opinion.

    This team has the perfect combination of youth, experience and star power. Once Marc Staal returns, the Rangers will be have their best shot at the championship in 18 years.