8 Under-the-Radar NHL Teams Ready to Make a Run for the Stanley Cup
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A year ago, the Los Angeles Kings were not even in the discussion for the Stanley Cup.
Perhaps they were an afterthought. Once the discussion got past the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators, the Kings might have been in the discussion.
However, nobody took them seriously.
It didn't matter if they were in the discussion, because they proved it on the ice.
This year, a number of teams could rise from the level of non-playoff teams or first-round losers to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
Here's our look at eight under-the-radar teams that could be ready to surprise people and make a run at the Stanley Cup.
Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson gives the Ottawa offense credibility.
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The Ottawa Senators became one of the feel-good stories in 2011-12. This year, they have a chance to have an even greater impact.
The Senators were awful in 2010-11, but they responded well to head coach Paul MacLean and they became a playoff team last year. After challenging the Boston Bruins for first place in the Northeast Division, they ended up second in the division and earned the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
They pushed the top-seeded Rangers hard in a seven-game playoff series before bowing out. The Senators should have a balanced offensive attack with Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson giving the offense added flair from the blue line. Karlsson finished with 19 goals and 59 assists, and his 78 points were right behind Jason Spezza, who had 84.
Milan Michalek had a 35-goal season and Daniel Alfredsson is still a key part of the offense. If players like Kyle Turris and Colin Greening can step up, the Sens have a chance to become even more dangerous on offense.
Craig Anderson is a good goaltender, but the acquisition of Ben Bishop has the potential to turn goaltending into a strength. Bishop starred in the St. Louis Blues' system but had no chance to move up because of the presence of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. Bishop has the size and reactions to dominate in goal. If he does, the Senators have a chance to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
The Sabres have a long way to go after missing the playoffs, but if they get the breaks, Ryan Miller has a stellar year in goal and Steve Ott brings toughness to this organization, the Sabres could gain momentum and become a threat in the playoffs.
The Sabres got off to a terrible start last year and made a big move after the all-star break before falling short of the playoffs. However, there was a time they looked quite dangerous and if they had made the playoffs, they could have been in a position to survive and advance because of the presence of Miller.
At his best, Miller is capable of dominating in goal. If Thomas Vanek can stay healthy, he is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league. Vanek has a brilliant shot and he scored 26 goals last year. Vanek has scored 30 or more in four of the last six seasons.
One thing the Sabres could use is more drive and desire. That's why they traded skilled center Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars for Ott, a pugnacious sort who will not allow his teammates to sit back and take it.
If Ott is a good fit, you could see the Sabres as a team that brings it to its opponents instead of waiting for opponents to deliver that elbow to the chops.
That could make them a surprise contender in 2012-13.
Erik Cole is one of the key components of the Montreal offense.
A quick look at the standings revealed that the Montreal Canadiens were 15th and dead last in the Eastern Conference last season.
However, this is not a team without key assets. They have a couple of excellent goal scorers in Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty, a potential star on the blue line in P.K. Subban and a goaltender who can impose his will in Carey Price.
This team has gone through two coaching changes in the past year and a major move in the front office. Marc Bergevin is the team's new general manager and he has brought the team more grit with the signings of Brandon Prust and Francis Bouillon. He also hired head coach Michel Therrien to bring stability behind the bench.
A lingering problem is the presence of slothful Scott Gomez on the roster. It's hard to find another hockey player who gives his employers less bang for the buck. The Canadiens have to find a way to rid themselves of this albatross who scored two goals and nine assists last season.
It's probably something of a longshot, but if the Canadiens can get off to a good start they can erase the memories of last year's horror show and become a force once again.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Marty St. Louis continues to make magical plays with the puck on his stick.
The Tampa Bay Lightning finished out of the playoffs last year.
However, in 2010-11, the Lightning made it to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals where they were defeated by the Boston Bruins in a 1-0 classic.
The Bruins went on to win the Stanley Cup. If the Lightning had been able to solve Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, they might have hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2011.
The team that fell short two years ago is a lot more likely to show up than the one that failed to qualify for the postseason last year.
They have one of the league's top-three players in Steven Stamkos, who is coming off a 60-goal season. He should be at or near that level this season. Marty St. Louis is clever, quick and productive. Vinny Lecavalier is still good enough to score important goals at key moments.
The Lightning have to solve some of their defensive woes if they are going to become a legitimate contender. Tampa Bay acquired goalie Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators in the offseason and Steve Yzerman is hopeful that Lindback can turn potential into production and become a dependable goalie capable of leading the team to the heights (source: ESPN.com).
Kirk Muller is a hands-on coach who gets his message across to his players.
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However, the Hurricanes and general manager Jim Rutherford have been busy in the offseason. They acquired Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins and will team him with his brother Eric Staal. The Hurricanes also signed free-agent forward Alex Semin away from the Washington Capitals.
Staal is a potential all-star who can get the job done on the defensive end, dominate in the face-off circle and also put the puck in the net. Semin is enigmatic, but if he is on his game, he can score a ton of highlight-film goals.
Head coach Kirk Muller brings a much more positive attitude than predecessor Paul Maurice, who regularly had a down-in-the-dumps attitude and projected a "Why Me" persona.
The Hurricanes may have finished out of the playoffs last year, but they did have their moments. They swept their four-game series with the Boston Bruins last year, showing they have the talent to compete with the best teams in the league.
Ryan Suter and Zach Parise should raise the level of play in Minnesota.
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The Minnesota Wild should be a much-improved team in 2012-13. A playoff berth seems quite likely given the offseason additions. Maybe even winning a round in the postseason.
However, going further than that would take a sensational effort.
The Minnesota Wild wanted to take a huge step up and join the big boys during the offseason. General manager Chuck Fletcher turned those dreams into reality when he signed Zach Parise away from the New Jersey Devils and Ryan Suter from the Nashville Predators.
Parise is one of the best and hardest working superstars in the NHL. He has superior quickness and instincts and an indomitable attitude. As long as he stays healthy, he should be a 35-to-40 goal scorer. Suter is a solid defenseman with good offensive skills.
These two players will need plenty of help if the Wild are going to make the big climb up the ladder. However, they have their stars and new hope, and the team may have an opportunity to become a postseason factor in the Western Conference.
The Oilers have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons.
That's a fact.
It's also a fact that they have been stockpiling talent and they have some of the most exciting young players in the league. With Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov leading the way, who is to say that this won't be the year that the Oilers put it together and not only make the playoffs, but become one of the dominant teams in the Western Conference?
That looks like an improbability, but when young talent matures it can have a dramatic impact. Eberle is the most developed of the young players and he is coming off a 34-goal, 42-assist season. He should continue to improve and if Hall can stay healthy, he could be a 40-plus goal scorer.
Nugent-Hopkins has a chance to become one of the best playmakers and Yakupov has explosive speed. If it all happens this year, the Oilers could become one of the most exciting and powerful teams in the league.
Michael Ryder gives the Stars the ability to score goals in bunches.
The Stars are going for it this season after missing the playoffs the last four years.
There is no youth movement in Dallas. General manager Joe Nieuwendyk has brought in Ray Whitney from the Phoenix Coyotes and Jaromir Jagr from the Philadelphia Flyers. Both free agents have passed their 40th birthdays.
The Stars also traded gritty forward Steve Ott to the Buffalo Sabres for highly skilled Derek Roy. They may not have some of the nastiness they had in the past, but if Roy fits in well in his new environment, he could become a prominent scorer.
The Stars got a lift from Michael Ryder, who scored a career-high 35 goals last year.
A good start seems essential this year because of the presence of so many older players. If that happens, the Stars could be in a position to shock the NHL world.