6 NHL Teams Most Likely to Take a Huge Step Forward in 2012-13

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2012

6 NHL Teams Most Likely to Take a Huge Step Forward in 2012-13

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    In a perfect world, there's quite a bit of optimism in the State of Hockey.

    The Minnesota Wild organization decided that it was tired of having a team that finished on the outside looking in.

    The playoffs, they decided, was not just for other teams. They wanted to join the party.

    In early July, they signed prized free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. General manager Chuck Fletcher decided that the Wild were no longer going to be a Western Conference patsy and then went out and did something about it.

    There are several other teams that also want to think that when the 2012-13 season gets underway—make that a very big "if" due to labor uncertainties—they have made the right moves to help them climb in the standings. 

    Here's a look at six teams ready to take a huge step forward.

Carolina Hurricanes

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    The Carolina Hurricanes have failed to make the playoffs the last three years and in five of the last six seasons since they inexplicably won the Stanley Cup in the 2006 postseason.

    Last season may have been a turning point for the franchise. The Hurricanes were off to a lifeless start that saw them get out of the gate with a 14-23-7 mark.

    General manager Jim Rutherford couldn't take the depression that had attached itself to the franchise and he fired the Eeyore-like Paul Maurice and brought in Kirk Muller as head coach.

    Rutherford got the results he wanted from the coaching change as the Hurricane started to play spirited hockey and finished 33-33-16.

    That improvement showed that the Hurricanes had a workable team with Cam Ward in goal and Eric Staal leading the forwards.

    During the offseason, the Hurricanes brought Eric Staal's younger brother Jordan in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins and also signed free agent Alex Semin.

    The Hurricanes also brought in defensemen Joe Corvo and Marc-Andre Gragnani, while losing center Brandon Sutter and defenseman Bryan Allen.

    The addition of Jordan Staal should give the Hurricanes much greater offensive depth and make the Hurricanes a more responsible team. The Staals will give the team two signature leaders who won't allow teammates to take the easy way out.

    Look for the Hurricanes to challenge for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Edmonton Oilers

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    Go ahead and continue to bet against the Edmonton Oilers.

    Laugh at the fact that they have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons. Just write them off and dismiss them off.

    You will be making a huge mistake.

    This team is loaded with young talent. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov all have explosive scoring ability. Rookie free agent defenseman Justin Schultz was one of the most sought after prospects and he chose the Oilers.

    Devan Dubnyk is an improving goaltender but he must prove that he can get the job done with partner Nikolai Khabibulin.

    The key may be first-year head coach Ralph Krueger. He has to bring these players along quickly and develop their talent. He is a highly rated teacher who should be able to do it.

    The talent level on this team is high and they will challenge for a playoff spot. In upcoming seasons, far more will be expected from this once-elite franchise.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    The Tampa Bay Lightning took a hard fall last year after getting all the way to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011.

    They were a 1-0 loss away to the Boston Bruins from getting a shot at playing for the Stanley Cup. But last year, the defense fell apart and the Lightning finished eight points out of the playoffs.

    Don't bet on Tampa Bay missing the playoffs this year. Start off with the explosive talent of 60-goal scorer Steven Stamkos, who is in the prime of what should be a brilliant career. Shifty Martin St. Louis is still one of the most exciting players in the league and Vincent Lecavalier can score big goals and make key plays when the Lightning need him most.

    But the Lightning need offseason acquisitions Sami Salo and Matt Carle to shore up the defense and goalie Anders Lindback to solidify that vital position.

    Salo and Carle are top-4 defenders who can ease the burden on Victor Hedman. Lindback was Pekka Rinne's backup in Nashville and is a highly valued player. He has to turn potential into production this year. If he does, the Lightning will be back in the postseason again.

Minnesota Wild

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    The big splash was made in early July when the Minnesota Wild added Zach Parise from the Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey Devils and Ryan Suter from the Nashville Predators.

    That was the jolt that general manager Chuck Fletcher thought the team needed to get out of the malaise that has seen the Wild miss the playoffs for the last four seasons.

    Parise is a superstar who plays with energy, speed and the ability to turn momentum in the game with his relentless forechecking and his all-around skills. Suter is one of the top defensemen in the game.

    Head coach Mike Yeo must show he is up to the task. The Wild were off to a 20-8-7 start a year ago but injuries derailed them. If they can get a healthy season out of Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Devin Setoguchi, the Wild should be a playoff team this season.

Montreal Canadiens

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    The 2011-12 season was miserable for the Montreal Canadiens.

    Perhaps they never got over the Game 7 defeat in the 2011 playoff matchup with the Boston Bruins. Whatever the reason, the Canadiens finished 15th and dead-last in the Eastern Conference last year.

    There is reason to believe that the Canadiens will not finish last this year. There is reasonable hope they can contend for a playoff spot.

    Take a look at the recent past. Throw out last season and you will see that the Canadiens had four straight playoff appearances.

    The Canadiens are going at it with a new general manager in Marc Bergevin and a recycled head coach in Michel Therrien.

    The Canadiens have a pair of top scorers in Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. They also have talented P.K. Subban (for now) on defense and Carey Price in goal.

    They have added Brandon Prust from the New York Rangers and Francis Bouillon from the Nashville Predators for grit and toughness.

    The Canadiens will be nobody's pushover this year and could surprise a lot of NHL observers by sneaking into the playoffs.

Dallas Stars

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    The Dallas Stars may be the best non-playoff team in the NHL.

    That's a title they would like to dismiss immediately.

    The Stars were once a Western Conference powerhouse but they have missed the playoffs four straight seasons. They were in contention for a spot in the postseason up until the final week when they ran out of gas and ceded the No. 8 spot to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

    The Stars were busy in the offseason, adding Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney and Derek Roy to upgrade the offense.

    The Stars are also looking for another big year from Michael Ryder, who scored a career-high 35 goals last season.

    If Jagr and Whitney can hold up and Roy can stay off the injured list, the Stars will represent a significant challenge most nights.