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NHL Season 2013: 6 Biggest Sleeper Teams That Will Contend in 2013

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2013

NHL Season 2013: 6 Biggest Sleeper Teams That Will Contend in 2013

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    The chances of a surprise team jumping up and becoming a contender would seem to be greater in a shortened NHL season with a very limited training camp than in so-called "normal" years.

    However, that may not be the case.

    During the 1994-95 strike season, the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup after losing the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games the year before. They defeated the Detroit Red Wings in four straight games, and the Wings were no flukes either. They had won the Central Division title the year before.

    Interestingly, 15 of the 16 teams that made the postseason in 1994-95 also made it the season before. That could mean that it is actually less likely for a team to rise to contender status.

    Here's a look at six teams that have a shot at moving up the ladder to either Stanley Cup or playoff contender.

Ottawa Senators

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    The Senators were an awful team in 2010-11, but they made a huge jump under Paul McLean last year and finished as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

    The Senators pushed the New York Rangers to a seventh game before bowing out.

    They were not a fluke team and they got much better as the season progressed.

    The Senators have the best offensive defenseman in the league in Norris Trophy-winning Erik Karlsson and a solid core of veterans led by Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek.

    The Senators were a surprise playoff team last year. They could be a lot more than that this season.

Minnesota Wild

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    The Minnesota Wild have missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons.

    They have attempted to change that by "winning" the offseason when they signed free-agent superstars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

    These two players will face significant pressure as they attempt to make the Wild one of the NHL's best franchises.

    They should also be joined by prized rookie Mikael Granlund this year.

    The Wild are not going to win the Stanley Cup this year, but they should end their playoff drought. The team responded well in the early going to Mike Yeo's coaching last year before they slowed down in the second half of the season.

    The talent level is much higher this year and the Wild will earn a spot in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Don't sleep on the Tampa Bay Lightning this year.

    The team may have taken a long nap last year as head coach Guy Boucher's squad did not earn a playoff spot, but this team will not finish on the outside looking in this year.

    There is simply too much talent. Led by Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Victor Hedman, the Lightning have a good chance to reprise their 2010-11 showing.

    That year, the Lightning rolled to the Eastern Conference Finals and pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to the seventh game before dropping a scintillating 1-0 decision.

    The Lightning are good enough to do that again this season.

Edmonton Oilers

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    It should be just a matter of time before the Edmonton Oilers become legitimate NHL title contenders again.

    That probably won't happen this year because the young stars on offense are still in the process of maturing and the defense is questionable. However, they will make the playoffs and show off flashes of what kind of team they will eventually become.

    Jordan Eberle is already a star and there should be no stopping Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner. Nail Yakupov will flash his talent as well and young defenseman Justin Schultz will eventually become a star.

    This will be one of the most exciting teams in the league.

Carolina Hurricanes

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    The Carolina Hurricanes have become one of the more forgettable franchises in the NHL since winning the Stanley Cup in shocking fashion in 2005-06.

    Since that glorious moment, the Hurricanes have failed to make the playoffs in five of the following six seasons.

    But general manager Jim Rutherford was not willing to see his team continue to struggle. The Hurricanes acquired Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the offseason to play with brother Eric Staal, and those two have a chance to dominate together.

    The Hurricanes have solid depth on defense and a goaltender in Cam Ward who is capable of stopping the best offenses.

    If Ward plays consistently, the Hurricanes have a chance to make the playoffs and possibly steal a playoff series or two.

Colorado Avalanche

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    The Colorado Avalanche were fighting for a playoff spot well into the last month of the 2011-12 season.

    The young Avs faded down the stretch, losing six of their last seven games. They gave up a spot in the playoffs, but they have the kind of talent that could make them a sleeper team in 2013.

    Their best player is Gabriel Landeskog, who scored 22 goals and 30 assists as a rookie. He is at his best when the game is on the line. Landeskog scored five game-winning goals last year.

    Ryan O'Reilly is a restriced free agent, but he will be back. He scored a team-high 55 points.

    The biggest question for the Avs surrounds their goaltending. Head coach Joe Sacco is hoping Semyon Varlamov or J.S. Giguere can hold up their end of the deal so the Avs can win a spot in the playoffs.

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