Everyone likes an underdog.
Well, almost everyone. The favorite who are having their collective lunch handed to them by the underdog probably isn't too fond of the "Cinderella" story. The Phoenix Coyotes were the darlings of last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Had they not run into the red-hot Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference finals, it could have been a bigger upset than the 8th-seeded Kings winning it all.
The meeting between the surprising Kings and even more surprising Coyotes capped a conference battlefield littered with upsets. The top-seeded Vancouver Canucks were stunned by the Kings in round one before eliminating the 2nd-seeded St. Louis Blues.
The Coyotes, unlikely winners of the Pacific Division, allowed only two goals over their final five games in the regular season to swipe the third seed in the west. They took out a talented Chicago team in the first round and blew past Nashville in the conference semifinals. The precarious financial status of the desert dogs made them sentimental favorites as their days in Arizona appeared to be numbered at the time.
With the 2013 season ready to kick off this weekend, all 30 teams will be geared up for the 48-game dash to the postseason. Teams like Columbus, Edmonton and the New York Islanders aren't quite used to being tied for first place at this time of year, but don't count them out when the puck drops. Here's a look at the 10 underdogs that could steal the headlines this season. Enjoy now!
What seems to be a trendy pick among some of the experts, the Edmonton Oilers might still need some time to grow together. The core of their young, high-octane offense got some time to work on their chemistry with Oklahoma City in the AHL, but it is the defensive end of the ice that has question marks for the Oilers.
A shorter season could possibly benefit the young Oilers who sprinted out of the blocks last year before injuries and inexperience caught up with them. A gaggle of first-round draft picks will key the offense for the fast track at Rexall Place. Rookie defenseman Justin Schultz impressed with Oklahoma City, but will he be ready for prime time? In net, is Devan Dubnyk the answer in goal?
These are questions that the Oilers need to have correct answers for if they want to have a chance of making it to the playoffs. If Edmonton wants to swim in the deep end with the Western Conference heavyweights, this will be the year to take their "Floaties" off.
If you think that the New York Rangers got the best of Columbus in the blockbuster Rick Nash trade—well, you're probably right. That being said, it's not like the Columbus Blue Jackets got back practice pucks and a couple of old wooden sticks in return.
The Blue Jackets have only three players on the roster over the age of 30 which could support the theory that they might be too young to know that they are supposed to be terrible. The strength of the Blue Jackets will lie in a stronger team defense this year as the Jackets turn to former Philadelphia Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky to be the answer in goal.
Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski will lead the youngsters into the fray of the Central Division where they will certainly be favorites to take out the trash in the cellar. These Jackets will have some sting though (see what I did there?) and will make for an annoying matchup with everyone. The loss of their superstar will bring the locker room a little closer together and galvanize the team.
Don't laugh, but the best player in New York that doesn't wear goalie pads plays on Long Island (for now). John Tavares is emerging as a top five player in the NHL and will be a leader among men to restore some glory to the lowly Islanders.
They won't win the Stanley Cup this year and might not make it out of the basement in a stacked Atlantic Division. Tavares will continue to establish himself as a dominant player in the east, and can inspire the New York Islanders to make a legitimate push to the postseason.
Evgeni Nabokov will need to steal a game or two along the way, and the frisky young Islanders can make some noise.
The popular theory these days is that Roberto Luongo is going to swoop in and own the Toronto goaltending position whenever a trade can be worked out for the embattled Vancouver backstop. In the mean time, the two favorites contending for the position are Ben Scrivens and James Reimer.
One of the Toronto Maple Leafs' biggest opportunities coming into this season was addressing their goaltending. Only Tampa Bay gave up more goals per game than Toronto last year. Brian Burke was unwilling to look elsewhere, instead turning to his own personnel for the fix. That decision may well have cost Burke his job as he was fired before Leafs camp began this past weekend.
In limited action last year with the parent club in Toronto, Scrivens was mediocre at best going 4-5-2 with a 3.13 goals against and a .902 save percentage. Reimer had a sensational rookie season with the Maple Leafs two years ago, but hasn't been the same since Brian Gionta crashed into him early last season. He showed flashes late last season before a neck injury finished his year.
The Leafs have the answer in camp already. If Reimer is right, he will show it early and can be a stud in the NHL. Scrivens was excellent in the AHL, and will need some time to get used to the timing of the NHL. If Toronto wants to get back to the playoffs, they need to leave Roberto Luongo alone.
It may sound strange to list the defending Southeast Division champs as an underdog, but no one expects them to do anything this year either. It's a mistake to underestimate Miami's hockey team, which got some toughness (George Parros), some veteran defense (Filip Kuba) and some mustache (Parros again).
Alex Kovalev is in camp for a tryout, and has been used on a line with Florida Panthers' prospect Jonathan Huberdeau early in training camp. Second year head coach Kevin Dineen will lean hard on the "no respect" angle to motivate his team. The Panthers will look to avoid a sophomore slump with Dineen and build on the style of play that brought them success a year ago.
The good news for the Miami hockey fans is that the Panthers have a bundle of young talent to supplement the veterans on the roster. Young goalie Jacob Markstrom will push veterans Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore for playing time. Huberdeau's transition to the NHL will be interesting to watch after tearing up the QMJHL for Saint John's.
It's certainly not hard to feel good for the city of Winnipeg. After losing their franchise to Phoenix in 1996, the NHL brought the Atlanta Thrashers to Manitoba. Of course the only logical name for their "new" franchise was the Jets, and so began a new love affair with the NHL.
The main problem with the transplanted Winnipeg Jets is that they inherited Atlanta's flight schedule, meaning that they were still stuck in the Southeast Division. That's a road weary team logging a lot of travel time by the end of the year, and the team seemed to do just that at the end of last season.
A shorter season means fewer road games, less travel and more energy for a playoff push. Goalie Ondrej Pavelec took turns being spectacular and awful last season. The Jets have a long term deal invested in him so he appears to be their choice in net. Marque signing Olli Jokinen joins the fold and will give the Jets strength up the middle.
Until realignment occurs, the Jets have to play the cards they have been dealt. With the mediocrity in their division, it is possible that the Winnipeg Jets could be your 2013 Southeast Division champs.
After a dismal start last year, the Anaheim Ducks parted ways with Randy Carlyle and brought in Bruce Boudreau. The move seemed to jump start the team for a while, but they ultimately fell short of the playoffs. Under-performing star players and Jonas Hiller's vertigo took the fall for the Ducks' failures.
A fresh start with Boudreau at the helm could be just what Anaheim needs. Hiller seems to have fully recovered and the two of the aforementioned "underperformers" are in a contract year. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf could be two of the most coveted free agents if they aren't resigned by Anaheim, so this is their year to shine.
Perry is just one year removed from an MVP season, but couldn't find his groove last year. Bobby Ryan is back in the flock after some contentious banter over the summer. Teemu Selanne returns for his swan (or duck) song in Anaheim as he wraps up a Hall of Fame career. The Ducks are full of talent, including young hopefuls Emerson Etem and Devante Smith-Pelly.
Don't be surprised if coach Boudreau has them looking like the high-scoring Washington Capitals from a few years ago with all the talent on his roster. Most people have the Ducks on the outside of the playoffs looking in. I feel they will push Los Angeles and San Jose for a Pacific Division title and are a lock for the postseason.
Calling the Phoenix Coyotes underdogs is like calling their ownership history unstable. Obviously a team located deep in the southwest with a not-so-loyal fan base is bound to thrive on the "us against the world" mentality preached by coach Dave Tippett. With the ownership stabilized (for now), it appears the Coyotes will be in town for a while.
It is a formula that has worked well for Tippett since he assumed the reins of the Coyotes. Look for more of the same as Phoenix will be all in with the team-first style of play. Shane Doan is back after a lengthy contract haggle, and goalkeeper Mike Smith will show that last year's stellar effort was more than just a one hit wonder.
Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman rolled the dice a bit by trading for Nashville backup Anders Lindback as the Tampa goalie remedy. The big Swede (6'6") had a small sample size of only 38 NHL games as the backup to Pekka Rinne, but Yzerman saw something in the 24-year old.
The Lightning spent the offseason shoring up the defense from a dismal 2011-12 season by adding veterans Matt Carle and Sami Salo to the blue line. The biggest key to the Tampa Bay revival will be Lindback though. There is offense everywhere in Tampa, but the ability to keep pucks out of their own net will make the Lightning relevant.
A team that many believe could be another year or two away from making some noise in the west are the Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche are ready to challenge for a playoff spot this year. They were knocking on the door last year while their two resident stars Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny were suffering through down years and still just missed out.
Calder Trophy winner Gabriel Landeskog was named captain over the summer making him the youngest captain in league history. Duchene and Stastny will rebound and the tandem of J.S. Giguere and Semyon Varlamov will continue to perform in goal. Free agent winger P.A. Parenteau is a nice pickup and will complement one of the top two lines in Denver.
Defensively the Avalanche aren't spectacular, but have three solid pairs to roll out. Colorado is my dark horse to contend in the west and could push Vancouver.