The Stanley Cup has proven in recent years to be the most unpredictable of trophies.
Three of the past four Cup champions entered the season outside of the top five Vegas odds-on favorites. The 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings, in fact, began the campaign with 14-1 odds and the playoffs with 20-1 odds.
With an offseason of improvement behind them and plethora of young talent waiting in the wings, several NHL teams will enter the coming season hoping to be the surprise Cup victor of 2013-14. All four will hope to build upon their 2013 postseason appearances to make a deep run next spring.
Which franchises could be dark horses to win the Stanley Cup this year? We predict and break down four particularly strong candidates on the coming slides.
Note: Vegas odds are provided by Bovada, courtesy of OddsShark.com.
Current Stanley Cup Odds: 20-1
Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher has brought proven winners into Minnesota in droves lately.
Four of his last six significant acquisitions—Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Matt Cooke and Keith Ballard—all boast previous conference or Stanley Cup Final experience.
The Wild ended a four-year playoff drought by qualifying as the eighth seed in the West in 2013 but failed to make anything out of the opportunity. Promising youngsters Jonas Brodin, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter will all have another year of experience under their belts in 2013-14, however, adding a fresh dose of youthful energy to a club with plenty of veteran experience on both sides of the puck.
If Pominville can find a niche on the first line quickly and the coaching staff can resolve its goaltending concerns swiftly, Minnesota should be a team on the rise yet again this season.
Current Stanley Cup Odds: 33-1
If defense wins championships, the Islanders may never live up to recent expectations.
On paper, though, they're poised to explode into the NHL's elite in 2013-14.
New York is loaded with playmakers up front; no team had more players with 20 or more assists than the Isles' five last season, and the league's third-highest goal scorer (John Tavares) wasn't even one of them. The club ranked seventh in offense in the regular season and then single-handedly jeopardized Marc-Andre Fleury's career in their one playoff series.
On defense, Andrew MacDonald has quietly emerged as an unheralded top-pairing blueliner alongside veteran star Lubomir Visnovsky. Three up-and-coming players—Travis Hamonic, Thomas Hickey and Brian Strait—should help to ease the loss of team captain Mark Streit to Philadelphia.
With the sheer amount of young talent accumulated on the roster, the Islanders could be on the verge of transforming into the NHL's next true dynasty.
Current Stanley Cup Odds: 18-1
The Sharks have consistently been one of the best regular-season teams over the past decade, making the playoffs for nine consecutive springs and finishing first in the Pacific Division four of the past six years.
They've won just one Western Conference Final game over those nine campaigns, conversely, causing many experts to write them off a perennial postseason bust.
If San Jose is to shed that reputation in 2013-14, it will be because of a Conn Smythe-caliber performance from starting netminder Antti Niemi. The 29-year-old boasts a fantastic .917 career regular-season save percentage and an almost-as-good .909 postseason average, yet has failed to replicate his sparkling Cup-winning 2010 run since moving to the California coast.
The Sharks have all of the pieces—four first-line-caliber forwards in Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski; a defense laden with experience from top to bottom, from Dan Boyle to Marc-Edouard Vlasic to Brad Stuart; and an elite netminder with a Cup ring already on his finger.
Now they simply need to translate it into success in April, May and June.
Current Stanley Cup Odds: 33-1
Will the summer departures of longtime franchise cornerstones Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar doom the Senators in 2013-14?
No. Absolutely not.
In truth, few teams can put forth a roster as well-rounded as Ottawa still can on any given night.
The league's second-ranked defense, led by healthy former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and another young burgeoning superstar in Patrick Wiercioch, headlines the Senators' resume.
A top-tier goaltender by the name of Craig Anderson—one of North America's most consistent netminders for years—backs them up.
Meanwhile, offseason acquisition Bobby Ryan adds a new dimension to the underrated cast of forwards in Canada's capital. Alongside 2013 leading scorer Kyle Turris, regular contributor Jason Spezza and budding stars Mika Zibanejad, Cory Conacher, Colin Greening and Zack Smith, Ottawa's offense stands to be one of the NHL's most improved in 2013-14.
Don't be surprised if the Senators outshine both the East's most hyped new arrival (Detroit) and defending champion (Boston) next season.
Don't be surprised if the Senators take the Atlantic Division crown and one of the top two postseason seeds.
And don't be surprised if the Senators hoist the Stanley Cup come mid-June.
They're that good.