NHL Predictions 2011-12: 6 Dark-Horse Stanley Cup Candidates
Why talk about the same powerhouse teams making a run for the Stanley Cup every year when we all already know everything there is to know about them? The Sharks are good but they choke, the Capitals need to be more playoff ready, is Sidney Crosby ready to play? The Red Wings are too old, and on and on
It's far more fun and interesting to spark a conversation about the fringe teams that look poised to ruin those powerhouse teams' dreams and skate away with the Cup in 2012. Last year, the Boston Bruins looked good, but they didn't look like Stanley Cup winners. In the NHL as long as you make it into the playoffs, you're team has a pretty good chance of going the distance—it's been proven time and time again.
Check out the Top 3 candidates from each conference to make a major push for glory.
Toronto Maple Leafs
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The Maple Leafs struggled defensively last season, finishing 25th in the league in goals against, and they just didn't have the offensive firepower to make up for it.Despite these struggles the Leafs still finished just eight points shy of making the playoffs.
The team has managed to find a few answers to both of their problems from last year by bringing in John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson on the blue line, Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly at forward and James Reimer at goaltender.
Liles and Reimer replace the underachieving Brett Lebda and Jean-Sebastian Giguere. Connolly will likely take over the role of top line center between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, while Lombardi looks to be an improvement as the third line center.
With these additions this young Toronto team looks like a sure-fire playoff team that will be a tough out for anyone they face.
St. Louis Blues
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The Blues finished 10 points out of the playoffs last year, while struggling to deal with some key injuries throughout the season. Everyone but David Perron is healthy now and the team has has solved its dearth of experience by making some signings via free agency.
Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott and Scott Nichol have been welcomed to St. Louis, and despite their advanced age the team feels like their playoff experience is invaluable to a team that has been on the brink of a breakout season for a while now.
It's always going to be tough to make the playoffs in a division with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, but as long as the Blues can avoid the injury struggles of yesteryear, they can still force their way into the tourney and make some noise.
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The Hurricanes are a highly talented, very young team that played some topsy-turvy hockey last season en route to a ninth place finish in the Eastern Conference. Everyone will be focusing on 19-year-old Jeff Skinner, who, after winning the Calder Trophy last season, will look to further improve over the next handful of years.
Skinner has the look of a star in the making and should prove helpful in making the Hurricanes very strong down the middle with Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter. The team's two main offseason acquisitions were Tomas Kaberle and Alex Ponikarovsky, who look like definite improvements to the very young roster.
Several times last season, Cam Ward stood on his head, as they say, between the pipe to give his team a fighting chance in every game. As long as Ward is able to duplicate his efforts in the upcoming year, Carolina should prepare for a deep postseason run.
Los Angeles Kings
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The Kings have made the playoffs the last two seasons and were an extremely tough out for the San Jose Sharks in the first round last year. The team is still struggling to sign restricted free-agent defenseman Drew Doughty, who is absolutely vital to the team's success.
Even so, the team should be able to play well enough to stay in contention for a playoff spot until Doughty is signed. The Kings have made some major additions during the offseason, mainly trading for Mike Richards and signing Ethan Moreau. The two will provide valuable playoff experience, scoring talent and toughness to the lineup.
Whenever the team finally does come to an agreement with Doughty, Los Angeles could be looking at a true Stanley Cup favorite when the playoffs roll around.
New York Rangers
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The New York Rangers just squeaked past the Carolina Hurricanes to take the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference. They were an extremely tough team to crack defensively, finishing fifth in the league in goals against.
Captain Chris Drury retired this season after having his contract bought out, in the meantime the Rangers signed free agency's crown jewel Brad Richards to become the team's first line center. The team hopes the addition of Richards, among other signings, will help pick up the team's offense to push them further into the playoff tussle.
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The Ducks are a team that scare all the other teams in the Western Conference every time they make the playoffs. They are a team that typically ekes their way through the season, makes the playoffs and becomes a serious threat to win the Stanley Cup.
The Ducks play with a swagger that is conducive to playoff-style hockey. They have the grit, toughness and a top scoring line that is able to carry them through a series. The main problem that Anaheim has is taking too many penalties and aging.
Goaltender Ray Emery has improved his play and solidified the team's situation between the pipes and the team appears to have finally gelled after a bit of an overhaul in recent seasons. When the Ducks are able to play their trademark gritty style and have the right amount of skilled players to take advantage of opposing teams' mistakes, they are easily the toughest out in either conference.