NHL Predictions: 4 Dark Horse Teams That Will Surprise in 2011-12
The 2011-12 NHL regular season is only one week away, and out of the 14 teams who missed the playoffs last season the following four teams seem ready to surprise.
They might not have a shot at the Stanley Cup, but they used the offseason to improve their roster, which will put them in the hunt for one of the eight postseason spots in their conference.
These four teams have the potential of causing some trouble and upsets.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs will return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
The Original Six franchise acquired former Buffalo Sabres center Tim Connolly, who could solve the team’s lack of offense at his position.
The 10-year veteran will form Toronto’s top line together with wingers Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel.
Besides the team’s struggle at the center position, the Leafs also allowed 251 goals last season, which ranked 26th in the league.
The team has, with goaltender James Reimer, a talented young man between the pipes who could develop into one of the league's top netminders.
The Maple Leafs are on their way back to the top.
The Carolina Hurricanes missed the playoffs by two points last season, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference. The 2006 Stanley Cup champions have a talented team that could make a deep playoff run.
The Hurricanes signed defenseman Tomas Kaberle from the Boston Bruins during the offseason. He will not only improve the team’s defense, but also contribute to the offense, coming off back-to-back 40-plus assist seasons.
The undisputed leader of the Hurricanes is center Eric Staal, who had another productive year with 33 goals and 43 assists.
Carolina has, with 2011 NHL Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner, another highly productive center.
The Hurricanes will return to the playoffs and might have a shot at another Stanley Cup finals appearance.
St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues have the right pieces in place and seem destined for a playoff return after a decade of irrelevance.
They have Jaroslav Halak, a goaltender who had a career-high seven shutouts last season, and a dramatically improved offense that includes returning forward T.J. Oshie.
The Blues also added veterans Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to the roster. They will not only contribute on the ice, but also function as leaders off the ice.
St. Louis plays in a division with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks; therefore it will struggle to reach the playoffs.
However, the team of head coach Davis Payne seems to be on the right track.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Another Central division team that seems ready for a playoff run is the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In one of the biggest offseason trades, the Blue Jackets acquired former Philadelphia Flyers forward Jeff Carter.
They also signed former Montreal Canadiens defenseman James Wisniewski, who scored seven power-play goals last season.
Both players should help Columbus’ struggling offense, which only scored 215 goals last season, ranking them 25th in the league.
A big question mark is behind goaltender Steve Mason. After his stand-out rookie season, the 23-year-old has struggled over the last two seasons with a goal-against average of over three.
If Mason finds his form of three seasons ago, and superstar Rick Nash continues to put up 30-30 seasons, the Blue Jackets should be in the hunt for a playoff spot.