NHL Preview: 5 Underestimated Teams Heading into the 2011-12 Season
With the season a few days away fans, media and all the talking heads are busy making their predictions for the 2011-2012 NHL season. We all know the favorites by now.
Nobody is going to be surprised by the Bruins, Canucks, Red Wings, Capitals, Sharks, Blackhawks and their ilk. Big things are expected out of the league's front-runners.
But what about the teams that nobody is really talking about? The teams that have been down and everyone just assumes will stay that way.
It would be easy to say the 16 teams that made the playoffs this year are going to again.
Since that rarely ever happens it is safe to say there are some teams that are being underestimated will make it.
Who are those teams?
Here are five teams that are being underestimated this season and could end up making some noise during the 2011-2012 NHL campaign.
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The Hurricanes missed out on the playoffs last year by losing on the last day of the season. Looking ahead to this season they are not getting a lot of attention.
People forget that this team is just a couple of season away from making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, which they did in 2008-2009. They still have a lot of the key pieces from that team in place.
In net Cam Ward is as good as it gets and has been a work horse for Carolina putting up a .923 save percentage last year. He played a ton of minutes and the Hurricanes brought in Brian Boucher to give him a bit of relief this year.
The Hurricanes will be led offensively by Eric Staal, Calder Award winner Jeff Skinner and youngster Zach Boychuck this year. If Boychuck can prove he belongs on a top line the Hurricanes won’t miss Erik Cole, who left as a free agent.
Carolina picked up defenseman Tomas Kaberle who was some what of a disappointment in Boston, but should help bolster the Carolina power play.
There is no reason to believe that the Hurricanes can’t push for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They were one game away from it last year. Of all the teams that missed the playoffs last year Carolina may be the best bet to get back in this season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
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The Blue Jackets have made the playoffs once in their existence and it will be an uphill struggle to do so this year. That being said there is reason to believe.
Columbus has been home for Rick Nash, perhaps the least heralded star in the NHL, and the thought has always been that he needs a quality center to play with.
The Blue Jackets finally have attempted to address that by bringing in Jeff Carter to play center with Nash. Will that line become deadly?
Time will tell if the Carter move is enough to lift the Blue Jackets.
They weren’t done with bringing in players however. The Blue Jackets brought in defenseman James Wisniewski and his 51 points to help their woeful power play and provide more scoring from the back end.
With all these moves the Blue Jackets fate may ultimately land at the skates of goalie Steve Mason. After an impressive rookie season in 2008-2009 where he posted a sub three goals against average and .916 save percentage Mason has regressed.
Last year his goals against was 3.03 and his save percentage was a low .901. That will need to improve if the Blue Jackets want to have a chance.
Columbus is in a tough division but if Mason can rebound they will tough to deal with in 2011-2012.
New York Islanders
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The Islanders have been hockey’s black hole for quite some time. Once a powerful dynasty in the ‘80’s the Islanders have not really been heard from since.
New York was hoping to land a new arena deal, which was voted down, and there now is some uncertainty to the team’s future on Long Island.
On the ice, it has been easy to write them off when talking about the playoffs. Can that change this year? Last year’s team finished in 14th in the East, but played well down the stretch.
The Islanders were easily the most injured team last season playing most of the season without Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo.
New York can score goals. They are led by superstar-in-the-making John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner. Add a healthy Okposo and the Islanders will be able to hang with most teams.
For the Islanders to make the playoffs they will have to solve their mess on defense and in net. Having Streit back healthy this year will help solidify a blue line that was ravaged by injury last season.
Then there is the goalie situation. Last season Al Montoya started 18 games but looked sharp and may end up being the Islanders number one guy this year. Rick DiPietro is still signed, and will be for the end of time, but his injury history is well documented and shouldn’t be counted on to lead the team.
Lurking out there as a wild card in the goalie situation is Evgeni Nabokov, who has agreed to give the Islanders a try after all. Who knows what he still has left in the tank.
The Islanders fortunes will come down to health and defense. If both can improve they have the guns to compete in the East.
St. Louis Blues
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Is there a team that flies under the radar more than the St. Louis Blues? A franchise that once made the playoffs each year from 1980-2004 has seen its share of struggles in recent times.
St. Louis is one of those teams that always seems on the verge of taking that next step and then doesn’t, for whatever reason. Last season they brought in Montreal playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to play goal and it looked like the Blues were on their way.
They got lost along the way due to some injuries, inconsistency and struggled to stay in the heated Western Conference race.
If healthy the Blues will make noise this season.
For starters they can score. St. Louis ended up 10th in the NHL in scoring, led by captain David Backes’ 61 points.
They have a number of forwards who are a legitimate threat to score 20 goals which include Patrick Berglund, Chris Stewart and T.J. Oshie.
Last season they made a big trade by sending defenseman Erik Johnson to Colorado for Stewart and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. This move will pay off in 2011-2012.
Shattenkirk is a puck moving blue-liner who should help the Blues improve defensively. That improvement could help Halak play more consistently and be the star net-minder the Blues have hoped he is.
St. Louis can score, the big question will be can they keep it out of their own net enough to make a run at the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if the answer is yes and they make it into the post season.
Toronto Maple Leafs
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It’s hard to imagine the most popular team, from a number of fans standpoint, to be underestimated.
They haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 and have been the target of a lot of jokes, along with some flying breakfast staples. Despite that, they have some good players and they may be on the verge of turning the corner from perennial disappointment to a playoff contender.
Toronto finished only eight points out of a playoff spot last season and may be able to make that up this year.
Toronto struggled to keep the puck out of their net last season finishing 25th in the league in goals allowed. They will need to improve on that number if they wish to make the playoffs.
Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn will lead the charge to cut that number down along with new goalie sensation James Reimer.
One of the big questions for Toronto over their dry stretch has been in net. They have seen a parade of goal tenders over the past few years and seem to have found a keeper in James Reimer. Reimer burst on the scene last year and won 20 games in 35 starts and posted an impressive save percentage of .921.
The good news is that they have guys who can score. Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kuleman are all threats to pot 30 goals.
They brought in Tim Connolly, for a pretty penny, from Buffalo and if he can stay healthy the Maple Leafs will have some decent fire power in their top six.
With that scoring the key to Toronto’s season may be how well the defense and Reimer end up playing.