NHL Predictions 2012: The 6 Biggest Wild Card Teams and Where They'll Finish

Adam Graham@@adam_grahamAnalyst IIOctober 7, 2011

NHL Predictions 2012: The 6 Biggest Wild Card Teams and Where They'll Finish

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    As the 2011-12 NHL season gets underway, the predictions and bets are in full swing for who will make the playoffs and who will contend for the Stanley Cup.

    There’s no shortage of prognosticators out there forecasting the standings in both the Western and Eastern Conferences. Of course, some teams have much more consistent predictions than others and that’s where this article comes in.

    Thanks to a revamped roster, a surprising change in the standings from the previous year or perhaps just a false sense of optimism, there are some NHL teams we’re not quite sure about.

    These are known as the wild card teams and sixes are wild this season in the NHL as I take a look at where the six biggest wild cards will finish in 2012.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The Maple Leafs have been building towards the future for the last few years, but this season it finally looks as though they have enough veteran talent to make a legitimate playoff push.

    The acquisitions of proven NHLers like Tim Connolly, Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and Matthew Lombardi should all help Toronto in 2011-12. Combine that with several other young Leafs who should be entering their prime and there is reason for optimism in the center of the hockey universe.

    With that being said, many Leafs fans are forgetting that much of their team's hope rests on the shoulders of a young goaltender that only has 37 games of NHL experience.

    James Reimer represents the biggest reason why the Leafs went on a second-half run to even get close to a playoff spot in 2011. He’s going to have be lights out again for Toronto to make the playoffs in 2012.

    Remember how Carey Price and Steve Mason came back to earth after strong rookie seasons? There’s no reason why the same thing can’t happen to Reimer in 2011-12, so it’s not a good strategy to rely on him for a full 82-game season.

    Even if Reimer does play well, the Leafs offence is still a question mark as they’re relying on three forwards (Connolly, Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski) who have never produced more than 65 points in a season.

    They may have more depth this season, but at the end of the day this is still a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004 so it’s difficult to bet on them to get back to the postseason until they actually do it.

    Prediction: 10th place in the Eastern Conference

Colorado Avalanche

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    The Avalanche were one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments last season. They were hyped as a young team that would only get better after a surprising playoff appearance in 2010.

    Unfortunately they finished with the second worst record in the entire NHL in 2011 and now no one really knows what to expect of them.

    They’re still a young team with some budding superstars, but will that alone be enough to contend for a playoff spot?

    It’s always tough to make a prediction for a team that had such a wild swing in the standings from one year to the next despite having a similar roster. The optimists will point out that the addition of a very mature 18-year-old rookie named Gabriel Landeskog will help, so will having Erik Johnson on defence after a full training camp with his new team.

    However, if Johnson gets injured or can’t carry the load, the Avs might be in big trouble because the rest of their blue line is suspect. Up front, the first line might be full of young talent, but after that it’s once again anyone’s guess as to who will provide the scoring.

    That brings us to the biggest wild card for Colorado, which comes between the pipes. Semyon Varlamov might be the hardest goalie in the NHL to predict, but the Avs are hoping he can be carry them to the playoffs as they gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire him.

    If I had to guess how that move will turn out, you probably won’t like it if you’re an Avalanche fan. Something tells me that while there will probably be a slight improvement in Colorado, the 2011-12 version of the Avs still won’t make the playoffs.

    Prediction: 13th place in the Western Conference

Philadelphia Flyers

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    Of all the Stanley Cup contenders last season, no team made more significant changes to their core group of players than the Philadelphia Flyers.

    The Flyers have seemingly gone from an offence first team with loads of depth up front to a team that finally boasts an elite goaltender that they’ll have to rely on much more heavily this season.

    Ilya Bryzgalov is that goaltender.

    If he doesn’t play at an all-star level all season long, Flyers fans will be calling for GM Paul Holmgren’s head for the moves he made in order to free up the cap space to sign Bryzgalov.

    No one knows what to expect from this new-look Flyers team. There’s no Mike Richards, no Jeff Carter and there are still question marks surrounding Braden Schenn and whether or not he can be an impact player this season.

    The one thing that remains unchanged in Philly is their defence. Teams led by Chris Pronger rarely miss the playoffs, so it’s hard to bet against the Flyers at least making it back to that stage in 2012.

    Prediction: 5th in the Eastern Conference

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    After years of only having one player worth watching, the Columbus Blue Jackets finally went out and made a splash in the offseason and complemented their superstar Rich Nash with Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski.

    Will those two players alone be enough to get the Blue Jackets over the hump and back into the playoffs for only the second time in their existence?

    It doesn’t help matters that Kristian Huselius will miss significant time due a torn pectoral muscle, but at least now the Blue Jackets actually have the depth to not collapse when one of their top players goes down.

    With that being said, none of the Jackets' offseason moves will matter much if Steve Mason can’t rediscover the type of play that won him the Calder trophy in 2009.

    Columbus doesn’t have a proven NHL goalie backing up Mason either, so unless Mason significantly improves from his awful performances over the last two seasons, it will be a long offseason once again in Ohio.

    Prediction: 11th in the Western Conference

New Jersey Devils

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    This next team is, without a doubt, the hardest team to predict and therefore the biggest wild card in the entire NHL.

    How does anyone really know what the Devils have in store for us in 2011-12 after what they did in 2010-11?

    Heading into last season, New Jersey was billed as a Stanley Cup contender with a stacked roster.

    Oops. The Devils got off to one of the worst starts in franchise history and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996.

    However, the Devils were also one of the best teams in the league in the second half of the season and they still have a similar core to the team that won their division in 2010. Combine that with a healthy Zach Parise and a top rookie defenseman in Adam Larsson and there’s no reason the Devils can’t at least get back to the postseason in 2012.

    Then again, Martin Brodeur is clearly past his prime in goal and the Devils defence doesn’t strike fear into the eyes of anyone, even with the addition of Larsson.

    The Devils will likely remain one of the NHL’s biggest mysteries throughout the 2011-12 campaign. Their 2010-11 season was such a roller coaster that it should keep most observers from getting too emotional over any type of streak—good or bad—they might go on.

    Prediction: 8th place in the Eastern Conference

Los Angeles Kings

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    The L.A. Kings appear to have a better roster than ever heading into this season and they’ve become the dark horse pick of many experts to win the Stanley Cup.

    Appearances can be deceiving.

    Wasn’t it just one year ago that these so-called experts were saying the exact same thing about the Kings? Terms like dark horse, young contenders and the next elite team were being used to describe L.A. heading into the 2010-11 season and the Kings finished in essentially the exact same position as they did in the previous year. They were a low playoff seed in the Western Conference that was eliminated in six games in the first round.

    So it might be a good idea for giddy Kings fans to curb their enthusiasm just a bit. After all, the team may have acquired Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, but they also lost Ryan Smyth, Wayne Simmonds and Michal Handzus.

    Don’t take my blasé attitude towards the Kings as me completely writing them off. They’re definitely going to make the playoffs and with young stars like Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson only getting better, there’s no reason why they can’t upset a higher seed.

    I just think people need to calm down on all this Stanley Cup talk until they actually win a playoff round.

    Prediction: 5th in the Western Conference


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