50 Biggest NHL Storylines Heading into 2012

Matthew FairburnCorrespondent IDecember 28, 2011

50 Biggest NHL Storylines Heading into 2012

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    2011 was a roller-coaster ride of a year in the National Hockey League. 

    Concussions, the Boston Bruins and Claude Giroux have all taken headlines. The game is regaining popularity every season, and 2012 looks to be no different, with plenty of interesting storylines heading into the new year.

    Let's take a look at the 50 biggest storylines for the year of 2012.

Boston Bruins Looking for a Repeat

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    Don't look now, but the Boston Bruins may be a better team than they were a season ago. They are dominating in all facets of the game and have a serious chance at being a repeat Stanley Cup champion.

Ottawa Senators Making Strides

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    The Ottawa Senators are a very young team, but they are improving with each passing game. There is no reason to believe that they can't continue to improve in the season's second half and carry that over into next season.

Chicago Blackhawks Are Back on Track

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    After winning the 2010 Stanley Cup, the Chicago Blackhawks were not the same team. However, it appears the boys from the Windy City are back and better than ever. The Hawks are firing on all cylinders and have regained the title of the best team in the Western Conference.

Taylor Hall Taking the Next Step

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    Taylor Hall is taking more steps forward this season and starting to truly flash the ability that got him drafted first overall back in 2010. Unfortunately, he has still struggled with injury issues. Until Hall is able to overcome the injuries and stay on the ice consistently, the Oilers will have a tough time relying on him.

The Edmonton Oilers Joining the League's Elite

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    Could 2012 be the year that the Oilers put it all together? Edmonton isn't quite ready for a deep postseason run just yet, but given another offseason to accumulate talent and mature, and this team could be one of the Western Conference's best in the fall of 2012.

The Detroit Red Wings Showing Their Age

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    The Detroit Red Wings are still very much a threat in the Western Conference, but it's tough to deny that age is catching up with this team. Jimmy Howard's emergence has helped mask Detroit's age a bit, but will they be able to hold up for the entire season?

Concussions Hit the League Hard

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    Concussions are not a new problem for the NHL, but the issue has certainly escalated over the past few seasons with key faces in the league going down with head injuries. Most recently, Claude Giroux, the NHL’s leading scorer, missed time with a concussion, and Chris Pronger will miss the remainder of the season for a head injury. Add to that the league's poster child, Sidney Crosby, and this issue is getting bigger by the day.

Is Claude Giroux the League's Best Player

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    With Sidney Crosby missing the better part of his second straight season, is it time to anoint a new king of hockey? Without question, Crosby is the league's best player when healthy, but it's the latter part that has many thinking otherwise.

    Claude Giroux has what it takes to be that guy. Offensively and defensively gifted, Giroux has all of the qualities of an elite player. The scary thing is that he is only going to get better.

Chris Pronger: The End of a Legend?

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    Could we have seen Chris Pronger skate for the last time? A concussion severe enough to end his season combined with his age is a dangerous combination. At the very least, it is tough to imagine Pronger ever being the same player again, which is truly a shame.

Tim Thomas Is at It Again

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    Tim Thomas just keeps getting better and better. His focus is off the charts, and the two-time Vezina winner is improving his technique a ton. It's rare to see this type of progress in old age, but Thomas continues to defy logic.

Lightning Crashes

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    What's up with the Tampa Bay Lightning? No matter how long we all wait for them to pull out of this funk, they appear to be stuck in it. Tampa may have dug a hole too big to crawl out of.

Martin Brodeur Is Finished

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    Martin Brodeur is done, and he knows it. He is no longer the team's go-to guy between the pipes, and he's only doing harm to his career numbers by sticking around. It's time for Martin Brodeur and the Devils to move on.

Ryan Miller Getting Supplanted?

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    Could Ryan Miller be on his way out of Buffalo? Well, in his absence this fall, one of the league's best goaltending prospects, Jhonas Enroth, played incredibly well for the Sabres. Meanwhile, even when healthy, Miller has struggled this season. Don't be surprised to see a changing of the guard at some point in the next calendar year. 

Fail for Nail

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    While Suck for Luck has taken over the NFL, Fail for Nail will likely catch fire in the second half of the NHL season. Nail Yakupov is the runaway favorite to be selected first overall in the 2012 NHL draft, and for good reason. He is a rare talent that could change the makeup of an entire franchise with his outstanding offensive abilities.

Has the League Figured out Alex Ovechkin?

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    Alexander Ovechkin is off to another slow start to the season. At this point, it seems likely that the league has figured out the Great No. 8. Ovechkin has been getting completely shut down by stay-at-home defensemen who are able to be patient with him on the rush. This is a big test for Ovechkin, and we'll have to see how he overcomes it.

Has Phil Kessel Turned the Corner

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    Just when you think the Bruins ripped off the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Phil Kessel trade, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher starts to put it all together. Kessel has worked his way towards the top of the league leaders in points and has become the franchise player Brian Burke had hoped he would be.

The Toronto Maple Leafs Are Back

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs were stuck in mediocrity over the past few seasons, but it appears they are on the verge of being contenders once again. Apart from some issues in goal, the Leafs have the look of a power in the Eastern Conference. Complete relevancy may be another season away, but the Leafs are taking some big steps in the right direction.

Bobby Ryan on the Move?

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    The trade talk has slowed a bit in regards to Bobby Ryan, but if the Ducks continue down the path that they are on, there is reason to believe that this team will have to shake things up at some point.

The Jackets Hit Rock Bottom

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    After an offseason filled with hype, the Columbus Blue Jackets have fallen flat on their faces. Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski could not cover up this team's lack of depth and huge weakness in net, unfortunately.

Ken Hitchcock to the Rescue

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    What has gotten into the St. Louis Blues? Ever since Ken Hitchcock took over as the head coach, the Blues have looked like a different team. Is this a short-term hot streak, or the type of success that can be sustained over an entire season? We're about to find out.

The State of Hockey Is Back

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    The Minnesota Wild are relevant once again. Mike Yeo has done an outstanding job turning this team around, and they have a legitimate chance to take home the Northwest Division crown this season. A disciplined style of play, outstanding goaltending and consistent defense have all contributed to Minnesota's success.

King-Sized Disappointment

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    The Los Angeles Kings have been a major disappoint to this point in the season. There is still more than enough time for them to turn things around, but they will have to seriously alter the way they are approaching games.

Big Lou or Cory Schneider?

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    A goaltending controversy is brewing in Vancouver, and there isn't room for the two of them. Cory Schneider is likely on his way out of town sooner rather than later, despite the fact that he has outplayed Roberto Luongo to this point.

Suter or Weber?

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    After re-signing Pekka Rinne, the Nashville Predators will likely have to choose between Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, both of whom have expiring contracts. The Predators should be selling at the trading deadline.

Can the Isles Turn Things Around?

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    The Islanders are the midst of a rebuilding project, but 2012 could be the year it all starts clicking. The core is so young that it is tough to say when things will come together for New York. 2012 should be a big step forward, though.

Has Eric Staal Lost a Step?

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    A slow start is one thing, but a minus-20 is more than just a slow start. Eric Staal is as consistent as they come, so what gives?

Is Mike Smith for Real?

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    Whether it is the Phoenix Coyotes' defensive system, or Mike Smith is taking a step forward in his development, the Phoenix goaltender is having a banner year. If he can keep it up, Smith could carry the Coyotes to the playoffs.

When Will Jacob Markstrom Return?

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    Jacob Markstrom had a monster start to his NHL career, but the Panthers sent him back down to the AHL for more seasoning. At some point, Markstrom is going to be counted on to be the backstop for the Panthers. That should come at some point in 2012.

Sidney Crosby's Injury

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    Sidney Crosby is always the biggest storyline in the NHL. The fact that he is once again out with a head injury is only going to make him an even bigger story going forward. Can the Penguins survive? Will Crosby ever be the same? There are so many unanswered questions surrounding one player.

Can Jhonas Enroth Keep It Up?

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    Jhonas Enroth has been one of the hottest rookies in the NHL this season. He filled in well for Ryan Miller and has worked his way into a part-time role in Buffalo's net. Young goalies tend to hit a wall at some point during the long season. Can Enroth avoid hitting that wall?

Is Brian Elliot for Real?

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    Often times, players get hot for a small portion of the season and fizzle out. Brian Elliot is on fire right now, but he faces the challenge of making it last. With Ken Hitchcock's system, a talented defense and Jaroslav Halak to spell him, Brian Elliot will stand a good chance of keeping his run going.

Tyler Seguin Emerging

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    Tyler Seguin has had big-time expectations since he entered the league. His rookie season had its ups and downs, but Seguin has started to breakout here this fall. Can he become one of the most valuable players for Boston?

Another Strong 2nd Half Again in Calgary?

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    The Calgary Flames have been an afterthought so far this fall after another slow start. But the Flames are starting to put it together. There is enough veteran talent on this team for them to contend for the playoffs.

Panthers the New Kings of the Southeast?

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    The Florida Panthers spent a lot of money this offseason to bolster a roster that was in complete disarray. Surprisingly, the transition has been very smooth for the Panthers. They are now in first place in the Southeast Division. Call me crazy, but there is a very real chance that they will be able to hang on to that lead with the goaltending and scoring they are getting.

Can Bryz Put It All Together?

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    Ilya Bryzgalov made the headlines this offseason after signing a $50 million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers. The first half of the 2011-2012 season has had its ups and downs for Bryzgalov, but the Flyers are primed to head to the postseason. Bryz is the key ingredient to making that postseason run successful.

The Worst Is Yet to Come in Montreal

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    The Montreal Canadiens are a storied franchise, so it's always damning to see them struggle the way they have this season. Unfortunately for the Habs, the worst is yet to come. A chunk of this team's core is getting older, so a slight rebuild could be on the horizon.

Can the Penguins Survive?

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    The Penguins are one of the Eastern Conference's elite teams, even without Sidney Crosby. But are they good enough to contend for the Stanley Cup? Evgeni Malkin's insane production is certainly going to be crucial, but the Penguins really take things up a notch with Crosby in the lineup. Can they survive without him?

Nazem Kadri Making Strides

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    Nazem Kadri is not used to flying under the radar, but this season his progress appears to be going a bit unnoticed. Make no mistake, however, if Kadri keeps this up, he'll get the recognition he deserves.

Buffalo Melt Down

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    The Buffalo Sabres are pretenders. They have had a slow start to the season that could have been even slower if Jhonas Enroth hadn't stood on his head for most of it. The fact of the matter is, not much has changed from a year ago with the Sabres. Despite the money spent on the defense, Buffalo is still struggling in that department. This team is not ready to take the next step.

Another 2nd-Half Collapse for Dallas?

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    Dallas is once again off to a hot start. Last season, that didn't end well for them. I see no reason why things will go differently for them this year.

Kris Versteeg Carrying the Panthers

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    I spoke at length about the Florida Panthers in another slide, but Kris Versteeg deserves his own mention. Versteeg is playing with both confidence and creativity that I have never seen from him. He has the ability to carry this team.

Typical Sedins

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    The Sedins are at it again, dominating the league in scoring. Both of them are in the top 10 in the league in points and are showing no signs of letting up.

Can Luongo Get the Camel off His Back?

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    Roberto Luongo is going to get another shot at the postseason, and whether or not he can prevail will be a compelling storyline heading into the new year.

Joffrey Lupul the Perfect Wingman

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    Ever since Joffrey Lupul came to Toronto, Phil Kessel has had a different spark in his game. They have tremendous chemistry on the Leafs' top line, and it is resulting in big things for the Maple Leafs.

Is Doughty on the Move?

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    If the Kings continue to struggle, nobody on the roster is safe. Drew Doughty has been a popular name in trade rumors over the past six months.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for Calder

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    Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was selected with the first pick in the 2011 NHL draft, and so far he has made good on that investment by the Edmonton Oilers. RNH has burst onto the scene as a dynamic offensive weapon right away this season. Many didn't think Nugent-Hopkins would even spend the season in the NHL. Now he is the favorite to win the Calder Trophy.

Selanne on the Move?

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    With the incredible struggle the Anaheim Ducks have had this season, Teemu Selanne could be on the move. This is one of his final seasons in the NHL, and he must be eager to get one final shot at the Cup. That's not going to happen in Anaheim.

A Late-Season Surge for Winnipeg?

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    The honeymoon is over in Winnipeg, but they may have something better on the horizon. The Jets are starting to play well and could get to the postseason in their first season back.

Zach Parise's Contract Year

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    The Zach Parise contract situation is not over. He signed a one-year deal this offseason to smooth things over. However, with the recent struggles in New Jersey, Parise trade rumors will continue to grow.

How Will Nashville Finish the Season?

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    The Nashville Predators were a popular pick to make the playoffs before the season. They are still very much in contention for the postseason. But there is definitely serious concern with this team right now. The Preds continue to struggle offensively, and they may end up being among the biggest sellers at the deadline.