There’s at least one every season and usually a couple – a team that goes unnoticed, flying above and beyond any expectations.
Who knew the Edmonton Oilers would make it to the Stanley Cup final in 2006? To go one step further, who knew Carolina would win it that same year?
The New Jersey Devils are a consistent target for doomsday soothsayers, but it never comes to fruition as the Brodeur-led posse continues to sniff out the post-season.
The Nashville Predators never seem that great on paper, but come April, Barry Trotz always looks like a hockey genius.
Who will it be this year? If a team has already been called out as being ready for a breakthrough, they won’t be listed here. So don’t be shocked and offended if you think Phoenix or Chicago should be on this list, it’s not even training camp and they already have to improve to avoid any disappointment.
Here are a few teams who I think could achieve more than is expected of them this season:
Florida Panthers: I’ve ripped on them in this space before – and until the front office does something smart, I’m sure I’ll do it again – but the potential is still there for the Panthers to rise.
You’ve got to think that, one of these years, Nathan Horton will meet the expectations of being a No. 3 overall draft pick. While he has not impressed and actually stalled his point production at 62 points last season, Horton could be ready for a 70- to 75-point campaign. If he can meet this goal and if incoming offensive catalyst Cory Stillman can kick-start Stephen Weiss, the Panthers could generate more than the pathetic 216 goals they scored last season.
There is no question the defense is deeper. New coach Peter DeBoer needs to realize what this team has and use it, instead of looking at what this team could/should be and try to be that. If the Panthers employ a shutdown defense – backed by one of the league’s best stoppers in Tomas Vokoun – they could be this year’s Boston Bruins, in that they squeeze into the playoffs on the back of their system and hungry young players.
Ottawa Senators: Ah yes, last year they crumbled worse than the New York Mets in 2007 and their fans were on the receiving end of countless Nelson Muntz ‘ha-ha’s,’ but that was then and this is now.
Sure the Senators’ implosion was of astronomical proportions, but like in outer space where a star implosion is rebounded by a supernova, the Senators still have the outline of a team ready to compete. While Pittsburgh lost Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa, no one is talking of them falling from their perch. And why is that? Because they still have possibly the best player in the league on their roster.
The Sens should be no different. They shed the character that was quite often pointed to as the reason for the decline in Ray Emery and a defenseman who many felt had worn out his welcome and usefulness on the Ottawa blueline in Wade Redden. After all that, they still have one of the best lines in the game, a blueline that makes up for a lack of recognizable names with tough, effective shutdown play and a goalie in Martin Gerber who gets no respect, despite having a career full of respectable numbers.
Don’t count out these Sens. They are still capable of finishing first in the East. After all, he who ‘ha-ha’s’ last, ‘ha-ha’s’ best.
Columbus Blue Jackets: It must be hard being the only team to have not made the playoffs in their short history, but I think they’re going to be better than what many give them credit for.
Everyone knows Rick Nash can score, but has he ever had anyone else to support him in his area of expertise? The Jackets are hoping Kristian Huselius can do just that, while R.J. Umberger will be counted on to reach 20 goals for the second time in his career.
If Pascal Leclaire can improve on his breakout 2007-08 season – or at least show it wasn’t a fluke – Columbus will always be in a position to win games. The defense that will be supporting Leclaire is not all-star caliber, though it is underrated. Fedor Tyutin was let go by the Rangers too easily and Kris Russell should be ready to step into the NHL spotlight, which will be easier to do on a smaller market team.
While my own expectations for the Jackets aren’t through the roof, they should be closer than the 11 points they missed the playoffs by last season. Look for them to be in the thick of things right into April, 2009.
Rory Boylen is THN.com's web content specialist. His blog appears Thursdays.
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