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NHL Predictions: 7 Dark Horse Teams That Will Surprise in 2011-12

Elsa/Getty Images The Toronto Maple Leafs finished eight points behind a playoff spot last season. Contributing to that was a lack of offense at the center position and being 25th in the NHL in goals against.The Maple Leafs found some possible solutions for both of these issues this summer by signing former Buffalo Sabres center Tim Connolly and by bringing in goaltender James Reimer.Connolly will take over the top line, where he will try to help winger Phil Kessel reach his potential and become a 40-goal scorer.If Reimer can be an upgrade over the lackluster Jean-Sebastian Giguere, the Leafs will be better as well.The Leafs will make the playoffs this season and will be competitive throughout. Christian Petersen/Getty Images The St. Louis Blues were expected to make the playoffs last summer after acquiring breakout goaltender Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens.However, due to injuries to multiple key players, the Blues finished 10 points behind the eighth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks.With star forward T.J. Oshie returning after missing much of last season, the Blues offense will be better. Additionally, veteran additions Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott will bring playoff experience to the team.They play in the tough Central division, but you can bet the Blues will come closer to making the playoffs this year than last. They may even sneak into the postseason. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images The Carolina Hurricanes finished just out of the Eastern Conference playoffs last season, landing just two points behind the New York Rangers.They are loaded with talent and made some nice upgrades this summer.Carolina signed offensive defenseman Tomas Kaberle from the Boston Bruins and also re-signed defenseman Joni Pitkanen.The offense will once again be led by superstar, yet underrated, center Eric Staal and 19-year old Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner, who is looking to avoid a sophomore slump.If goaltender Cam Ward can stay healthy, the Hurricanes have a great shot at making the playoffs and doing some damage. The Columbus Blue Jackets made some big moves this summer to ensure they get back to the playoffs for the first time since the franchise’s first postseason appearance in 2009.They signed former Montreal Canadiens defenseman James Wisniewski to a big contract and he will help the power play a lot.They also traded for former Philadelphia Flyers forward Jeff Carter, who has 35-goal potential.These two players will help Blue Jackets captain and the team’s best player, Rick Nash, lead the offense.The Blue Jackets must get solid goaltending in order to go back to the playoffs and Steve Mason might be facing his last season to win back his role as the starter between the pipes.All in all, the Jackets are poised to be much better this season than last. New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is arguably the best in the NHL. With the addition of prized free-agent center Brad Richards this summer, Lundqvist will likely not have to protect so many one-goal leads.Richards will bolster an offense lacking a real goal-scoring punch due to Marian Gaborik’s frequent injuries. He will be helped by the return of Ryan Callahan, who is returning from injury and is one of the best defensive forwards in hockey.The Rangers have the excellent combination of an elite goaltender and a good, young defense, which will help them make a deep playoff push this season. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images The Anaheim Ducks finished fourth in the Western Conference last season with 99 points—and all that came with starting goaltender Jonas Hiller playing just 49 games, including none in the postseason.With Hiller’s return, the Ducks will be stronger in net and, as always, will be led by their potent offense.Corey Perry will come into this season as the reigning MVP of the NHL and will certainly be a threat to score 50 goals again. He will be aided on offense by stars Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf.The team also has the grit and toughness needed to be successful in the playoffs.The Ducks are a young team who already know how to win, and with their stud goaltender back healthy, they will make a run toward the Stanley Cup this season. Harry How/Getty Images If the Los Angeles Kings sign restricted free-agent defenseman Drew Doughty, they will be a team to beat in the Western Conference this season.Doughty will look to have a better season than he did in 2010-11, when he scored 19 points fewer than the year before. However, he’s only 21 and has great potential to be an elite defenseman for a decade.The Kings brought in Mike Richards this summer in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, but gave up Wayne Simmonds and Braydon Schenn in the deal, too.Richards will join an already star-studded offense, led by center Anze Kopitar.The Kings will need a good season from goaltender Jonathan Quick to go far in the playoffs, but he’s certainly capable and will be helped by a potent offense with many proven goal scorers.

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