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Vancouver again has the best chance, though the Canucks have made a habit of following strong regular seasons with letdowns in May or June. They led the NHL with 111 points last year, but got bounced in the first round by the eventual champion Kings.

Toronto is a rebuilding after firing general manager Brian Burke last week. The Maple Leafs last made the playoffs in 2004, the longest current streak without an appearance in the league. Montreal, the last Canadian club to win a Stanley Cup, in 1993, posted the worst record in the Eastern Conference last season. Edmonton has a lot of emerging young stars but little depth. Winnipeg has trouble scoring. Ottawa is thin on defense. Jarome Iginla isn’t getting any younger in Calgary.

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6. Which team wanted the lockout to end more than any?

No one enjoyed watching all those games get canceled, but Minnesota generated the most buzz last summer by signing free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to mega contracts. Then the Wild and their eager fans had to wait for perhaps the best team in the franchise’s 13-year history to be unveiled. Now they get the chance to see what Parise and Suter can do, and capable complementary players like Mikko Koivu, Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard are poised to help the Wild make the playoffs for the first time in five years.

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7. How is Sidney Crosby’s head after a long layoff?

The headaches are gone for Sid the Kid, whose post-concussion symptoms have nagged one of the game’s greatest stars for the last two years. Crosby, 25, is ready to help Pittsburgh return to prominence.

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8. Who are the best rookies to watch?

Detroit’s Damien Brunner, Edmonton’s Justin Schultz and Minnesota’s Mikael Granlund, to name a few. Brunner is expected to get plenty of scoring chances, as he did playing in Switzerland with teammate Henrik Zetterberg. Granlund, a Finnish sensation who has paparazzi and fans following him all over his home country, will be on the second line for the Wild.

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9. Which will be the next franchise to relocate?

The New York Islanders are leaving Long Island for the fancy new arena in Brooklyn beginning in 2015. The Coyotes continue to face an uncertain future in Phoenix, and the NHL would love to add another team in Canada.

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Story Continues →