NHL-Five teams to watch in the 2013-14 NHL season


Sept 27 (Reuters) - Five teams to watch in the 2013-14 National Hockey League (NHL) season which starts on Tuesday:

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Nowhere in the hockey world are expectations higher than in Toronto where the Maple Leafs will try to end the National Hockey League's longest active Stanley Cup drought.

It has been 45 years since the Leafs last sipped from the silver mug and the team's fans, who pay the NHL's highest ticket prices, are demanding more for their money.

The Maple Leafs, who are the only NHL franchise to be worth $1 billion, have been a success everywhere but on the ice.

Last season, Toronto ended a seven-year playoff drought but exited in the first round in excruciating fashion by losing to the Boston Bruins in Game Seven after squandering a three-goal third period lead.

In an effort to take the next step, the Maple Leafs made some bold offseason moves by adding toughness (David Clarkson), experience (Dave Bolland) and goaltending (Jonathan Bernier).

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The NHL rid itself of one of its biggest headaches when the league-owned team finally found a buyer for the troubled Phoenix franchise and ended an embarrassing four-year saga.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who had refused to relocate the team, turned the keys over to a group of investors headed by Canadian businessmen George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc for the bargain basement price of $170 million, well below the average team worth of $282 million.

The question now is, can the NHL thrive or even survive in the Arizona desert.

Despite the many problems and financial uncertainty, the Coyotes still made the playoffs for three straight years from 2010 before missing out on the postseason last season.

With additions like free agent center Mike Ribeiro and signing netminder Mike Smith to a long-term deal, the Coyotes should challenge for a playoff spot this season but winning back fans will be as important as winning games.

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With the number one draft pick in three of the last four years, the Oilers have been stockpiling young talent and now fans are expecting to see some results and a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006 - the league's longest playoff drought.

Number one selections Nail Yakupov (2012), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Taylor Hall (2010) along with Sam Gagner (sixth overall 2007) and Jordan Eberle (22nd overall 2008) form the dynamic nucleus of team that is under pressure to produce with plans for a new downtown arena.

Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini and coach Ralph Krueger were fired and replaced by former Oiler player Craig MacTavish and Dallas Eakins, respectively, rated by many as one of the bright young hockey coaching minds, serving notice that patience is running out in the City of Champions.

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Since entering the league in 1991, San Jose has failed to reach the postseason five times. For 14 of the last 15 seasons, including the last nine, the Sharks have advanced to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Yet for all their consistency, including a Presidents' Trophy in 2009 for finishing the regular season with the best record, the Sharks have yet to reach the Stanley Cup finals.

The quest begins again this season with Todd McLellan behind the bench for a sixth season and many familiar names including points leader Joe Thornton, top goal scorer Logan Couture and mainstays Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle.

Antti Niemi, a Vezina Trophy finalist as the NHL's top goali, started 43 games in last season's lockout-shortened 48-game campaign and can expect a similar heavy workload this season.

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Not since the Montreal Canadiens celebrated the last of their record 24 Stanley Cups in 1993 has the treasured trophy been paraded through the streets of a Canadian city and the hockey mad country is determined to see hockey's 'Holy Grail' return to its spiritual home.

Only five times in the last 20 years has a Canadian-based team even reached the Cup finals (Vancouver 1994 and 2011, Calgary 2004, Edmonton 2006 and Ottawa 2007).

During those two decades teams from non-traditional hockey markets, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings have all sipped from Lord Stanley's mug while Canadians thirst for a title has gone unquenched. (Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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