Exactly four months after the Pittsburgh Penguins raised the Stanley Cup, a new NHL season officially begins on Wednesday night, and the excitement and anticipation surrounding a new season has made it impossible to resist looking ahead. The NHL season is a long grind and predictions are nothing but best guesses, but here are some cracks at which teams will win their divisions, as well as which will raise the Cup as champion at the end of the playoffs.
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Atlantic - Tampa Bay Lightning
Top to bottom, the Lightning may have the best roster in the league. They managed to make it to the Eastern Conference Final last year despite extended playoff absences from their best player, Steven Stamkos; their second-best defenseman, Anton Stralman; and their starting goaltender Ben Bishop, which proves just how deep and talented that team is.
They’ve retained just about everyone and they should be able to take a relatively weak Atlantic division, with their only real threat being the Florida Panthers. (Two Florida teams being division favorites? The new NHL is weird.) It’s not a stretch to think that this team could win the Presidents' Trophy, either.
They’ve got young firepower on the front end in Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. They’ve got stability on the back end with anchors Victor Hedman and Stralman. They’ve got a top goalie in Ben Bishop, who is on an expiring contract and could be shipped off mid-season for additional pieces to help down the stretch, making way for already proven backup Andrei Vasilevskiy.
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Metropolitan - Washington Capitals
The Metro should be a competitive division that sees a battle between the Capitals (reigning Presidents' Trophy winners) and the Penguins (reigning Cup champions) at the top. Both are returning this season with very similar rosters, but the Capitals have young stars Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who should make them even better this year. Plus, that Alex Ovechkin guy will probably score a million goals again.
The big difference, however, may lie in what both teams have between the pipes. Although Marc-Andre Fleury and youngster Matt Murray were good enough to help the Penguins win a Cup last year, the Caps have reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. He’ll steal more games for Washington than Pittsburgh’s goalies will, and that could make the difference at the top of the standings.
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Central - Nashville Predators
The Central is arguably hockey’s fiercest division, and it will most likely be a brutal slugfest to make it the top. The Predators have improved, adding P.K. Subban and rookie Kevin Fiala to a Nashville team that was already on the rise with firepower. In addition to Subban, they’ve also got an impressive group of blueliners that includes Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis.
It won’t be easy to finish ahead of the Blackhawks, Blues and Stars, who will all likely be in the playoffs at season’s end, but if Nashville gets the best version of goaltender Pekka Rinne (certainly not a given) then they could be the favorites.
Then again, the Blackhawks are consistent threats, and that Stars offense … ah, screw it. Too late to turn back now. Let it ride, Nashville!
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Pacific - San Jose Sharks
Though the Sharks are very reliant on aging vets up front, and will have to battle the dreaded Stanley Cup runner-up hangover, they’re still in good position to win the Pacific. While a lot of the teams out west have taken a step back, the Sharks still seem to at least be just as good.
They’ve got a strong, reliable front with Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Joonas Donskoi and new addition Mikkel Boedker. Their back end is anchored by an impressive trio of Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin, who lock things down in front of Martin Jones, who impressed in his first full season in net.
The Kings and Ducks should still be competitive and could maybe make a play for the division title, but the Sharks seem to have the edge heading into the season. Maybe a sleeper will emerge in the likes of Calgary or (gulp) Edmonton to make it surprisingly competitive.
At this point, though, a division title isn’t enough for the Sharks. They made it to the Cup Final last year, now they’ve got to push to win it.
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Stanley Cup Final - Lightning over Stars
There’s nothing crazier than picking a Stanley Cup champion before any team in the league has played a single meaningful game, but let’s get crazy!
The Stars trade for a better goaltender (possibly Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury) and improve on defense at the deadline before making a strong playoff push behind the offensive talents of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
Still, the Lightning ultimately prove to be too deep and too talented and raise the Cup on home ice in Game 7.