Here are my 2015-16 NHL Predictions.
1 Chicago Blackhawks
We start with the defending Stanley Cup champions and the goals for them are very clear: win another Cup. Of course, that is always easier said than done and repeating will not be easy for the Hawks. The Patrick Kane sexual assault investigation is still going on, leaving some uncertainty as to his availability in the future. The roster also is not as good as it was a season ago thanks to a number of free agent departures. Joel Quenneville is a terrific coach and there is still plenty of talent on roster to power another deep run but there is a reason why nobody has repeated in almost 20 years.
2 Nashville Predators
When you have a defense like the Predators do, perhaps the finest defensive corps in the league (especially if Seth Jones breaks out), you are generally going to be in pretty good shape. Pekka Rinne is also terrific in the net. How deep Nashville can go in the playoffs will ultimately come down to the offensive unit. Can having Mike Ribiero and Mike Fisher holding down the fort at center be enough offensively?
3 St. Louis Blues
We can always talk about how the Blues seemingly fold come postseason play but we can worry about crossing the bridge when we get to it. The team does have plenty of talent, Valdimir Tarasenko is a goal-scoring star on the rise, they have quality play in goal with Jake Allen and Brian Elliott and their defense is rock solid (although Jay Bouwmeester needs to step up his play up to the caliber of his contract). They should be a playoff team but we shall see how they do.
4 Minnesota Wild*
Devan Dubnyk was spectacular in goal for the Wild last season, seemingly pulling that season out of nowhere. Now he has gotten a big contract but can he consistently perform up to the increased standards that last season brought? I think he's certainly capable and having a deep defensive corps certainly helps the cause. There is a good amount of young talent on this club and having proven veterans like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter also helps with that.
5 Dallas Stars*
The hopes are high in the Metroplex for the Stars and we can certainly see why. After all, this offense has the firepower to short-circuit scoreboards with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin leading the charge, and now they will be joined by Patrick Sharp and a healthy Valeri Nichushkin. But their defense does need to take a step forward and goalie Kari Lehtonen has to show that a bad preseason is not the new norm for him. Perhaps most importantly, they have to contend with a very deep division.
6 Winnipeg Jets
The Jets made their first postseason last season but can they pull it off again with a deep division and a strong conference at-large? Winnipeg has some exciting young talent and some quality depth on both offense and on defense but there also is not a lot of experience on the roster. The biggest question has to be in goal and if Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson can repeat what may have been an outlier in either guy's careers.
7 Colorado Avalanche
Colorado took a step back to Earth last season after a surprising 2013-14 campaign but even then, while finishing in last, they put up 90 points. They have some strengths like in net with starter Semyon Varlamov, a lot of talent up front with guys like Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon and an improved defense with Francois Beauchemin and Erik Johnson. What will be the difference in terms of them getting back to the postseason is can they survive a lack of depth amid a strong division.
1 Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks are widely considered to be one of the top contenders to win the Stanley Cup and it is easy to see why. Evan after putting up 109 points last season, leading the Pacific division, Anaheim did not stand pat by working to build some scoring depth beyond the terrific trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry by bringing in guys like Carl Hagelin, Shawn Horcoff and Mike Santorelli in the offseason. The Ducks don't have the top defenseman that has helped power teams to championships and it isn't certain if Frederick Andersen can lead the team to a title but there is still plenty to like here.
2 Los Angeles Kings
After winning the 2014 Cup, the Kings took a nice step backwards in missing the postseason by five points but there is plenty to think that the was an aberration rather than the new norm. The Kings have as good and deep of a top six as any team in the league with a first line of Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Milan Lucic and then a second line of Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. The defensive corps is also strong, they post good possession numbers and Jonathan Quick is still a pretty good player in goal. Should the team stay healthy, they should be back in major contention.
3 Calgary Flames
Calgary is a club that took many by surprise last season in not only making the playoffs last season but to also win their first playoff series since 2004. They won't take anybody by surprise this season but they should also return to the postseason. What helps the cause is plenty of talent on both sides of the ice with the offense powered by Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler plus the newly acquired Michael Frolik and a strong defensive combination with T.J. Brodie, who starts the season hurt, and Mark Giordano plus the newly-signed Dougie Hamilton.
4 San Jose Sharks
The Sharks missed the postseason last year for the first time in over a decade and I think they are poised to miss out once again. While their offense should be as good as always with Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau and their top defensive pairings should be solid, they lack depth on the back-end and they have a hole in net with the untested Martin Jones replacing Antti Niemi. Also, after seven years of Todd McLellan, how will the team react to new coach Peter DeBoer?
5 Vancouver Canucks
Vancouver was a pleasant surprise last season in putting up 101 points and finishing second in the division but I think that we are poised for a nice step backwards this season. Their core is not getting any younger, their goaltending looks like it could be a weakness as Ryan Miller looked rather shaky at times last season, and the defense in front of him looks like a mess. The Sedin twins are still very good but it may take a whole lot from them, and then some, if they are to repeat what they did a year ago.
6 Edmonton Oilers
With the addition of the prodigal Connor McDavid to a team that already has a lot of exciting young talent with guys like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov among others, as well as the addition of respected head coach Todd McLellan, hopes are high for the Edmonton faithful. But nobody should be expected a Cup here and fans should be pleased with simply a playoff berth as the play in goal is still a question with the relatively unproven Cam Talbot and the defense isn't quite there yet either.
7 Arizona Coyotes
The future isn't certain for the Coyotes in Arizona but what does appear to be certain, or close to it, is that this is a team that will likely be in the draft lottery once again next spring. Simply put, the team looks like a mess as the offense doesn't look very good, the defense can't keep shots away from Mike Smith in net, and Smith looked terrible at times last season and took a big step backwards. Dave Tippett is a very good coach but he has got his work cut out for him this season.
1 Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay has not just become the clear-cut favorite in the Atlantic division, they have become one of the top favorites in the Eastern Conference. At least from 30,000 feet, they do not seem to have much if any weaknesses. Steven Stamkos is one of the elite players in the league, they have a deep offensive unit, Victor Hedman is one of the better defensive players in the league and Ben Bishop is very solid in goal. The ultimate question for the good folks down in Tampa: can they do one better than last season's loss in the Cup Finals?
2 Montreal Canadiens
They may not be getting the headlines that the Lightning would get but the Habs are a pretty good club in their own right. Carey Price may just be the finest goalie in the entire NHL and he is joined in a talented core with the excellent P.K. Subban and the rising Max Pacioretty. The problems with this team, though, is that the offense still needs to crank out more offense and that puts a lot of pressure on Pacioretty to break through.
3 Detroit Red Wings
As the Red Wings continue to get older but now with a new head coach in Jeff Blashill after Mike Babcock departed for Toronto, the story will be if they can continue their playoff streak going as it has been going since 1991. I think that'll continue one more season but it is still concerning that a big chunk of their core is north of 34 years old in guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg and the newly-acquired Brad Richards. But there is also some talented youth on the roster as well and that is where Blashill should come in with his ability to grow players from his days coaching Detroit's AHL affiliate.
4 Florida Panthers*
Florida was not that far off from the postseason a year ago and I think this year, they can slide back in for the first time since 2012. The Panthers have an intriguing mix of youth, with guys like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkove and Jonathan Huberdeau, and experience with Brian Campbell and the immortal Jaromir Jagr. With continued growth from their young stars, that will lead to more wins but if goalie Roberto Luongo suffers any kind of injury, the team may be toast.
5 Ottawa Senators
The Senators parlayed a wild finish to the season last year into a surprising playoff appearance where they then took the Canadiens to six games. Andrew Hammond was standing on his head all the time down the stretch but I don't think that will be any sort of the norm going forward. Ottawa does have talent, led the spectacular defenseman Erik Karlsson as well as sophomore Mark Stone, but can they put it together over the course of a full season?
6 Boston Bruins
Boston is a club that certainly was active in the offseason but I think it is hard to say that a team that has declined over the past few years will be any better this year than they were a year ago after trading Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton in exchange for draft picks. Now the defense is very thin, especially if Zdeno Chara struggles to stay healthy, and there is not a great deal of offensive depth either.
7 Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres are poised to get better, partly due to the fact that they probably could not get any worse, but after this offseason, there is a lot for the Sabre faithful to look forward too. It starts with using the second pick on future star Jack Eichel and he is the kind of guy you can build a strong playoff team around. Dan Bylsma will also be a nice upgrade at the head coaching position. They still have to work on their defensive corps and their goaltending unit, but Rome was not built in a day.
8 Toronto Maple Leafs
The rebuilding process is going to be long and hard now with new head coach Mike Babcock, new GM Lou Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan running the show. I like Shanahan, Lamoriello is a veteran hand and Babcock is a really good coach but let's face it, this roster is awful. After all, it is largely the same team that we saw a year ago minus star scorer Phil Kessel but at least the goaltending with Jonathan Bernier and James Reiner should be solid.
1 Washington Capitals
After a few disappointing seasons, the Capitals roared back last season under new coach Barry Trotz, topped 100 points and got to the second round of the playoffs. Nobody would be or should be surprised if we see further improvement. I think we all know about Alex Ovechkin by now but now there is further defense up front as a pair of shrewd acquisitions to bring in T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. That should help out a solid defensive unit and take some pressure off goalie Braden Holtby, who broke through last year in a big way.
2 New York Islanders
3 New York Rangers
The Rangers are the sole team in the Eastern Conference to have finished in the Conference Finals or better the last two seasons but while there is still plenty of talent on the roster, it is also getting older. The defense in particular is getting up there and while the offense should still be good, they also lost some key contributors like Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis. But as long as Henrik Lundqvist is between the pipes, the Rangers will be a safe bet for the postseason.
4 Pittsburgh Penguins*
Trading for an elite scorer like Phil Kessel will make the offensive better, especially as he will be paired with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but the Penguins already had themselves a great offense and had to sacrifice some depth in order to bring him in. The key for the Penguins will be, of course, their defense and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has the reputation that he does for a reason but he did play pretty well last season and wasn't a disaster in the postseason by any stretch. If he can play like that this season, another Cup in Pittsburgh isn't out of the question.
5 Columbus Blue Jackets
6 Philadelphia Flyers
new coach Dave Hakstol being able to get into serious playoff contention. Philadelphia does still have an exciting one-two offensive combo with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and somehow, someway Steve Mason has turned into a pretty good goaltender after some bad years in Columbus. But this will be a transition year for the Flyers as the new front office cleans up the mess the previous brass left them.
7 New Jersey Devils
It will be back to the drawing board for the Devils this season as they start a rebuilding process. It will be a little difficult early on considering that the Devils aren't exactly a young team, nor do they have an exciting pipeline of prospects coming. However, it won't be a complete fiasco this season in Newark thanks to a solid goaltender in Cory Schneider and a underrated defensive crew led by Adam Larsson. However, their offense may just be the worst one in the league so goals will be hard to come by.
8 Carolina Hurricanes
While I don't see the Hurricanes getting out of the cellar, they should be better than they were a year ago. That is in part to expected improvement from disappointing seasons from Eric and Jordan Staal and a defensive unit that should be better than it has been in recent years. It is surprising to see Cam Ward still in net but if Eddie Lack can repeat the play that he showed last season in Vancouver, that could ultimately push Ward out of Raleigh.
C1 Blackhawks vs. WC Wild
The last three seasons have seen deep playoff runs for the Blackhawks in they have either won the Cup or lost in the Western Conference Finals. I think that for a team that is only getting older that will come back to bite them this year against a younger Minnesota team that isn't that far off from they are talent-wise.
Wild in 7
C2 Predators vs. C3 Blues
Are the Blues poised for yet another premature playoff exit? I'm not picking against them because of that, because that would be pretty lazy on my part. However, I am picking the Predators because, frankly, they are the better team.
Predators in 6
P1 Ducks vs. WC Stars
Dallas's offense is good enough to help them steal a couple of games against Anaheim but is Kari Lehtonen good enough come playoff time to help the Stars swipe a series? I'm not sold just yet.
Ducks in 6
P2 Kings vs. P3 Flames
When they do get into the playoffs, the Kings are always dangerous (or at least they are every other year). I like the Flames but I just don't see the depth on both ends like the Kings have nor as I as sold on Jonas Hiller as I am on Jonathan Quick.
Kings in 5
A1 Lightning vs. WC Panthers
The Panthers are a franchise with a promising future, one that could bring them some real postseason success at some point. That some point will not be in 2016 and they will be swept out by Tampa Bay.
Lightning in 4
A2 Canadiens vs. A3 Red Wings
The cagey veterans have helped Detroit to keep their playoff streak alive the last two seasons, but they also have been unable to get them out of the first round. I think that will be the case with a superior Montreal club.
Canadiens in 5
M1 Capitals vs. WC Penguins
The two Metro series are going to be very fun because there is not a whole lot that separates the four of them. But what will separate the Caps from their rivals from Pittsburgh is that they are a much more balanced club on offense and defense and I do still have more confidence with Braden Holtby than with Marc-Andre Fleury.
Capitals in 6
M2 Islanders vs. M3 Rangers
Well this'll be wild not just because these two hate each other, but now because this is a crosstown rivalry. Nobody would or should be surprise if the Rangers put together another deep run but I think they have been surpassed by the Islanders and they will prevail in the end.
Islanders in 7
C2 Predators vs. WC Wild
Would the Wild be able to pull off another upset this playoffs? It certainly is possible but only depending on if Devan Dubnyk can play like he did last season. If not, a sneaky Nashville offense will be the difference.
Predators in 6
P1 Ducks vs. P2 Kings
This is one of the league's underrated rivalries as these two have absolutely no love lost for each other. Both teams are quite good, although the Ducks are deservedly getting more attention as a Cup contender. However, I think the Kings have got the goods to pull an upset.
Kings in 7
A1 Lightning vs. A2 Canadiens
Will the Habs be able to scrounge enough offense in order to give Carey Price the support he needs in order to take out the Bolts? While I do like Max Pacioretty, I just don't think that he can do it alone without the team making a move.
Canadiens in 5
M1 Capitals vs. M2 Islanders
These are two teams that have to prove themselves in the playoffs. The Islanders are the chic team in the league but they haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs when they have made the playoffs. Washington has consistently underachieved in the postseason this century. I am high on New York but the Caps are more balanced and as I've said, I like Braden Holtby.
Capitals in 7
M2 Predators vs. P2 Kings
I'm going all in on the Preds this season in the Western Conference and I think they can end the even year run that the Kings are on. They have the balance of offense with their terrific defense and they have got the goaltender in Pekka Rinne. They have got the good to take out the Kings.
Predators in 7
A1 Lightning vs. M1 Capitals
Is having essentially chalk in the Eastern Conference a bad thing? Or maybe the Lightning are simply the best team in the conference. I think they'll get back to the Cup Finals and poised to do one better than a year ago.
Lightning in 5
Stanley Cup Finals
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Nashville Predators
As I just alluded to with my Eastern Conference Finals analysis, I think that the Lightning are hungry to bounce back and win the whole damn thing this season. Simply put, Tampa Bay really does not have that one fatal flaw at 30,000 feet that I see the Predators exploiting.
Lightning in 5