A year ago, would you have picked the Pittsburgh Penguins to win the 2015-16 Stanley Cup title? Sure you would have. Just like you had the San Jose Sharks pencilled in as Western Conference champs and Stanley Cup finalists.
One of the beautiful offshoots of the NHL’s salary cap era is that it has leveled the playing field and made it possible for any team to quickly go from doormat to contender. The Sharks, for example, missed the playoffs in 2014-15 and came within a pair of wins of lifting Lord Stanley’s mug in 2015-16.
Don’t count on either team being back for an encore performance. The Penguins are co-Cup favorites in Bovada’s Stanley Cup futures line at +900, while the Sharks are listed at +1400, but with both teams heavily invested in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, the off-season will be even shorter than usual for the Cup final squads.
No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champion since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings and only one losing finalist has returned to the final series in consecutive seasons in the past three decades.
So who should we watch out for during the 2016-17 NHL campaign? Which teams will remain the cream of the crop, and which ones will defy the odds and make a run at the title?
Tampa Bay Lightning: -1100 And Our Choice To Win Stanley Cup
Co-third choice in Bovada’s Stanley Cup futures odds, the Lightning are primed to make that final step to glory after coming so close in the previous two seasons. With a Cup final appearance in 2014-15 and an Eastern Conference final appearance last season without the services of leading goal scorer and team captain Steven Stamkos, the Lightning are our choice to hoist the Holy Grail.
An unrestricted free agent, all expected Stamkos to bolt from the Lightning, but he opted to stay on an eight-year deal worth $68 million, much less than he could have garnered on the open market. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman also locked up cornerstone defenseman Victor Hedman to a long-term deal.
This team is loaded from top to bottom. They can score, they can defend and they have a Vezina Trophy contender in Ben Bishop between the pipes. The Lightning first brought the Stanley Cup to Florida in 2003-04 and are poised to do so again.
Chicago Blackhawks: +900
The Blackhawks will get younger in their bottom six forwards this season but you know what – so did the Penguins last season and they went all the way.
Expect a bounceback year from the Blackhawks, who rarely make early playoff exits in successive springs. Only a fool would count out a team that has Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane working their magic up front and Joel Quenneville pulling the strings behind the bench. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a team with a better top-four defensive group than Chicago’s quartet of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Bryan Campbell.
Washington Capitals (+1100)
About the only knock against the Capitals is the fact that they haven’t been able to get there yet. This team appears to have all the elements in place to make a run at Lord Stanley’s mug.
At 30, the window for Washington super scorer Alex Ovechkin to add the Stanley Cup, the one missing piece to his Hall of Fame resume, is slowly shutting. But perhaps with another year’s experience under Braden Holtby, defenseman John Carlson and forward Evgeny Kuznetsov’s belts, this will be the spring that the Capitals finally get it done.
Dallas Stars (+1200)
In an era where goals are harder to come by than Canadian teams in the playoffs, the Stars are an anomaly. They can score at will. Few teams can boast of having the scoring punch of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza.
Dan Hamhuis should bolster the Stars defense. Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen must find a way to play consistently between the pipes and the Stars have to avoid crippling injuries to win it all. If these variables come to fruition, Lord Stanley’s mug could be headed for Texas for the first time since 1999.
Colorado Avalanche (+5000)
Yeah, you’re right – this one is coming from way out in left field. But like we said earlier, the Sharks weren’t a playoff team two years ago, and they nearly won the Cup last spring.
The consensus around the NHL is that the Avalanche should be a much better team than they’ve shown on the ice and with the likes of Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog up front, it’s hard to debate that point.
Colorado’s defense isn’t spectacular but it isn’t dreadful either. Semyon Varlamov has displayed a tendency to win games on his own in goal and will be relied upon heavily if the Avs are to be the NHL’s surprise unit this season.
The opinion among hockey people is that the one person holding this team back was recently-resigned coach Patrick Roy, who was stuck in a avant-garde, archaic mindset from when his days as a star goalie.
Let’s not forget that the Avs won the title in the NHL’s deepest division, the Central, in 2013-14. If Roy’s replacement can bring Colorado up to speed, the Avs could be the surprise team of the 2016-17 NHL season.
Stanley Cup final prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning in six games over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Latest posts by Jabberhead (see all)
- The encore to USC’s 2017 recruiting class could be even better - March 1, 2017
- Patriots Do it Again - February 6, 2017
- Are Patriots the greatest dynasty of them all? - January 29, 2017