The season is finally here! On Friday, I went through the Eastern Conference, picking Tampa Bay to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. Today, we'll continue where we left off the predictions on Friday and pick a Western Conference champion and answer who will hoist the Cup.
With that, let's look at how the West will play out:
- Chicago Blackhawks
- Nashville Predators
- Dallas Stars
Chicago is a team that is at its best when it needs to be. Last season they finished third in the division before dominating in the playoffs yet again and winning their third Cup in six years. Given the roster shakeup in the offseason, however, and how competitive the division is, the Blackhawks won't coast their way through the season and will quickly assert that they are the team to beat. Peter Laviolette has the Predators playing well and will easily get them into the playoffs yet again. Dallas has a lot of questions on defense, but if Antti Niemi can live up to expectations, the offense certainly has enough weapons to take the Stars back into the postseason.
- Anaheim Ducks
- Calgary Flames
- Vancouver Canucks
Anaheim is far and away the best team in the conference and has the best regular season coach in the NHL in Bruce Boudreau. Calgary was a year ahead of schedule last season and in the face of several disintegrating teams, the Flames will be the second best team in the division. Third place is a tossup between Vancouver, San Jose and Los Angeles, three teams who are clearly on the decline. I'll give it to Vancouver who always plays well in the regular season even if they disappear in the playoffs.
- Minnesota Wild
- St. Louis Blues
Minnesota is going to take a step back because it would be unreasonable to expect Devan Dubnyk to replicate what he did last season. Still, both he and the team around him are good enough to get back into the playoffs. St. Louis will be in a battle to make the postseason after (bold prediction alert) Ken Hitchcock is fired in November, but they have enough talent to rally.
1. Chicago vs. 4. Minnesota (1st wild card)
Even when Minnesota looked like a team of destiny last season, Chicago throttled them in a four-game sweep. Expect a similar outcome this season.
2. Nashville vs. 3. Dallas
I do not trust a team that relies on Mike Ribeiro on its top line, but that's how I felt last season too and the Predators dominated. I do trust Rinne and Laviolette, however, and I trust them more than Niemi or Dallas' defense.
1. Anaheim vs. 4. St. Louis (2nd wild card)
Take a good long look at this matchup before you answer. Consider this: Boudreau has underachieved throughout his entire career in the playoffs up until last season and the Blues, even with the uncertainty surrounding their head coach, is dripping with talent. Everyone is picking the Ducks to win the Cup and we all know what happened the last time that happened for Bruce. If the Blues could figure out what they were doing in net, I would be very tempted to pick this upset.
2. Calgary Flames vs. 3. Vancouver Canucks
If Calgary could embarrass Vancouver last season when the Canucks were still the better team, I don't have much hope for Vancouver now that they are past their prime and the Flames look even better.
Chicago vs. Nashville
Getting through the West is a tough grind and I can't see Chicago being able to do it in consecutive seasons, especially because I think this year's team is not as good as last season's. Nashville showed me a lot in Laviolette's first season, I expect them to continue to get better in his second year and shock the Blackhawks.
Anaheim vs. Calgary
Anaheim made Calgary look like a JV team in last season's matchup. I love Calgary and I still don't really trust Boudreau in the playoffs. I think the Flames will have learned a lot form last season's domination and will be better for it. Only eight teams have won both the Presidents' Trophy on the Stanley Cup because it is really hard to do. I have Anaheim penciled in for the Presidents' Trophy, but not the Stanley Cup. I think they will be upset at some point along the way and this looks like a good spot for that to happen.
Nashville vs. Calgary
Whoever comes out of the Central is going to be my pick to win the conference. That division is a grind and will be better prepared for postseason play. To reach the Conference finals for Calgary is a phenomenal result and once again is a year ahead of schedule. I do not think they are ready yet to climb all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals just yet.
Stanley Cup Finals
Tampa Bay vs. Nashville
I am all in on Tampa Bay. There is no other team in the NHL that can boast the same level of young talent as the Lightning. While Rinne is good enough to bring the Predators this far, at some point, they will face a team they can't match goal for goal. Tampa is that team. The sad thing is that for a team as young as the Lightning, their window is surprisingly small because they will have to make some tough decisions to stay under the cap. They know that and the players know that. This young team will not have a young player's mentality where everyone believes they will be in contention every year. There will be a sense of urgency that permeates through the organization and fuels a run all they way to the Stanley Cup.
Stanley Cup Winner: Tampa Bay
Who do you think will hoist the Cup? Give your pick in comments below!
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