An early look at the top five Stanley Cup contenders for the 2017-18 NHL season

As players experiment with new positions at practice and others share a piece of their mind about the NHL's stricter faceoff rules, another regular season fast approaches.

And with the arrival of a new season comes the demand for early -- and inevitably premature -- Stanley Cup predictions. Or, if you're the Pittsburgh Penguins, an official start to the quest for a three-peat.

It's far too soon to forecast the ins and the outs of the 2017-18 campaign, let alone the playoffs, which a season ago produced the underdog of underdogs in the Nashville Predators. In the name of the fun that comes with real hockey's return, we weeded through the NHL's 31 (!) teams and identified the five top championship contenders.

There are plenty of clubs who have the potential to make a run that didn't appear on this list (see: St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs, Minnesota Wild) or might be on this list in a few years' time (see: Winnipeg Jets), but if we're talking the upcoming season, here are your favorites:

5. Nashville Predators

The defending Western Conference champions, the Preds will be fighting to top an extraordinarily high bar they set in 2016-17.

After a riotous run, the Predators will face a tall task in replicating their peak playoff performance. USATSI

No team's pesky, high-scoring blue line warrants more credit for outgrowing underdog status after Nashville stole the postseason spotlight en route to a bout with the Pittsburgh Penguins. What the club lost in leadership with captain Mike Fisher retiring, it made up for in long-term security, adding Nick Bonino to an extremely deep and youthful core. Expecting 34-year-old Pekka Rinne to dazzle again and the Predators to repeat their cruise through the playoffs is a path to disappointment. But Nashville also has every reason to believe it won't be the 16th of 16 playoff contenders this season. Never say never, because this bunch is set to be competitive now and for years to come.

4. Anaheim Ducks

Their inability to make things happen when they need it the most, or at least get over that hump to play in the Stanley Cup Final, cannot be ignored.

The Ducks have the defense to make another big run, but can they finally get over the hump? USATSI

Neither can the age of a top line that isn't getting any younger. At some point, durability problems are bound to arise. Sticking to that top line, however, it's not like the Ducks aren't fielding a corps of championship-caliber pieces, especially if someone like Corey Perry takes an anticipated step forward from 2016-17. They've also got some up-and-comers on the blue line, which is the obvious strength for Anaheim after a summer in which the front office pushed and pushed some more to retain the pillars in front of John Gibson. Quite simply, the Ducks <em>have</em> to be on this list, even if gut feelings -- and a particular Pacific Division foe -- say they've got an uphill battle to take the Cup.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

Potential doesn't trump production, so if Ducks fans are unnerved by Tampa Bay getting a slight edge here, there is a case to be made.

With Steven Stamkos back on the ice, the Lightning tout an even more potent offense in 2017-18. USATSI

No one is entirely sure just how Steven Stamkos will look after his extended absence a season ago, and the Lightning will be hard pressed to finish the new year as strongly as they did in 2016-17. They also have what should be a repeat top-10 offense, which thrived for stretches even without Stamkos, added postseason experience with the arrival of Pens vet Chris Kunitz and a more settled Peter Budaj. Steve Yzerman did a masterful job retaining Tampa's young talent in free agency, and with the core he's assembled, there's no reason the Lightning shouldn't be back to full speed, gunning for one of the Eastern Conference's top spots.

2. Edmonton Oilers

If the Penguins weren't, you know, the Penguins, there wouldn't be any team with more obvious Stanley Cup potential.

Built on speed, the Oilers might be title favorites if it weren't for the defending champion Penguins. USATSI

Edmonton sacrificed some depth when it dealt Jordan Eberle for an underwhelming Ryan Strome to start the offseason, but the team followed that up with lucrative deals for both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl -- the driving forces of this club's high-speed offense, two of the rising stars of the NHL and, most of all, keys to the Oilers bringing home a title before they find themselves in financial turmoil. It's very possible that the bar has already been set a tad high for a team that's going to bank its year on youngsters like McDavid and Draisaitl, but Cam Talbot is no slouch in the net, and in an age where the league seems increasingly bent on nitpicking contact, who better to thrive than an Oilers unit built on speed?

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

It's like a hockey cliche to pick the Penguins here, but how in the world can you not?

The Penguins will be looking to celebrate a title for the third year in a row. USATSI

Identifying Pittsburgh as the No. 1 contender doesn't mean the Oilers or the Lightning or any other team is incapable of dethroning Steel City's heroes. Nashville came pretty darn close, we'll remind you. And the offseason wasn't particularly promising for the Pens, what with vets like Bonino, Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Cullen and Trevor Daley all finding new homes. Has any other team consistently spat in the face of hurdles more than the Pens, though? Sidney Crosby isn't "The Kid" anymore, but he's still playing like it, and with the roster mostly stocked from top to bottom, a collection of both familiar icons (see: Crosby, Evgeni Malkin) and newer stars (see: Murray, Jake Guentzel), there isn't another, more experienced contender.

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