NHL 2017-18: Way-too-early playoff picks, Stanley Cup favorites, bold predictions

Hockey is here.

We have got you covered with NHL Power Rankings, a look at the top five Stanley Cup contenders for the 2017-18 season, not to mention individual previews for each and every one of the 31 teams, but if that's not enough, fear not.

Cody Benjamin and Pete Blackburn have teamed up -- Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl style? -- to bring you some way-too-early predictions for the season ahead. From a forecast of the entire 16-team playoff picture and early stabs at who will take home the Cup to some bold projections for what the new season holds, have at it:

Stanley Cup playoffs picks

BENJAMIN

BLACKBURN

Eastern Conference

Eastern Conference

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Washington Capitals

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

3. Columbus Blue Jackets

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

4. Toronto Maple Leafs

5. Montreal Canadiens

5. Montreal Canadiens

6. Washington Capitals

6. Carolina Hurricanes

7. New York Rangers

7. Boston Bruins

8. Carolina Hurricanes

8. New York Rangers

Western Conference

Western Conference

1. Edmonton Oilers

1. Anaheim Ducks

2. Minnesota Wild

2. Minnesota Wild

3. Anaheim Ducks

3. Edmonton Oilers

4. Nashville Predators

4. Dallas Stars

5. Calgary Flames

5. Chicago Blackhawks

6. Chicago Blackhawks

6. Calgary Flames

7. Dallas Stars

7. Nashville Predators

8. Winnipeg Jets

8. Winnipeg Jets

Pete says: The Capitals lost some significant pieces over the summer and they aren't quite as good as last season, but they're still one of the best teams in the East and the one thing they know how to do is win during the regular reason. If the Lightning can stay healthy and prevent Dan Girardi from burning their entire operation to the ground then I would expect them to return to being a legitimate threat in the East. The Penguins are still the Penguins despite losing some significant role players and not adding a ton. There's a lot of hype and excitement surrounding this Maple Leafs team and where it's headed, but Toronto could still use a few pieces -- especially on the defensive end -- to help solidify itself as a major threat. The Canadiens still have questions offensively even with Jonathan Drouin leading the charge, but they've revamped their defense and Carey Price will once again play a pivotal role in determining how far they go. The Hurricanes haven't made the playoffs in nine years but they've quietly put together a solid young core and added to that with a very good offseason; if Scott Darling pans out in net, they have a good shot at returning to the postseason. The Bruins had a relatively quiet offseason and might very well be a bubble team once again, but they have a wave of rookies (Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork) coming up through the pipeline to aid the established core. The Rangers have helped themselves out on the defensive end by signing Kevin Shattenkirk, acquiring Anthony DeAngelo and ditching Girardi but are gambling on a 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist bouncing back and still being able to shoulder the load consistently between the pipes.

The Ducks mostly stood pat this offseason, but that's not necessarily a bad thing considering the run they put together last season. The Wild tread water a bit and haven't done much to instill confidence in them getting over the postseason hump, but they should still fare well in the regular season. The Oilers are probably the most exciting team in the West and they proved that they should be taken seriously last season, though they might be a little overhyped at this point. The Stars still have firepower and they made big offseason moves in all areas --  adding Alex Radulov and Martin Hanzal up front, Marc Methot on defense and Ben Bishop in net -- in order to get back to being a threat in the West. The Blackhawks had a busy offseason that saw some friendly faces return (Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp) and others leave (Niklas Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Scott Darling) but they're hoping added chemistry and young talent will help get them back on track after an ugly finish last year. The Flames still have questions in net with the new Mike Smith-Eddie Lack tandem, but they got even better on defense with the acquisition of Travis Hamonic and they're still solid (though a bit top-heavy) up front. The Predators are the West's reigning champs and they still have a stacked defense (even with Ryan Ellis out for an extended period of time) but they also still have questions at forward depth (Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell were solid adds) and in net. The Jets have a very good roster on paper, especially offensively, and this could be the year they finally start to piece it together, but they're going to need to overcome a concerning goaltending tandem of Steve Mason and Connor Hellebuyck.

Evgeny-kuznetsov-capitals.jpg
The Capitals are primed for at least a slight step back while the Leafs have the talent to make a push. USATSI

Cody says: There just isn't any way the Capitals don't take a dive this season, and there just isn't any way the Penguins don't make another big push. Both teams, top dogs from a year ago with incredible offense and stalwart goalies, underwent some dramatic changes in the offseason and enter October missing a handful of notable faces. The difference is Washington coughed up proven regulars or up-and-comers like Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson, whereas Pittsburgh said goodbye mostly to older, replaceable role players. Still, both squads should make it difficult for the Hurricanes to stay in the playoff picture, although Darling's chance to shine should be a nice story as Carolina shows the NHL it means business with some long-awaited veteran reinforcements. The Lightning have a legitimate shot at outdoing the Pens if Steven Stamkos is even close to back to normal, but they're also being hyped offensively to the point that we have to be careful not to forget their 2016-17 woes. While McDavid and Edmonton get all the love in the West, the Maple Leafs are the youngsters to watch in the East, where they could challenge as Cup contenders on the backs of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. The Blue Jackets are bound for at least a slight step back after a franchise best in wins, but it's hard to take them completely out of the picture when they only added juice to their first line. Both the Rangers and Canadiens, who played each other in the 2016-17 playoffs, are hit-or-miss wild cards with lots of established pieces but sizable questions either in net (see: aging Lundqvist) or at center.

It's hard to decide whether the Oilers are truly as formidable as most think they'll be or whether we're all just a little tipsy from gulping the McDavid MVP Kool-Aid at expeditious rates. The blue-line questions are real, but there also isn't an offensive core that manufactures more electrifying plays. Edmonton at least seems poised to edge the Ducks, who are no doubt playoff material with their stone wall of defensive vets but still don't inspire much confidence as postseason heroes. After the Pacific powerhouses, it's anyone's guess as to who falls into the playoff picture, because as much as mainstays like the Blackhawks have experience -- and, now, nostalgia -- on their side, even Chicago seems destined for another quick exit after 2016-17's stinker of an entrance. That should especially be the case considering the competition out of the Central, where the Predators will be pressed harder than Sidney Crosby pressed P.K. Subban's head into the ice to replicate their Stanley Cup Final peak. Yet they remain a deep, high-energy contender. Then you have the Flames out of the hot Pacific, and while they still seem green for a big run (maybe Jaromir Jagr helps), their blue line is even better this time around. The Stars get a nod almost by default because of their summer shopping spree, but the last spot is truly a tough one -- the Jets really seem primed for a breakout, but that would likely mean leaving a Stanley Cup sleeper in the Blues out of the mix.

Read Cody's full previews of all 31 teams right here.

Stanley Cup winner picks

BENJAMIN

BLACKBURN

Edmonton Oilers

Tampa Bay Lightning

Cody says: Boring pick, I know, but the Oilers are just too fast to contain. They sacrificed depth for dollars in order to lock up McDavid and his sidekick, Draisaitl, but those dollars will pay for a lot of production. The Penguins have as good a shot as anyone to get back to the Final, and it almost seems too good to be true to have Edmonton, with the new face of the NHL headlining its offense, go all the way. Still, with another firm outing from Cam Talbot, the Oilers' odds are better. And they were already favorable for a club built on speed amid increased efforts from the league to crack down on contact. McDavid got just about everything he could ever want over the summer -- trophies, video game covers, a $100 million deal. Now, he's coming for the Cup.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Both the Lightning and the Oilers boast the offensive talent to make a serious run at a title in 2017-18. USATSI

Pete says: This was my exact Cup Final prediction last season and that worked out swimmingly, so I've gone ahead and doubled down. But, in all seriousness, the Lightning have what it takes to hoist the Cup if they're able to stay healthy down the stretch. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are monsters up front and they have a strong supporting cast of forwards. Norris finalist Victor Hedman can be the trusted workhorse on the blue line and help shut down the other team's top talent. The biggest question might be Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is entering his first full season as a starting goaltender but has inspired confidence with his body of work in the past.

Bold predictions

Pete says: The Flames will win in Anaheim. The Ducks have won 29 straight games at home against the Calgary Flames (regular season and playoffs), the longest such streak in NHL history. The last time the Flames won a game in Anaheim was April 25, 2006 -- 11 years ago! But all streaks must come to an end, and this is the year that the Flames finally manage to leave the Honda Center with a victory. It will be a great relief for Calgary and a great disappointment to everyone who appreciates a great crowd taunt.  

Cody says: The Jets will make like the Predators and pull off a stunner in the playoffs. Neither their short- nor long-term goalie prospects are set with Steve Mason, but their core is built for a serious run in the next couple of seasons. Watch them surprise with a playoff berth in 2017-18, then surprise even more with a cruise into the second round. Don't forget, by the way, that if Mason isn't getting the job done in net, the Jets could still work the phone lines near the deadline and play the buyer's role in a swift stomp toward playoff hockey.

Pete says: Charlie McAvoy will win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Bruins fans got their first look at McAvoy during last season's playoff series against the Ottawa Senators and the 2016 first-round pick looked solid after being thrust into a situation that was far from ideal. Now heading into his first full NHL season, McAvoy figures to be a big part of the Bruins' back end. Defensemen typically take longer to develop at the NHL level -- a blue-liner has won the Calder just twice in the past decade -- but the Bruins will heavily rely on McAvoy to facilitate the offense (including the power play) and aid the transition game in a top-four role. Boston head coach Bruce Cassidy seems comfortable letting his blue liners play aggressively, which could certainly benefit a gifted young defenseman like McAvoy. His production might not be as impressive as other rookies on paper, but his overall contributions will lead to him being recognized as the league's top rookie at the end of the season.

Cody says: Vladimir Tarasenko will lead the NHL in goals, becoming the first Blues player to light the lamp 50 times in nearly 25 years. Is it odd to expect this much from the winger considering St. Louis' forward depth has already been ravaged by injuries? Can't be any odder than projecting that Jaromir Jagr would end up back in the place where his career began, with the Pittsburgh Penguins -- a prediction I planned to unveil right here before Jagr went ahead and signed with Calgary. Seriously, though, Tarasenko is a too-often-overlooked stud of a nice St. Louis core and would probably make some serious noise if the Blues are able to survive the Central. With Brayden Schenn in the fold and perhaps some added early-season pressure to step up in the wake of teammates' injuries, look for Tarasenko to blow his 2016-17 mark of 39 right out of the (frozen) water.

Pete says: Jack Eichel will be a Hart Trophy finalist. The 20-year-old Eichel didn't get as much love as he deserved last season, probably because A) He missed the first 21 games of the season; B) The Sabres stunk; and C) Connor McDavid put up 100 points. But, with that in mind, Eichel still finished as nearly a point-per-game player and was outstanding at creating scoring opportunities on a team that often struggled offensively. Heading into his third NHL season and playing on a better Buffalo team, Eichel is primed to establish himself as one of the NHL's true elite all-around forwards. If he stays healthy, he'll finish the season with 80-90 points and be a contender for the league's MVP award.

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