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Is this the year for the Capitals and Predators to break through? USATSI

The NHL season will begin Wednesday night with a host of possibilities. For many teams, it represents the opportunity to begin an earnest quest for the Stanley Cup, others will merely be looking to take steps forward, but the beauty of a new season is the clean slate it offers.

Several teams are going to hope that clean slate also offers a chance to erase years of trudging through abysmal seasons and bitter disappointments. Organizations like the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres expect to step out from the shadows of basement-dwelling seasons and more directly start their march back to not only respectability, but contention. Others like the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks, each team getting closer to the Stanley Cup than they had been in years (or in the Sharks case, ever), have to start over after that long postseason march without the desired hardware.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins will look to defend their crown with the target on their backs. No team has repeated as champion since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings. The salary cap era has made it all but impossible, but the Penguins return mostly the same roster and now they get a full season with head coach Mike Sullivan. They will be difficult to knock off.

But as we've seen every single season, there will be things that shock us, teams that exceed and fall well below expectations. It's why we come back every season. We can all try to make our predictions, but it's more fun when we're wrong, isn't it?

With so many possibilities ahead this NHL season, here's my look at how things will shake out this year.

2016-17 NHL Season Predictions
Eastern Conference
Atlantic Division
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Atlantic at a glance: The Atlantic has become one of the most wildly unpredictable divisions in all of hockey and it usually comes right down to the last game of the season to decide how it goes. On paper, the Lightning are the top team, but the Habs with a healthy Carey Price and the Panthers with a revamped defense are going to be real threats. After that, things get very murky.

The Bruins remain at risk for missing the playoffs for a third straight year after leaving their spotty defense unaddressed, but their forwards and Tuukka Rask should keep them in the hunt. Meanwhile, the Red Wings' record playoff streak is in danger after an offseason with a lot of turnover. They still have a team that can do it, but it's hard to see them leapfrogging other teams in the division.

Also, look for the Sabres to take a step forward - maybe not a huge one, but noticeable. The Senators have made a coaching change and could still threaten for a playoff spot despite my personal lower expectations. Lastly, I think the Maple Leafs are going to absolutely be better this year, but not good enough to get out of the division's basement.

Metropolitan Division
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Metropolitan at a glance: The defending Stanley Cup and Presidents' Trophy champions are going to be locked in a heated matchup this year. Both have the best teams in the division by a fairly wide margin. After them, it's going to be an absolute battle for that locked-in playoff spot. The Flyers should build off of a playoff campaign, while the Rangers and Islanders look like they could backslide just a bit. The Rangers' defense is a real trouble spot, but we've seen Henrik Lundqvist drag them into the playoffs before.

Meanwhile, the Devils, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets are still marching their way back, but have far enough to go to maintain their positioning in the bottom three here.

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Is the balance of power shifting in the Central? USATSI
Western Conference
Central Division
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Central at a glance: P.K. Subban's arrival is important, but the Predators also have Roman Josi mid-prime and Filip Forsberg just entering what will be his best years. They are going to challenge for the Stanley Cup if they get adequate goaltending from Pekka Rinne, which is no guarantee. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks, Stars and Blues should maintain their vice grip on playoff spots as the Jets and Wild will both be battling for wild card positioning. Winnipeg's forward group is why I'll give them the edge as my dark horse to make the playoffs.

Lastly, the Avalanche will need a little more time to sort things out under new coach Jared Bednar, but look for them to show some improvement.

Pacific Division
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Pacific at a glance: This division is completely up in the air, but I think the Ducks' reign in the regular season ends here. The Sharks have largely the same roster from last year's team and will be looking to make that one last push with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The Kings struggled down the stretch last year and didn't get much better in the offseason, but they still have enough to get in, as do the Ducks.

Then it looks like it could be the Battle of Alberta for at least a shot at the wild card. It's going to be tough to wrest away that last wild card spot from a Central Division team, but if the Flames can get Johnny Gaudreau signed, they look positioned to improve with Brian Elliott between the pipes. The Oilers are going to be much better than they have been and Connor McDavid could make them a postseason threat.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes are going to take positive steps and could be in the hunt all season with their young, but talented roster. Lastly, a lot of projections have the Canucks finishing last in the league and that doesn't change here.

Conference and Cup Finals
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Western Conf. Champ
Eastern Conf. Champ
Stanley Cup Champions

Stanley Cup picks at a glance: I must have changed my Stanley Cup picks three or four times before finally settling on the Washington Capitals over the Nashville Predators, a.k.a. The Barry Trotz Bowl.

Well aware of the Capitals' regular postseason failings and the fact that they'll almost definitely have to go through the Penguins, the Caps have to break the drought sooner or later. We saw the San Jose Sharks break through last year to reach the Cup Final, so why can't the Caps be next? And as long as they're there, they might as well win the thing.

Neither pick is comfortably made, as the Preds have to hope Pekka Rinne regains his form this season and they have to survive the gauntlet that is the Central Division for this prediction to become a reality. Still, they are going to be a fast team that will be difficult to contain and they're hitting the sweet spot of the careers for a lot of their top players like Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg.

For the record, I also have the Lightning and Sharks reaching their respective conference finals.

We've seen a lot of the same teams make it to the Stanley Cup Final over the last nine or so years. The Preds have never been there, while the Caps haven't since 1998. These two teams look as good as any to break the cycle.