The way the NHL stacks up might look a lot like it finished last season, although Pittsburgh faces a hard road to defend its title with Sidney Crosby sidelined as the puck drops Wednesday night. The Sharks and the Lightning get our early nod for the Stanley Cup Final, with the Wild poised to be where it often seems to be — on the playoff bubble.
Wednesday’s opening schedule
Toronto at Ottawa, 6 p.m.
St. Louis at Chicago, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)
Calgary at Edmonton, 9 p.m.
Los Angeles at San Jose, 9:30 p.m. (NBCSN)
Thursday’s Wild opener
7 p.m. at St. Louis (FSN)
Western conference predictions
CENTRAL DIVISION PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Dallas Stars
2015-16: 50-23-9, 1st (109 points)
Providing Tyler Seguin stays healthy, the highest-scoring team in the NHL last season will light it up again with Jamie Benn captaining the ship. Goaltending remains the biggest concern.
2. St. Louis Blues
2015-16: 49-24-9, 2nd (107 points)
The great unknown is how Jake Allen will handle No. 1 duties without Brian Elliott, but even without David Backes, this is a loaded team led by Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo and a horde of up-and-comers.
3. Chicago Blackhawks
2015-16: 47-26-9, 3rd (103 points)
As usual, General Manager Stan Bowman had to nip and tuck to keep the Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane-led Hawks out of salary cap purgatory. Gone are three key players, including Andrew Shaw, but the Hawks always are a contender.
PACIFIC DIVISION PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. San Jose Sharks
2015-16: 46-30-6, 6th (98 points)
Last season’s Cup finalist will be a target all season, but they’re fast and explosive with Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns speeding all over the rink. As usual, Joe Thornton still plays at a high level.
2. Los Angeles Kings
2015-16: 48-28-6, 5th (102 points)
Never seems to score as much as they should and their blue line depth isn’t the greatest, but Jonathan Quick’s still in goal and Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Drew Doughty are plenty to win.
3. Anaheim Ducks
2015-16: 46-25-11, 4th (103 points)
After a 1-7-2 start last season, they were one of the best teams in the NHL before their first-round exit. The question is how Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf react to Randy Carlyle’s return as coach.
7. Minnesota Wild
2015-16: 38-33-11, 8th (87 points)
Take out the latest midseason swoon, and the Wild was one of the top teams in the West in the first half and March on. Bruce Boudreau and Eric Staal should help, but it wouldn’t be a Wild season if it wasn’t a nail-biter until the end.
8. Nashville Predators
2015-16: 41-27-14, 7th (96 points)
The Predators better hope Pekka Rinne is better than he was in the World Cup, but PK Subban should make for some fun firewagon hockey and Filip Forsberg and James Neal are studs up front.
REST OF THE WEST
9. Winnipeg Jets
2015-16: 35-39-8, 11th (78 points)
Biggest team in the NHL will be a chore to face up front with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele joined by rookies Patrick Laine and Kyle Connor, but can they stay out of the box and can their goalies stop pucks?
10. Calgary Flames
2015-16: 35-40-7, 12th (77 points)
A big disappointment last season, they’ve got a goalie in Brian Elliott now after they were last in goals against last season. Johnny Gaudreau finished seventh in NHL scoring, and they’re solid on the back end.
11. Colorado Avalanche
2015-16: 39-39-4, 9th (82 points)
Patrick Roy’s departure will be addition by subtraction and Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene are coming off solid World Cups. But the blue line is just not good enough.
12. Arizona Coyotes
2015-16: 35-39-8, 10th (78 points)
Young up-and-coming team, but the Coyotes will have to worry about second-year blues from Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. But this team, which signed Alex Goligoski and brought back Radim Vrbata, is building the right way.
13. Edmonton Oilers
2015-16: 31-43-8, 14th (70 points)
Gone are former No. 1 overall picks Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov and in comes a second year of Connor McDavid, defenseman Adam Larsson and free agent Milan Lucic. But last season, they couldn’t score or defend, which is a bad combination.
14. Vancouver Canucks
2015-16: 31-38-13, 13th (75 points)
Loui Eriksson was a solid pickup, but the second-lowest scoring team last season just seems to be a blah team off the rails right now and a long ways off from the one that went to the Cup Final five years ago.
Eastern Conference predictions
ATLANTIC DIVISION PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
2015-16: 46-31-5, 6th (97 points)
After the Lightning reached the conference semifinals without Steven Stamkos, the star stunned everybody by re-signing. Stacked again with Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.
2. Detroit Red Wings
2015-16: 41-30-11, 8th (93 points)
Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar supply a strong core, and veteran Frans Nielsen gives Detroit more depth up the middle.
3. Montreal Canadiens
2015-16: 38-38-6, 13th (82 points)
The Habs executed the biggest pickup in the NHL, and it wasn’t even Shea Weber. Goalie Carey Price is back; Montreal was a top team last year until Price’s knee injury.
METROPOLITAN DIVISION PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Washington Capitals
2015-16: 56-18-8, 1st (120 points)
Ran away with the NHL during last year’s regular season and should do so again with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Braden Holtby continues to be one of the NHL’s top goalies.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
2015-16: 48-26-8, 2nd (104 points)
Last season’s Stanley Cup champion was a well-oiled machine once it got into the playoffs. The concern this season is a natural Cup hangover and the concussion that has sidelined superstar Sidney Crosby.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
2015-16: 41-27-14, 7th (96 points)
A wild-card team last season, the Flyers are going to continue to get better with a young D led by Shayne Gostisbehere and a good amount of firepower up front with by Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn.
7. New York Islanders
2015-16: 45-27-10, 5th (100 points)
As long as goalie Jaroslav Halak is healthy, the Isles have more than enough talent, especially up front with star John Tavaras, pickup Andrew Ladd and Minnesotans Brock Nelson and Anders Lee.
8. Florida Panthers
2015-16: 47-26-9, 3rd (103 points)
Big worry is how Jonathan Huberdeau’s long-term injury and Nick Bjugstad’s broken hand affects things from the outset, but Aleks Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad and Reilly Smith are capable.
REST OF THE EAST
9. New York Rangers
2015-16: 46-27-9, 4th (101 points)
Wound up skating into the playoffs effectively last season, but still ... Rookie Jimmy Vesey should be the real deal, but will goalie Henrik Lundqvist, 34, crack?
10. Boston Bruins
2015-16: 42-31-9, 9th (93 points)
David Backes should look good in black and gold and Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci will continue to run the show, but Zdeno Chara’s decline highlights serious blue line holes.
11. New Jersey Devils
2015-16: 38-36-8, 12th (84 points)
GM Ray Shero is methodically building this team the right way, and infusing more offense to a conservative team. The Taylor Hall trade should pay big dividends.
12. Ottawa Senators
2015-16: 38-35-9, 11th (85 points)
Derick Brassard trade was a good one. There’s talent, including superstar D Erik Karlsson, but they finished 26th in the NHL in goals against last season.
13. Buffalo Sabres
2015-16: 35-36-11, 14th (81 points)
GM Tim Murray is putting his stamp on this team, and the latest move was throwing a wad of cash at Kyle Okposo. Jack Eichel should take another big step.
14. Toronto Maple Leafs
2015-16: 29-42-11, 16th (69 points)
Rebuilding, with Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner. They won’t be an easy beat.
15. Columbus Blue Jackets
2015-16: 34-40-8, 15th (76 points)
John Tortorella has his work cut out this season. Brandon Saad popped in 31 goals, but Nick Foligno was a colossal flop.
16. Carolina Hurricanes
2015-16: 35-31-16, 10th (86 points)
In a complete rebuild, they have a lot of young talent led by Elias Lindholm and the acquisition of Teuvo Teravainen.
RUSSO'S TROPHY CASE
Hart Trophy (MVP)
Jamie Benn, Dallas
Maurice Richard Trophy (leading goal scorer)
Alex Ovechkin, Washington
Art Ross Trophy (most points)
Patrick Kane, Chicago
Norris Trophy (best defenseman)
Brent Burns, San Jose
Jack Adams Trophy (best coach)
Lindy Ruff, Dallas
Calder Trophy (best rookie)
Patrick Laine, Winnipeg
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton
First coach fired
Willie Desjardins, Vancouver
Russo picks the playoffs
Eastern Conference champion: Tampa Bay Western Conference champion: San Jose
Stanley Cup champion: San Jose
Last season’s run will be a big learning lesson for this exhilarating team to watch.