Visit the Betway Insider NHL predictions page for picks throughout the season.

Stanley Cup winner: Tampa Bay Lightning

There is nothing like the feeling just before a new season is about to begin. The 2021-22 NHL campaign is full of possibility, but it feels like it’s going to begin much like the last two seasons ended – with everyone chasing the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The two-time defending Stanley Cup champs are definitely going to look different from a season ago, with some key losses off their championship rosters, but the core is largely the same. They have one of the top three goalies in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy, one of the best defensemen in the game today in Victor Hedman and one of the elite wings in all of hockey, Nikita Kucherov with a supporting cast that includes star-caliber players like Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, too. The Lightning are still going to contend.

As good as Tampa is, though, we have not seen a team win three consecutive Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980-83. Even the vaunted Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s had their streaks interrupted, winning five in seven years. It seems impossible to do it, especially in the salary cap era. But the Lightning still could do it. They still may be the best team on paper and right now they have the second-best odds to win it all for the third-straight time.

As I look around at the other top contenders – the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes – I see teams that have a few things that give me pause. The Lightning, even after losing an entire line of players that included Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow that was integral to their success, still look like the most complete team in the league. Maybe they’re a bit more top heavy now, but they still have stars and secondary scoring, plus a veteran blue line that has talent. Could the idea of fatigue or a lack of roster flexibility really be their downfall? I’m not so sure.

When I look at the Colorado Avalanche, I see a team that can play closest to Tampa Bay’s style with a similar amount of talent, but they’re running with a new goalie in Darcy Kuemper, and might still need a little more depth to really battle with the best of the best in the NHL.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes each have excellent teams, but huge question marks with their goaltenders this season, which is somewhat funny because they basically traded goalies in free agency as former Maple Leaf Frederik Andersen signed with Carolina and former Cane Petr Mrazek signed with Toronto. Both have dealt with some injuries in the recent past and have not performed at the level needed for a No. 1 goalie.

The Vegas Golden Knigths had to make some changes last season, most dramatically parting ways with Marc-Andre Fleury. Robin Lehner is more than capable as a starter, but Fleury was such a huge part of the Vegas identity. They will miss his leadership and more importantly, let’s not forget that he won the Vezina Trophy last year as the league’s best goalie.

Meanwhile, I don’t think Boston is deep enough right now to make a huge impact. They’ve got a lot of great pieces and one of the best lines in hockey with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, but that secondary scoring might be harder to come by.

Then you go back to the Tampa Bay Lightning and they have so many pieces from their championship teams, I just can’t make a strong enough case for anyone else to be my pick to win the Stanley Cup. Unlikely as a three-peat may be, if there is any team built to do it, it’s this Tampa Bay Lightning team. They’ve got the experience, they’ve got the skill, they’re well-coached and having one of the best goalies anywhere helps a lot, too.

Sleeper Pick: New York Islanders

If you want to look for a little more value in your futures bet, I think one of the most intriguing teams is the Islanders. General manager Lou Lamoriello has built largely the same roster from a year ago, with some of their younger players more experienced. The Islanders are really tough to play against because head coach Barry Trotz has a disciplined system that makes goals hard to come by for the opposition.

On top of that, the Isles will be playing in a new building after years of arena limbo, going between the outdated Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the not-made-for-hockey Barclays Center in Brooklyn. As they open UBS Arena in Belmont, the Islanders have a legit contending team.

Mathew Barzal is one of the league’s rising stars and the most important player to the team’s offensive attack, but the Isles brought back so many players from last year’s team and will get captain Anders Lee back after he missed most of last season. From the personnel they have, to the goaltending, coaching, discipline and structure, this is a team that could turn heads and go on a run.

Division Winners

Atlantic Division: Toronto Maple Leafs

The Lightning are the best team in the division top to bottom, but I don’t think you’re going to see them sweat the regular season too much. The Maple Leafs, however, are in a constant state of needing to prove themselves and that could translate to a more explosive regular season.

The Maple Leafs know they have to deliver after many first-round exits, but that can start in the early season. Auston Matthews is the league’s best goal scorer and Mitch Marner has been among the NHL’s most productive players over the last few years. I’m quite concerned about the goaltending, but I do think Toronto will manage to pick up enough wins between Petr Mrazek and Jack Campbell to be the top team in the division.

Metropolitan Division: New York Islanders

The Metro is always a tough division, but it should be extra tough this year with a lot of teams looking to improve off of last season. The Islanders might just be the most complete team in this division when healthy, though. Between Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin have made a great duo in net for the Isles, but the strength of this team is probably in its defense.

Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock have become such a great shutdown pair, plus they brought in living legend Zdeno Chara for another run at the Cup. Up front, meanwhile, the team is healthy and deep. The Islanders have a very effective fourth line, but one area of concern is if they’re going to score at a high enough rate to win the whole division. That still remains to be seen, but I like the Islanders to have a great first season in UBS Arena.

Central Division: Colorado Avalanche

I don’t think there’s a team in this division that’s particularly close to Colorado. They have one of the most fast, dynamic teams in the game today, led by Nathan MacKinnon and young defenseman Cale Makar. While goalie Darcy Kuemper is new to Denver, he’s no stranger to having NHL success. He comes to Colorado from Arizona where he saw a lot of pucks and stopped more than his fair share.

When it comes down to it, Colorado has a chance to be among the most dominant teams in the league this season. Their speed and skill dictates it, but they have to take just a few more small steps, which includes becoming harder to play against in the playoffs.

Pacific Division: Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights are built to compete. They have been since the day they entered the league. Things have changed in a lot of ways in the hockey world, but Vegas being among the more dominant teams in the league is not one of them. With top-to-bottom depth at forward led by Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson, they’re going to be a handful in an otherwise weak division.

Keep an eye on Edmonton as well as a potential contender for the Pacific, but I think the Golden Knights are really the team to beat once again out west.