Bold Predictions for the 2015-16 NHL Season

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistOctober 1, 2015

Bold Predictions for the 2015-16 NHL Season

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    With the 2015-16 NHL season starting soon, many fans, bloggers and pundits are making their predictions for the upcoming campaign. Rather than make safe picks, we're opting for bolder choices.

    Among the fearless forecasts in the following slideshow are potential winners of some notable NHL awards. We'll also predict which 2015 non-playoff teams will reach the 2016 postseason and which club will emerge as this season's Stanley Cup champion.

    Feel free to weigh in with your opinions, or offer up your own bold NHL predictions, in the comments section below.

Blue Jackets, Stars and Panthers Make the Playoffs

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    After missing the 2015 NHL playoffs, expect the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers to be postseason contenders in 2015-16.

    With a healthier roster compared to last season, the Blue Jackets are a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. Led by a powerful first line featuring left wing Brandon Saad, center Ryan Johansen and right wing Nick Foligno, the Jackets will easily nail down a playoff berth. 

    While there's still some concerns about the young Stars defense, their goaltending will improve with Antti Niemi joining Kari Lehtonen between the pipes. The addition of veteran winger Patrick Sharp adds more punch to an offense led by Tyler Seguin and 2015 Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn (pictured above). 

    The Panthers narrowly missed qualifying for last season's playoffs. With an experienced starting goalie in Roberto Luongo, 2015 rookie of the year Aaron Ekblad on defense and the ageless Jaromir Jagr riding shotgun with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers will pounce on a postseason berth. 

Red Wings Finally Miss the Playoffs

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    The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs in 24 consecutive seasons. That's the longest active streak and is tied for the fourth longest in NHL history. Sadly, all good things must come to end, and so will the Wings' continuous run of postseason appearances. 

    In recent years, the Wings have been rebuilding on the fly. Reaching the playoffs isn't the certainty it once was. Given the promising talent within their system, their future looks bright. However, they will be passed in the standings this season by rival clubs stocked with rising talent.

    While the Wings are transitioning promising talent into their lineup, they rely too much on aging veterans Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall. Younger players such as Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Danny DeKeyser aren't ready yet for leadership roles.

    For the first time in a decade, they no longer have coach Mike Babcock behind the bench. These factors will knock them out of contention this season.

Claude Julien Becomes the First NHL Coach to Be Fired

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    Having missed the playoffs last spring for the first time since 2007, the Boston Bruins shook up their roster and front office. Surprisingly, head coach Claude Julien avoided the purge.

    Julien coached the Bruins to two Stanley Cup Final appearances (2011, 2013) and one championship. An aging roster, injuries to key players (David Krejci and Zdeno Chara) and a lack of salary-cap space to address depth issues contributed to last season's decline. However, after eight seasons behind the Bruins bench, the players could be growing weary of Julien's demanding ways.

    The Bruins front office seems to expect a quick turnaround in the club's on-ice fortunes. Given the state of their roster (especially their defense), that's unlikely to happen. As a result, expect Julien to be out of a job by midseason.

Evander Kane Scores 40 Goals

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    Early in his NHL career, Buffalo Sabres left wing Evander Kane was a promising young forward with the Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets. In 2011-12, Kane netted a career-best 30 goals, and it seemed the 40-goal plateau was in reach. 

    Since then, injuries and inconsistency have hampered Kane. Traded from Winnipeg to Buffalo last February, the 24-year-old now has an opportunity to get his career back on track with the Sabres. On Sept. 17, Kane told NHL.com's Joe Yerdon that reaching 40 or 50 goals was a possibility this season.

    Skating on the Sabres' top line with center Ryan O'Reilly and right wing Tyler Ennis (pictured above), Kane has three goals in as many preseason games. With talented new linemates and a determination to regain his high-scoring form, Kane will reach the 40-goal mark this season.

Sam Bennett Wins the Calder Trophy

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    When it comes to this season's NHL rookies, all the attention is upon Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Buffalo Sabres pivot Jack Eichel. They were the top two selections in the 2015 NHL draft, and it's expected they'll jockey for the Calder Memorial Trophy as this season's top rookie.

    Overlooked amid the McDavid-Eichel hype is Calgary Flames center Sam Bennett, who is also entering his first full NHL campaign. Selected fourth overall in the 2014 NHL draft, Bennett is a feisty, skilled two-way forward who can play center or wing.

    Shoulder surgery limited Bennett to just one regular-season game last season. In the playoffs, however, he was a pleasant surprise, potting three goals (including a game-winner) and four points in 11 games. That experience gives Bennett an advantage over McDavid and Eichel, and it will carry the 19-year-old to the Calder Trophy.

Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar Finally Win Some Hardware

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    Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and center Anze Kopitar are considered among the NHL's elite players. They're invaluable members of the Kings' lineup and were key factors in the club's Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014. However, they have yet to earn individual awards for their efforts.

    Doughty, 25, is a two-time finalist (2010, 2015) for the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman. Kopitar, 27, was a finalist for the 2015 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as the league's most gentlemanly player, and is a two-time finalist (2014 and 2015) for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the top defensive forward. 

    Only a year after winning their second Cup title, the Kings missed the playoffs last season. They want to atone for that failure. Kopitar and Doughty, their two best players, will lead the way as the Kings return to playoff contention. As a result, Kopitar will finally win the Selke Trophy, while Doughty nets his first Norris title.

Devan Dubnyk Wins the Vezina Trophy

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    Acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in a midseason trade, Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk was the NHL's hottest goalie in the second half of 2014-15. He finished second to Montreal Canadiens starter Carey Price in goals-against average and save percentage, won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as top goalie.

    With that stellar performance, Dubnyk saved the Wild's season and his NHL career. After struggling earlier in his career with the Edmonton Oilers and Nashville Predators, it's natural to assume that the 29-year-old merely caught a hot streak and will return to his inconsistent ways this season. 

    His stunning improvement, however, was due in part to working with former Arizona Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke last season. Joining a more defensively responsible team in Minnesota also bolstered his game.

    Now playing with more confidence and maturity behind a solid Wild roster, Dubnyk will prove last season was no fluke by winning the Vezina Trophy.

Vladimir Tarasenko Tops the Scoring Race

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    St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko enjoyed a breakout performance in 2014-15. He netted career highs in goals (37), assists (36) and points (73). The 23-year-old was the Blues' leading scorer and finished among the league leaders in goals and points. He also led the Blues in playoff goals with six.

    Tarasenko is among the NHL's most dazzling scorers. The 6'0", 219-pound winger has superb puck-handling skills and is very strong on his skates. He's the type of player who gives fans a sense that something exciting will happen whenever he touches the puck.

    Though Tarasenko has yet to reach his full potential, he's already the Blues' franchise player. This season will be his best yet, as he will reach the 50-goal mark and win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer with 90 points.

John Tavares Wins the Hart Trophy

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    New York Islanders captain John Tavares is considered among the NHL's elite players. Last season, he finished second in NHL scoring with 86 points. Since his debut in 2009-10, the 25-year-old center has led the Islanders in scoring in all but one season. Tavares is unquestionably the Islanders' franchise player.

    Tavares was a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the player most valuable player to his team in 2013 and 2015. He finished third both times in the voting, as the award went to Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin in 2013 and Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price in 2015.

    Entering 2015-16, the Islanders are a legitimate playoff contender. Tavares is now in his playing prime and flanked by a pair of talented young wingmen in Anders Lee and Ryan Strome. This line will be among the league's best. They'll lead the way as the Islanders become a top-four team in the Eastern Conference.

    For his efforts, Tavares will finally win his first Hart Trophy.

The Anaheim Ducks Become Stanley Cup Champions

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    Since missing the playoffs in 2012, the Anaheim Ducks have made steady improvement under general manger Bob Murray and head coach Bruce Boudreau. They have finished first in the Pacific Division for three straight years and last season advanced to the Western Conference Final before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks.

    The Ducks have a strong offensive attack led by superstar forwards Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf (pictured above). Their defense is among the deepest in the league, and they possess a good young goalie in Frederik Andersen.

    This summer, Murray bolstered his depth by acquiring winger Carl Hagelin from the New York Rangers and veteran defenseman Kevin Bieksa from the Vancouver Canucks.

    The result is a well-balanced Ducks roster that's finally poised to take the big step toward a championship. With their aggressive offense and steadily improving defense, the Ducks will win the Stanley Cup in 2016.

     

    All stats via NHL.com. Award information via Hockey-Reference.com.