I'm looking to the Western Conference with my pick this year, as I predict the San Jose Sharks will finally hoist the Stanley Cup come June.
Why? Well, take a look at this 2013-14 Sharks team: It' a group that has remained largely intact from last year's run to the Western Conference semifinals with the necessary blend of savvy veterans like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle and talented youngsters such as Logan Couture and 2012 first-round pick Tomas Hertl, backstopped by the steady Antti Niemi.
Considering their depth and skill, there's no reason to believe they can't make the next step this year. In fact, they might have made it to the Western Conference finals last spring had it not been for the heroics of Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, who was sensational in the seven-game series (only 10 goals allowed, plus a .951 save percentage).
A big reason for the team's success in the latter third of the season and the playoffs -- the Sharks swept the Vancouver Canucks in the first round -- was a revamped lineup that utilized its strength, particularly its speed. Sharks GM Doug Wilson traded away veterans Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus at the deadline, added role players like Raffi Torres and defenseman Scott Hannan, and moved fellow blueliner Brent Burns to forward, adding size and grit to the team up front. Those moves all paid dividends, and in sticking with that philosophy this summer, the Sharks signed Tyler Kennedy, who adds additional speed and versatility to their group of forwards.
History shows that the teams left standing in June are often the ones with considerable depth and a well-balanced lineup, a strength of the Sharks given that their top three centers -- Thornton, Couture and Pavelski -- are among the best in the league.
Losing Torres for extended time to start the season (the gritty winger suffered a knee injury in the preseason that could sideline him for the first month) will be a blow for the Sharks, and it remains unclear what sort of impact Martin Havlat will have coming off of major groin surgery this summer. If he can stay healthy (not a given, considering he has been limited to only 15 games the past two seasons), the Sharks will have the weapons to roll out four solid lines each night.
Combine that with the ascension of Niemi, now considered among the league's elite goaltenders -- he was nominated for the Vezina Trophy last season -- and a dangerous power-play (the Sharks ranked seventh in the league with 20.1 percent success rate) and you have a very competitive lineup.
After five straight years of making the playoffs under Todd McLellan but failing to get to the Stanley Cup finals, is it finally time for his Sharks to take home the first championship in franchise history? I think so.