The Tampa Bay Lightning have been a model of consistency under head coach Jon Cooper, reaching the playoffs in four of the past five years - making it to the Eastern Conference Final in 2015, 2016 and 2018.
Injuries to key players killed their playoff dreams in 2016-17, but the Lightning rebounded with a 54-23-5 record. Their 113 points were tops in the East (third overall in the NHL), and the Bolts fell just one game shy of reaching the Stanley Cup Final - losing to Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
It was a heartbreaking end to a great season in Tampa Bay, but they have unfinished business in 2018-19. And when all is said and done, the Lightning will be hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2019.
Nikita Kucherov was rewarded with a shiny eight-year extension worth $76 million. Coming off a 100-point season, he and world class star Steven Stamkos front an offense that led the entire league with 296 goals for last season. But it's not Kucherov and Stamkos alone that drive the engine.
Brayden Point (32 goals, 66 points), and Yanni Gourde (25 goals, 64 points), enjoyed career years. No reason to expect that they were flukes. These are two great skaters and play-makers that fit Cooper's system perfectly.
Defenceman Victor Hedman is coming off his first Norris Trophy season, scoring 17 goals and 63 points. With Ryan McDonagh skating alongside Hedman, Tampa might have the best defensive pairing in the league.
Mikhail Sergachev figures to take it to another level after a strong rookie season, while Tyler Johnson and Dan Girardi supply key depth on offense and defense, respectively.
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy shined in his first full season as the starter, going 44-17-3 with eight shutouts, a .920 save percentage and a 2.62 goals against average. He was excellent in the postseason as well, so the Lightning won't have to worry about lacking a 'money' goalie.
Tampa Bay simply has a deeper roster than any team not named the Nashville Predators. Yes, the Winnipeg Jets are going to be dangerous as well, but the Lightning have a superior defensive unit. The Jets just don't have that Norris Trophy guy like Tampa has in Hedman.
Even the Predators - who won the Presidents' Trophy last year- have a problem of their own. Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne was awful in the playoffs, sporting a .904 save percentage and .307 goals against average. He was pulled multiple times in the playoffs. You simply would have to give Tampa the edge over Nashville, if they were to face off in the Stanley Cup Final.
In the Eastern Conference, the Lightning will have their challengers. But none of them can match Tampa when it comes to defense, goaltending, speed, all-around skill and resiliency.
The Pittsburgh Penguins don't anything to offer on defense. Goalie Matt Murray has to show his two Stanley Cup rings weren't flukes. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are all a year older. The lack of scoring depth in Pittsburgh was exposed by Washington, who beat the Pens in the second round of the playoffs.
The Boston Bruins put up very little fight against Tampa, who easily distinguished them in the second round. Tuukka Rask has yet to show he's money in the playoffs. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron will have tough times scoring 70-plus points again. Defenceman Torey Krug is out three weeks with a foot injury. Expect regression in Boston.
Sure, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the John Tavares sweepstakes. He, Nazem Kadri, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner can go up against Tampa's top forwards, no problem. But don't even try comparing Toronto's horrid defensive group to Tampa's. It's not even close. The Maple Leafs need to fix that play in their own end, then we can put them in the same tier as Tampa.
Then we move to the Capitals, who notably took down the Lightning in a thrilling seven-game series. Now, let's just say Washington got hot at the right time, which is why they beat a superior Tampa squad. It's as simple as that.
Washington doesn't have the same group of blueliners to match Tampa's, and they rely too much on the duo of Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Can Braden Holtby really put on another sensational performance against the Lightning? Easier said than done.
The three factors go into my prediction of Tampa winning the Stanley Cup. The first is obviously just how much talent, star power and depth they carry in each position. The second is the fact no other team in the East can match them in all three phases. And finally, the third is they're experience, hence the aforementioned three trips to the Eastern Conference Finals over the last four years.
Ovechkin finally won his Stanley Cup after a decade of constant playoff meltdowns from the Capitals. For Stamkos, Hedman and Kucherov, it's their turn to get over the postseason shortcomings.
When all is said and done, the Lightning will defeat the Winnipeg Jets in seven games to win the Stanley Cup.