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Edmonton’s Connor McDavid is the reigning league MVP. (AP Photo)

NHL season preview: Can Penguins make it three in a row?

SHARE NHL season preview: Can Penguins make it three in a row?
SHARE NHL season preview: Can Penguins make it three in a row?

DIVISION BREAKDOWNS

ATLANTIC

Favorite: Lightning. With Steven Stamkos shelved with a knee injury, Nikita Kucherov emerged as one of the best players in the game. If both are healthy for a full season? Look out. Andrei Vasilevskiy was a little shaky in his first season as a No. 1 goalie, but Peter Budaj might be a solid 1B. In a mediocre division, it’s the Lightning’s time.

Contender: Canadiens. This is almost entirely because of goalie Carey Price. Jonathan Drouin was a nice pickup, but with former Blackhawks Phil Danault and Andrew Shaw possibly in the top six, the Canadiens still don’t have the depth up front — or on the blue line — to be true contenders.

Dark horse: Maple Leafs. The Leafs might be the most fun team in the league, but are they among the best teams in the league? Defense and goaltending will determine that. Patrick Marleau gives the kids some veteran presence in the top six, but this team belongs to Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, all of whom are 21 or younger.

METROPOLITAN

Favorite: Penguins. The first repeat champions in the salary-cap era now are neck-and-neck with the Blackhawks for Team of the Decade. There’s a glaring hole at No. 3 center with Nick Bonino now with the Predators, but if Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin stay healthy, they can make a run at a third consecutive Stanley Cup title.

Contender: Capitals. Third time’s a charm? The Capitals have won the Presidents’ Trophy each of the last two seasons, only to lose to the Penguins in the second round both times. The Caps didn’t blow it up and will make another run at it. But is the great Alex Ovechkin (33 goals after three 50-goal seasons in a row) on the decline?

Dark horse: Hurricanes. Take your pick here. The Blue Jackets will be strong again, and the Islanders and Rangers (maybe even the Flyers) will be in the hunt for a wild-card spot. But the Hurricanes are on the verge of something big. They’re young and deep, and it’s up to new No. 1 goalie Scott Darling to make it all work. The Metro will be a seasonlong dogfight.

CENTRAL

Favorite: Wild. Coach Bruce Boudreau is basically a guaranteed 100-point regular season — and a guaranteed playoff flameout. Will this finally be the season he breaks through? He has the team to do it, with a deep group of forwards, two solid defensive pairs and an excellent goalie in Devan Dubnyk. If not now, when?

Contender: Predators. A trendy pick to win the Cup last season, the Predators barely made the playoffs, then went all the way to the Final. But one of their brilliant defensemen, Ryan Ellis, is out for several months with a knee injury, their depth down the middle is iffy

and goalie Pekka Rinne is still streaky at best.

Dark horse: Stars. The Stars addressed their goalie woes by adding Ben Bishop. They bolstered a weak defense with Marc Methot. And they added to a potent offense with Alex Radulov and Martin Hanzal. Can coach Ken Hitchcock make them a more stout defensive team without stifling all that offensive talent? Maybe the most intriguing team in the league.

PACIFIC

Favorite: Ducks. The Ducks are the class of a weak division and should win the top seed by feasting on the Canucks, Coyotes and Golden Knights. Can Corey Perry bounce back from a poor season? Will Ryan Kesler miss most of the season after hip surgery? With one of the best blue lines in the league, will it even matter?

Contender: Oilers. A chic pick to make it to the Final, the Oilers are more than just Connor McDavid. Leon Draisaitl is a star in the making, and Cam Talbot proved he could be a strong No. 1 goalie. While a Cup still might be a season or two away, another 100-point season is perfectly reasonable.

Dark horse: Sharks. Somebody has to finish in third place in this division, and it might as well be the Sharks. It has been 20 years since there was a Sharks team without Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton might be on his

last legs, but the Flames’ goalie situation (Mike Smith? Yikes) gives the Sharks the edge.

PREDICTIONS

HART TROPHY

Connor McDavid, Oilers

Get used to this. Sidney Crosby is still the best all-around player in the world and has the hardware to prove it, but McDavid might go on a Wayne Gretzky-like run by winning this award year after year after year. He’s the most dynamic player in the league, is coming off a 100-point season and is only 20 years old. He is the franchise, and his value goes beyond the eight-year, $100 million contract he just signed.

NORRIS TROPHY

Victor Hedman, Lightning

The default pick is always the Senators’ extraordinary Erik Karlsson. But he’s coming off ankle surgery, with Karlsson saying, ‘‘They took half my ankle bone out.’’ So we’ll reserve judgment on Karlsson. In the meantime, Hedman is coming off a career-high 72-point season and is set to take the next step into true superstardom. On a Lightning team poised for a major bounce-back season, Hedman can lead from behind.

CALDER TROPHY

Clayton Keller, Coyotes

There’s no Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine or Jack Eichel in this class, but Keller — the seventh pick in the 2016 draft — might be a superstar in the making. The 19-year-old playmaker had 21 goals and 24 assists in 31 games as a freshman last season at Boston University. At 5-10 and 168 pounds, he has drawn comparisons to Patrick Kane.

Playoff teams (in seeding order)

East: Penguins, Lightning, Capitals, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Islanders, Hurricanes.

West: Ducks, Wild, Oilers, Predators, Blackhawks, Stars, Sharks, Jets.

Eastern Conference final: Lightning over Penguins.

Western Conference final: Wild over Oilers.

Stanley Cup Final: Lightning over Wild.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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