Puck Yes

NHL preview: 10 teams to watch for the Stanley Cup - are the Stars aligned?

Want to get a puck past Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars? Good luck. Getty Images

We will take break this week from bashing Bill O'Brien - what is left to say on that topic anyway? I was going to break down how dominant regular season teams often come up short in the playoffs and even did a bunch of research to show how that as good as the Astros are, they are no lock to win it all. But Joel Blank sort of took that angle so that one is dead. So for something different? The NHL season starts tonight. One of these years we will have a team in Houston. Last year we went in depth on every team. This year we will just focus on some key teams:

5 Eastern Conference Stanley Cup contenders

1) Tampa Bay Lightning: Simply the best, deepest team in hockey. They are loaded with four talented lines, terrific defensemen and an elite goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy. They were dominant in the regular season last year, but their Achilles heel is the postseason. They have no shortage of playoff failings, including being swept out of the first round by an 8 seed last year in the biggest failure yet. They will be a juggernaut once again, but until they actually win a Cup, they are pretty much the Seattle Mariners circa early 2000s; loaded with talent at all levels, great in the regular season, but could never break through. They are about to be in a serious cap crunch, so this might be the last run as currently constructed.

2) Boston Bruins: The Bruins came up just short last year, losing in the Stanley Cup to St. Louis. The Bruins bring back pretty much the same group, although some key veterans are starting to age. Still, if goalie Tukka Rask plays at an elite level, the Bruins are a real threat, with solid defense, some underrated forwards and Rask capable of playing at a high level.

3) Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs have gone all in with this group, spending over $30 million on John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. They are loaded at forward and might be the only team to match Tampa in depth with skaters. They made moves to try to improve the defense, which has been an issue year in and year out. The Leafs have Stanley Cup pedigree - from 1967. They have a history of playoff failure, and an inability to get past Boston in recent years. They have basically been the Chicago Cubs before the Cubs finally won a World Series. This is a big year for Toronto; next year will require significant roster changes to get under the cap. Head coach Mike Babcock is one of the best in the business, but he might be on the hot seat, especially if they are bounced by the Bruins in the first round yet again, a distinct possibility.

4) Washington Capitals: The Caps are getting older, but Alex Ovechkin is still a monster, Braden Holtby can still play at a high level in goal and the supporting cast is solid. They finally broke through two years ago with a Cup, and they still have a lot of players off that team.

5) Florida Panthers: Classic underachievers year in and year out, they went all-in to add goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to a talented lineup and hired multiple Stanley Cup winning coach Joel Quenneville. If Bobo can play his best, and coach Q puts it all together, this could be a dark horse contender.

Puncher's chance: Pittsburgh, New York Islanders, New Jersey.

Playoff contenders: New York Rangers, Carolina, Columbus, Philadelphia, Montreal.

Rebuilding mode (still): Buffalo, Detroit, Ottawa.

5 Western Conference Stanley Cup contenders

1) Nashville Predators: The Preds have been oh so close year in and year out, but just can't get over the hump. They have arguably the best defense in hockey, and they weakened that by shipping out P.K. Subban to make room for center Matt Duchene. Are they better? That's what we will find out. A lot depends on goalie Pekka Rinne, who is getting up there in age.

2) St. Louis Blues: The Blues were an unlikely Cup winner last season when goalie Jordan Binnington became an elite player the second half of the season and throughout the playoffs. They bring back basically the same group, but repeating last year's remarkable run might be difficult.

3) Dallas Stars: Believe it or not, this could be the Stars year. In a few short seasons they have gone from team that could score with anyone and couldn't stop anyone to a powerful defensive unit that struggles to score. The addition of former Shark Joe Pavelski should be a huge difference for the offense. The key will be goalie Ben Bishop, who was remarkable last year. If he does it again this year, the Stars are Cup contenders. If not? It will be another disappointing season.

4) San Jose Sharks: Even without Pavelski, this is a solid group year in and year out, and they might have the two best defensemen in hockey with Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. The problem last year was goal tending, and Martin Jones will have to play at a much higher level this season. He is capable, and if he does, they have a real shot.

5) Vegas Golden Knights: The amazing run to the Stanley Cup in their first season was followed up by a decent year last year. They are deep, talented, but may have had to ship off too much talent to stay under the cap. As long as they have goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, they are legitimate contenders.

Puncher's chance: Chicago, Calgary, Colorado, Winnipeg, Minneapolis, Arizona, Vancouver, Edmonton.

Rebuilding mode: Los Angeles, Anaheim.

The bottom line

The West is pretty wide open in terms of playoff spots, so a hot goalie and a few surprises could put almost any team in there. The East is simply deeper and more talented, and just getting to the Cup will be difficult.

If you are looking for value to win the Cup, Dallas (+1600), Florida (+1800) and Nashville (+1800) are all worth a look. It should be an interesting season; these are key years for teams like Tampa, Toronto and Nashville. Don't be surprised if Chicago makes a run as well. No matter what, it should be fun.

Bold predictions

The trendy Cup pick is Tampa over Dallas. I will believe Tampa when they actually get to a Stanley Cup again. I do have Dallas coming out of the West, and how about a shocker from the East - the Florida Panthers. Dallas winds up hoisting the Cup.

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We'll see if Watson is in pads on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Houston Texans.

The Houston Texans had their last practice before pads come on for the first time on Tuesday. There was plenty to see on Monday.

1. Deshaun Watson had his usual extremely light level of work. He did very little throwing to teammates, though he did throw to the tight ends in 1-on-1 drills.

2. Texans head coach David Culley said "nothing has changed" when asked if Deshaun Watson will be in pads Tuesday. Culley has maintained that answer for a couple of sessions now.

3. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor was back after missing Saturday with an excused personal day. Taylor has been the best quarterback in camp by a wide margin. Taylor makes better decisions with the football than other quarterbacks, but he does struggle on deeper passes. Taylor missed wildly on one deep ball and was a little wobbly on another.

4. Nobody in camp can cover wide receiver Brandin Cooks. This could be the easiest training camp of his life. He easily gets open in 1-on-1 situations.

5. Rookie wide receiver Nico Collins continues to flash his abilities in camp. Collins easily shook loose from defensive back John Reid and took the route vertical for an easy score. Collins later had a tough catch in traffic.

6. It's only been a few days, but the competition for inside wide receiver reps is tough. Former Bears wideout Anthony Miller has looked quick and nothing like the "draft bust" the Bears fans watched. Keke Coutee has rarely lost a rep, but Desmond King did win a few times over Coutee in the opening days of camp. Former Bengals wideout Alex Erickson finds himself constantly open. The cuts at wide receiver are already shaking out to be difficult.

7. Davis Mills bounced back in a sense that he couldn't be worse than he was on Saturday. The performance from Mills on Saturday was abysmal, but head coach David Culley said he liked how Mills responded today. With Tyrod Taylor back, there were fewer reps for Mills, but he had some impressive throws to go along with an off-target throw or two. Mills was far better than Jeff Driskel on Monday. Driskel tossed two interceptions right to defenders, including one that would've gone the wrong way for a score.

8. This linebacker group is interesting. With a new defensive scheme under Lovie Smith, the type of linebacker is very different from previous years. There was a clear emphasis on cover ability as these linebackers were added to the team.

9. Kamu Grugier-Hill and Kevin Pierre-Louis have both had some significant wins for the linebackers in coverage.

10. Rookie tight end Brevin Jordan looks the part physically, but he's had a rough few days, including a drop on Monday.

11. With the pads coming on Tuesday, it will be fun to watch the rebuilt defensive line clash with the many combinations of the offensive line. There will be no J.J. Watt who historically stirred up the team on day one of pads. Laremy Tunsil's cool confidence about the offensive line over the weekend leads me to believe they are a confident group, while there are spots to be won on the defensive side of the line.

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