Mixed martial arts competitor CM Punk didn't hesitate when asked if his hometown Chicago Blackhawks are better than last season entering the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
When the Stanley Cup Final is contested next month, Punk, who hopes to make his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut later this year, said he believes his Blackhawks will repeat as champions with a seven-game series win against the Washington Capitals.
Punk, who has more than 2.5 million followers on Twitter, told NHL.com he believes the work performed by general manager Stan Bowman prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, along with the rookie season from left wing Artemi Panarin, will lead to Chicago's fourth championship in seven seasons.
"I just think the pickup of Andrew Ladd overall was just a great pickup," Punk said Tuesday. "I wish we had a little bit more depth when it comes to defense, but it is what it is. It could be a very offensive heavy Stanley Cup Playoffs, but, yeah, I think this is very much a better team than it was last year.
"Panarin -- that's all I have to say."
Here are Punk's first-round predictions:
Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
Punk's pick: Wild in 7
Punk's take: "I think the Wild's goaltending overall is stronger, as much as I don't like to compliment opposing teams in our division, especially rivals like that. I think Devan Dubnyk is great. I just think the story kind of writes itself to where the Hawks and Minnesota are going to wind up clashing again. It's inevitable."
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Punk's pick: Blackhawks in 6
Punk's take: "The Blues have been tough this year. They didn't have our number during the regular season like the Minnesota Wild did. Both teams have a litany of injuries heading into the playoffs. Goaltending is solid on both sides. Obviously, I'm picking the Hawks to win."
Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators
Punk's pick: Ducks in 5
Punk's take: "Nashville has been kind of hot and cold towards the end. I think they've hit a little bit of a slump, but they're great. Anaheim, I don't even know who's starting in net, but I don't even think it matters. But their goaltending's too strong and they have a lot of offense. They're the exact opposite of the team they were when the season started. All the clutch players are coming through now."
Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks
Punk's pick: Kings in 7
Punk's take: "This might be wishful thinking on my part, but I think L.A. does it in seven games. I just think the history, if we're talking Blackhawks and Kings. We're locked in this back-and-forth battle, and the Hawks were one goal away from being in the Stanley Cup Final a couple of years ago and then they went back last year and obviously won it. But both are really great teams and it's going to be interesting to see how the Kings do in the playoffs this year because they missed last year. I think these other teams like the Blues, Sharks, Anaheim … they wind up [losing] for whatever reason. But I think the Western Conference is way more difficult than the East. It's a tough bunch of teams."
Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders
Punk's pick: Panthers in 7
Punk's take: "It's still a big question mark with some of the Islanders. I think I would like to see the Islanders win, but I just think Florida is young, so they might not understand the pressure they're really under. [Jaromir] Jagr's there to kind of carry them through, [Roberto] Luongo's always solid in net."
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
Punk's pick: Lightning in 6
Punk's take: "Pavel Datsyuk's last playoff run, huh? I really kind of feel like everybody's already feeling like Detroit already won something just because they made it into the playoffs for the 25th (consecutive) year. No [Steven] Stamkos, but [Jonathan] Drouin's back, and I just think their goaltending is obviously more solid. I think that kind of wins playoff games, so I'll go with Tampa Bay."
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Punk's pick: Capitals in 4
Punk's take: "Philly's the dark horse this year. They've got the Ottawa Senators' spot from last year. I would love to see Philadelphia, because of the recent passing of (owner Ed) Snider, pull through at least until the second round. But I just think the Capitals are too much of a powerhouse. They've got the hottest goaltender (Braden Holtby), and [Alex] Ovechkin. Need I say more? That one might be a sweep."
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
Punk's pick: Penguins in 7
Punk's take: "I think that will be a good series, depending on what Rangers show up. They've been kind of iffy. I think Pittsburgh's hot right now, so I'll go Pittsburgh and I'll go seven games on that one too."