Taking a Look at the NHL Conference Futures
Future odds prove to be an interesting barometer in which favorites and surprises are out there among NHL teams. Several teams offer some intriguing odds while others have fallen by the wayside. The first focus will be on the Western Conference.
Alas, the West will be the toughest to predict. The first question will be who could be this year’s Vegas Golden Knights? The irony is it could be Vegas. George McPhee acquired Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators. In the last week, Vegas has transformed itself with the help of one the best drivers of play in the NHL. Add in the fact that Marc-Andre Fleury is starting to look like the goalie he was all last season, and people are beginning to look at Vegas. Those factors have boosted their odds to +700. Vegas is not among the four top picks for the Western Conference, but their odds right now suggests they may be as the playoffs approach.
The Western Conference does not have a clear favorite. Calgary and San Jose are almost co-favorites at this point (+350 and +400 respectively). Nashville and Winnipeg are lurking just a level below. Winnipeg at +475 traded for Kevin Hayes and defensive depth at the trade deadline. Meanwhile, Nashville banked on Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund to help their power-play and middle-six which were major deficiencies. For the Predators, it comes down to those two issues. If they can fix those enough, the Predators can easily challenge for the conference.
San Jose assembled one of the most balanced top-nines in the league. The problem with the Sharks comes down to goaltending and defense. The health of Erik Karlsson will play a huge part in the fate of San Jose. His groin re-injury has no certain timetable at this point. The weirdest quirk is that the Calgary Flames have the same exact problems in some ways. David Rittich and Mike Smith have been pretty lackluster, similar to Martin Jones and Aaron Dell. It seems as though the odds makers take this into account as the lines for Winnipeg, Nashville, Vegas, and St. Louis, are not too far off of the joint leads Calgary and San Jose.
The St. Louis are one crazy wildcard in all of this. They have rocketed up the futures and now are at +1000 (they were above +3000 six weeks ago). Their goaltending, which was disastrous early, has put it together. Scoring from Vladimir Tarasenko lifted St. Louis out of their season-long funk. The defense had always been stingy enough. If Jordan Binnington can play well into April, he can spell Jake Allen enough to provide a 1-2 duo which can thrive in the playoffs. It is like Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes back in 2002 with the Carolina Hurricanes. They won the Eastern Conference with platoon goaltending. St. Louis could crash the party in the West much like Vegas.
The East has slightly more clarity. Tampa Bay Lightning are currently the +120 favorites and the remaining field are all +600 and up. Tampa Bay are understandably major favs, with Boston Bruins are the second-best team at that +600 mark. That is quite a gap between the two teams. Boston is riding one of the best streaks in the league behind their tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask in net. They are the one team in the East that could have enough balance to derail the Lightning.
Tampa’s massive favoritism in the betting odds, not only comes from their 50-plus wins, but the sheer demolition they have shown against the league. Their home goal differential is over 1.6 goals per game. That is one frightening number. Tampa has a 100-point scorer already in Nikita Kucherov. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been rested well enough and has shown he can steal games at will. Add in all of their depth scoring and an elite power play, Tampa Bay has a ton to like and fully earns their place at top of the pecking order.
Are there any other teams in the East that can provide value? Washington at +900 is the one team which could crash the party. They won the Stanley Cup last year and knows what it takes to win. The problem with the Capitals is whether or not they can they find a way to ride the momentum again. Pittsburgh at +1100 is the other team which has won before but questions with their defense may be too many. Injuries have not helped either as four of their top-six defensemen are currently not 100%. That includes Kris Letang, which is a huge problem.
This year’s playoffs expect to feature a two-month marathon full of twists and turns. Guessing who comes out of the West will require far more attention than the East. Although all it takes is one upset to change everything. That is the beauty of the NHL playoffs.
By Chris Wassel