Hockey season is upon us. What a beautiful sentence to type. The NHL will kick off its anxiously anticipated 56 game season this week beginning on Wednesday, January 13th. The schedule will consist of only inter-division play as the league has realigned into four divisions.
East Division: NY Islanders, NY Rangers, NJ Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres
North Division: Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers
Central Division: Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning
West Division: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights
With the shortened season already creating an extra layer of intensity, divisional rivals facing off against each other every night should create a hockey season filled with hard-fought intense battles.
From a betting perspective, let’s take a look at the futures market as it pertains to both teams and player awards.
Stanley Cup Futures Picks
When betting on Stanley Cup futures before the season, I like to look at teams with long odds. The teams in the 30-1 range will come crashing down much quicker than a team in the 7-1 range. Even before the playoffs, you’ll still see the favorite going off at 5-1, but you’ll almost never see a playoff team going off in the 30-1 range.
There’s two teams going off at 30-1 currently that I think are worth a shot:
Montreal Canadiens: The most interesting change amongst the NHL division realignment for this season is probably the all new Canadian division. Due to travel restrictions in the country of Canada, American teams were not given clearance to constantly fly in and out of the country, forcing the league’s hand into making up a division solely of the country’s 7 teams.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the clear favorites to win this division, and the Ottawa Senators are the clear favorites to finish last in the division, but the meat of the sandwich is anyone’s guess. You can put the Canadiens, Jets, Flames, Oilers and Canucks all in a hat and pick at random and your guess would be as good as mine.
Montreal had the 2nd best differential in terms of expected goals last year, better than the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won the Stanley Cup. They drive possession and constantly outshoot their opponents. The reason this didn’t lead to success was a down year for Carey Price and a lack of offensive talent.
Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be a year older which should lead to an increase in production from the Canadiens’ centers. The team also traded for Josh Anderson and signed forward Tyler Toffoli. The team is hoping that this leads to more success in terms of scoring.
Carey Price has long been viewed as one of the best goalies in hockey but he was forced to play in over 80% of his team’s games last year. One has to wonder if that was simply too many games and if he will benefit from the team bringing in Jake Allen to serve as his backup. Allen is a goalie with starting experience, so he should be able to give Price a breather more often and in turn elevate Montreal’s goaltending.
With the new division set-up, one team from each division will appear in the NHL’s final four. With the parity in the division and Toronto’s history of underperforming in the playoffs, there’s a viable chance Montreal could be one of the last four teams standing, and from there it’s anyone’s game.
Nashville Predators: In 2017, Nashville made the Stanley Cup Final before ultimately falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Over the past half decade, they’ve been one of the more consistently good teams in the NHL. Last season was a bit of a disappointment for the Predators, but I expect them to bounce back.
The main reason for Nashville’s down year was their goaltending. Pekka Rinne has been one of the better goalies in the NHL for the last decade, posting a career save percentage of .917. Last season, Rinne only had an .895 save percentage. By the end of the season, the crease belonged to youngster Juuse Saros.
This situation will go one of two ways for Nashville this season: Rinne will either regain his form as a good NHL goaltender, or Saros will start the majority of games between the pipes. In the second half of the season, Saros was one of the best goalies in the league, posting a 13.2 goals saved above expectation once the calendar turned to 2020.
Defensively, Nashville is amongst the league’s best. Captain Roman Josi won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman for the 2020 season. Ryan Ellis has established himself as one of the best offensive defensemen in the league and when those two are on the ice together, Nashville will dominate.
Offensively, Nashville is hoping for some of it’s stars to put it together all at once. This is not a team that is bereft of scoring talent, quite the opposite actually. Viktor Arvidsson scored 94 goals over three seasons from 2016-2019, but only potted 15 last year. Matt Duchene was Nashville’s big free agent signing last off-season, but scored only 42 points in his first year with the Predators. He scored 70 points the year before. Filip Forsberg has cracked 30 goals and 60 points multiple times in his career. Mikael Granlund scored 190 points over the three seasons prior to last year. Last year, he scored only 30 points. In 2018, Erik Haula scored 55 points but has only 31 combined in the two years since. Ryan Johansen scored 64 points for Nashville in 2019, but last year had barely over half of that.
If this offense can finally put it all together at once, I think we’re looking at a team with good goaltending, the best defensive pairing in the league, and a very dangerous offense. We’re only three seasons removed from this team playing in the Stanley Cup Final and at 30-1, they are very worthy of a shot.
To Make The Playoff Odds
New York Rangers: NO (-160)
This isn’t to say that I think the Rangers are bad. I think the Rangers will be a decent team this season that should excite fans with their young, fast, exciting brand of hockey. However, the Rangers will play in the NHL’s East Division and they will play solely the seven other teams in their division. In addition, in order to make the playoffs, they’d have to finish in the top four of the division. Let’s dive deeper:
I think it’s safe to project the Rangers as the 6th best team in this division. The Rangers will likely be better than the rebuilding Devils and the Buffalo Sabres who did nothing to improve their goaltending. However, it’s hard to see the Rangers being better than two of the following teams:
Boston Bruins: The Bruins won the Presidents Trophy last season, given to the league’s best team during the regular season.
Washington Capitals: Just two seasons removed from winning the Stanley Cup, they have made the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Just three seasons removed from winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, they have made the playoffs every year since 2006.
Philadelphia Flyers: Philadelphia’s biggest question mark over the past decade has been their goaltending, and youngster Carter Hart looks to have answered that question. Philadelphia was arguably the best team in the league when last year’s regular season was suspended
New York Islanders: the Islanders made the Eastern Conference finals last season and are returning almost all of their roster
I don’t see the Rangers getting past two of these teams and -160 are better odds than I’d expect.
Minnesota Wild: YES (-105)
Minnesota was the best defensive team in the league last year in terms of expected goals against per 60 minutes at even strength. This might seem crazy to say about a team that allowed the 8th most goals per game in the league, but the reason for that is Devan Dubnyk’s .890 save percentage last season.
Minnesota has traded Dubnyk to San Jose and signed Cam Talbot to a 3 year contract. Talbot has been an above average goalie in his time in the NHL, including last year where he led the Flames to the playoffs.
I like Minnesota’s chances in a weak division. They have added Kirill Kaprizov to the roster this year, widely considered a top-5 prospect in hockey. Kaprizov should join Kevin Fiala, who made a tremendous impact when he joined the Wild.
With the weak division, better goaltending and influx of talent up front, I think Minnesota makes the playoffs this season. At these odds, its a bet for me.
Calder Rooke Of The Year Picks
Ilya Sorokin, Islanders (27/1)
Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin is the favorite to win the Calder Trophy, but there’s another rookie Russian goalie in New York worthy of a shot.
Since the prospects joined their respective organizations, hockey fans in New York have awaited the battles of Ilya Sorokin vs Igor Shesterkin. Finally, both goalies have come to North America and it looks like we’re going to see what the hype is all about.
Shesterkin played 12 NHL games last year and was spectacular which gives a boost to his odds, but in terms of their pedigree and performance in the KHL (Russia’s hockey league, widely considered the 2nd best hockey league in the world), Sorokin is just as good as Shesterkin.
Sorokin plays on the Islanders, who are coached by Barry Trotz. Trotz has one of the best defensive systems in the league and he’s produced great goaltending everywhere he’s coached. Robin Lehner was nominated for the Vezina trophy in 2018 under Trotz on Long Island and Braden Holtby won the Vezina under Trotz in Washington.
Shesterkin has the hype, but with the discrepancy in odds between the two goalies, Sorokin is worthy of a shot.
Norris Best Defenseman Picks
Cale Makar, Avalanche (12/1)
The description for the Norris Trophy says the trophy is supposed to go to the league’s best defenseman. However as the league has evolved, it’s clear the award goes to the NHL’s best offensive defenseman.
Cale Makar had an awesome rookie season, winning the Calder Trophy last year. He meets all the requirements needed for a Norris Trophy winner.
Makar plays on the top powerplay unit with names like Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.
Makar led defensemen in points per 60 minutes at 5v5.
Makar scored 12 goals in 57 games last season. Norris Trophy winners have scored double digit goals almost every season.
Makar is also clearly the top defenseman on his team, which is important in the event of not splitting votes.
Colorado is the Stanley Cup favorite, meaning Makar will be in the spotlight.
It’s bold to bet a second year player to win the Norris Trophy, but Makar is the real deal and I like the price at 12-1.
Vezina Best Goaltender Picks
Cam Talbot, Minnesota (21/1)
I talked earlier about the Wild’s defensive prowess. This team does not give up a lot in terms of high danger chances and the advanced analytics fancy Minnesota as one of the best defensive teams in hockey.
Goaltending sank Minnesota last year, but Cam Talbot is here to save the day. Talbot is entering his eighth season as an NHL goalie, and he has posted at least a .917 save percentage in five of his seven professional seasons.
Minnesota will play in the NHL’s West Division, which means the Wild will play eight games apiece against Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose and Arizona. Those teams ranked 30th, 29th, 28th and 23rd in goals per game in 2019-20.
Couple Talbot’s resume with the Wild’s stingy defense and their easy schedule and it’s an exciting prospect for Talbot. I already outlined that I believe Minnesota makes the playoffs, and Talbot will be a big reason for that.
Hart MVP Picks
Elias Pettersson, Vancouver (18/1)
Earlier, we talked about the new all-Canadian teams division. One reason this division is exciting is because of how wide-open it’ll be in terms of what teams occupy what seeds. Another reason this division will be exciting is because of how wide-open it’ll be in terms of the offensive outburst we expect in this division. Teams like Toronto and Edmonton can score with the best of them, but they are leaky on the back-end. Ottawa will struggle to keep the puck out of their net. Winnipeg is an awful defensive team who is often bailed out by Connor Hellebuyck. Teams like Vancouver and Calgary are far from stout defensively.
A high-scoring division opens up the possibility for some eye-popping numbers and I can see 22 year old Elias Pettersson taking advantage. Since coming into the league, Pettersson has impressed. He won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year in 2018-19. Last year, he had 66 points in 68 games.
Pettersson has proven he is a high-end point producer and is still young enough where he can take massive leaps in his production year-to-year. With Vancouver coming off an impressive playoff showing where they eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, we expect the Canucks to be in the thick of things in the North Division.
If Vancouver continues to improve with their young core, Elias Pettersson will be the guy who leads the charge. Do not be surprised at all to see Pettersson score 60+ points in a shortened season, and at these odds we see a viable path to him winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.