The opening night of NHL hockey is in the books and we are officially into the grind of the regular season. The league has ten games scheduled for Thursday night as we enter day two of 116 straight days of hockey.
Buffalo made arguably the biggest move of this past off-season when it signed Taylor Hall to a one year contract. Hall is a former first overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers and winner of the Hart Trophy for NHL MVP with the New Jersey Devils. In addition to Hall, the Sabres traded for Eric Staal to help solidify their second line behind Jack Eichel.
Buffalo’s offensive unit with Eichel, Hall, Staal, Victor Olofsson, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart is now looking strong, but Buffalo did absolutely nothing to improve the real weakness on their team.
Returning for Buffalo are goalies Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton. Thankfully for the Sabres, it looks like they’ve finally given the starting role to Ullmark and are done wasting time with the Hutton experiment as their starter. Ullmark is much better than Hutton but is nothing more than an average-at-best goalie in this league.
On the flipside, Washington has bought in Peter Laviolette as their new head coach. Laviolette is known for getting immediate results out of his teams when he takes over. He has won a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006 while leading the Flyers to the Cup Final in 2010 and the Predators to the Cup Final in 2017. On the other side, Ralph Krueger hasn’t proven much in the NHL and is better known for his role in the soccer world.
Ilya Samsonov will be the starting goalie for the Capitals this year which should mark a dramatic improvement from the performance of Braden Holtby last year. Holtby posted a -12.82 goals saved above expectations and -17.32 goals saved above average mark last year for Washington. Samsonov was much better in his appearances so him taking over full time makes the Capitals a better team.
The last shortened season we had, Alex Ovechkin won the Hart Trophy for league MVP. He has shown no signs of slowing down since then. With Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Vrana, Oshie, Wilson and Carlson, Washington’s front-end talent is amongst the best in the league.
People might want to buy into Buffalo after their shiny new moves, but I’m not buying it. Teams that win the offseason often disappoint once the games begin. I’ll take the better goalie, the better coach, and the better team at a deflated price.
The Bet: Washington Capitals ML (-135)
Detroit was historically bad last season winning just 17 of the 71 games they played. They gave up 122 more goals than they scored. Outside of a few depth pieces, the Red Wings did not do much to improve on their skaters. One big acquisition for Detroit comes in goal as they signed former Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss.
Greiss is in for a rude-awakening leaving the defensive-minded system of Barry Trotz and heading towards chaos in Detroit. Greiss has never been a full-time starter, but he’s had a very solid NHL career as a second option. Don’t expect the same numbers from Greiss as he had on Long Island, but the goaltender should give the Red Wings more stability.
On the other side of the matchup, Carolina is always one of my favorite teams. They play in the offensive zone almost all game. For a long time, their biggest concern was their lack of elite talent and poor goaltending. Thankfully, these trends seem to be reversing themselves the last few seasons.
Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov are three young players who have already posted crooked numbers in this league. I only expect them to get better and Detroit will have no answer for any of these stars.
Petr Mrazek, much like Greiss, is not spectacular but he’s solid enough to do the job for Carolina.
Carolina finished last season with the third best mark in terms of shot attempt share with 54.4% and they also had the fifth best shot attempts/60. These numbers include a 21 game stretch where the team was without Dougie Hamilton, one of the best defensemen in the league. They were even better if you exclude those games.
What we have here is a very good team against a very bad team. I think Carolina will toy with the Red Wings and win the game comfortably.
The bet: Carolina Hurricanes -1.5 (+140)
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The NHL’s West division is basically two separate divisions. At the top, you have Vegas, Colorado and St. Louis who will beat each other up but almost certainly finish with the top three seeds at the end of the season. With the new rules for this season though, the division will send four teams to the playoffs.
This means that one of Minnesota, Los Angeles, Arizona, Anaheim or San Jose will make the playoffs. Most oddsmakers expect the Wild to come out with the four seed, but Minnesota is a flawed team. Every game between these teams will matter as all five teams can make a case for that final playoff spot.
Both of these teams severely underperformed some key underlying metrics last season.
Minnesota finished the season tied for best in the league in expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5v5 with Boston (1.93). Unfortunately for the Wild, they performed well below that expectation and actually gave up the 8th most goals in the league per game.
The explanation for the discrepancy is simple. Devan Dubnyk might have been the worst goalie in the league last year. He had the league’s worst goals saved above expectation, posting a -27.49 mark in just 30 games. Explained even simpler: Dubnyk was basically spotting the other team a goal in every game he played.
Thankfully for the Wild, they traded Dubnyk to San Jose and they signed Cam Talbot from Calgary. Talbot had a .919 save percentage last season which is light-years ahead of Dubnyk’s .890 from 2019-20.
If Minnesota keeps the same defensive structure they played with last year and Talbot performs to expectations, scoring on the Wild will be a difficult proposition this year.
On the other side of this matchup, Los Angeles finished 7th in the league in terms of expected goals scored per 60 minutes. Just like the Wild, they vastly underperformed expectations. Los Angeles was actually a bottom three offense in the league, scoring just over two 5v5 goals per 60 minutes last season.
I’m not as certain the Kings will regress to the mean. The problem with the Kings lack of scoring is their talent. This was never a team that won games with their offense. Even when they won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, they did it on the backs of a tough grinding defense and great goaltending.
Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty remain the core of this team, just like they were during the Cup years. At this point, it’s near certain that their best days are behind them. These players are all in their 30s and it’d be silly to expect them to trend upwards based on their age and the mileage on their bodies. They’ve all declined since earlier in their career and I don’t see that changing.
In terms of Minnesota’s offense, they also have a big problem. The team lost Eric Staal to Buffalo, Mikko Koivu to Columbus and Marco Rossi to injury. They have zero center depth. Their top two centers are now Nick Bjugstad and Nick Bonino, two players best suited for third line roles. If the Wild expect these two to drive their offensive production, they have issues. Even talented wingers like Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov will have their ceilings capped when playing with subpar centers.
I think both of these teams will struggle to score all season long. The lack of talent on offense is hard to ignore. With the Wild being one of the better defensive teams in the league last season and now getting an improvement in net, I think they will be an under team all year long.
I think three goals will be plenty to win this game.
The bet: Under 5.5 goals (-110)
NHL Expert Picks
Capitals vs Sabres - Capitals ML @ -135
Red Wings vs Hurricanes - Hurricanes -1.5 @ +140
Wild vs Kings - Under 5.5 goals @ -110
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