As training camps are opening across the land and preseason games begin in just a handful of days, the long, dry, puckless summer is officially over. The NHL is back.
It can’t come soon enough. While the baseball season slogs along through the summer, the rest of the major professional sports rev up in the fall. Although relatively smaller by comparison, the NHL is blessed with arguably the most passionate fan base of the four major sports. That passion translates into big dollars, especially when it comes to wagering.
One thing we know about sporting contests: if they exist, bets can (and will) be placed on them. With hundreds of millions of dollars wagered on hockey, the NHL is no exception.
Vegas Insider posts futures odds for each NHL team to win the Stanley Cup. As of this writing, the Chicago Blackhawks stand as 8/1 favorites to win, with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals right behind them at 17/2. The Tampa Bay Lightning (10/1) and Dallas Stars (12/1) round out the top five.
Obviously, none of these teams are underrated — in fact, don’t be surprised to see one or more make my “overrated” list coming up sometime in the next week. With that said, there are a number of teams the betters seem to have underrated for the coming year. Note that I stress the word “seem”, as no matter how strong the foundational evidence, it’s all a matter of conjecture.
Regardless, an article of this nature requires the selection of teams to fit the narrative, so that’s what I’ll be doing. The following are five teams that appear underrated by the betting community as of this writing:
#5: Minnesota Wild
Although Vegas has the Wild making the playoffs with 20/1 odds of capturing the Cup, last year’s 38-33-11 (87 points) record appears to have lulled them into believing they don’t have much of a chance of winning it all. Whether or not that’s the case, it would seem the oddsmakers have them seriously underrated going into this season.
First, a change behind the bench put Bruce Boudreau at the helm — he of the stellar 409-192-80 career record with the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks. Boudreau’s Ducks may have disappointed during the playoffs in recent seasons, but he’s not the one lacing up and hitting the ice.
Secondly, Eric Staal is a good bet for a bounce-back season after a pedestrian 13-26-39 campaign, and Chris Stewart is poised to do likewise. Young forwards Nino Niederreiter (20-23-43) and Charlie Coyle (21-21-42) should only get better as they approach the prime of their careers.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the defense remains rock solid and although he didn’t repeat as a Vezina finalist, Devan Dubnyk showed he’s the real deal, posting a 32-26-6 record along with a 2.33/.919 slash line last year. Defense wins championships — just ask the LA Kings.
The Central Division may be brutal, but if there’s a franchise on the rise in the West, it’s Minnesota.
#4: New Jersey Devils
Vegas has the Devils at just a 60/1 chance of winning the Cup this year, with only six clubs possessing lower odds.
Frankly, that’s nuts. The Devils had the defense and goaltending to make the playoffs last year, just not the offense. Newly acquired left winger Taylor Hall (26-39-65) goes a long way toward solving that problem. In a bold trade for both teams, the Devils and Oilers engineered a swap of Hall for Adam Larsson, the Devils’ star defenseman.
For a team that scored the fewest goals in the league last year, landing Hall is a really big deal. He’s a versatile offensive player who dishes the puck and scores with equal aplomb, and his explosive speed is one of his biggest assets. He’s not a great defensive forward, but with the Devils already possessing one of the Eastern Conference’s better defenses, improving the offense was of greater importance.
Corey Schneider (27-25-6, 2.15/.924) is a top-five goaltender, so the pieces are all there for the Devils to rebound. Look for New Jersey to make the playoffs and handily exceed the 60/1 betting line.
#3: San Jose Sharks
How does a team that still boasts nearly everyone from the roster that appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals end up with just 16/1 odds of winning the Cup this year? In the West, that’s lower than Chicago (8/1) and Dallas (10/1), and tied with Anaheim. Back East, three teams (Pittsburgh, Washington and Tampa) possess better odds.
Could it be their reputation as a disappointing (up until last season) playoff performer? Or is it possible that the “Stanley Cup hangover” effect is expected to strike?
Whatever the reason, a team stacked with forwards such as Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture along with Norris finalist Brent Burns and emerging goaltender Martin Jones should fare better than 16/1.
#2: Montreal Canadiens
I get it: the Canadiens (38-38-6, 82 points) were pretty awful last year. It’s easy to forget, however, that they lost in the Conference Finals just two years earlier and won the Atlantic in 2014-15. Did the franchise suddenly go from the penthouse to the outhouse?
In a word, yes, but the belief is that they can bounce back. This CBC article does a good job explaining exactly what happened to Montreal last season. Most of the decline can be traced to injuries, bad trades and even worse breaks.
Although it could happen again this year, don’t bet on it. Carey Price isn’t the most durable goaltender, but the over/under for games he will play is a heck of a lot higher than 12. Shea Weber adds a defensive presence (but lacks the offense) that P.K. Subban can’t match, and the forward group looks deep and talented, even if it’s not particularly big or tough as a group.
Overall, Vegas’ 22/1 odds feels particularly light when considering the strange sequence of events that tanked their season last year.
#1: Florida Panthers
When you first glance at Florida’s Vegas odds (20/1), you think they must have ended last year as the Atlantic’s third place team. But no — they won their division with a 47-26-9 (103 points) record before bowing in the first round to the New York Islanders.
Roster-wise, although they lost Erik Gudbranson, Rocco Grimaldi, Jiri Hudler, Teddy Purcell, Dave Bolland, Lawson Crouse, Quinton Howden, Dmitry Kulikov, Brian Campbell, and Al Montoya, they gained Keith Yandle, James Reimer, Reto Berra, Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault, Jason Demers, and Mark Pysyk. In short, the Panthers have a deep group of forwards, a solid mix of experience and youth on defense and a one-two punch (Luongo and Reimer) in net. There’s simply no good reason to believe they won’t be in the hunt once again for the Atlantic crown.
And yet, the betters prefer eleven other teams to win the Cup, only four of which had superior records last season and none of which were more aggressive in retrofitting their teams to take the next step.
Florida may not repeat their 47-26-9 (103 points) success from last season but at 20/1, they appear dramatically underrated going into the new season.
Walter McLaughlin is a Los Angeles Kings correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He is an avid sports fan, having followed the Kings since living in L.A. in the mid-1970’s, as well as suffering through Seattle sports teams’ general futility. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and has worked in community banking for over 25 years, specializing in SBA loans. He is married and has two daughters.