The Vegas Golden Knights dominated NHL headlines in late spring of 2018. An expansion club with career minor-leaguers starring in a miracle run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the 500-to-1 preseason wager threatened to take a big bite out of bookmakers’ coffers before falling to Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
In some ways, the Knights’ journey in Year 2 represents the NHL narrative in 2018-19. Pundits have expressed concerns about re-signed veteran GK Marc-Andre Fleury, but it’s the type of “concern” that comes from having scapegoated Flower for being so damn good in the 1st place. Mainstream analysts love to “blame” goaltenders for (bad) predictions not coming true.
Vegas made it to the 2nd round of the Western Conference playoffs in ’19, but fans don’t appreciate how much it takes just to get that far. If you make it to Game 7 of the conference semis, you’re probably 1 of only 5 or 6 National Hockey League clubs left standing in the bracket. San Jose beat Sin City only to lose to St. Louis in the Western finals in another result that seemed inexplicable to the “experts.”
What does the media do when it’s 100% wrong? Promotions all around, and double-down!
When the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning belly-flopped against Columbus in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they blamed “bad luck,” with so-called sports scientists giving interviews in Vox about how ice hockey is a randomized roulette-wheel of good and bad bounces.
Then, when the St. Louis Blues rode an upstart goaltender and a physical style to the Stanley Cup Finals where the Blue Note prevailed-in-7 over the Boston Bruins, podcasters said the Blues had simply cheated, and accused the victors of an illegitimate championship.
In other words – a pair of new “hockey myths” or “legends” came to be spoken as gospel in 2019…and they had nothing to do with Eddie Shore or Old Time Hockey.
Dismiss the Myths When Handicapping NHL Futures
Let’s take on each canard 1 at a time.
The entire MSM argument that ice hockey is “a sport of luck” is based on a false premise – that “less luck-based” competitions like basketball are rated that way because the superstars play more minutes of a given game. As if some team sports aren’t simply more based on team play and not always staged as a showdown of the top 2 or 3 players on each side.
It’s not as if American football or European soccer outcomes are considered a matter of luck, and those games are played 11-on-11. Furthermore, anyone who has watched the Tampa Bay Lightning knows that NHL top-scorer Nikita Kucherov definitely has a major impact on any game.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, a legendary sniper is more valuable to a hockey club in a tight low-scoring game of pond shinny, because he or she will often score when nobody else can.
The Washington Capitals had more than Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström when they won the Stanley Cup in 2018, but that doesn’t make their triumph any less legitimate than LeBron James’s solo act with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The St. Louis Blues’ championship this year was a clinic in team cohesion and cooperation. That makes the Blues’ maiden Stanley Cup win less, not more, of a fluke.
Then there was the popular belief (popular only in the Northeast and on social media, really) that St. Louis had simply cheated its way into a Cup under Craig Berube. There’s no question that the Blues play on the edge, taking mean-spirited penalties and as many runs at big hits as anyone in the NHL.
Ryan O’ Reilly is among the greatest all-around forwards in history…that sorta helps too.
But if NHL fans don’t want physical, sometimes brutal hockey, they should petition Gary Bettman to switch the ice surface to the larger Olympic-style dimensions. Bad idea, you say? Well, I agree – let the NHL remain unique in all of the ways it can – but 100+ hockey games in a phone booth is a survival test not a ballet-on-ice.
Lots of President’s Cup teams struggle to win in the postseason. Heck, the Blues lost in the 1st round the last time St. Louis finished 1st overall. Tampa Bay played lousy and lost in 4 straight in 2019, and lazy ‘cappers who had overvalued regular-season stats when making Stanley Cup predictions needed an alibi.
When the internet goes crazy, smart gamblers take advantage. Even a glance at the futures odds at NHL betting sites tells us that the gambling public is not ready to let go of that 82-game security blanket…even though the President’s Cup is just as often a body bag.
Vegas Must Remain Innovative to Win
If you are confused as to how the Vegas Golden Knights are somehow a seminal hockey organization despite being in existence for 2 years and having lost again in the postseason, consider that the Knights rose to prominence in Year 1 by picking overlooked pros out of the woodwork.
We think of “bubble” NHL players as muckers and grinders, but William Karlsson had been knocking around the AHL for years when the Knights – not unlike Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders – welcomed the Swede and resurrected his career.
Yet the Knights, currently a (+1200) wager to win the Stanley Cup next year, are hoping that their 2019-20 isn’t remembered for who wasn’t on it. It was strange to see Vegas pass on the opportunity to play KHL phenom Nikita Gusev in the 2nd round of the 2019 playoffs, especially since the club has been A #1 about finding diamonds in the rough from lists of youngsters from overseas.
Now it appears that there could have been more to the story all along. Gusev has repeatedly balked at coming to terms on a long-term deal in Sin City, and his rights could be traded to another NHL club soon. Why isn’t the potential loss of the best 20-something player in Russia helping Vegas to a longer futures line instead of a measly (+1200) payoff?
Because too many North American pundits still consider anyone from outside the NHL an “NHL prospect.” Gusev, who fit right in with a PlayStation roster from Russia at the World Championships in 2019, is a “prospect” in his mid-20s. Heck, Ladislaw Nagy, the 37-year-old playmaker who starred in America before putting up eye-popping stats for a decade in Europe, is an “NHL prospect.”
In reality Gusev already has the skill-set to excel in the NHL. He already out-plays most NHL skaters at every opportunity. It’s just a question of which team wants his services more.
More Notes on NHL Futures Lines for 2020
The Knights aren’t the shortest futures bet-to-win the next Stanley Cup, of course. That honor goes to the Tampa Bay Lightning…either coming off a 1st-overall season or an 0-4 “season.”
Tampa Bay is (+700) to lift the grail in 2020 at BetOnline, and I don’t like making 7-to-1 picks on teams that have fallen so woefully short when it matters. I appreciate the size, speed, and talent of the Lightning and find goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy especially impressive, but an epic playoff flop shouldn’t add up to the shortest Las Vegas futures line in the league on the year to follow.
There are other “throwaway” lines currently in the pack. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for instance, and Winnipeg Jets are at (+1200) and (+1600) to win the Stanley Cup. That’s insane considering the obvious disadvantages and struggles Canadian teams are going through, and the historic 25+ years since Canada has been able to celebrate a club of its own winning the title.
It’s like if every team in the Pac-12 went another 25 years without challenging Alabama or Clemson in college football, but there was still a 12-to-1 line on Stanford to win the CFP in January.
The Boston Bruins make more sense at (+1200), and the St. Louis Blues are overlooked no longer as a (+1600) wager at BetOnline.
But I’m partial to the exciting Colorado Avalanche at (+1400) as a preseason (and preliminary) futures pick.
Elsewhere in the Hockey World
It’s noteworthy that Bovada Sportsbook is not offering any NHL futures markets at present. The sportsbook may be a little nervous after a summer of wheeling-and-dealing in hockey as well as NBA basketball, but there are trades and roster moves in Europe too…and nobody ever knows who will be on a World Championship roster until April.
Yet it’s the “alternative” hockey action Bovada is after right now, starting with markets on the IIHF Worlds.
Finland won World Championship gold in 2019 without a single NHL player on the roster, a momentous achievement that has been written-off in a certain way by pundits who should know better.
Sure, the Finns got a little tired at the end. Russia pushed for a goal in the 3rd period of the semifinal even though the Red Machine would have been wise to sit back and hope for a 3-on-3 overtime scenario. Finnish captain Marko Anttila scored to give the heavy underdogs a 1-0 win instead.
When Canada took an early lead in the gold medal game, it felt like another katy-bar-the-door situation. The Maple Leaf had put together a roster of 20-something NHL studs who were going to back-check like nobody’s business and protect, even widen the gap. Right?
Wrong. The Ant Man struck 2 more times, securing the big 33-year-old forward’s place as the “Stéphane Matteau” of the IIHF – an average skater who seems to harmlessly float around until he smacks you or scores more than 1 historic goal in the same playoff run.
But too many world hockey handicappers from the United States will continue to use “NHL career stats” as the benchmark for evaluating all players. They simply cannot accept the fact that there are dominant skaters and goaltenders who skill-set, stamina level and lifestyle is better-suited to the wide rinks and short bursts of energy in the IIHF sport than to the bang-and-crash marathon of North America.
And so it goes on. Canada has the shortest 2020 Men’s Worlds line at Bovada with a (+250) or 2.5-to-1 price, even though the Canucks failed to bring a legitimate starting GK across the pond with them in 2017 and needed a couple of heart-rending goals at 59:59 just to earn a silver medal in Slovakia.
Russia is at (+300) despite the “handicap” (according to the chatter) of KHL, not NHL cogs playing some of the major roles for the Red Machine.
Finland is way down at (+700) odds to defend the crown, at least shorter than Team USA at (+750)…a program that just never wins gold despite NHL superstars making the journey.
Notes on European Club Hockey Futures
If neo-liberal writers from America are convinced ice hockey is nothing but luck, then why don’t they pass-up the crazy bounces and wild scrambles of the NHL for another version of the game?
European club hockey – almost always played on large Olympic-style rinks or “hybrid” rinks – is less about pile-ups in front of the net and more about skill, consistency, and play-making.
A consistent puck-handling team can simply out-last a shaky opponent on big ice, making the outcomes as definitive as you please.
Did Vladimir Putin “rig” the 2018 Gagarin Cup for SKA St. Petersburg? Well, the roster did resemble the “OAR” Olympic team of 2018 an awful lot. But if Putin was going to stack a KHL club, why not Moscow instead?
Rigged or not, CSKA Moscow won the Gagarin Cup in 2019 with the help of forwards like Karill Kaprizov and former NHL-er Mikhail Grigorenko. The Horses are a (+175) wager to do it again this upcoming season, but watch out for Jokerit Helsinki (+1600) where a lot of reigning World Champions play.
I goofed a couple of years ago when I wrote that the DEL, Germany’s major ice hockey league, was a “slow-motion league for old-timers and NHL cast-offs.” To be fair, I was comparing the organization with the Kontinental Hockey League for purposes of forecasting the PyeongChang Games. But I was wrong – over the last few years the DEL has shown that its best players can skate with All-Stars from 2 continents.
Red Bull Munich and Adler Manheim are the co-DEL favorites for 2020 at Bovada at (+275) each, but more notably for the state of German club hockey in general, each team is about a 15-to-1 wager to win the Champions League of Europe against a bunch of Swedish and Finnish teams.
Speaking of Finland and Sweden…
Finland’s “Liiga” and Sweden’s SHL have each received a boost in publicity over the last 2 seasons thanks to a pair of marquee NHL draft picks.
Handicappers who had watched the KHL take over European hockey were ready to dismiss Elias Petterson’s chances of making an impact right away in America. After all, he had only dominated the SHL. But Petterson has now dominated in the NHL and at the Worlds despite tender years.
Likewise, Kappo Kakko starred for Team Finland in 2019 and may prove to be a quicker picker-upper for a franchise than fellow top prospect and #1 overall pick Jack Hughes.
Kakko will be leaving for the NHL now, but Liiga also gets the boost of its charges having helped snag a World title in May.
The Indians of Frölunda HC (+500) and Lasse Kukkonen-led Karpat (+375) are Bovada favorites to win the Swedish and Finnish leagues respectively in 2020.
Finally, a Free Tip (and Chocolate)
Bovada gives our friends at SC Bern (+250) to win the Swiss title this upcoming season, and our amazing pals from the Lausanne Lions front office – who helped yours truly with a mascot question last season – will be pleased to learn that their club is well-respected in Las Vegas with a healthy (+800) line.
But even if you don’t take out a betting slip on the National League (or you prefer the good old state-side “National League” of hardball) it’s a good idea to pay attention to the Swiss game. The NL serves as a perfect training ground for international games with its wide spaces, small and fast athletes, and intricate puck-handling and team play.
Every time Canada or Sweden plays Switzerland – with most of the Swiss players hailing from National League while the all-NHL side glowers with condescension – it’s a close game. Often, Team Switzerland ties or wins it. And pundits and handicappers write it off wholesale as “Canada was tired” or “bad game plan by the Swedes” or “tired legs vs Worlds-obsessed nobodies” and so on.
I used to get angry about people having those attitudes. Now, I’m so grateful for them!
For instance, it’s helping tough-as-nails Switzerland to a (+1500) futures line for May ‘20.