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Stanley Cup Futures Betting: Potential NHL Playoff Sleepers in 2019

NHL logo on a Hockey Rink
I’ve been publishing a lot of material on overseas hockey on the blog, and there’s probably a few fans who read and think is “hating on the NHL.”

By no means do I intend to downplay the importance of the National Hockey League when it comes to pond shinny. The NHL is the greatest hockey league in the world, or at least contains the biggest abundance of talent, speed and skill.

My only caveat is that not everyone on the planet who can play at a world-class level is in the NHL, for various reasons. And no, they’re not all in a “minor league” like the AHL necessarily. I’ve heard teams of Russian professionals described as “minor-league All Stars” on American broadcasts, but that’s not quite how the hierarchy works in ice hockey.

Players who would have been marginal in the NHL – or simply beaten to a fine pulp – can become superstars playing finesse hockey on the big rinks of Europe.

Guys who are big and sturdy enough to body-check effectively in the NHL but who don’t have a cow’s lick of a chance to score in any game are relegated to lifetime duty in the AHL or in a start-up league overseas. Those are the minor leagues.

Wayne Gretzky is also correct when he says the NHL isn’t a place for creative offense like it used to be. But that’s a testament to the high skill level of the league. 3rd and 4th-line NHLers are expected to lead on the attack now. 1st-line players are mostly expected to check. Everyone is more dynamic.

While the National Hockey League’s head coaches are seen more-and-more as caretakers toiling in the background – Joel Quenneville has brought Stanley Cups to Chi-Town but will never be touchstone figure like Mike Keenan, who turned a scrappy Blackhawk franchise into the terror of the Midwest in the 1990s – it is the coaching schemes and tactics that make handicapping the modern NHL so difficult.

Handicapping the NHL in 2018-19: More Versatility, Less Parity

People think of sophisticated coaching and a deep pool of talent as synonymous with parity. And maybe sometimes it is. But there’s not a Zdeno Chara-sized amount of parity in the NHL right now.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are waltzing to a President’s Cup, led by Nikita Kucherov’s breathtaking 80+ assists and Andrei Vasilevsky’s 93% saves mark.

Lest anyone start chanting “USA!” at the games, American-born Tyler Johnson, J.T. Miller, and Ryan McDonagh have combined for 46 goals and are each among the Lightning’s top 10 scorers in 2018-19. Defenseman Victor Hedman is doing what fellow Swede John Klingberg did for the Dallas Stars last year, setting up numerous snipers on the power play while chipping-in 10 goals of his own.

The Boston Bruins have been chasing Tampa in the Atlantic Division, but the Lightning are so far ahead that any Eastern Conference futures markets at MyBookie were discontinued long ago. The book’s Stanley Cup futures board gives Jon Cooper’s skaters a (+210) chance to win the grail.

Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames are tearing-up the Western Conference, led by tiny Johnny Gaudreau’s magnificent scoring touch. 24-year-old teammate Elias Lindholm is yet another prolific attacker from Sweden whose assists far out-number an impressive goal total. No wonder the Canadians can’t get past Tre-Kronor at the Worlds…teamwork is gold in a landscape full of pro athletes who aim and fire.

The Flames have prodigious scoring depth. Over a dozen Calgary skaters could end the season with double-digit goals. Scotty Bowman said you can never be big enough or fast enough, and he was right – Calgary and Toronto have been killing south-of-the-border teams with a thousand small cuts.

MyBookie’s futures betting odds on Calgary winning the Stanley Cup are currently holding at (+800), trailing only San Jose in the not-Tampa-Bay “division,” but still at almost 4x as long of a payoff line as the book’s odds on the Lightning to prevail.

We’ll have a lot of fun comparing the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Flames, Bruins, Sharks and other contenders in the weeks to come.

But for now – in honor of March Madness – here’s a pair of “sleeper” futures picks at long odds who could conceivably sharpen into NHL title-favorites in the warm days of late April and May.

Montreal Canadians ((+3800) Odds-to-Win 2019 Stanley Cup at MyBookie)

In Mike Keenan and Scotty Bowman’s day, a team could breeze through the regular season and make the 1st round of the playoffs with almost no problem. It led to teams jockeying for position during the campaign, just trying to get matched-up against an opponent they felt for vulnerable.

20th-century oddsmakers who based their Stanley Cup futures odds on the regular season were often broke and lonely by the time the dust cleared. It didn’t matter whether the early-90s Chicago Blackhawks had finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th in the Norris Division. At some point there was going to be a postseason faceoff on a horrifyingly small and unforgiving rink in the Windy City, and Dirk Graham was going to charge head-long into the boards 5 seconds after the opening faceoff and try to take as many opposing players as he could with him.

Meanwhile, there was plenty of time to stop and enjoy some patented Norris fisticuffs.

It might be a wiser world in 2019, but what might be less brutal along the boards is now more taxing on goaltenders and skaters. A 31-team NHL with the same-length postseason tournament adds up to teams having to go all-out just to earn a chance at the prize. Only the very best regular-season NHL clubs with the best records in March get to ease-off and rest some key players.

In other words? President and Lord now cling in closer conjunction. Below the franchises mentioned above, there are still well over a dozen teams caught in a mad scramble to quality in what has turned into a confusing and hair-trigger race to the finish.

But there are exceptions to every rule. If and when a team is able to get ahead of the wheel late in the calendar year, losses in green, muddy March don’t necessarily have to import as much. A slump in March is painful for a Cup contender but not necessarily a fatal blow.

Look at the Montreal Canadians for a moment. The Habs are currently a few points out of an 8th-seed in the Eastern Conference despite an excellent start. Taking off the nostalgia glasses for a moment, while it’s funky to see a club at 9 games above .500 rated in the lower half of a conference of 16, of course the modern NHL points system awards points for OT wins and losses on a scale.

It’s easier to win than lose, and Montreal still needs to do a lot of winning to avoid – at the very least – an opening-round series against Tampa Bay.

But there is more than one target that the Habs to reach in the standings. They can conceivably pass the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have each posted a few extra wins recently.

Carolina is a social-media darling for its laugh-it-up postgame celebrations on the ice. But I don’t trust the ‘Canes in goal, with no clear champion between Petr Mrázek and Curtis McElhinney. And while you’ve got to like Sergei Bobrovski in goal for the Blue Jackets, he may not be living up to a near-$8,000,000-per-season contract.

Meanwhile, goaltender Carey Price looks just fine in Montreal after rebounding from a poor campaign in 2017-18.

Add 11 double-digit goal scorers and the reemergence of Slovakian mini-menace Tomas Tatar, and you’ve got a club that can easily wind up in 7th position and get themselves going while Tampa Bay faces an endurance-test of its own.

St. Louis Blues (+2000)

People tend to become their jobs, and the task of blogging about sports around the world has made me even more of a nerd than I was in the beginning. (My friends would say that’s not possible.)

To wit – when looking at the NHL standings and seeing that the St. Louis Blues were having a rough go of it earlier this season, I felt there was at least a 5% silver lining. (The other 95% was all storm clouds as I spend a lot of time in St. Louis.) Blues centerman Ryan O’ Reilly has been so much fun to watch in international play over the last few years, he’ll be missed if he doesn’t make it to the World Championships in 2019. The 28 year-old’s courageous 2-way style is a blessing to the Maple Leaf, and smallish forwards from Europe have no idea how to stop him.

But it’s actually weird that such an amazing player has wound up missing out on the final 4 rounds of the Stanley Cup tournament so often. O’ Reilly is that good. He’s leading St. Louis with 69 points in 72 games and has only taken 12 penalty minutes despite a tough checking style. That’s undoubtedly a product of his worldly experience playing for no-nonsense referees, but it doesn’t mean that the Blue Note won’t know what to do if things get hairy against chippy clubs in the playoffs.

Vladimir Tarasenko remains a force on offense and a popular name in the Gateway City, but St. Louis will rely on goaltenders Jake Allen and upstart phenom Jordan Binnington, who recently shut out the Nashville Predators in a 2-0 win for the Blues on 2/26, over the stretch run.

The club’s recent hot streak has put the Blues in position to finish among the top 5 or 6 in the Western Conference or even threaten for home-ice advantage in the opening playoff round.

NHL Futures Betting: Buying Cheap Contenders When Possible

There are many teams who are more likely to win the Stanley Cup this season than the 2 profiled above. But they’re better than their odds indicate at the bookie – at MyBookie, even.

That’s the ticket. Remember, in no way does the sports gambling experience mirror stock-brokering as much as when you’re laying down a “portfolio” of futures for coming postseason battles.

In the NHL, remember that the regular season can be deceptive – especially near the tail end. The Lightning are fun to watch…but remember how much trouble those “brilliant” Washington Capitals teams had winning the grail until 2018?

Better to predict the less-predictable…for now.