The 2017-18 NHL season begins on Wednesday night, and there is no big favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup. That creates betting value if there is a team you like or an angle you want to pursue. Let’s look at some contenders worth a second look and perhaps a small investment.
The two-time defending champs are the tepid favorites because of the consistency that comes with having Sidney Crosby, the best player of this generation, anchor the top line and Evgeni Malkin center the second. Crosby and Malkin’s teammates aren’t lightweights: Phil Kessel is a dependable sniper; Kris Letang is a top-tier defenseman; and youngsters Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are poised to be the next great Penguins. Pittsburgh lost Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Nick Bonino among others off of last years squad, however, and no team has won three straight Cups since the Islanders of the early 80s.
The last time the Oilers were good they were among the best teams of all time. Wayne Gretzky led Edmonton to the Cup in 1984, 1985, 1987, and the remains of the Gretzky dynasty won it all in 1990 after The Great One departed for Los Angeles. While Crosby has dominated the league recently, the future of the NHL is Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. The 20-year-old led the league in points last year, won the Hart Trophy (MVP), and led the Oilers to their first playoff series win since 2006. Surrounding McDavid is a young core that includes first-round picks Leon Draisaitl (no. 3 overall, 2014) and Ryan Nugent Hopkins (no. 1 overall, 2011). After managing only 70 points two years ago, the Oilers tallied 103 last season, and advanced to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against Anaheim.
Is the time now for Edmonton, or do they need one more year of seasoning?
Two years ago, Tampa Bay took the Penguins to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Last year, with Steven Stamkos out for most of the campaign due to a knee injury, the Lightning failed to qualify for the playoffs. Kunitz joined Tampa in the off-season, as did defenseman Dan Girardi (though that may prove a detriment). Youngster Mikhail Sergachev is among the better young blue-liners in the league.
The odds aren’t quite as high as I’d like since it is unclear how good Stamkos will be after surgery, but the potential is certainly there.
You can’t be sure that rookies will improve in their second season. That said, so long as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander don’t regress this year, the future is blindingly bright for the Leafs. The trio combined for 191 points last season and led Toronto to its second playoff appearance since 2004. The front-office added longtime Shark Patrick Marleau for both scoring depth and veteran leadership.
This team is a lot like Edmonton, just a little younger. This could be the year the Leafs make the jump to dominant NHL power, or it could take another season or two. In all likelihood, the defense and goaltending will answer that question.
If you are going to bet on a longshot, why not take a real big number? The angle is simple: defense proverbially wins championships. With Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce, Jacob Slavin, and Noah Hanifin anchoring the backend and Scott Darling in net, Carolina will be one of the tougher teams to score on. In the preseason, teams struggled to even get shots off against the Hurricanes, and Darling (acquired from the Blackhawks for a third-round pick) was terrific when he had to be. He is a huge upgrade on Cam Ward and Eddie Lack.
Adding ageless Justin Williams should help an offense that is a work in progress but doesn’t need to be the team’s strength. Youngsters Victor Rask, Jeff Skinner, Sebastian Aho, and Elias Lindholm all can improve and help the offense take positive steps. There are worse gambles than Carolina at a big number.
There are probably 20 teams or more that can legitimately claim to have a shot this season. As a result, you shouldn’t take a small price. The Oilers’ young core deserves a ton of respect, but Toronto’s lineup is something of a mirror image, and the Leafs are getting a much higher payout at over 16/1. I advise a modest wager on Toronto plus a very small bet for fun on the Hurricanes.
Featured photo: By Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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