After a ridiculous lockout, the National Hockey League returns with an abbreviated schedule of 48 games. Every NHL contest will be within the conference, which will help the best teams in weaker divisions and hinder marginal teams playing in stronger divisions. Spoke to a veteran sports gambler in Las Vegas who goes by Sal and he said, “ ….any comparison between this schedule and the last time they played this many games in the 1994-95 campaign is different because then they had 3 1/2 weeks of training camp and nine or 10 exhibition games, compared to five days of practice.” With 16 slots to fill for the playoffs, we decided to investigate the top 18 teams with the lowest odds to win the Stanley Cup according to Bookmaker.eu. Like the shortened season, our previews will be quick and to the point. Let’s drop the puck!
Pittsburgh +575 – The entire NHL is looking forward to a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing with the Penguins, whose offense should be among the best in the league. The Pittsburgh defense has never been outstanding, but last year’s playoff meltdown against the Flyers was embarrassing. Does goalie Marc-Andre Fleury shake it off and has the front office given him more help in front? The shortest odds, nonetheless, not a bad bet.
New York Rangers +650 – The Rangers play a grinding style of hockey and while nobody on the team will admit it; the tank was near empty at the end of the season, finishing 11-9 and 10-10 in the playoffs. Will a fresher Blueshirts crew hold up better not having to play as long a season? New York is confident Rick Nash is the offensive piece they need to go with their defense and the best netminder in the game, Henrik Lundqvist. A good play.
Vancouver +750 – The Canucks are actively shopping Roberto Luongo, believing Cory Schneider is ready for full time duty in the goal crease. Vancouver wants fair value in return, hopefully filling a few voids which can lead them to a Stanley Cup title. The Canucks are not a perfect team, nevertheless, the trials and tribulations they have gone through the last several seasons might have them mentally tough enough to finish the job.
L.A. Kings +875 – Nobody has repeated as champions since Detroit in the spring of 1998. One benefit the Kings will have is not going thru another long grueling season, which has to help. Of immediate concern is the surgery goalie Jonathan Quick had on his back and if this turns into a conundrum. Another worry is the knee of Anze Kopitar, who was sensational in the playoffs, and how soon can he return. While Darryl Sutter was the perfect coach for an underachieving team, his old-school ways wear thin after awhile. If the Kings start slow, do they tune Sutter out? Worth consideration but track record is not good.
Boston +950 – Tim Thomas let Boston know he is choosing the AT&T “friends and family” plan even before the lookout. This places Tuukka Rask in goal and he is the key if the Bruins are going to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. Boston was playing like zombies by the time the playoffs came last season and they are certain the long layoff has recharged them. The Bruins can be a real factor in the East with more scoring forwards and an improved power play.
Chicago +975 – The Blackhawks have ability, what everyone wonders is do they have the heart? Even in Chicago, hockey buffs wonder if their team would be better off if the talented Patrick Kane should be traded for the right package, something that would have never been considered a year ago. The Hawks need Marian Hossa on the ice for every game to add stability and a goaltender to stand-up to match the exceptional depth Chicago has at the blue line. Though the numbers say contender, something is amiss in Chi-Town.
Philadelphia +975 – The Flyers are still a quality outfit, but are truly dependent upon everything falling into place. Does Ilya Bryzgalov bounce back between the pipes? Will Philadelphia’s aging defense hold up? Who fills the holes for Chris Pronger and Jaromir Jagr? Will second-year players like Sean Couturier be studs or dudes? Too many things have to go perfectly, find other teams to wager on.
Detroit +1000 – The last time Detroit was not chasing the Cup in the spring, Terminator 2 was the top grossing movie (1991). Over their last 20 postseason appearances, Nicklas Lidstrom has been a constant, but he retired in the off-season and you do not replace a player like him. With most of the Red Wings best players past 30 years old, is this the year the streak finally ends? Great pedigree, but this number is lacking in value.
Minnesota +1500 – Minnesota took a walk on the wild side by signing stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter with the intent of improving the NHL’s worst offense. This could allow youngster Mikael Granlund to thrive and an injury-free season by playmaker Mikko Koivu would be huge plus. The Wild are presumed to be more offensive, yet one has to wonder what the new identity of Minnesota will be.
St. Louis +1500 – The Blues have been acquiring top level talent for a few years and it paid off with a convincing Central Division title. St. Louis discovered there is another level in the postseason and was crowned by the Kings. The challenge for the Blues is sustaining and taking the lessons learned and applying them. St. Louis should be on any longer-shot list.
San Jose +1500 – With eight consecutive trips to the postseason and showing up twice in the West Finals in the past three years, what is their not to like about San Jose. However, with the Sharks, the sense is always unfinished business, given their talent-laden roster. For San Jose to move one step further, they cannot be 29th in penalty-killing again and collectively have to make more of commitment to stopping the puck. If you want a super positive, 11 Sharks players played overseas during the lockout, showing desire to being ready and accomplishing their goals. Definitely worth wagering consideration.
Edmonton +2000 – Edmonton hasn’t been to the playoffs since losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 and has been bringing in top level talent after being near the bottom of standings the last several years. The 2013 campaign is expected to show positive results from their work and have the Oilers in the postseason for the first time in seven years.
Buffalo +2000 – After being one of the fastest teams in the NHL, once slowed down, Buffalo did not have the physical players needed to go against bigger teams and got pushed around. They have made over their roster to include some beef and need Ryan Miller to be the best goalie on the planet like he was three years ago. The Sabres are good enough to finish 2nd in the Northeast Division, but that is about it.
Washington +2000 – The Capitals are on their third head coach in two years, making continuity a real question mark. New head man Adam Oates has to get into the head of Alex Ovechkin and have him return to his 50+ goals scoring days. A healthy Nicklas Backstrom would be awesome for the Caps and they need a dependable No. 1 goalie to step forward. For pucks players, probably worth saving the money and seeing what kind of year Washington puts together.
Tampa Bay +2500 – In 2011, Tampa Bay came out of nowhere to reach the Eastern Finals. As is usually the case, the Lightning suffered a corrective curve and will strive to get back on track with one the league’s top offenses. Tampa Bay pried away Anders Lindback from Nashville for three draft picks and the NHL second-tallest netminder (6-6) appears ready for prime time duty. The Lightning should return to the playoffs, but that is as far as it goes.
New Jersey +2500 – While it seems the Devils always find some way to compete, not having their former captain Zach Parise (free agent departure) and Ilya Kovalchuk (still playing in Russia) has to hinder the Eastern Conference champions. Given the volume of games, can aging goalies Martin Brodeur (40) and Johan Hedberg (39) hold up? New Jersey is not a good wager. Nashville +2500 – The Predators are one of the NHL franchises that cannot afford to make many mistakes, watching every penny. Nashville thought they had a real shot of playing for the Cup, but were upset by a hot Phoenix squad and lost star defensemen Ryan Suter to free agency. If goalie Pekka Rinne can continue to play at a high level and the Preds power play can stay in the Top 5, Nashville returns to the playoffs, yet is not worthy of wagering consideration.
Carolina +2500 – The Hurricanes have seriously upgraded their offensive roster and are expected to return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. The addition of Jordan Staal to play with his brother and captain Eric, adds excitement right away. Last year’s No. 25 defense in goals allowed has to improve 10 spots to make the postseason.
Improved team, just not a good long shot. In the last lockout season, 14 of the 16 teams that made the playoffs returned. Here are our best futures bets.
Best Bets – New York Rangers – Boston – Vancouver – San Jose