There isn’t much longer to wait for the return of the NHL regular season. All 31 teams in the league will be hoping to lift the Stanley Cup in around eight months time, but which of the seven teams in the Central Division have the best chance? Read on to find out.
The main challengers in the Central Division
As with most sports, betting on futures markets in the NHL has both positives and negatives. While it offers a greater reward in terms of the odds on offer, bettors also need to deal with potential impact of injuries and trades (as well as trying up funds that may be better utilised throughout the season).
Unsurprisingly, the Nashville Predators are one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup this year (11.01*). The Predators are also the slight favourites to win the Central Division at 2.719* and have a regular season points total that currently sits at 104.5 (with the over priced at 1.80*).
Not only did the Predators claim top spot in the Central Division and the Western Conference last year, they also snagged the Presidents Trophy, accumulating 117 points in the standings. Nashville had the second best Goals For Percentage at 5-on-5 and outperformed their Expected Goals For Percentage by a whopping 6.33%.
Pekka Rinne claimed the Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender in 2017-18 and posted his best Save Percentage in almost a decade (not bad for a 35-year-old) but it will be tough to reach those same heights again.
Maybe Rinne has found the fountain of youth, but he will turn 36 in November and bettors should be wary that Rinne could regress. It would not be a shock to see his backup, Juuse Saros, carry more of the load in 2018-19 as he’s shown that he may be capable of doing so.
There is little doubt that that the Predators will be able to hang with the best that the NHL has to offer - they’re still home to the league's best top four on defence - but much like the race last year in the Atlantic Division between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, the battle for top spot in the Central Division was also decided by a very small margin.
When comparing the Expected Goals For Percentage at 5-on-5 to the percentage of goals that the Winnipeg Jets actually scored, what they accomplished in 2017-18 seems to be somewhat sustainable. Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and sniper Patrik Laine lead the team, but they also have depth throughout their lineup to complement those players.
Runners up in 2017-18, both in the Central Division and the Western Conference Final, the Winnipeg Jets are the team projected by many to be atop the Western Conference in 2018-19. The Jets owned 52.82% of the expected goal share and posted a 52.39% Corsi For Percentage in 2017-18.
The team also had one of the best power plays in the league, converting on 23.4% of their opportunities, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the talent that the team boasts up front.
There is little doubt that that the Predators will be able to hang with the best that the NHL has to offer
They were also above average on the penalty kill despite being one of the most penalized teams in the NHL. This was due in large part to their goaltending, leading the league in save percentage while shorthanded.
If their young netminder, Connor Hellebuyck, can carry over his performance from last season, the Jets are in line to be one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL once again.
In hindsight, the Jets were criminally underpriced at 42.41* to win the Stanley Cup prior to the start of the last season, but Pinnacle’s traders are not underestimating the team this time around. The Jets regular season points total is set at 104.5 and they are currently priced at 3.11* to claim the Central Division title and 11.750* to win the Stanley Cup.
Potential value away from the favourites?
St. Louis Blues
It took all 82 regular season games for the St. Louis Blues to seal their playoff fate last year, losing in the final game to the Colorado Avalanche and missing the postseason by a single point. However, there is optimism surrounding the Blues heading into 2018-19 after the team made several notable additions to the roster in the offseason.
Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak and David Perron will join the likes of Alexander Steen, Brayden Schenn, and Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues should not be overlooked by bettors.
St. Louis was perhaps the best team to miss the playoffs in 2017-2018 but now looked primed to make a return to the postseason. How far the Blues go will depend a lot on whether or not they get any semblance of quality goaltending.
The Blues were among the top ten in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt differential with a 51.78% Corsi For Percentage and owned 51.22% of the expected goal share. They were a subpar team when it came to special teams, though.
The Blues only managed to convert on 15.4% of their power play opportunities while the opposition had a 20.3% conversion rate against the Blues while they were short handed.
It’s likely that the Blues will see an improvement in the special teams department - especially on the penalty kill - as the addition of O’Reilly, one of the league’s most talented defensive forwards, could pay immediate dividends.
As it stands now, the Blues regular season points total sits at 97.5, and their odds of winning the Central Division are 8.629*. Currently priced at 28.400* to win the Stanley Cup, bettors should not discount their chances of winning the division or making a deep playoff run.
Ken Hitchcock and the Dallas Stars seemed to be on their way to the playoffs, but as The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn explained last spring, the 2017-18 edition of the Dallas Stars were only the second of the ten teams since 2005-06 to miss the playoffs despite holding a three-point lead after 66 games (Dallas had accumulated 80 out of 132 possible points in the standings).
However, the team only managed to collect seven out of 32 possible points in their final 16 regular season games.
Under Hitchcock, the Stars seemingly made a commitment to the defensive side of the game. At even strength, Dallas ranked amongst the best teams in terms of limiting shots. The number of goals that the team was expected to concede was also among the lowest in the league.
I’m of the opinion that the Hitchcock’s approach was likely outdated and can be especially detrimental if it cannot be executed without a certain level of discipline, which is a quality or skill that not every player or team possesses.
Only the Nashville Predators spent more time on the penalty kill than the Stars last season and despite the process seeming somewhat effective, one has to wonder if this team is simply not cut out to play that style of hockey.
St. Louis was perhaps the best team to miss the playoffs in 2017-2018 but now looked primed to make a return to the postseason.
Was there so much of an overemphasis on committing to the defensive side of the game that it led to more penalties? Maybe it was it just the growing pains of a new system. Either way, the trade-off may not be worth it.
Newly hired head coach Jim Montgomery vowed to stick with the up-tempo style of play that he credited for his success at the collegiate level. He believes that you have to let your horses run. Is it cliché coach speak? Yes, it most definitely is. Should you buy in blindly? No, you should definitely not. There is nothing wrong with optimistic scepticism, though.
Leading the way for the Stars are forwards Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and defencemen John Klingberg, and while depth may be in an issue for this Stars team, they might just have enough high-end talent to overcome it.
Rookie defenceman Miro Heiskanen, one of the best prospects from this past summer’s Entry Draft, looks primed to claim a spot on the roster and his readiness to transition to the big league could surprise people.
The Stars regular season point total currently sits at 94.5, which based on my projection of 99 points is a little low. Their odds of winning the Central Division and the Stanley Cup are 9.760* and 27.960* respectively.
If the Stars can return to the run and gun style of play that observers of the team have become accustomed to over the years while not abandoning valuable skills they learned last season under Hitchcock, big things could be in store.
The Minnesota Wild, despite being in the mix in each of the past six seasons, seem to be a club that has hit their ceiling, especially in the playoffs.
While the Wild have ranked among the best in the league in terms of goal expectancy (they ranked first in 5-on-5 Expected Goals For Percentage at 53.76%) in 2017-18) they were among the worst teams in the league in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt differential.
The Wild had a 5-on-5 Corsi For Percentage of 47.8%, which placed them 26th in the league, which should make bettors pause. It is worth noting, though, that it’s quite possible that my property model does weight 5-on-5 shot attempt differential more than the other models.
Of course, injuries to some key players did contribute to some of the Wild’s struggles last season, however, the team does not have much in the way of high-end talent and many of their biggest stars are approaching their mid thirties, or are already there.
Ryan Suter (33), Zach Parise (34), Mikou Koivu (35) and Devan Dubnyk (32) are all in the twilights of their respective careers. The Wild do have some promising players who are in the midst of - or just entering - their prime years.
Forwards Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund and defencemen Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon are all fine players, but as mentioned before, the team does not have any real difference makers.
Goaltender Devan Dubnyk is likely propped up by the lack of high quality shots he faces, which is a testament to the skaters in front of him, however if there is any deviation from the current system, bettors should question whether or not Dubnyk is capable of adapting. Dubnyk had the highest Expected Save Percentage among goaltenders who played at least 2000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey in 2017-18.
Only the Nashville Predators spent more time on the penalty kill than the Stars last season
The Wild have been a good regular season team, and they probably will be in the mix in 2018-19. However, every time this team enters the playoffs, they struggle to compete with the top teams in the league.
Minnesota looked overwhelmed when they faced off against the Winnipeg Jets in last seasons opening round and while the best team does not always win due to the random nature of the sport and the small sample size of a best-of-seven series, it’s very hard for me to see this team as a legitimate threat to the other Stanley Cup contenders.
With a regular season points total of 95.5, Minnesota’s chances of making the playoffs are close to a coin flip. While bettors may feel the Wild’s long odds of winning the Stanley Cup (36.100*) are attractive - and may not want to totally dismiss them as a dark horse - there should be some scepticism about whether or not the club has what it takes.
The fact that many of the teams the Wild will be competing with in the Western Conference have gotten better over the summer while they themselves have stood still also needs to be considered.
The real outsiders in the Central Division
Unlike the Eastern Conference, there is a little more disagreement between my projections and those of the Pinnacle traders in the Western Conference. The Chicago Blackhawks (41.010*) and Colorado Avalanche (46.010*) could quite possibly be considered by some bettors to be dark horse candidates, but I don’t believe that to be the case.
By my estimation, these teams each have less than a 25% chance of appearing in the postseason, but stranger things have happened.
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