Futures Bets: NHL Division Winners

Our pre-season look at NHL Futures continues with a round-up of division winners. Realignment, a condensed schedule, and covid-19 concerns are all factors that need to be considered, along with the personnel changes and progression/regression that is typically expected in an NHL season. FanDuel hung numbers on each of the division winners, and we’re here to take a look at where your money should be when the season gets started.

NHL North – Montreal Canadiens (+460)

According to FanDuel Sportsbook’s Team Point Totals, the NHL’s North Division projects to be the closest division in the league this season. Six of the seven teams have point totals within the 71.5 to 62.5 range, with the Ottawa Senators being the odd-man-out with a total of 45.5 (although that has climbed since opening numbers).

There’s a reason that the Toronto Maple Leafs are listed as favorites to win the division. Look no further than the Leafs depth at forward to validate why they have the highest point total and are favorites in the NHL North. Toronto manages the lion’s share of shots and scoring chances in a game, but they also give up a concerning amount of opportunities against.  Inefficiencies on the back-end have been unresolved despite multiple personnel changes and different coaches applying different strategies. Maybe Toronto surprises us with a new defensive scheme that actually works, or Andersen has a lights-out performance in a contract year, but I’d rather be surprised than disappointed.

The Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens are priced equally at +460. Edmonton had a busy off-season addressing depth at the forward position and improved significantly. They also managed to steal Tyson Barrie off the free-agent market, which could prove to be a huge boost on the back-end. But the two workhorses that are Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, continue to display concerning five-on-five metrics. Those concerning five-on-five metrics are compounded by questions in net, with both Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith coming back, despite inconsistent play throughout last season.

That leaves us is with the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal had a sneaky good off-season addressing every aspect of their team. Tyler Toffoli and Josh Andersen were brought in to bolster goal-scoring. Joel Edmundson, Corey Perry, and Michal Frolik were acquired to strengthen the Habs defensive system, and Jake Allen is the NHL-quality goaltender to lighten Carey Price’s load. In addition to anticipated progression from last year’s metrics, the Habs went out and made their team better.

The Canucks goaltending concerns, the Jets’ depth at defense, and Senators in the midst of a rebuild make it easier to dismiss their North division chances. Calgary could emerge as a darkhorse if scoring depth improves. However, with only five skaters managing more than 32 points last season, I’m not convinced they did enough in the off-season to compete in their new division.

At +460, Montreal has a lot of upside as North Division winners. I expect them to compete for the top spot, and if nothing else, that should leave us with some decent hedging opportunities towards the end of the season.

NHL East – Washington Capitals (+550)

Whichever team comes out of the NHL East will have a division banner to hang high in the rafters. Six of the eight teams in this division finished at least nine games above .500 last season, with the other two finishing only one game beneath .500. Moreover, no team has a team point total beneath 53.5, which implies that this year will be a grind for the NHL East. Boston (+250) is priced as the favorite with Pittsburgh (+400), Philadelphia (+500), Washington (+550), New York Islanders (+650), and New York Rangers (+700), priced right behind them. Although this division looks like a bit of a craps shoot, there is reason to believe in the Washington Capitals.

Washington finished last season with the most goals, most scoring chances-for, and third most high-danger chances-for among teams in their division. The Caps are returning their top nine scorers, so there’s no reason to believe they’ll be lacking in the offensive department. Last season, their undoing came between the pipes, where Braden Holtby had the 65th ranked goals saved above average (GSAA) at – 16.76 — which was second-worst among all goalies in the NHL, and 64th ranked save percentage. Not surprisingly, the Caps and Holtby parted ways in the off-season, paving the way for Ilya Samsonov to open the season as the starter. Samsonov posted above-average save percentage and goals-against averages as a 22-year old in the league, while 56.1% of his starts were quality starts. If Carter Hart was any indication last season, goalies could exceed with a year of experience under their belts.  Don’t sleep on Samsonov as a Vezina candidate either; a big season from him will lead the Capitals to NHL East glory.

NHL West – Vegas Golden Knights (+175)

The Colorado Avalanche have garnered a lot of attention in the betting market this off-season. They have an exciting young core of players, including Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, and Samuel Girard. All of whom possess a tremendous amount of offensive upside, evidenced by their top-ranked five-on-five goals scored last season. But in reconciling last year’s output with production, there is cause for concern. The Avs finished last season with the 21st ranked expected goals for. What that means is that they overachieved offensively by a significant margin. It doesn’t help that the Avs finished with the most-inflated PDO, which undoubtedly will come back down to average. The regression will hit this team, and it will hit them hard.

Goaltending might also be a bit of a concern for the Avalanche. Although Philip Grubauer is in a contract year, and there’s something to be said about players overachieving in a contract year, his advanced metrics aren’t going to blow anyone out of the water; in fact, they will sink you if anything. Hockey Reference has compiled a handy stat on measuring goaltender’s “quality starts.” It counts the number of games in which a goaltender exceeds his season-long save percentage or posts a save percentage above 88.5% when facing 20 shots or less. Grubauer ranked 33rd in quality starts and 52nd in quality start percentage (quality starts divided by games started). Couple inconsistent goaltending with offensive regression, and you have a recipe for disaster. Stay away from the Avalanche.

On the other hand, the Vegas Golden Knights were last year’s advanced metric darlings. Then the Golden Knights went out this off-season and got even better by signing Alex Pietrangelo and extending Robin Lehner. This team is loaded from top to bottom, and they have metrics working in their favor.

Dallas (+490) proved last season that they were tailor-made for the playoffs but struggled to compete night-in and night-out during the regular season. The Blue Jackets (+850) are talented and will compete, but their constant tinkering and unloading young talent make it hard to consider them as front-runners. Florida (+900) and Nashville (+850) are both poised to make a push for the playoffs but aren’t at the same level as the Knights or Avs.

Vegas currently has the second-best odds to win the NHL West this season, but don’t expect that to last long. Vegas is the play in the NHL West.

NHL Central – Tampa Bay Lightning (+140)

At +140, Tampa Bay to win the NHL Central almost seems like free money. The defending Stanley Cup Champions open this season as chalk to win the NHL Central, and there’s no reason to believe they don’t walk away with this banner.

Tampa finished last season with the third-ranked Corsi percentage, third-ranked relative scoring chances-for percentage, and fourth-ranked high-danger chances-for percentage. Although their PDO from last season is somewhat inflated, there’s no reason to believe that they can’ feast on the lesser opponents within their division. Relying on FanDuel’s point totals, the closest team to the Bolts is the Carolina Hurricanes. Tampa starts the season with a projected point total of 76.5, while Carolina has a total of 71.5.  From a metrics perspective, Carolina is very close to the Lightning, but the Canes failed to address their most glaring weakness this off-season by not signing or trading for another goaltender. No disrespect to James Reimer or Peter Mrazek, but both goalies have been average throughout their careers.

It’s possible that the Carolina Hurricanes, or any of the NHL Central Division teams, for that matter, exceed expectations this season. Still, even if that’s the case, I’m not counting on any of them to surpass Tampa in the standings. To be the champ, you have to beat the champ, and the NHL Central division teams aren’t even in the same weight class.