A sports handicapping page is no place for a political rant. But pardon me for a brief anti-political statement.
You are not a bad person for recognizing the unique sports-gambling opportunities of 2020.
Yes, the pauses in NHL, NBA, and even (likely) FBS cycles have been worse than annoying. If a rash of cicada-population booms made arenas an awful place to hang out and an ice hockey season were postponed on that basis, that would be “annoying.” 2020’s suspensions in major sports are caused by a worldwide pandemic which has claimed untold lives. We might not feel guilty about celebrating the return of professional sports, but there’s a twinge of guilt in thinking “the COVID pause is going to turn out to help team/league XYZ.”
But nobody felt it regressive when the 1st bets were placed on women’s baseball during World War 2, and no one complains that George Foreman was coerced into prize-fighting as a poor black teenager. Social and political changes – even tragic ones – are always going to have an affect on the sports landscape. To ignore the circumstances is to hand another advantage to bookmakers. (They’ve got enough already.)
As Bill Burr would say, try to get past the humanity, and look on the bright side for a moment. Hockey games, hoops clashes, and soccer matches postponed by months have taken-on betting lines not unlike Super Bowl or FIFA Group Stage scenarios, with the meeting previewed far in-advance and betting odds fluctuating for weeks as speculators ponder. NHL face-offs can be handicapped and wagered-on more than a couple days or hours out. That’s a rare treat, notwithstanding Opening Night markets.
The potential “Yellow Caution Flag” effect on the NHL and NBA could be more than a convenience. Major League Baseball and golf were able to restart almost completely-afresh. But other leagues have already played most of their seasons, and have rebooted just in time for a stretch run to the playoffs and subsequent elimination brackets. Leagues are offering middle-of-the-pack teams “shortcuts” to the postseason or even fast-tracks to seeding advantages if they post enough wins in a short span of time.
That’s got to help somebody. Most likely, it will help Canadian clubs of the National Hockey League.
Canadian franchises have had such a struggle advancing in the Stanley Cup tournament that it’s almost weird. I’m not talking about season-long disasters such as 2015-16, when all Canadian teams were shut-out of the playoffs for the 1st time in 40+ years. Instead, it’s the phenomenon of north-of-the-border clubs having terrific regular seasons and then falling flat in the postseason, over and over again. Canada hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since the Clinton administration. Winnipeg had a promising 2018-19 campaign until losing to eventual-Cup champion St. Louis in Round 1.
It doesn’t add up, because NHL regular-season games aren’t the walk-throughs they once were. With more teams in the league and any kind of losing W/L records casting clubs into the scrap heap, the 82-game season has never been more competitive. Skaters have to play hard all of the time or wind-up missing out on the postseason. NHL teams that win 40-50 games are doing something right.
How’s this for a working thesis: Canadian clubs can’t win Stanley Cup playoff games because they’re not big enough or deep enough. Scotty Bowman always said that an NHL playoff team couldn’t be big enough or deep enough, and it’s easy to be big and deep when the NHL season is beginning and players have healed wounds in the off-season. But it’s not so easy at the end of the marathon. As 82 games’ worth of bruises pile up, Canadian teams do not have the money or resources to re-stock 2nd, 3rd, and 4th lines with premier talent and punishing body-checkers. They have to go with the fastest and most-skilled youngsters that they have, or recycle fatigued veterans into key roles.
In the playoffs, too many such skaters become invisible, and goalies are overwhelmed by superior sniping from American clubs. But what if every team in the league took a loooooooong pause just prior to the playoffs? What if Canadian teams – who, like national IIHF teams, specialize in short bursts of energy over a handful of weeks – could take off from the starting blocks again at a perfect time?
Welcome to 2020…and potentially nice payoffs on Canadian NHL teams.
Scroll down for NHL “bubble” restart futures odds and picks, a round of picks on upcoming “round robin” game lines featuring the NHL’s best, and thoughts on 2 qualification series-prices.
Selected Futures Odds to Win Stanley Cup in 2020
Tampa Bay Lightning (+550) or 5.5-to-1 odds
It’s a no-brainer for Bovada to hand Tampa Bay single-digits-to-1 Stanley Cup odds based on the club’s strong regular season to-date. However, to give Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning a 5.5-to-1 championship betting line following 2019’s epic postseason disaster is fried-brain crazy.
Just because entire schedules are more important now doesn’t change the total lack of evidence behind Tampa’s gambling odds. The club is currently 0-4 in the sample size that counts.
Boston Bruins (+600) or 6-to-1 odds
I never thought the Blues and Bruins were all that far apart in skill level headed into last year’s playoffs, which is why it was strange to hear podcasts all but accuse the NHL of conspiring to help STL win.
Colorado Avalanche (+750) or 7.5-to-1 odds
Pundits thought the Avs would be a terrific upstart this season, and 42 wins is hardly a disappointment. But did anyone expect Colorado’s stat-sheet to be so unbalanced? Superstar center Nathan MacKinnon has scored more than twice as many points as any other Avalanche forward in 2019-20. But the blue line is on fire, and the Czech-German goaltending duo of Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer is formidable.
Verdict: Recommended Bet (1 unit)
Vegas Golden Knights (+750) or 7.5-to-1 odds
The broader theme of today’s handicap is organizational pros and cons, and why does it feel like NHL ‘cappers are missing some of the pros (pun intended) with Vegas? For instance, the Golden Knights went on a spectacular winning streak in February, and won 2 in a row to end the pre-COVID season. Marc-Andre Fleury may well be the quickest goaltender alive. Yet the club is not taking wagers quite like a genuine Stanley Cup favorite.
Perhaps the franchise is still so new that fans can’t believe the roster is as deep as it is. World Championship hero Mark Stone and winger Max Pacioretty are examples of skaters improving by leaps and bounds while in the prime of their careers. William Karlsson is an absolute gem, and the Knights go 7-deep in quality defensemen with plenty of muscle in the pairings. Bottom line – the Vegas Golden Knights were an already-excellent team which is now also reaping the NHL Draft benefits granted to expansion clubs.
Verdict: Recommended bet
St. Louis Blues (+1100) or 11-to-1 odds
St. Louis may be the only Stanley Cup team to be underrated before and after its title run. Pundits have reached for ways to explain the Blues’ “mysterious” Finals win over a mega-hyped opponent. With such slow, untalented goons as Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’ Reilly attempting to skate for the Blue Note, I can totally see the skepticism. (Hockey fans from STL feel persecuted these days, because they are, so any eastern Missourians please reread that for the intended irony.)
Craig Berube’s squad has at least a 1-in-11 shot to repeat in 2020, though a Western Conference full of fresh athletes will render the Blues’ punishing style a tad academic for now.
Pittsburgh Penguins (+1200) or 12-to-1 odds
The Penguins, like Chelsea FC across the pond, are facing a controversy in goal at a bad time. Matt Murray appears to be fighting his style in some games, with the youngster Tristan Jerry out-pacing the star netminder this season. But the fact that Jerry’s W/L record isn’t superior to the more-established Murray, despite the former stoning hordes of opposing snipers, tells of problems moving the puck and controlling rebounds. Maybe that’s why Pittsburgh coaches are still vacillating between the 2 players.
Toronto Maple Leafs (+1800) or 18-to-1 odds
So we’ve established that a Canadian team could be a jackpot futures-wager this season. Which of the 2 top Canuck contenders’ markets is more intriguing, Toronto at < 20-to-1 or Edmonton at > 20-to-1? Toronto certainly has enough scoring depth to get The Chin’s eternal nod of approval, with 10 forwards having scored 20 points or more as of the pandemic break, some despite injuries and healthy scratches. Frederik Andersen is as respected a goalie as you’ll find in Europe or the United States. Some of the role players are small in stature, however, such as centerman Alexander Kerfoot. Sheldon Keefe may not have enough experience in the coaches’ chair to get the Maple Leafs past a bruising opponent in the playoffs.
Edmonton Oilers (+2200) or 22-to-1 odds
If you’re going to gamble on a Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup, 2020 is probably the year to do it. And if you’re betting on Canucks to lift the hardware in 2020, it should be the team from Edmonton, not the Vancouver Canucks or even the Toronto Maple Leafs. No other NHL club can boast a 1-2 punch of speed, puck-handling, passing, and sniping on the front lines like the Oilers can, with German phenom Leon Draisaitl somehow out-pacing Connor McDavid in goals and points in 2019-20.
Yes, there’s an issue with scoring depth, as only 15 Oiler skaters are into double-digit points with only a handful of games left in the regular season. But the puck-possession time of the club’s stars, and the heavy workload taken by the 1st and 2nd lines, cut down on talented reserves’ chances to score. Reliance on the 1st and 2nd lines is a bad thing in many circumstances, but not with 3 unexpected months of rest. Goaltender Mikko Koskinen has adapted his game to fit NHL shooting angles and has taken a giant leap forward this season, symbolizing an Edmonton lineup which may be perfectly-timed for a run at the grail.
Verdict: Recommended Bet
NHL Round-Robin Game Line: Montreal Canadians (+145) vs Pittsburgh Penguins (-160)
Montreal was in lousy form going into the break, and it’s interesting that Bovada’s Over (5.5) wager is an (EVEN) odds payout when the Pens are in midst of a goaltending phase-out (or phase-in) and Montreal couldn’t hold-off opposing forward lines in March. Offense may be sloppy for a while, but so will defensemen and goalies, and don’t be surprised by the speed of an attack like Pittsburgh’s in August.
Or on Saturday.
Pick: Over and/or Penguins Puck Line (-1.5)
NHL Round-Robin Game Line: St. Louis Blues (-110) vs Colorado Avalanche (-110)
I’m not in the camp that says St. Louis hockey is too slow and too reliant on tough checking, but I maintain that the COVID pause and resulting health/freshness of almost all skaters will hurt some defense-minded teams against fast opponents, just as it happened in the United Kingdom’s soccer restart.
Sunday’s Puck Line on STL is less generous than it ought to be at (-270), and the Avs are a true favorite on neutral ice.
NHL Round-Robin Game Line: Dallas Stars (+105) vs Vegas Golden Knights (-125)
Strangely, before the COVID break, Monday afternoon’s game at Rogers Place might have been handicapped as a (-250) favorite’s line for the Golden Knights. Vegas may have had its winning streak stopped in February but the club roared-ahead to take another 2 Ws prior to the season pause. Dallas had lost a dismal 6 times in a row counting overtime results when hockey stopped…mercifully for the not-so-shining Stars.
Bettors may be counting on wounds having healed in both dressing rooms. However, it is my understanding that more than just physical ailments are infecting the Stars franchise, while the Golden Knights are likely to hit the ground rolling with high morale and big wins in the round-robin series.
Pick: Golden Knights
NHL Qualification Series Prices
Bovada has taken-down its NHL series price category of markets for now, probably in waiting for a round of exhibition games to take place and resulting injuries to pan-out.
We’ll list more series odds here as they become available, but for now here’s a quick preview (and gambling odds!) of an 5-game NHL qualification-series meeting between the New York Rangers and the Carolina Hurricanes slated to begin on Saturday, with numbers courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook.
New York Rangers (+112) vs Carolina Hurricanes (-136)
My personal golden rule of sports gambling is that any underdog with coin-flip chances to win is always the correct wager. Do memories of “Sweep Caroline” from last postseason account for the entire .48-point difference in the prices on each team? It’s unlikely that fan sentiment would sway a Las Vegas line – or a New York line in this case – away from a Big Apple pond shinny club. But the Rangers at (+112) is still worth a look, since the Hurricanes own only 1 more victory so far despite claiming a hurried 9 points before the pause.
Carolina is a tough out on a neutral rink. GM Don Waddell has been gobbling-up slick European talent to complement Sebastian Aho’s silent-movie speed on the attack. Petr Mrázek can afford to buy an extra vowel with his salary as yet another NHL goaltender who has carved-out a new starring role. But the 28-year-old also proved streaky in the playoffs with Carolina, and his save % and GAA have slipped in 2019-20.
There is an open door for New York to out-score Carolina and win the series in 4 or 5 games. The Rangers have more than 1 very capable sniper, their own “fast-forward” puck-carrier in Artemi Panarin, and a blue line full of fearsome slap-shots in an era of club teams around the world wanting for goals from the point. Henrik Lundqvist and Igor Shestyorkin form a solid goaltending duo that could gel a little better than Pittsburgh’s scenario, in which a Stanley Cup playoff hero may be replaced by a newcomer.
For once, the Rangers’ lack of dynastic success from 2000-2019 could be a good thing.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.