The NHL season hits what I would consider its first real breakpoint of the regular season, and that’s New Year’s Day. The league’s new tradition of the Winter Classic will feature the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs playing outdoors at the University of Michigan football stadium on January 1, and its good a vantage point as any to see how the new season is shaping up.
When the 2013-14 campaign opened in October, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks were co-favorites to win the Stanley Cup, coming in at 11-2 and 13-2 respectively. Neither has disappointed, and both would be the #1 seed in their respective conferences if the season ended today.
What is surprising is that while the odds on the two heavyweights are mostly unchanged (Chicago has nudged down to 11-2 and is now dead even with Pittsburgh), they’ve got some company at the top, with a third team coming in at 6-1. And even more surprising than that is who the third favorite is.
It wouldn’t be shocking if either the Boston Bruins or Los Angeles Kings were moved into the highest tier of the Stanley Cup betting odds. Each has a recent championship (Boston in 2011, Los Angeles in 2012) and each has the kind of elite goaltender you need to win four playoff rounds in succession (Tuuka Raask for Boston, Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles).
But while the Bruins and Kings get respect from the oddsmakers, neither one is the team that has drawn the affection of the betting markets. It’s the St. Louis Blues that have moved from a season-opening number of 10-1, down to 6-1 and are in with Chicago and Pittsburgh as tri-favorites.
The Blues are a good hockey team, they play excellent defense and are well-coached by Ken Hitchcock. They’ve been a little like a Marty Schottenheimer-coached NFL team—not quite enough firepower to go along with it, and consequently losing early in the postseason. So far, St. Louis has been able to get its offense going. They have the second-most goals in the NHL, trailing only Chicago.
If this kind of offensive showing is for real, St. Louis is a legitimate contender for a Cup. I guess I am surprised that bettors have moved so quickly to their corner, rather than taking a wait-and-see mindset in a regular season that will still stretch until the middle of April.
Four more teams are priced at odds of 10-1 or less, and that includes Boston, Los Angeles, the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The Ducks have the second-best record in the NHL overall and join Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston as leaders of the four divisions. San Jose is similar to St. Louis—they’re a team I like, but the playoff record isn’t optimistic, and I’m not sure that they deserve this heavy of a benefit of the doubt at this time.
The most interesting feature of the Stanley Cup betting odds right now is really how jam-packed everything has become. When you have two high-profile teams in Chicago and Pittsburgh, that were clear favorites at the start of the year, and have played up to expectations, it’s curious that five other teams would start to nudge closer.
Boston and Los Angeles, at 9-1 and 10-1 respectively, have moved ahead slightly. San Jose has moved from 18-1 to 9-1 in a matter of three months. And Anaheim’s surge from 20-1 to 8-1 is the most dramatic, although the start they’ve enjoyed, after a strong regular season a year ago, suggests that this is just a case of the market correcting an opening error.
The most curious case of a team moving the other direction is the Vancouver Canucks. With a new head coach in John Tortorella, the Canucks opened the season at 14-1. They’ve played pretty well in a tough Pacific Division and are one of 11 teams to have acquired 50 points in the standings. Yet they’ve dropped to 30-1. Perhaps this is a case of Vancouver’s spot in betting hearts being taken by Anaheim, and if so that’s logical.
On the ice, this is a season that’s gone mostly according to form, but you wouldn’t know that the way the betting markets are moving around. Here’s a summation of the Stanley Cup betting odds as we hit New Year’s Day…
St. Louis 6-1
San Jose 9-1
Los Angeles 10-1
Tampa Bay 25-1
NY Rangers 30-1