NHL 2019-20 Betting Preview: Two Sleepers the Market Has Left Behind

NHL 2019-20 Betting Preview: Two Sleepers the Market Has Left Behind article feature image
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Aaron Doster, USA Today Sports. Pictured: A Dog at a Hockey Game, pretty adorable.

  • Looking for NHL Stanley Cup longshots the market hasn't adjust to yet?
  • Michael Leboff lists two that are worth a bet before the puck drops.

The NHL is a copycat league.

When the Kings and Bruins were having success early in the decade playing “heavy hockey” the other 28 teams in the league heard from their owners about wanting to play ‘more like those guys.’

When the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups playing a high-octane, speed game — we saw teams try to parrot what the Penguins were doing, opting to play an easy-on-the-eyes style of hockey. That jump from “heavy” to “speed” hockey left a lot of teams with confused identities.

There are a lot of hockey cliches that should be left for dead, but the old trope about having an identity is actually something worth expanding on, especially given how last season ended.

In June, the St. Louis Blues defeated the Boston Bruins in Game 7 to lift their first Stanley Cup. The Blues were famously dead last in January and turned things around thanks to a strong defensive game and great goaltending.

The 2019 Stanley Cup Final was a tribute to the old adage that “defense wins championships.” Per Natural Stat Trick, the Bruins and Blues finished second and third, respectively in Expected Goals Against Per 60 (xGA/60) and High-Danger Scoring Chances Allowed Per 60 (HDCA/60). Only the Minnesota Wild graded out better than Boston and St. Louis in those two categories.

What does that mean for you, the bettor? Not much, yet. But it could mean we see a lot of teams — especially those that lack the talent to go toe-to-toe with the elite teams — start to adopt a defense-first identity.

Like all sports, hockey is a results-driven business. The best way for less talented teams to overachieve is to focus on muddying the waters. The 2018-19 New York Islanders are a perfect example of this.

In his first season on Long Island, Barry Trotz turned the Islanders from a historically bad defense in 2017-18 into the league’s stingiest team in ’18-19. The Isles were one of the league’s biggest overachievers last season and it was because they executed on Trotz’s responsibility-first-hockey philosophy.

Don’t think teams didn’t take notice of the Islanders’ success. The best path to doing less with more in the NHL starts by protecting the house. Jim Montgomery, head coach of the Dallas Stars, told The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro that the team began having success when it started to play to a defensive identity, like the Islanders.

Last year, I made — and kept — a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to play a single over/under in the 2018-19 season. I have found some success playing NHL moneylines, but I’ve got no edge on totals.

Instead of testing this hypothesis by looking to bet unders in the early part of the season, I am instead focusing on a couple of flawed teams with good defensive profiles that are underrated by the betting market heading into 2019-20.

While other teams in the league will be in the first few weeks of trying to shore up their 200-foot game, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild already boast terrific defenses and the numbers back that up.

As I mentioned above, no team in the NHL limited scoring chances better than Minnesota did at 5-on-5 throughout last season and over the last 25 games of 2018-19 only two teams in the circuit posted a better xGA/60 than the Blue Jackets.

Let’s start with the Wild, because backing Minnesota to win the Central Division at 50-1 is my favorite future still in the market heading into the season.

The Wild are coming off a disappointing season and the narrative around the team is that they will be near the basement of the Central in 2019-20. That’s fine, off-ice hoopla often drives up betting value and I think that is what’s happening here.

In fact, I was talking about this bet with a few hockey fans and bettors earlier in the offseason and they began to poke holes in it. The Central is a brutal division. There’s no star power. Devan Dubnyk hasn’t been great in goal. The Wild averaged 2.12 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in 2018-19, the fifth-worst mark in the league. The list is long, but so are the odds.

If you’re betting a longshot, you should be well aware that the bet will almost certainly lose. In fact, at 50-1 you just need the Wild to have above a 2% chance of winning the Central to see value in this bet.

The Wild aren’t dripping with name-brand talent, but Minnesota has depth up front and on the blueline. Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Zucker, Kevin Fiala and Mats Zuccarello won’t set the world on fire, but they are positive-impact players who can carry a scoring load.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Minnesota Wild forwards Mats Zuccarello (36) and Zach Parise (11).

It will certainly be a production-by-committee approach for the Wild, but that strategy can work especially with the group Minnesota has on the back-end. Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin give the Wild two of the strongest defense pairs in the league and that, in theory, should help lighten the load on the offense. I say in theory because we need to talk about the goaltending.

Despite playing behind one of the best defenses in the league, Devan Dubnyk has been pretty poor for Minnesota over the past two seasons. The 33-year-old has -26.7 Goals Saved Above Average since the beginning of the 2017-18 season and his backup, Alex Stalock, hasn’t shown he can handle the load if Dubnyk falters.

That being said, with a defense that should limit high-quality scoring opportunities, Dubnyk may just need to be a little bit better than average for the Wild to contend in the Central.

It’s also worth noting that the price on the Wild varies from sportsbook to sportsbook.

There are some shops that have the Wild as low as 14-1 (FanDuel) to win the Central. Others (William Hill, Bet365) have them as high as 50-1. I’d be comfortable betting this prop at any number better than 40-1 (2.5% implied probability).

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The Columbus Blue Jackets lost Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to free agency. Credit: Eric Harline, USA Today Sports.

I don’t think there’s much value on Columbus in the preseason market, but I do think they will be underrated on a game-to-game basis, especially in the early part of the season as I expect bettors will be looking to fade the Blue Jackets from the get go.

Part of growing as a bettor is learning to parse through information and ignore the noise. It seems like casual hockey fans and the media have given the Blue Jackets a death sentence after they lost Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovksy and Matt Duchene to free agency.

If you look at the season from a big-picture point of view, then yes, the Jackets will likely take a step back in ’18-19. But they aren’t as bad as the sentiment — and betting market — seems to be treating them.

Columbus lacks elite talent up front, but there’s no reason to panic about this group of forwards. Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois may be asked to do more than they are capable of, but Columbus is three-lines deep and any of Gustav Nyquist, Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand can provide some scoring pop.

But the reason I am a little more bullish than most on Columbus is its defense. Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray and David Savard will gobble the minutes on the blueline, but the third-pairing of Dean Kukan and Markus Nutivaara shouldn’t sink the ship, either. This group grades out to be a top-10 unit in the league and that should help provide some cover for the team’s biggest issue — goaltending.

Things may look desperate on the other end of the ice as the Jackets decided not to bring in a replacement for Bobrovsky, rather opting to hand the keys to Joonas Korpisalo, who has not set the world on fire in 90 NHL games, and Elvis Merzlikins, a 2014 third-round pick who has spent the last six seasons playing in the Swiss National League. The 25-year-old Latvian has posted encouraging numbers in Switzerland, but there’s no way anybody can be confident projecting how well he’ll play in the NHL.

Goaltending is extremely hard to project (you’ll hear me say that a lot over the next six months), so it’s entirely possible that Korpisalo or Merzlikins put up good results, but like with the Wild, just average goaltending could be good enough for a team that figures to be among the stingiest in the NHL.

Last season, the Blue Jackets ranked in the top-10 in limiting high-quality scoring chances and with their goaltending situation being what it is, I would expect head coach John Tortorella — already a conservative coach — to double-down on his defense-first style. A conservative approach and a strong defense should turn a lot of Blue Jackets games into coin flips.

I’m not saying you should bet the Blue Jackets every game to start the season — everything comes down to price in betting — but the current state of the market leads me to believe that Columbus will be undervalued on a game-to-game basis in the early going.

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