Leboff: The Montreal Canadiens Look Like the Best Stanley Cup Sleeper Bet
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images.
The NHL and NHLPA seem to be getting closer to finalizing the details for the new season. There are still some big unknowns. We don’t know the exact makeup of the divisions nor the playoff format, but I’m confident enough in what we do know to start getting some action down.
The first, and so far only, bet I’ve made for the upcoming season was on Montreal to win the Stanley Cup at 50/1 at BetMGM.
On the surface, the Habs looked like a picture of mediocrity in 2019/20. They finished 31-31-9 with 71 points and a -9 goal differential in 71 games.
Under the surface, Montreal looked like a team that should be a contender. The Habs had the second-best expected goal differential per 60 minutes during the regular season, finishing just behind Vegas and slightly ahead of Tampa Bay. Not bad company to keep.
|Stat (5-on-5)||Regular Season (71 games)||NHL Rank|
|Goals per 60||2.54||17th|
|Goals Against per 60||2.45||13th|
|Goal Differential per 60||+0.08||13th|
|Expected Goals per 60||2.66||3rd|
|Expected Goals Against per 60||2.34||11th|
|Expected Goals Against per 60||+0.41||2nd|
Expected goals (also known as xG) is a predictive statistic that gives an indication of whether results are based on sustainable factors like a steady creation of scoring chances, or whether it is down to aspects such as shooting luck or outstanding goaltending.
Simply put, an expected goals rate (xGF%) above 50% is considered good because it means a team is creating the majority of the scoring chances. Anything below 50% is usually a sign that a team is struggling to control play.
xG numbers cited from Evolving Hockey.
Driving play is never a bad thing, but Montreal’s terrific possession numbers never really led to sustained success because of a roster flaw: The Habs lacked scoring talent.
The Canadiens finished 26th overall with a 7.45% shooting percentage at 5-on-5 and that lack of scoring put more pressure on the defense and goaltending to make the chances they did convert stand up. That didn’t happen as Carey Price struggled to a -11.04 GSAx over the regular season.
Part of Price’s struggles seemed to be workload related as the former league MVP played in 58 of Montreal’s 71 games in the regular season, tying him with Connor Hellebuyck for the most appearances in 2019/20. But after a five-month hiatus due to the pandemic we saw the return of “Vintage” Carey Price as he returned to form in The Bubble.
Price posted a +7.92 GSAx in Montreal’s 10 postseason games and carried the Habs to an upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Qualifying Round. Montreal probably deserved to pull off another shocker in Round 1 as the Habs thoroughly outplayed the Flyers but didn’t score enough to get through the series.
Montreal still doesn’t have the game-breaking finisher that you’d think it would need to contend, but the Habs bolstered an already strong group of forwards by signing Tyler Toffoli and trading Max Domi for Josh Anderson. When Domi was on, he was a force but the team is betting that Anderson will give this group the consistent finisher it has sorely lacked.
If Anderson and Toffoli provide even a little bit of scoring oomph, the Habs could have one of the deepest rosters in the league and the ceiling could be pretty high considering middle-six centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are 21 and 20 years old, respectively.
Things check out on defense, too, as Jeff Petry and Shea Weber give Montreal two No. 1 defensemen and the rest of the unit projects to be fine, too.
That brings us back to Price. Goalies are always the elephant in the room because of their importance and volatility, but I think there’s reason to be confident that Price will provide the type of netminding needed for this team to compete.
Not only did Price recapture his old form during the postseason, but the Canadiens acquired Jake Allen from the Blues in the offseason and that should take some of the burden off their franchise goalie during a jam-packed regular season. Allen struggled to become a true No. 1 goaltender in St. Louis but he flourished as a back-up to Jordan Binnington in 19/20, posting a +7.03 GSAx in 24 games last season.
The Canadiens should also benefit from playing in the wide-open Canadian Division. You can make a case for, or against, every team in the set outside of Ottawa. As MGM’s Stanley Cup odds show, this division projects to be a royal rumble featuring good-but-flawed teams:
|Toronto Maple Leafs||+1400|
*Odds can often vary wildly depending on the sportsbook. Most other books have Ottawa at 100/1 or longer.
The Maple Leafs will enter the season as the favorite but they are far from perfect and every other contender has serious issues, too. Montreal isn’t a surefire bet to make the playoffs, but I think the Habs have a pretty high ceiling and their depth gives them a bigger margin for error than the other teams in this division. In fact, I think the Canadiens should be the second-favorites in this set behind the Leafs.
Maybe I’m too high on Montreal, but I’m having trouble finding any season-torpedoing weaknesses on this roster.
It looks like the NHL will stick to the intra-divisional playoff format for the first two rounds and that means one of these seven teams will qualify for the Conference Finals. While other longshots will need to topple bigger favorites like Colorado, Vegas or Tampa, this bracket will be up for grabs. Make the tournament and anything can happen.
Jan. 3 Update:
There is a feasible path to success for the Montreal Canadiens in 2021 and that’s all you’re really asking for out of a team in this range. The Habs have already taken some money and have shortened from 50/1 to 30/1 at most places. That said, if you can find Montreal at 40/1 or better I think it’s worth a shot. Otherwise, you could bet the Canadiens to win the division at +650 or just wait to see if the number drifts if the Habs get off to a slow start.