NHL Eastern Conference Futures: Slow starts lead to future value
Last year, the Nashville Predators posted a 12-11-4 record and took 28 points from their first 27 games. It was a sputtering start for a team that was pegged before the season as a Stanley Cup contender, but the Preds’ unimpressive record didn’t tell the whole story.
For the first month of the season, Nashville dealt with a virus that ravaged the locker room and contributed to a 2-5-1 start to the year. By the end of the season, that slow start was a distant memory. The Predators made it to the playoffs as the lowest seed in the West, but by the time the playoffs began, they were a force to be reckoned with, and they ran all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Slow starts often provide opportunity in the futures market, especially in the NHL, where there is so much luck involved in winning the postseason tournament. Below are three teams from the Eastern Conference that have put together pedestrian, but misleading, starts to the year and offer good long-term value.
Montreal Canadiens (+1600 to win East, +2800 to win Stanley Cup)
Magically, the Montreal Canadiens have erased the worst start to a season in 76 years and now find themselves in a playoff spot, albeit barely, with a 13-13-3 record. A five-game winning streak, which just happened to coincide with Carey Price’s return, jumped Montreal into third in the Atlantic Division. A 13-13-3 mark may not jump off the page at you, but remember that these same Canadiens started the year 1-6-1.
Prior to going down with a lower-body injury in November, Price was struggling to find his game and was statistically one of the worst goalies in the league. It was clear something was off with the 30-year-old netminder, who is widely considered to be one of the top two goaltenders in the league.
Price’s early struggles and injury were certainly a big part of the early-season woes for Montreal, but the Habs were also among one of the NHL’s “unluckiest” teams. Even after outscoring Detroit 16-4 in a home-and-home last week, Montreal boast a +1 goal differential on the season at 5-on-5 despite having an expected goals differential of +8.3, which is third-best in the entire NHL.
A look at the chart below by the incomparable Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) shows that the Canadiens have been unlucky so far. They’re underperforming their expected production when you consider their expected goals versus their actual output.
Montreal may not be as good as their recent run suggests, but they definitely aren’t as bad as their slow start suggested, either. The answer is probably somewhere in between. The Habs are a good hockey team with decent underlying numbers. And perhaps most importantly, they have Carey Price. All of that suggests there is some value on backing Montreal at 16-to-1 to win the Eastern Conference.
Carolina Hurricanes (+2800 to win East, +5000 to win Stanley Cup)
It’s becoming one of hockey’s most tried and true traditions. Every September when season preview pieces come out, the Carolina Hurricanes are slapped with the dark horse label. And each year, the Hurricanes leave us thinking, “Actually, next year is their year.”
Carolina has been one the best possession team in the league over the past three seasons. This year, they lead the NHL with an exceptional 55.21 Corsi (defined as the total shots at the net for and against at even strength) and a +9.83 expected goals differential. Despite those sparkling numbers, the Hurricanes are 11-10-5 and are six points out of a playoff spot with three games in hand on the Penguins, who currently occupy the last slot.
It’s a similar script with Carolina in 2017-18. They have been let down by their goaltending. The Hurricanes upgraded their goalie situation in the offseason by acquiring Scott Darling, but the former Blackhawk has been below average in the blue paint to start the year.
Darling’s middling performance isn’t the only reason the Hurricanes haven’t made good on their terrific underlying numbers. They have struggled on special teams through their first 26 games, ranking in the bottom 10 in both penalty kill and power play percentage this season.
Both goaltending and special teams are volatile and hard to predict. If Darling does start playing like the goalie he was when he was deputizing for Corey Crawford in Chicago, Carolina could start to climb the table. They dominate the puck (see Tierney’s chart below) and have a deep team, so it’s not too late for the Hurricanes to make a real run.
Navigating the Metropolitan Division is not an easy task, but the NHL’s schedule becomes very division-heavy as the season wears, on so there will be ample time for Carolina to make up ground. Even after a middle-of-the-road start, the Hurricanes remain the NHL’s sleeping giant.
Boston Bruins (+1200 to win East, +2500 to win Stanley Cup)
Through 25 games, the Bruins sit at 12-9-4 and are one point behind Montreal, with four games in hand, for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. Impressively, the Bruins were able to stay above water through the first two months of the season despite injuries to Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Backes, David Pastrnak, David Krejci, Ryan Spooner and Tuukka Rask.
When they are at full-strength, the Bruins are one of the East’s best possession teams, and the first line of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak is one of the top units in the entire NHL at driving play. Last year, the B’s were undone by some poor puck luck, and that hasn’t corrected itself just yet, as Boston still remains below a 100.0 PDO (a measure of luck; the number tends to regress to the mean of 100.0 as the season progresses) on the year.
If Boston stays healthy and benefits from some overdue puck luck, they could run a similar route to the Predators from last year. At 100 percent, the Bruins match up well with any team in the league and will provide a lot of problems in a seven-game series.
Boston has the looks of a team that could go on a serious run up the ladder sooner rather than later, so these numbers will most likely not be hanging around very long.
all odds courtesy of BetOnline on 12/6 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Stats provided by Manny Elk at Corsica.