NHL: Which longshots are not longshots anymore?
We are almost at the halfway point of the 2017-18 NHL season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vegas Golden Knights have the same odds to win the Stanley Cup. Hockey is weird, but that’s why we love it so much.
Below are four teams that have seen their odds slashed drastically as we approach the halfway mark of the 2017-18 season.
Vegas Golden Knights (Opening night odds: +12500, Current odds: +1600)
When the season started, bookmakers hung Vegas with odds of +12500 to win the Stanley Cup. That meant they were suggesting that the Knights had a 0.79 percent chance of winning it all.
By this point, you already know the story. The Golden Knights are the darlings of the Hockeysphere. You also have probably heard about the “Vegas Flu” that has run rampant throughout the NHL. Some special things are happening on ice in the desert; don’t look now, but Vegas is relatively legitimate.
As the chart from Sean Tierney below shows, the Knights haven’t been riding some ridiculous PDO (a statistical measure of luck) wave to the top of the Pacific Division. And even if their PDO was high, it’d be hard to call a team that had to play their fourth-string goalie for an extended period of time lucky.
By virtue of the expansion draft, Vegas ended up with a glut of good-but-not-great players, which is why it actually isn’t surprising to see them competing. Think of it this way: A lot of NHL teams have an alarming lack of depth. But because a lot of good, cheap depth players were available to the Knights during the summer, they are pretty much able to roll four lines every night. Which is one reason they are 10th in the league in expected goal differential.
As of this writing, Vegas is rolling at a 114-point pace through 34 games. It is highly unlikely they keep at that rate, but you’re almost guaranteed a playoff spot at 95 points, which means the Golden Knights would only need to tally 47 more points over their last 48 games to get into the tournament; we are now at the point where it would be historic if they didn’t get in.
New Jersey Devils (Opening night odds: +10000, Current odds: +1400)
The Devils came into 2017-18 with perhaps the lowest expectations of any team in the league, and that includes the Golden Knights. Outside of their top line, the Devils’ roster read like a team that was tossed together with the sole purpose of securing a lottery pick. And then the hockey started and New Jersey just kept winning.
So how did we get to exist in a world where the New Jersey Devils have the same odds to win the Stanley Cup as the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs?
It starts in the back. Thanks to great goaltending from Corey Schneider and a bunch of hot shooters, the Devils surged to the top of the Metropolitan Division and have hung around the top rung all season. They currently lead their circuit by one point, but with two games in hand on both the second and third place teams. All of this is happening despite the Devils having some really offputting shot metrics.
As of the holiday break, the Devils ranked 28th in both Corsi For per 60 and Corsi Against per 60. They had the fifth-worst Corsi For percentage in the NHL, and they had allowed 191 more shot attempts than they have taken. All of this suggests that New Jersey should regress, but these numbers have been pretty much consistent throughout the first three months of the season. It begs the question whether this is a team playing within their system, or if they are truly just overperforming and destined to fall down the ladder.
One factor that suggests that the Devils may keep on keepin’ on is that, despite their poor possession numbers, they still are creating more scoring chances than they are giving up at 5-on-5. It still may be wise to pump the brakes on the Devs, but there seems to be something going here. Watching a Devils game, you notice they put a lot of emphasis on utilizing their speed up front and hitting teams on the counter.
Time will tell if the Devils can keep this up or if their numbers will catch up to them over the course of the 82-game slog.
Winnipeg Jets (Opening night odds: +6600, Current odds: +1600)
Offense was the calling card of the Winnipeg Jets coming into the year, but that isn’t really how things have unfolded in Manitoba. Yes, the Jets’ forward group is still very good, but it’s what they’ve done on the defensive side of the puck that has seen them move up the boards at the sports books.
Currently, the Jets are the eighth-best team at limiting expected goals against (xGA), and their starting goalie, Connor Hellebuyck, has a .920 save percentage. The Jets have done a terrific job in their own end preventing scoring chances from around their own goal. Winnipeg’s defense has always been an under the radar group, and the continued improvement of defenseman Josh Morrissey this season has turned their already-good unit into one of the league’s best. Take a look at the chart below from HockeyViz by Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath), and it becomes clear what’s going on.
Compare that to the Jets’ offensive heat map and the Winnipeg Success Story becomes even more encouraging.
Winnipeg won’t blow you away with any of their stats, but they are basically above average in everything, and a deeper look reveals that they are executing a game plan.
New York Islanders (Opening night odds: +4000, Current odds: +1600)
A look at their opening night odds and their over/under of 89 points would tell you that the Islanders were expected to be a middle-of-the-road team. But the emergence of rookie sensation Mathew Barzal blended with the arrival of Jordan Eberle and the terrific performance from their top line, anchored by John Tavares, has seen the bookies shorten the Isles’ Stanley Cup odds considerably.
The Islanders are the league’s most helter-skelter team. The Isles lead the league in total goals (i.e. goals for and goals allowed) per game (7.14), rank second in goals for (130), and second-to-last in goals allowed (127) and save percentage (.892). Their special teams tell a similar tale, as the Islanders’ penalty kill ranks 30th, but their power play is fifth overall. Even with all the volatility, the Isles have found a way to post a 19-13-4 record and have spent most of the first half in playoff position.
Of all the teams on this list, the Islanders are the hardest to predict. On one hand, their horrible goaltending should correct itself, but on the other hand, the Isles are shooting the lights out, and that could also be unsustainable.
With their current roster, it’s hard to see the Isles taking their act deep into the postseason. But the Isles are also in a good spot to add pieces at the deadline, and it’s pretty clear what the teams needs are, so if they shore things up, their odds could shorten even further.
Long story short, the New York Islanders’ slogan should be, “A lot of questions and very few answers.”
So, what now?
It’s hard to justify a bet on any of these teams to win the Stanley Cup at this point, but it is important to note if there’s a reason money has come in on these teams beyond their good records. And that’s why I think it would be a good idea to keep a close eye on Winnipeg’s price. It wouldn’t be surprising if this is the high-water mark for both the Devils and the Golden Knights, and the Islanders are extremely volatile, so who knows what’s going to happen with them. But Winnipeg seems stable, and if their goaltending can just be a little above average, they’re going to be involved right to the end.
Photo: Ed Mulholland, USA Today Sports
All stats via Corsica.Hockey on 12/26.
Special thanks to @ineffectivemath and @chartinghockey for their wonderful charts.