NHL Betting Notebook: The Stanley Cup Future To Buy Before It’s Too Late

NHL Betting Notebook: The Stanley Cup Future To Buy Before It’s Too Late article feature image
Credit:

Charles LeClaire, USA Today Sports.

The NHL season takes a long time to sort itself out compared to other sports. Thanks to the league’s point system, teams can stay within striking distance of a playoff spot for a while even though it seems almost certain that team will end up fading down the stretch. Sorry, Sabres fans.

Fans love the NHL’s trademark parity and the chaos it causes, but it’s even better news for bettors who can find great prices on teams that may be flying under the radar, or at the very least, getting lost in the pack.

Before most NHL seasons, I throw at least one or two darts at a few longshots to win the Stanley Cup and then add teams as the season progresses. This season was a little different as bookmakers were hesitant to hang big prices. That makes sense considering that we’ve seen preseason longshots get close to hoisting Lord Stanley.

And we all know the story of the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues at this point.

There will be more opportunities to add to your portfolio as the season progresses, but with plenty of teams at the 30-game mark, there is one team that seems like a great investment in the futures market.


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It’s hard to imagine the Pittsburgh Penguins getting lost in the shuffle, but that’s exactly what seems to be happening. They are loaded with star talent, won back-to-back Stanley Cups recently and have been a Stanley Cup contender for over a decade. But the way this season is shaping up, the Pens have found themselves in an old-fashioned melee in the Eastern Conference.

The Penguins are 17-9-4 through 30 games and in most years that would put them near the top of the division, but the Washington Capitals are allergic to losing and are running away with the Metropolitan Division. Behind the Capitals sit the hard-to-beat Islanders, the surging Flyers, and a pair of sleeping giants — the Penguins and Hurricanes.

Not only is the Metro a tornado, but the Eastern Conference also features the three preseason Stanley Cup favorites — Boston, Tampa and Toronto.

The ultra-competitive East has provided some cover for the Penguins, who have arguably been one of the league’s best three teams this season despite some terrible luck.

Man Down

The NHL is a war of attrition. Health and random luck both play a huge role in determining the outcome of a season. You wouldn’t fault the Penguins for questioning whether or not they are cursed in 2019-20.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad and Alex Galchenyuk have all missed significant time. According to Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, the Penguins have been without 3.5 regular players per game this season.

Despite the litany of injuries, Pittsburgh has managed to post some of the best underlying metrics in the NHL this season.

The Penguins boast the best expected goals percentage (xG%) in the NHL at 55.6% and rank second in controlling high-danger scoring chances with a 57% high-danger scoring chance share. You’d think a team with Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Jake Guentzel would be riding a prolific offense to the top of the xG Mountain, but the truth is the Pens may have the best defense in the NHL.

No team in the league allows fewer expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Pittsburgh’s 1.91 and only Minnesota allows fewer high-danger chances per hour (5-on-5) than the Penguins. Mike Sullivan has morphed his team into a defensive symphony and they seem to be getting better.

Over the last month, a span of 14 games, the Penguins are allowing just 1.84 expected goals against per 60 minutes — the best mark in the NHL.

Heatmap via HockeyViz.com

The decision to play a more structured game looks like it could pay off for Pittsburgh. When you have the scoring talent Pittsburgh does, it makes sense to sacrifice creating offense for defense because players like Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Guentzel will convert their opportunities.

The offense is still cooking, too. The Penguins average 2.98 goals (4th), 2.39 expected goals for (15th) and 11.03 high-danger chances (10th) per 60 minutes. You may look at Pittsburgh’s GF/60 against their xGF/60 and think they are running hot and could regress, but the Pens have the talent to beat their underlying metrics consistently.

And with the way the defense is playing, the Pens should be able to survive a cold streak.

Goaltending

Even though Pittsburgh’s record is still great, it should be better. And when standings lie, the root of the dishonesty usually stands in the blue paint.

Despite their defensive prowess, the Penguins have been let down by their goaltending, more specifically by starting goaltender Matt Murray, who has been one of the worst goalies in the NHL this year relative to expectations. Per Evolving Hockey, the 25-year-old has a -10.8 Goals Saved Above Expectations (GSAx), which is the seventh-worst mark in the league (min. 500 minutes played).

The Penguins have made life very easy on Murray with a .937 expected save percentage (5-on-5), but the favor has not been reciprocated.

Goaltending is fickle and hard to project, so Murray could bounce back, but if he continues to struggle, the Pens may be better off riding No. 2 goaltender Tristan Jarry (+4.29 GSAx) or looking to upgrade their goaltending via trade.

The truth is, if the Penguins can get just average goaltending, they should be a real threat in the East.

The Path

In all likelihood, the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins will nab the No. 1 seeds in their respective divisions, meaning that the Penguins, Flyers, Islanders, Hurricanes and (to a lesser extent) Rangers are slugging it out for the No. 2 seed and home-ice advantage in the first round.

Finishing third in the division isn’t a terrible break, but ending up in a Wild-Card spot and having to deal with the Capitals or Bruins in Round 1 would not be a good thing for anybody.

Wherever they finish, the Penguins can go toe-to-toe with any other team in the Eastern Conference. This isn’t like the NBA where finishing seventh or eighth in the table is a death sentence.

Shopping the Market

A quick survey around the market shows the Penguins are listed as low as 18-1 (5.3% implied probability) and as high as 25-1 (3.9% implied probability). Of course getting the right price is hugely important in betting, but not everybody has access to every line out there.

It’s hard to imagine the Penguins’ odds getting any longer than they are now. The Penguins have a pretty soft December schedule and their statistical profile suggests that everything is going to click for this team and it will shoot up the table — and the oddsboard — before the spring.

At 18-1, this is a good bet. If you have access to 25-1 (PointsBet) or higher it’s a no-brainer, as I think Pittsburgh’s true odds should be closer to 10-1 than 20-1.

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Stats and data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and HockeyViz.