NHL 2019-20 Betting Notes: Struggling Favorites, Paper Tigers and Futures to Bet After the First Quarter
Bob Frid, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Brock Boeser
We’ve reached the first real checkpoint of the 2019-20 NHL season.
Most of the league has played at least 20 games, meaning the season is entering the second quarter.
Thanks to the NHL’s points system, it takes a while for teams to start separating themselves from one another, but at least by this point we have a decent chunk of data to work with.
The Favorites Are Struggling
Outside of the Boston Bruins, it’s been a rocky start for the four preseason Stanley Cup favorites. But the same four teams that had the best Stanley Cup odds when the season started — Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Vegas — still top the board at the season’s first turn.
There are a few tweaks, though. Boston is now the sole Stanley Cup favorite at 7-1, followed by Tampa (8-1), Vegas (9-1) and Toronto (11-1).
Questions were asked of the Lightning pretty quickly, as the Bolts won just six of their first 13 games this season. After blowing through the regular season only to get swept out of the first round last season, it was fair to question whether Tampa was pacing itself for the stretch run.
The good news for the Lightning is that their underlying metrics look solid. Tampa has the seventh-best expected goals share (xG%) and sixth-best high-danger chance percentage in the NHL.
Tampa’s biggest flaw is pretty easy to diagnose. The goaltending has been poor. Andrei Vasilevskiy, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, has a -9.61 Goals Saved Above Expectations (GSAx) in 12 games, the fifth-worst mark in the NHL.
Goaltending is volatile and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Vasilevskiy has a down year, but if he can provide the Bolts with just average goaltending, they should begin to stabilize and climb the table.
Tampa Bay will, in all likelihood, find itself among the best teams in the NHL by the time this season is completed.
The Western Conference favorites, the Vegas Golden Knights, are in a similar situation. The Knights have the sixth-best expected goals share and eighth-best high-danger chance share in the NHL, so you could argue that Vegas deserves better than its 10-9-3 record.
The Knights may not have one of the best records in the NHL, but they remain one of the best teams in the league. The only thing holding them back right now is their 6.82 shooting percentage (29th) at 5-on-5. Vegas should experience some positive regression as the season goes on and the odds reflect that.
There is no real cause for panic in Tampa or Vegas, but the scene is very different in Toronto — where the city is in shambles over its beloved Maple Leafs.
Head coach Mike Babcock is on the hot seat. Defenseman Tyson Barrie, one of Toronto’s lauded offseason acquisitions, is already looking for a way out. Their cap situation makes it really tough to make a trade. And, perhaps most indicting, their underlying metrics are quite poor.
Through their first 22 games, the Leafs have controlled just 47.3% of the expected goals and 45.9% of the high-danger chances. The defense, which is surrendering 11 high-danger chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, is bad but Toronto’s highly-touted offense has been downright underwhelming.
Toronto’s wealth of talent always makes it feel dangerous to go on a run, but the Leafs seem to be falling apart at the seams. General manager Kyle Dubas was praised for bringing in John Tavares and keeping Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen in Toronto for their prime years, but those contracts came at a cost.
Not only does Dubas lack any wiggle room to upgrade his struggling defense or No. 2 goalie, but the Leafs also lack the depth needed to deal with the grind of an 82-game season.
There’s very little margin for error in the Atlantic Division this season. The Bruins look like the best team in the NHL. The Lightning will surely be in the mix with Boston over the course of the season and the Panthers and Canadiens are off to great starts.
Toronto may be the most talented team in the NHL, but its current Stanley Cup odds make it the most overrated, as well.
The St. Louis Blues are doing a different dance this season. Last year, the Blues were struggling throughout the first part of the season despite decent underlying metrics. This time around, the defending champs have bad peripheral numbers but are banking points.
The Blues have the fourth-highest points percentage (.690) in the NHL and lead the Central Division with a 12-4-5 record.
St. Louis has improved over its last 10 games, but the offense is still struggling to create scoring chances. The Blues create the fewest expected goals per 60 minutes (xGF/60) at 5-on-5 and they rank second-to-last in high-danger chances for per 60 minutes.
If it wasn’t for Jordan Binnington’s stellar play in goal and a red-hot power play, the Blues’ record would look a lot different.
But even St. Louis’ power play is due for a bit of regression. The Blues are currently generating the sixth-most (9.12) goals per 60 minutes despite creating the third-fewest expected goals per 60 (5.1) with the man advantage. St. Louis has scored on 20% of its shots on the PP and that is providing a lifeline for a desperate offense.
Chances are that St. Louis will find its game over the course of the 82-game season, but for now I am expecting the Blues to be overpriced. They are the defending champions and have a good record, so I’d expect bettors to keep backing them. I’ll be looking to go the other way and fade the Blues until their underlying metrics begin to trend up.
I am buying the Ottawa Senators heading into the middle part of the season. That isn’t a sentence I thought I’d be writing in November, but Ottawa is better than we thought and they are trending in the right direction.
Not only is the Ottawa’s expected goals share above 50% on the season, but over its last 10 games the Senators boast the fourth-best xG% in the entire NHL thanks to an offense that is creating 2.4 xGF/60, the fourth-best mark in the league. The Senators lack talent, but if you can find a way to create high-quality scoring opportunities with regularity, even bad players will find the net.
Ottawa has struggled on defense overall, but the Sens have improved their defensive metrics over their last 10 games. On the season, Ottawa allows 2.36 xGA/60, but over its last 10 games that number has dwindled down to 2.07. Additionally, the Senators are getting solid goaltending from Anders Nilsson. The Big Swede has a +5.69 Goals Saved Above Average and .925 save percentage in 10 games this season.
This doesn’t mean the Senators are good, but it does mean that they are going to be a team to keep an eye on. Given their reputation and preseason expectations, I expect Ottawa to be an attractive underdog in plenty of spots through the holiday season.
The Model Breakers
No matter what preseason preview you read, the New York Islanders and regression went hand in hand. After losing their best player to free agency on July 1, 2018, the Islanders were expected to be bad in 2018-19. The Isles beat the projections last season thanks to great goaltending and a terrific defense, but not even a run to the second round of the postseason was enough to quiet the detractors.
Teams that defy expectations one season often come back down to earth the next. If those teams benefited from terrific goaltending, all the more reason to believe a crash was looming.
The writer of this article is an Islander fan, so maybe I’m viewing this through Orange-and-Blue tinted glasses, but the Islanders have proven themselves to be an outlier under Barry Trotz, who has a 62-30-8 record in 100 games as head coach on Long Island.
The Isles are still getting fantastic goaltending — Thomas Greiss is second in the NHL with a 5.65 GSAx (Goals Saved Above Expectations) — but their success goes beyond that. The Isles are 13-0-1 in their past 14 games and have not lost in regulation since Oct. 11.
A streak like that will always feature some fortunate bounces, but the truth is that the Islanders have been improving as the season — and the streak — goes on.
btw looking at overall share of attempt types, the islanders have been very good over their last 10 games in the “quality” area. pic.twitter.com/BNWaKECxHZ
— Carey Haber (@habermetrics) November 17, 2019
Prior to the season I had an inkling that the Islanders would be undervalued by bettors, especially in the first part of the season. Sports modelers and bookmakers had a tough time figuring out the Isles and that hasn’t changed, yet.
In fact, I still think the market having a tough time catching up to the Isles, as they go about things so differently from the majority of the league. Usually, a red-hot stretch like the one the Isles are on will cause their price to be inflated, but not this team. Over their 14-game points streak, the Islanders have closed higher than -126 just once — at home against the Senators (via PointsBet’s closing line).
The Islanders are as high at +625 to win the Metropolitan Division and I think that’s a very attractive price if you’re into that sort of thing.
The Wide-Open Pacific Division
Here we are, a quarter of the way through the season, and the top three teams in the Pacific Division are the Oilers (29 points in 22 games), Coyotes (26 points in 21 games) and Canucks (24 points in 21 games).
Chasing that surprising trio are the Golden Knights (23 points in 21 games) Flames (23 points in 23 games), Ducks (22 points in 21 games), Sharks (21 points in 21 games) and Kings (17 points in 20 games).
Only the Kings are really where they are supposed to be, based on preseason projections.
This race is wide open and the great thing about that is that it means there will inevitably be some value on the board.
Despite a six-point deficit, the Knights are still even-money favorites to win the division crown. For those hoping that a middling start would provide some value on Vegas in the futures market, not so fast. The data still paints the Knights as the team to beat in the Western Conference. They just need the bounces to go their way.
After winning the division last season, the Calgary Flames have been bang-on mediocre to start 2019-20. A 10-10-3 record seems perfectly fair for a team that ranks 15th in expected goals and 22nd in high-danger scoring chance percentage.
Calgary is listed as the second-favorite (+425) to win the division, but that price is being inflated by what the Flames did last season.
The division-leading Oilers are one of the genuine surprises of the first quarter of the season. Edmonton, led by prolific performances from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisatl, has the fifth-highest points percentage in the NHL and are looking to defy expectations by making the postseason for just the second time since 2005-06.
Banking points in the early part of the season is important, but can the Oilers keep this up?
Through 23 games, the Oilers are producing 2.22 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5 and allowing 2.21, which suggests that they are probably a little lucky to be where they are in the standings. The Oilers have improved those numbers over their last 10 games, but there’s still reason to pump the brakes on the Edmonton hype train.
For one, the Oilers are very top heavy. McDavid, Draisatl and James Neal have combined for 42 of Edmonton’s 71 goals this season. McDavid and Draisatl are two of the best players in the NHL, but depending on just two players — no matter how good they are — to do that kind of heavy lifting over an 82-game season is not a recipe for success.
Furthermore, the Oilers have benefited from outstanding goaltending and special teams.
Coming into the season, goaltending seemed to be a glaring weakness for Edmonton. Neither Mike Smith nor Mikko Koskinen had the reputation of being a bonafide No. 1 goalie in the NHL, but this season they’ve both played like one. In 12 games, Smith boasts a 3.92 GSAx, while Koskinen’s got a 2.95 in 11 in outings. Goalies are fickle beasts and I’m not all that confident Smith and Koskinen can keep this up.
As for the special teams, Edmonton currently owns the best power play in the NHL. The Oilers have converted on 31.8% of their man advantages this season. Last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning led the NHL at 28.2%, so I would expect to see Edmonton’s number dip a bit.
Edmonton’s penalty kill is also propping them up a bit. The Oilers rank third in the NHL with an 87.7% success rate on the kill. That ranks third in the NHL currently and considering no team was over 85% last year, I’d expect this metric to come down a bit, too.
The Oilers have banked points in the early going and that’s a big first step, but there’s still some holes in this team. My colleague, Sonny Banks, is also skeptical of Edmonton:
I have targeted Edmonton to begin tumbling in the standings. The early part of their schedule featured a lot of weaker teams. Additionally, the Oilers have shown to be very top heavy as Draisaitl, McDavid and Neal have accounted for a large chunk of the team’s goals. That kind of goal distribution does not bode well for the Oilers going forward and based on their lineup composition, I don’t see that changing any time soon. In terms of my xG differential model, I have the Oilers ranked 4th in the Pacific division, so they are outperforming my metrics.
The one team I do think is worth a shot here is Vancouver. There was some guarded optimism surrounding the Canucks heading into the season and so far, so good.
Not only are the Canucks in the mix at 10-7-4, but they have sparkling expected goals numbers. Vancouver ranks third overall with a 54% expected goal share and leads the NHL with an average of 2.64 expected goals for per 60 minutes.
The Canucks lack depth at the bottom of their lineup, but this team isn’t really all that top heavy. Elias Pettersson has continued on his path to stardom, Quinn Hughes looks like a Calder Trophy candidate and Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat are providing secondary scoring.
Winning the division may be asking a bit too much of Vancouver’s young core, but the odds are too good to pass up. The Canucks are 9-1 to win the Pacific at PointsBet and at those odds, you’d need Vancouver to win the division just over 10% of the time to see value and I think they tick that box.
Stanley Cup Odds
Boston Bruins 7-1
Tampa Bay Lightning 8-1
Vegas Golden Knights 9-1
Toronto Maple Leafs 11-1
Colorado Avalanche 12-1
St. Louis Blues 12-1
Nashville Predators 13-1
Washington Capitals 13-1
New York Islanders 17-1
Calgary Flames 18-1
Pittsburgh Penguins 22-1
Dallas Stars 25-1
Carolina Hurricanes 26-1
Florida Panthers 26-1
Arizona Coyotes 30-1
Edmonton Oilers 33-1
San Jose Sharks 35-1
Winnipeg Jets 35-1
Montreal Canadiens 40-1
Philadelphia Flyers 40-1
Vancouver Canucks 40-1
Buffalo Sabres 50-1
New Jersey Devils 65-1
Anaheim Ducks 80-1
New York Rnagers 80-1
Chicago Blackhawks 100-1
Columbus Blue Jackets 100-1
Minnesota Wild 115-1
Los Angeles Kings 150-1
Detroit Red Wings 250-1
Ottawa Senators 250-1