Every year in the NHL it seems as if there is a team or two that improves dramatically and often unexpectedly from where they were the season before. It could be that they have gone from a totally irrelevant team to one that makes the playoffs, or from a team that barely squeaks into the postseason to one that is a threat to win their conference. Effectively spotting these teams before the season starts would give bettors a big edge over the public, and would likely be very profitable. Here are seven factors that could help you spot a team ready to make a significant improvement:
Coaching change – A coaching change can have a massive and immediate impact on a team. Of course, not all changes have a positive impact, and some that do ultimately turn out well take a while to settle in and get rolling. While you can never really know how a coach is going to do until games have been played there are some signs that a guy could be in a better position to succeed. For example, if he knows the players well from being an assistant with the team previously, or from working with many of them as a minor league coach then he could have more immediate chemistry and a better sense of the assets he has. If his established strength as a coach plays well into a glaring deficiency with the team previously then he may be able to make small changes that produce dramatic results. If the best players on the team were frustrated under the previous regime then the coach could see dramatic improvement just from freeing those players to play like they want to. Similarly, if the previous coach was committed to a style that wasn’t suited to the team – a neutral zone trap, for example – then removing that system could give the team a huge boost.
Splashy rookies – In hockey it often takes rookies – especially defensemen – a few years to really settle in and find their way. From time to time, though, the right rookie lands in the right situation and can have a huge immediate impact. An obvious example is Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. The Penguins had struggled for a long time, but Malkin was the perfect addition at the time and they jumped from 22 wins the year before to 47 in his first year. It wasn’t just Malkin that made the difference – Sidney Crosby was more mature and experienced by that point as well – but he was a catalyst for the change. If a team seems to have a player who is very talented, who fills a need, and who has consistently shown maturity throughout their career to date then he could have a big impact.
Young players taking big step forward – It’s not just rookies that can have a big impact. You could also look out for second or third year players who are ready for a breakout season. It often takes snipers a couple of seasons to get comfortable before they score a point a game, and defenseman can take a few years to find their way. If a young player who has star potential has shown signs of progress and is well positioned on his team then his big improvement could be the catalyst the team needs.
Goalie improvement – The NHL is very much a goalie driven league. A poor goalie can destroy a very good team, and a great goalie can make an average team look like much more than they are. A dramatic upgrade in net, then, can really help a team get better in a hurry. It could be that they added a new player through free agency, that they have a young player ready to play at a high level, or that they just cleared up a confusing past situation and clearly indicated that one guy is the starter.
Quiet free agent improvement – Everyone pays attention to the big name free agents when they change teams. Sometimes, though, it’s not those guys that make the biggest impact. If a role player addresses a big need on a team then he can be the difference maker. Defensemen can make a big difference on a team, for example. A guy who quietly plays a lots of minutes without making a lot of mistakes can have a big impact on the team defensively, but he can also improve the goaltending with his efforts, and free the forwards up to do their own jobs. Stay at home defensemen are far from flashy, though, so they often don’t get the attention that they should. A few astute additions by a general manager could make all the difference to a team.
Division taking a step back – A team plays nearly a third of their games against their own division – six games against each of the four opponents. If the rest of the division gets weaker, then, it only makes sense that a team could take a step forward even if they are only a little bit improved from the previous season. If more than one team in the division is likely to be significantly worse – injuries, the loss of players through free agency or retirement, and so on – then it’s worth taking note of.
Last season wasn’t indicative of team’s strength – Sometimes a team can take a big step forward just by playing back to their potential. If last year was a lousy season for them, and if that seems to be because injuries, coaching issues, or other problems that now seem to be resolved now were an issue then the team could be poised to get much better right away just by playing more like they are capable of.