Deciphering Slow Starts of Elite NHL Teams

At the beginning of every NHL season there are a few elite teams with serious Stanley Cup aspirations that really struggle out of the gate. Inevitably this will cause panic among the hockey media and the betting public. Sometimes these teams continue to have a poor season, but far more often they turn things around sooner or later. The trick for bettors is be able to get a good sense of how real the struggles are and how long they are likely to last. If you can be reasonably accurate in that assessment then you can give yourself a big edge over the less insightful public. Here are nine questions to ask to help get a sense of when a good NHL team might pull out of an early nose dive:

Is there a reason for a hangover? – Hangovers are very real in the NHL. The team that just won the Stanley Cup is facing increased expectations, inflated egos, and a short offseason, so they often aren’t mentally engaged heading into the new season. The team that lost the Stanley Cup can also suffer problems – especially if they lost in a particularly emotional way. Teams often get back on track reasonably quickly so there is no real reason to be too concerned.

Did they make a coaching change? – Even good teams will make coaching changes in the offseason. Maybe a head coach retired, or a key assistant became a head coach elsewhere. A coaching change can have a big impact on a team – especially if it is accompanied by a change in style of play. That impact will often be underestimated by the public – especially if it isn’t the head coach that was changed.

Were there personnel changes? – Quite often a team will do well in the playoffs and then discover that they can no longer afford their roster. As young players become free agents for the first time their price climbs. Other teams will also often be aggressive for free agents from good teams – even if they aren’t top line players – because the players know how to win. If a team has gone through some significant personnel changes in the offseason then it can take some time to gel, and to get used to not having the lineup around that did so well for them in the past. It is important to remember that significant personnel changes don’t always have to involve high scorers or top defenders – a guy can have a dramatic impact in the locker room as well that could be sorely missed even if his game on the ice is lacking. Of course, you also need to be concerned about the opposite as well – if the team has added new pieces to their team then there could be an adjustment period before they hit their stride and find chemistry with their new linemates.

How have they started in the past? – Some teams just don’t play well at the start of the season. In the NFL you can call that Norv Turner syndrome because Turner coached teams always start slow. Some coaches have similar issues in the NHL. If a team has a history of starting slow and then recovering then there is obviously no real concern if they are doing it again here.

Who have they played? – If the team has struggled but has played mostly playoff caliber teams then there is far less reason to be concerned than if they have struggled while playing lousy teams. That’s obviously not rocket science, but it is an important and often overlooked concern.

How is their division? – The stronger the other teams in their division are the more a team has to be concerned about a slow start. Not only do they have to compete against those teams for a playoff spot and top seeding, but they also have to play those teams more than any other. If a team is clearly and significantly better than the rest of the division then it’s not likely to be an issue for them to recover from their early hole and shine down the stretch.

What do the stats say? – By doing some basic statistical analysis you can get a sense of whether the team is lacking results because they are playing poorly, or if they just aren’t getting any bounces. If the team is performing solidly statistically then you can be reasonably confident that things will turn around at some point. Poor play statistically, though, could be cause for further exploration and potential concern. How is the save percentage of the goaltenders? How is the team on the penalty kill or the power play? Are the best players producing offensively? What is the plus/minus of the top defensemen?

Have there been injuries? – This one should pretty much go without saying – a team facing significant injury challenges to start the year may not be able to perform at their best.

Are they showing improvement? – Quite often the improvement for a struggling team will show up statistically before it shows up on the scoresheet. If a team still isn’t getting any wins take a closer look to see if they are taking steps forward in less obvious but still significant ways. By spotting teams that are making subtle but clear improvements you can get well ahead of the public.

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