The NHL season is just days away. For sports bettors that means that this is as good a time as any to be thinking about which season long NHL futures bets we want to place. Who is going to win the Stanley Cup? Which teams will win their conferences or their division? When you play those types of bets correctly they can be nicely profitable. You have to be smart about them, though, because your money is tied up in them for months. Here are six things for NHL handicappers to consider as they plan out their NHL futures bets:
Keep top teams in mind – This one seems obvious, but it’s important to say – good teams usually win the Stanley Cup. The NHL playoffs are so grueling that the cream often rises to the crop. As proof, just look at the recent winners – Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Anaheim, New Jersey, Colorado, Dallas, and so on. These were all very good teams that started the season as favorites and ended the years on top. When you are looking for a team to win the Stanley Cup don’t get too fancy and outsmart yourself – just look for the top NHL teams. They might not be the ultimate winners, but they have the best chance of doing it.
Look for live longshots – I know I just said that good teams typically win the Cup. They do. It’s surprising how often, though, teams can win their conference in very surprising fashion. Last year, Philadelphia was hardly the most logical choice. In the last eight years Edmonton, Calgary, and Carolina have come from nowhere to win their division as well. All of these teams were beaten in the finals, but they all got there. Teams like this can be a good way to find some nice longshot value. As a NHL handicapper, you should look for longshots among division winners, not Cup champions.
Look at division strength – The NHL plays a very unbalanced schedule with a strong focus on the divisional opponents. The best measure of how a team is going to do, then, is how well they can reasonably be expected to do against their division. If two hockey teams seem to be comparable in terms of what they have to offer on paper then the one who plays in the weaker division is almost certainly the more attractive one.
Don’t overvalue youth – There is a whole lot of impressive young talent in the NHL right now, and more coming every year. This year guys like Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall in Edmonton and Tyler Seguin in Boston are incredibly talented and should be going on to great things. The value of youth has never been more evident – Sidney Crosby and Jonathon Toews led their team to Stanley Cups and Steven Stamkos led the league is scoring last year, and all of them are barely old enough to shave. We’re seeing young players contribute significantly faster than ever before. The thing is, though, is that even when young players are putting up good numbers it takes a few years for their teams to grow into legitimate contenders. Tampa Bay was lousy last year even though Stamkos was as good as it gets, and both Pittsburgh and Chicago were lousy before they got to be as good as they are. Youth is seductive, but patience is crucial with it. Edmonton should be very good in a few years thanks to their incredible core of rookies, for example, but they aren’t going to win anything this year.
Hockey is the ultimate team sport – More than perhaps any other major pro sport, one hockey player can’t turn around a NHL team that is lousy. All you need to look at to prove this is Atlanta in recent years. They have been totally irrelevant despite having one of the best offensive talents in the league – Ilya Kovalchuk – on their side. It can be tempting to jump on a team because they have a star player or two, but that’s just not enough in this league. Before you rest your hopes on a team you have to look beyond the marquee to their second line players, their checking lines, their defensive depth, and the quality of their goaltending. The quality of the 10th best player on a team is in many ways more important for NHL futures bets than the quality of the best player.
Defense is king – We hear more and more recently about how the hockey league is opening up and offense is becoming more and more important. The defining characteristic of championship NHL teams recently, though, is their defensive strength more than their offensive power. Chicago had a ridiculously deep defensive core with guys like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell making life difficult for opponents. Pittsburgh had Sergei Gonchar and Hal Gill. Detroit has the super-human Nicklas Lidstrom. Anaheim had Scott Neidermayer, Chris Pronger, and Francois Beauchemin. Championship teams have world class defensive players, so it makes sense to put your futures bets on teams with that level of defense. Interestingly, the defensive strength is far more important than the goaltending. Chicago didn’t even re-sign their goalie after their Cup win, and Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Anaheim all had good goaltending, but it wasn’t truly spectacular. As a smart NHL bettor, you should take a team with great defense and adequate goaltending way before you would take a team with great goaltending and just solid defense.