You have to love the sportsbooks. The Bruins are probably still drinking celebratory hooch out of the Stanley Cup, and already the odds for the 2012 Stanley Cup champions are out. And how ironic is it that the one league that shut down for an entire season, the NHL, has the most labor peace going. Thus, unlike the NBA or NFL, you should have a good idea what teams will look like next season.
Recent history shows that the Bruins are unlikely to repeat. First off, Boston had to win three Games 7s to win the title this season, and no other team had done that before. Plus, remember that Boston lost the first two games of the playoffs at home before rallying against Montreal. No club has repeated as NHL champion since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. In the six seasons since the canceled year, there have been six different champions.
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For what it’s worth, the three favorites heading into the 2010-11 season at Bodog were the Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Not one of those teams made the conference finals. Boston opened at 14/1, which was the sixth-lowest number. And Boston hasn’t opened as the 2012 favorite, either, with Bodog listing the Bruins at 8/1 to win the Cup again.
The Bruins do have a very deep and young roster. Michael Ryder, Tomas Kaberle and Mark Recchi are the only notable unrestricted free agents on the roster, with Recchi (14 goals, 34 assists during regular season) having already announced his retirement. Brad Marchand, who had two goals and an assist in the Game 7 win vs. the Canucks and 41 points during the regular season, is a restricted free agent. Other than that, the Bruins appear set. Even should Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas get hurt or for some reason take a step back, the B’s have arguably the best No. 2 goalie in the league in Tuukka Rask – Rask was expected to be the starter when this season started.
The runner-up Canucks, who had by far the most points in the NHL during the regular season and were the only team with 50 wins, have opened as 11/2 favorites. And surely Vancouver will be plenty motivated after coming so close. Some have called for the team to trade Roberto Luongo, but he’s still one of the best goalies in the world. Should he see a sports psychologist? Perhaps. But he’s not going anywhere. The Canucks' three biggest decisions involving unrestricted free agents will come with defensemen Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo. Bieksa is the guy who is most important, but who will also cost the most. But the Canucks will again be stacked at forward as the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond, Manny Malhotra and Mikael Samuelsson will all be back unless one is traded.
The Capitals are 17/2, but in a way they are the Roberto Luongo of the Eastern Conference in that they tend to fold in the clutch. Washington dominates in the regular season but then falls flat in the playoffs. There was no excuse for getting swept by Tampa Bay in the East semis. I’m not sold on goalie Michal Neuvirth, who was 27-12-4 with a .914 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average during the season. But then he allowed at least three goals in every game of the sweep by the Lightning.
The Penguins at 9/1 seem like good value, but you would have to bank on the return to health of both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Flyers at 9/1 could be great value assuming they do agree to terms with recently acquired goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, formerly of the Coyotes. He would fill the Flyers’ biggest need, but Philly also will likely have to cut loose a high-priced forward (Jeff Carter?) to afford Bryzgalov.
But I think the best value is the Chicago Blackhawks at 15/1. Chicago took a step back this season after winning the Cup in 2010, but that was to be somewhat expected after having to dump guys like Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien and Antti Niemi due to salary concerns. But with the cap expected to go up about $4 million next season, the Hawks should be able to reload around guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Plus, Chicago doesn’t have any goalie concerns heading into the 2011-12 season, as the Hawks locked up young Corey Crawford after he went 33-18-6 with four shutouts and a 2.30 GAA during the regular season. And he was very good in that first-round loss to Vancouver with a .927 save percentage and a 2.21 GAA. One could argue that if the Hawks had won that Game 7 in Vancouver, they would have represented the West in the Finals again.