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NHL Handicapping: Teams to Back Right Out of the Gate
by - 1/17/2013

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Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin

The only thing we can know for sure in this abbreviated NHL season is that we don’t know very much. We just can’t. Teams have been out of action for far too long. Many major lineup changes have been made, and several new coaches are in charge. Some players have been playing — in Europe and the AHL — while others haven’t. There is no preseason, and very little practice time before the season starts.

The season is very condensed, so any problems the teams have will be amplified. Early in the season bettors need to be very careful. The best approach is going to be to find some teams that you have confidence in early on — either confidence that they will start strong, or confidence that they will struggle — and ride them for a bit while you wait and watch to learn what to expect this year.

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Here are five teams I have that kind of confidence in to start this season:

Edmonton Oilers

I’m not necessarily convinced that the Oilers are built to last this year. They are probably too young and inexperienced to hold up under the strain of this tough season, and they are still a team that knows the cellar far too well. They should be able to get out to a strong start, though. The potent core of this team — Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, and Schultz — have been spending time playing together in the AHL. The results were spectacular — especially for Schultz and Eberle. Goalie Devan Dubnyk excelled while playing for Canada at the Spengler Cup, and he will be brimming with confidence. New coach Ralph Krueger was formerly a very popular assistant with the team, and players will be eager to perform for him, and they will be familiar with his expectations. The amazing young talent is complemented by some solid veteran leadership. Ryan Smyth leads the way there, with Shawn Horcoff a strong influence as well. The schedule is reasonably challenging, but so is every team’s in this strange season. They will be a strong early presence.

Pittsburgh Penguins

I know that the Rangers are favored to win the Stanley Cup, but I don’t like them nearly as much as the Penguins. For starters, the Rangers have made big changes in the offseason, and it will take time for those to pay off. More significantly, though, the core of the Penguins is terrifying. Sidney Crosby is finally healthy after far too many issues the last couple of years. He’ll be starved for success, and he’s still the most talented all-round player in the league. Evgeni Malkin was exceptional playing in Europe this fall, and there is no reason not to expect that to continue. They have a lot of depth. The goaltending is good. The coach is excellent. The chemistry is strong because the core of the team is established. They play two big games against the Rangers in January, but the rest of the schedule is very manageable. They will start as strong as expected.

L.A. Kings

The defending champs return essentially the same team that they went all the way with last year. There is always a risk of a big hangover after a Cup win. A big part of the reason for that, though, is because of the short offseason for finalists and the pressures and distractions of the summer for the players. With four extra months off, though, that shouldn’t be a factor. Plus, superstar goalie Jonathan Quick has had extra time to recover from back surgery. It’s a talented team that obviously is built well. They have a schedule that should allow them to win seven or more of their first 10 games.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning have the best pure goal scorer in the NHL in Steven Stamkos, and he has a lot of talent around him. They have outstanding coaching and management as well. They should have been much better than they were last year. There were three big problems, though — injuries, defensive shortcomings, and poor goaltending. All three are different now. They picked up goalie Anders Lindback, and he’s a massive upgrade. Their defensive ranks are buttressed by the addition of Sami Salo and Matt Carle. Defensive youngsters Victor Hedman and Keith Aulie should be poised to make a big step forward, too. On top of it all, the roster is healthier than it ever was last year. I have high hopes for this team, and the success should start early.

Washington Capitals

I’m optimistic about the first four teams on this list, but the same doesn’t go for the Capitals. They were a big disappointment last year. Their biggest problem was with attitude, and I’m not at all convinced it will be significantly improved this year. They didn’t have a strong offseason, and they are weaker than they were. They also have a new coach — Adam Oates. He’s an all-time legend in the NHL, but he has never coached an NHL game, and the learning curve will be steep. He won’t have much time for adjustment, and the players showed last year that they don’t adjust to new coaches well. It should be a slow start for this team.

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