NHL Starts Season Off in Europe
by Trevor Whenham - 10/06/2008
The NHL season is here. Finally. I'm a Canadian living in Canada. It seems like sports fans in my country go into hibernation every June when the Stanley Cup is hoisted, and only crawl out of their caves now. Sure, people care about the NFL and, to a degree, baseball up here. It's not the same, though. Those sports are just diversions, while for many people up here hockey is religion. I'm not nearly as obsessed as some, but the ice still flows in my blood. I also love hockey as a betting sport - it is, at times, predictable, and the betting volume is low enough that value can still be found. Speaking of betting and value, let's take the first of what will be a weekly look at what's going on in the world of the puck:
The season got underway this weekend with games in Prague and Stockholm. The Rangers played the Lightning twice, and the Senators and Penguins met twice. There are so many unique factors to these games that the results are, in my eyes, virtually meaningless. For the record, though, the Rangers are the unbeaten kings of the league, the Sens and Pens sit at .500, and the Lightning are winless.
Far more interesting than what happened is what will happen next. Last year, the Kings and the Ducks opened the season with a pair of games in London. They split those games, but both teams went in the tank when they got home. The Ducks lost three in a row, and eight of their first 11 on American soil. L.A. dropped their first four. This is only the second year of the European experiment, so last year isn't a trend, but if three or four of the teams that went this year struggle upon their return then things will get interesting.
Detroit, Vancouver, Chicago, and Montreal were the class of the league in the preseason. Nashville, Dallas, and Atlanta struggled badly. Ignore all of that, though. Just over half of the teams in the league make the playoffs. Last year, five of the top 11 teams in the preseason failed to make the playoffs. Five of the bottom 10 teams also made it. In other words, what happens in the preseason matters little. Incidentally, only two of the top seven preseason scorers last year ended up in the top 15 in regular season scoring, so individual performance in September is no more meaningful than team performance.
Detroit is heavily favored to win the Cup again. There is a whole lot of hockey to play between now and then, and a lot can change, but it's hard to poke holes in the theory that they are clearly superior. They return the most important parts of the team that rolled to a championship last year, and they add Marian Hossa, the guy who was a major reason why Pittsburgh made the final. Barring injuries or some unforeseen problem, it would be more of a surprise if they didn't win the President's Trophy (most regular season points) than if they didn't.
Expectations Too High?
There is a lot to like about the Chicago Blackhawks. Thanks to recent futility they have a ridiculous wealth of young players from the top of recent drafts - Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are the best, but they aren't alone. In Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell they added one of the best goalies and the best defenseman available in the offseason. They are well coached and seem poised for big things. It seems, though, that the public might be just a little bit too excited. Only four teams in the West have a lower futures price, and all those four are proven contenders. Chicago has made the playoffs just once in the last decade, and that was in 2002 when they were blasted by St. Louis in the first round. This is a very young team. I have no doubt that they will be very good in three years, but people might be setting themselves up for disappointing by expecting too much, too soon. The development of a hockey team takes much more patience than a football or baseball team.
What's Your Name Again?
The Tampa Bay Lightning have 25 players on their active roster. Sixteen of those players have joined the team in this calendar year. I'm no mathematician, but that's 64 percent of the players. The moves have been bold, but they are mostly positive, and they provide a much-needed overhaul while maintaining the outstanding core of players (except for Brad Richards, who left at the trade deadline last year). In the mid-term I like this team, but I doubt the players even know each other's names yet, so I expect real growing pains. First returns weren't positive, with two losses to the Rangers. For me, this team will be a pass in October, but I think and hope that there will be value in them by November.