Expert NHL Handicapping: Winnipeg Jets no Fluke Team
It is a heady time to be a hockey fan in Canada right now - optimistic like we have almost forgotten how to be. We feel like we own this sport - and let's be honest, we are right - but a Canadian team hasn't won a Stanley Cup title since Montreal in 1993 and hasn't even played since Vancouver in 2011. That streak could very well continue, but right now the Calgary Flames are second in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs are tied for fourth, and the Winnipeg Jets are just two points behind Toronto. The last of the three contenders, the Jets, are who we are going to focus on here. They broke into the upper tier of the league somewhat unexpectedly last year and have proven that that was no fluke this year. Here's a look at where this team is at and what it means for bettors:
The competition: The Jets are in solid enough shape in the Central Division. As of Friday, they trail the Predators by two points, but they have played three fewer games, so they are in good shape. And the depth of the division isn't nearly as good as it was expected to be - Colorado is fading badly after a strong start, Dallas, while improving, is struggling to find their form and doesn't seem like a top-level contender, and Minnesota is just too old to take seriously. The Jets are all but certain to finish no worse than second in the division, and there is no reason they can't win it. The other half of the Western Conference, though, is exceeding expectations, and Calgary, San Jose and Las Vegas are all in a surprisingly strong death match for Pacific supremacy. All have more points than the Jets right now, but Winnipeg has games in hand. It felt like heading into the season the Jets and the Predators were head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the conference - except, perhaps, for the Sharks after their very aggressive offseason. But it's a different, deeper, more dangerous Pacific Division, and that makes for a tougher road to the promised land for Winnipeg. For what it's worth, the team is currently the second choice to win the Western Conference at Bovada at +425, behind only +400 San Jose. And they are tied with the Preds to win the Central, with both teams at even money.
Offense: The story here is complicated. Or varied, at least. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are both having very strong years and are leading the way. They are anchors that make the top two lines on this team very strong - up to the task of leading this team a long way. But depth beyond the top line is a bigger concern, and secondary scoring needs to step up because this team is not producing a goal differential to match the top teams.
There is a bigger offense concern I have, though, and it has to do with the young guys. Patrik Laine was lousy out of the gate, scoring just three goals in October. He has been dramatically better since and could have his best goal scoring year, but it still doesn't feel like he has taken a big step forward this year in an all-round way. Kyle Connor is another strong offensive talent, but he also hasn't dramatically improved this year. In fact, he was, in many ways, solidly better last year. And Nikolaj Ehlers is hurt now, but before his injury he was treading water at best, too. Winnipeg has so much talent, but just having it isn't enough - everyone else is getting better, so you have to get better, too.
Goaltending: Goalies are the toughest guys to figure out in this league, and they can have the biggest impact on how a team does. Last year Connor Hellebuyck was spectacular in net. But he played far too many games - 67 - and that just isn't sustainable. This year he has been far from a liability, and the team has improved their backup situation significantly, but Hellebuyck isn't quite as sharp as he was. Last year the worst month he had, February, featured a save percentage of .911. This year his save percentage to this point is just .910. He was awful at the start, and he has improved, but he isn't as sharp as he was last year and probably not as sharp as a goalie for a Stanley Cup team needs to be.
Remaining schedule: The Jets have played 23 home games and 20 on the road, so there is a slight imbalance remaining, with 21 road games left and just 18 at home. The road schedule could be worse, though. They have three three-game trips, and three four-game trips. They obviously have to play some tough teams, but for the most part the good games are balanced with weaker ones on each trip. The toughest trip comes in early March when they face brutal tests in Tampa Bay and Washington and also visit Columbus, which is a very likely playoff team. We'll learn a lot about this team on that trip.
Betting performance: Given the combination of a very solid record, but still a team that does not yet feel to have reached its full potential, this is a team that has produced solid enough profits on the moneyline but has been a loss on the puckline. They are mostly meeting bettor expectations but certainly not exceeding them in a notable way. They have gone over the total 20 times, under 17, and have pushed six times, so there has only been very small profits on the over.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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