There is an increasing belief that legal sports wagering options will be greatly expanded in the coming months and years, and hot damn we are all going to be rich.
Here’s what we do: We consider the various pre-season NHL predictions from learned experts, and then we just bet really heavily on the complete opposite of that.
Understand that this is not meant as a swipe at the learned-expert industry. My prediction for the Presidents’ Trophy was the Edmonton Oilers, which was only off by 40 points and 22 spots in the standings. But could we have known that Connor McDavid would be struck down by the Spanish flu? He will be missed.
So, moving on. The thing about betting against received hockey wisdom is that one of the more reliable NHL truths is that nothing we believe to be true is all that reliable. This season has been a shining example of that, all of it culminating in a playoff picture that would have been met with slack jaws and cartoonishly bulging eyes if it had been presented in October.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Western Conference last year and returned the bulk of their semi-dynasty core, were last in their division this season. Montreal and Ottawa went from one-two in the Atlantic Division to six-seven in it. The Colorado Avalanche went from a 48-point team, dead last in the NHL and more than 20 points out of second-last, to a playoff team this year. The New Jersey Devils were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference last spring, and are in the post-season this year. The Vegas Golden Knights did not make the playoffs last season due to the fact that they did not exist. They won the Pacific Division this year.
Eight of the 16 playoff teams this season were not in the Stanley Cup tournament last year, which even in the NHL, which often spits out standings that appear to have been randomly generated from year to year, is an awful lot of churn.
It’s not just that there has been a lot of shuffling, either. It’s that so many of the surprises are such big surprises. Let us return to the subject of all becoming very rich. The Oilers and Blackhawks were two of the biggest pre-season favourites to make the playoffs, which was understandable given the 100-point campaigns of the previous year and their talented rosters. If you had bet $100 on a parlay that had them both missing the playoffs, you would be looking at a $2,100 winning ticket today.
That’s a tidy profit. Betting on big underdogs, though, would have allowed you to be presently swimming around in a vault of money, Scrooge McDuck-style. Vegas (8-1), Colorado (7.5-1) and New Jersey (6.25-1) were three of the biggest longshots to qualify for the playoffs. If you parlayed the three of them together to make it into the second season, a $100 bet would have won $55,632. And 50 cents. Vegas, owing to the fact that it is literally a team of castoffs, was a 33-1 bet to win the Pacific. If you could have found a gambling house that would have allowed you to parlay the Devils and Avalanche in the playoffs, plus Vegas winning the division, that $100 bet in September would be paying $209,425 today. (To be fair, ALL the gambling houses would have been happy to take that bet, because that bet was crazy.)
But that is also the point. What to make of a playoff bracket that does not include teams that have for years been highly sought in playoff pools, like the Blackhawks and the New York Rangers, but does include worst-to-first entries and, in the case, of the Golden Knights, nowhere-to-first? No one is quite certain how some of these teams have done what they did in the regular season, so how could anyone claim insight on what they are likely to do in the playoffs?
That uncertainty from those surprise teams only complicates the basic madness of the NHL playoffs, which already have all the steadiness of a newborn foal with vertigo on the greased hood of a car.
Nashville, for example, is sure to be a popular pick to make the final this year. The resume is solid: a finalist last year, and a top seed this season. But that finals appearance came when the Predators were the 16th seed in the post-season. They met Chicago in the first round, and even though the Blackhawks had the top seed and all that recent Stanley Cup hardware in the closet, the Predators still swept them. Will someone return the favour to Nashville this time? The other two top seeds in the West are Winnipeg and Vegas. Combined playoff series wins: zero. Can you even call their opponents an underdog when it’s only the opponents that have ever been to the second round?
The East, at least, should be a little less wacky. You wouldn’t expect playoff-savvy top seeds like Tampa, Boston, Pittsburgh and Washington to be bounced early.
But then, in NHL hockey, what you expect to happen rarely does.
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