Handicapping the NHL: Best and Worst Bets on the Board

Handicapping the NHL: Best and Worst Bets on the Board

This article is part of our Handicapping the NHL series.

We're now less than two weeks out from the start of the exhibition games that will kick off the return of the NHL season in hub cities Toronto and Edmonton.

Using odds from our friends at BetMGM, I'll give you three bets I like, three bets I'd avoid and two longshots worth a buck or two currently on the board for the NHL playoffs. 

The Good: Columbus Blue Jackets to beat the Leafs (+140)

While it often means betting against the odds, I rarely test the waters with anything that doesn't offer a good return on value. While this isn't anywhere close to the team that upset the Lightning in four games last year (see Bobrovsky, Sergei and  Panarin, Artemi), this remains a John Tortorella coached club that will play with grit and intensity. That's something that the skill-laden Maple Leafs lack so we could see a similar outcome to last year's monstrous upset. 

I wouldn't expect another sweep, but don't be shocked to see Pierre-Luc Dubois – who nearly reached the 20-goal mark for a third straight season – and Zach Werenski lead this team to a Game 5 matchup that could go either way. A lot will ride on the netminding for Columbus, a situation that remains unresolved, but it may not matter which goalie is between the pipes, as both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have made their case to be the No. 1 option. 

With the ability to get back some value at +140, this bet could be rather intriguing for a lot of NHL bettors our there and I wouldn't be surprised to see the line move closer to +120 as we get closer to puck drop. 

The Bad: Boston Bruins to win the Cup (+700)

There's a reason this team is the favorite to win the Cup. They're led by a top line consisting of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak that combined for an outrageous 238 points this season. On the blue line, the club is led by Torey Krug who scored 28 of his 59 points with the man advantage and helped the Bruins register the second-best power-play percentage (25.2) this season. Finally, Boston will be backstopped by Vezina Trophy candidate Tuukka Rask after he went 26-8-6 with a .929 save percentage and five shutouts this year. 

And yet, no Presidents Trophy winner has lifted Lord Stanley's chalice since the Chicago Blackhawks in 2012-13. In fact, the top regular-season team hasn't even advanced to a Conference Finals in the last four years. When you consider you can get Western Conference teams like Colorado and Vegas for better value at +800 apiece, combined with the unknown factor of having 24 fully fit teams, this just doesn't seem like the year to bet against history. 

The Good: Edmonton to win series against Chicago 3-0 (+375) 

I could fill this article about all the reasons to bet on the Oilers, starting with their world-class forwards Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid who racked up 80 goals and 207 points during the regular season. I could mention their supporting cast of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (61 points) and deadline acquisition Andreas Athanasiou, whose speed might only be eclipsed by McDavid himself. Sure, the club's netminding might leave something to be desired, but as long as Mikko Koskinen or Mike Smith can keep the goals allowed to three or less, Edmonton's offensive firepower should be able to win out. 

But at the end of the day, this is really more about Chicago. The latest news coming out of camp has Corey Crawford "unfit to participate" and at this point, it doesn't sound like he's going to be available for the Hawks. That leaves them with either Malcolm Subban, who went 19-9-3 with a .890 save percentage and 3.17 GAA in 21 appearances this season, or Collin Delia, who played 16 NHL games in 2019-20, between the pipes. Outside of Adam Boqvist, this might be one of the slowest blue lines in the league, assuming Calvin de Haan, Olli Maatta and Connor Murphy are cleared to play. 

It's the NHL, nothing is guaranteed in a playoff series (just ask the Lightning and Penguins), but at a +375 value, this is too good of an opportunity to pass up in my opinion. 

The Bad: Pittsburgh to win series over Montreal 3-0 (+350)

If you're following along, there's no doubt you're confused how a team favored higher than Edmonton would be a bad bet. Let's start with the Penguins. They have their world-class centers in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, as well as a supporting cast that includes trade addition Jason Zucker and playoff-stud Jake Guentzel (who recently returned from injury). However, the blue line has some question marks in terms of its third pairing that includes statistical-nightmare Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz, who is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. There are questions between the pipes as well, as coach Mike Sullivan hasn't named a starter, though it appears to be trending toward Matt Murray. Consistency has never been Murray's strong suit, so betting on him to go perfect in three straight games isn't something I'd want to bank on. 

Turning our focus to the Habs, there's really only one place to look and that's in the crease. Carey Price probably won't earn his club the three wins needed to advance, especially if Max Domi opts out of playing, but he's certainly capable of stealing at least one game to force a Game 4. The value is there at +350, but there are simply too many X-factors in the bad column for Pittsburgh to warrant laying down money on this one. 

The Good: Edmonton -1.5 against Chicago in Game 1 (+160)

For all the reasons highlighted above, the Oilers should cruise to a victory in Game 1 in what could easily be a blowout, but certainly, enough to cover a 1.5 goal spread. Taking this game straight Moneyline with Edmonton -167 doesn't return nearly enough value, so moving to the spread makes sense here. 

Alternative options with strong value include Pittsburgh -1.5 over Montreal (+140), Boston -1.5 over Philadelphia (+185) or Vancouver -1.5 over Minnesota (+200), but it's the Oilers in a rout that puts you solidly in the middle of the risk versus reward. 

The Bad: Sidney Crosby to win the Conn Smythe (+1600)

Crosby currently has the best odds to win playoff MVP among players in the play-in games, with the next closest being Connor McDavid at +3300. The Conn Smythe hasn't been awarded to a player who didn't win the Stanley Cup since 2003 and Pittsburgh will need to win three additional games in order to achieve that feat. 

Assuming for a moment the Penguins win the cup, while Crosby makes the most sense, he's already won it twice, which could open the door for Evgeni Malkin to win his second. Let's also not forget Jake Guentzel, who has 43 points in 41 career postseason games and seems to turn it up a notch when on the league's biggest stage. 

I'd rather put my chips on Nathan MacKinnon (+1400), Nikita Kucherov (+1600) or Jordan Binnington (+1600) who are much more likely to carry their teams to victory without having to log any extra games along the way and risk getting bounced or injured in an early round. 

The Longshot: Winnipeg Jets to win the Cup (+5000)

The Jets have essentially been the perennial unknown team in the NHL over the last several seasons. In fact, some of you may have forgotten Winnipeg has a team again after the club moved up from Atlanta. The team's top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler combined for 211 points this year, which includes Wheeler moving to center on the second line for a significant chunk of the campaign due to an injury to Bryan Little. In order to reunite the trio, the Jets brought in Cody Eakin at the deadline to bolster their center depth – he garnered five points in his brief eight-game debut. 

There's no argument that the blue line is a little shakey, but Neal Pionk and Josh Morrissey have come into their owner offensively with the duo both setting new career highs in points this year. Finally, the club sports Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck between the pipes after he led the league with six shutouts this year. If you're reading this and think it sounds a lot like the outline of Boston above, you'd be right. Combined with a significantly higher return at 500/1 and we're looking at a dollar bet worth making.

The Longshot: Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Draft Lottery (+1800)

If you're with me on the possibility that Columbus could take the series versus Toronto, then you could get a decent return on what will be a one-in-eight chance for the bounced clubs to win the Alexis Lafreniere draft lottery. Outside of Pittsburgh or Edmonton winning the No. 1 overall pick, this is probably a worst-case scenario for the league in terms of a powerhouse organization landing a world-class prospect like Lafreniere, who would join the likes of John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner among the Maple Leafs' elite forwards. The only team with higher odds to win according to BetMGM is the aforementioned Penguins at +2000. 

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AJ Scholz
Co-Host of PuckCast with Statsman and AJ and unabashed Penguins fan.
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