This article is part of our Handicapping the NHL series.
The NHL season is nearly here, with the Penguins and Flyers set to kick things off on Jan. 13. There is plenty of time still to get those last-minute Division Winner bets in. Our division odds are courtesy of our friends at BetMGM.
The Favorite: Toronto Maple Leafs +135
It's certainly not a surprise to see the Leafs as the Division favorites here when you considered they are loaded with offensive talent up front in the form of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Added in a top-tier netminder in Frederik Andersen and any perceived weaknesses on the blue line suddenly disappear. Even if Toronto gets the 2019-20 version of T.J. Brodie that scored just 19 points in 64 games last year, it's certainly not the worst defensive core in the league. Still, Toronto has struggled to show up every single night in past seasons, taking an almost lackadaisical approach at times. If that happens this year, Toronto could find itself watching from the sidelines once again.
Best of the Rest: Oilers +400 / Canadiens +475
At first glance, the significant gap between Toronto and Edmonton in terms of odds and the listing of the Habs as potentially the third-best team in the division could surprise many people. If you combined these two squads, you would have a seemingly unbeatable organization considering the Oilers' weakness is netminding courtesy of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith while goaltending is the one thing Montreal has in spades after adding Jake Allen to backup the unflappable Carey Price. The fact that Edmonton has the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should at least put them in closer contention to win the division than a nearly 300 point gap.
AJ's Preferred Long Shot – Vancouver Canucks +525
If you circle back to my Stanley Cup Favorites article, you'll see I picked the Canucks as my long shot to win the Western Conference and alignment hasn't changed that stance. There is a recipe for success here by combining a pair of youngsters like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes with a Stanley Cup-winning backstop in Braden Holtby. Depth could be a little concern but at +525, I think it's worth the risk for a team that could surprise many people, especially those who have written off Holtby as washed up.
The Favorite – Colorado Avalanche +150
When your top player is the favorite to take home the Art Ross Trophy at +500, it's hard to argue against also being the most likely club to secure the division title. While Nathan MacKinnon has never topped the 100-point threshold like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, he has racked up 90 or more points in three straight years, including 30-plus power-play points. Given MacKinnon's talent, it may not matter who his supporting cast is but he won't be alone thanks to linemates Andre Burakosvksy and Mikko Rantanen.
Best of the Rest – Golden Knights +185/ Blues +400
The disappointing ending to the 2019-20 campaign for Vegas will certainly stick in people's minds, especially postseason pools players who were banking on Max Pacioretty and Jonathan Marchessault producing more than their combined two points. These are talented wingers who can, and have, put up significant points in the best. Pair that with arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league, plus the big offseason acquisition of Alex Pietrangelo and there may be no stopping this team from running roughshod over their opponents. Conversely, St. Louis will be hoping Torey Krug can help fill the void left by Pietrangelo, which could explain the significant gap between the Blues and the Avs/Knights.
AJ's Preferred Long Shot – St. Louis Blues +400
There are plenty of reasons to fade St. Louis this season. Vladimir Tarasenko likely won't be back until mid-February, Alexander Steen was forced to retire due to a back injury and despite solid offensive numbers, Torey Krug is simply no Alex Pietrangelo. Having said that, the club still has an up-and-coming netminder in Jordan Binnington and it added Mike Hoffman – who registered 29 goals and 30 helpers last year – to slot into a top-six role.
The Favorite – Tampa Bay Lightning +135
The defending Stanley Cup champions have been forced to make some tough choices this offseason, including offloading Braydon Coburn and Cedric Paquette for a pair of long-term injured reserve guys in a salary dump. The Bolts also waived Tyler Johnson allowing them to potentially bury his salary in the AHL and, perhaps more importantly, will be without Nikita Kucherov for the regular season. Still, the money remains on the Lightning for the time being, with Andrei Vasilevskiy being a major driving force behind that.
Best of the Rest – Hurricanes +325/ Stars +500
I have to admit to a bit of some shock here when you considered the Stanley Cup finalist Stars are currently projected as the third-best team in the division. The Hurricanes have some questions between the pipes, though are relatively deep at both forward and defense. A full season of Vincent Trocheck in the second-line center spot will allow Jordan Staal to fill a more defensively minded role with the third line. Meanwhile, in Big D, injuries have likely factored heavily into the odds here as Tyler Seguin won't be back until April, and Ben Bishop probably won't be available until a few weeks before that. Still, the Stars have players like Roope Hintz and Anton Khudobin who can step up their games to fill that gap.
AJ's Preferred Long Shot – Florida Panthers +1200
Really this bet should read 'Sergei Bobrovsky +1200' as the club will sink or swim based on his performance this year. Last season it was 'sink' for the Panthers, as Bobrovsky went 23-19-6 with a career-worst 3.23 GAA. The additions of Alexander Wennberg and Patric Hornqvist will certainly add some grit to the occasional and could haunt opposing netminder's dreams.
The Favorites – Boston Bruins +250
The departure of Zdeno Chara is just the first step in phasing out an aging core that is seeing its window for postseason success coming to an end. On top of that, a hip injury for David Pastrnak will keep the 24-year-old out until early February – not exactly what you were looking for in a shortened season that would likely benefit the 2019-20 Rocket Trophy co-owner. This will likely be the toughest division in the league, which is why the favorite faces the longest division odds of any club in the league.
Best of the Rest – Flyers +325/ Penguins +450
Not only will this bitter cross-state rivalry kickoff the 2020-21 campaign but fans will be treated to this clash eight times over the course of the year. For the first time in recent memory, the Flyers appear to have solved their netminder woes in the form of Carter Hart. On the other side of Pennsylvania, the season-long question will be whether Tristan Jarry is the real deal or if 2019-20 was a fluke. In this ridiculously deep East Division, both teams have the potential to finish on top or find themselves outside the playoffs as the 5-7th organization.
AJ's Preferred Long Shot – Capitals +500
Let's be clear, anybody that has listened to one episode of PuckCast with Statsman and AJ, looked at the above author profile pick or read some of my articles knows I'm a diehard Penguins fan. So we'll pretend for a moment that's not the case and that Pittsburgh is ineligible for my preferred long shot. It's true that one guy can't win it all by himself (even a goalie) but if there was ever one guy willing to put in the work to defy that notion, it's Alex Ovechkin. Still, a lot will ride on whether Ilya Samsonov can transition to the NHL game, especially after Henrik Lundqvist, the presumptive No. 2, was lost for the season due to a heart condition.