Surprise, surprise. Coming off of a campaign in which they nearly broke the NHL’s single-season points record, tied the single-season wins mark and iced a lineup that included the Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy winners as well as a Norris Trophy finalist, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves as the odds-on favorite to win the 2019-20 Stanley Cup. We mean that in a literal sense, too. According to three different oddsmakers, PointsBet, BetOnline and SuperBook USA, the Bolts are the team to beat.
The margin between Tampa Bay and others, however, isn’t all that wide. In fact, there are a few teams breathing down their neck.
Take divisional rivals Boston and Toronto, for instance. After falling one win short of their second championship in the post-lockout era, the Bruins rank between second and fifth on all three sites, in the same company as the Maple Leafs, who rank second, third and third, respectively. Meanwhile, the Vegas Golden Knights are also in the mix. It’s no case of Sin City home cooking, either. If Vegas could have held on in Game 7 of their now-infamous first-round defeat at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, it could have changed the entire complexion of the post-season, and there’s faith in another season spent in contention with each one of the trio giving Vegas top-four odds.
As far as futures betting goes, though, it doesn’t offer a whole lot to debate. The ordering, maybe, but the Lightning, Bruins, Maple Leafs and Golden Knights were contenders last season who will be contenders again. Of that, there’s little doubt.
Slightly more controversial, however? The Colorado Avalanche, who round out the top five in the eyes of all three sportsbooks.
To be sure, the Avalanche seem an absurd choice for top-five odds at first blush. Colorado finished 17th in the NHL last season. Their 90 points were the fewest of any post-season team and wouldn’t have been enough to make the dance in the Eastern Conference. They also had a slim plus-14 goal differential last season, the underlying numbers weren’t all that special and the roster was fairly top heavy. And it’s not as if the Avalanche are fresh off of a trip to the Stanley Cup final like the St. Louis Blues (who, if you’re wondering, finished sixth across the board). Yes, Colorado had a good run, taking the Sharks to seven games in the second round, but coach Jared Bednar saw his squad’s post-season foray end there.
The deeper you dig, though, the more you start to get the feeling that the oddsmakers might be on to something.
True as it might be that the Avalanche have not at any point this off-season made a major free agent signing, GM Joe Sakic has been diligent in his efforts to improve his squad. The signing of Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are clever little moves that add more depth to a roster that was sorely lacking, the former adding some offensive upside and the latter a defensive aptitude that will aid a penalty kill that was the seventh-worst in the NHL last season. Sakic also utilized a pair of picks and prospects Scott Kosmachuk to pry Andre Burakovsky out of Washington, and the former Capitals winger has potential as a middle-six scorer for the Avalanche, particularly as he’ll be given greater opportunity.
Sakic’s offensive retooling didn’t end there, though, and his summertime splash was one that stands to pay significant dividends. With an attack led by one of the NHL’s true powerhouse combinations – Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who remains an RFA but will almost assuredly be signed before the season begins – what Colorado needed more than anything was a versatile second-line pivot who could win the matchup game, and the Avalanche got just that when they landed Nazem Kadri from the Maple Leafs. A two-time 30-goal scorer with 60-point potential, Kadri fits the bill, spreads out the offense and can be an all-situations player who will make the Avalanche much more difficult to handle.
Landing Kadri, of course, came at a price, and it was indeed steep. Sending Alex Kerfoot to Toronto was one thing, but including top defenseman Tyson Barrie was another altogether. Barrie was the cornerstone of the blueline and a sure thing to skate big minutes next season. Is his departure cause for concern? Absolutely. But it’s not as though the Avalanche don’t have a plan in place. Veterans Erik Johnson and Ian Cole remain, Nikita Zadorov and Samuel Girard will be asked to assume greater roles and the expectation already is that Cale Makar will step into a steady top-four job next season, and given the hype surrounding the rearguard, few would be surprised if he’s a top-pairing player who’s doing his best to fill Barrie’s skates by season’s end.
What could make or break Colorado, however, is how they fare in the crease next season. Despite his inconsistency and overall downturn in performance, Semyon Varlamov’s departure leaves the Avalanche without a veteran presence between the pipes and puts the onus squarely on the shoulders of Philipp Grubauer, who himself took a step back last season. His .917 save percentage and 2.64 goals-against average were noticeably, though not significantly, worse than the .923 and 2.35 marks he posted one season prior with the Washington Capitals. The good news, though? Measured at 5-on-5, Grubauer’s .27 goals-saved above average and .928 SP ranked 16th and 16th, respectively, among the 56 goaltenders who saw at least 1,000 minutes. At all strengths, Grubauer was a top-20 keeper in both categories, too, making him an overall above-average keeper. Backup Pavel Francouz was strong in his two appearances, as well, so even if the tandem isn’t great, there’s reason enough to believe they’ll keep Colorado competitive.
Does any of this mean the Avalanche will be hoisting the Stanley Cup come the end of next season? Well, when you consider that seven of the eight top-odds teams around this point last summer were eliminated in the first round this past post-season, maybe not. But when you take time to comb through the work Sakic has put into improving his roster, Colorado certainly isn’t the oddsmaking oddity that they at first seem. Oddsmakers are taking the Avalanche seriously. And we should, too.
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