The NHL season is underway. With the truncated 56 game regular season in effect, it will be a sprint to the finish with the push for the playoffs beginning immediately. Every point is valuable and every game is important.
There are four divisions that have been realigned geographically due to COVID-19 reasons the North, East, Central and West divisions. All teams will play within their own division this season for all 56 regular season games meaning that there won’t be much wiggle room for teams that get off to a slow start or suffer an extended losing streak. The path to the playoffs is narrow and consistency will be not only demanded but required for any team hoping to compete for the Stanley Cup in the spring.
Let’s take a look at a very busy Thursday NHL slate and some of the bets that I like on this card.
New York Islanders @ New York Rangers
This is a matchup between two teams who may be about to head in opposite directions this season. The NY Islanders are extremely well coached by Barry Trotz and have the defensive structure and discipline to still be a very competitive team but I also believe this team has just about maxed out their talent level in the past two seasons including last year when they went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before getting ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
The NY Islanders have a solid top six but don’t have much offensive punch beyond that and lack the four lines of scoring depth of the other teams that they will face in the ultra competitive East Division. The defense lost a key piece on their blue line in Devon Toews who is now in Colorado and I’m not sure the cohesive unit their blue line was last season will be replicated and their goaltending with Semyon Varlamov was solid last season but he faltered in the playoff series against Tampa Bay and will be pushed by Ilya Sorokin for playing time.
The NY Rangers should be one of the highest scoring teams in the league this season loaded with firepower featuring Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Kaapo Kaako and this year’s #1 overall draft pick Alexis Lafreniere. Finding the back of the net won’t be an issue for a team that averaged 3.3 goals per game last season and should be even better offensively this season.
The key will be improving defensively as the Rangers surrendered 3.14 goals per game ranking 23rd in goals against. The good news is they have an improved blue line and a promising goalie of the future in Igor Shesterkin who was outstanding when he took over as the #1 goalie. The NY Rangers were 2nd in profitability in the NHL last season. They should be a bet on, money making squad this season too and I think they might be ready to pass the NY Islanders in this division starting right here with an opening night win at MSG.
NY Rangers -102
Calgary Flames @ Winnipeg Jets
The Calgary Flames got a taste of playoff success in the bubble when the NHL season resumed last year. Their run in the bubble wasn’t enough however, as they did their best to improve their roster to give them a good chance for a longer playoff run next season bringing in Jacob Markstrom who had a career year in net for the Vancouver Canucks.
They lost T.J. Brodie in free agency on the blue line but made up for it by signing Chris Tanev from Vancouver who is a strong shutdown defenseman. Mark Giordano didn’t play quite as well last season and age is a concern but he is still a very good defender on this team. Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson should help make his blue line a solid group once again and they played some of their best hockey in the playoffs last season.
Calgary’s forward group remains unchanged but more will be needed from them after a subpar season from some of their top forwards. Sean Monahan failed to reach 30 goals for the first time since 2016-2017 and Johnny Gaudreau had a career low 58 points last season suffering a massive decline in production but I think these two talented forwards can rebound this season for Calgary.
The Winnipeg Jets had a totally revamped and much more inexperienced blue line last season and were besieged by injuries throughout the season and yet made the playoffs and were a competitive team in a very tough conference all season long. Winnipeg still has a very explosive top six forward group when fully healthy. There are rumblings of the Winnipeg Jets fielding offers to trade Patrik Laine although Laine says he will bring ‘110%’ regardless of what jersey he wears.
Nevertheless, it could be a potential distraction for the Jets to begin the season. The defense which struggled a season ago got a lot more experience under their belt but they still lack depth and have too many moments where they were running around in their own zone and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck had to bail them out. There is no doubt the Jets have one of the better goalies in the NHL with Hellebuyck who had a phenomenal season last year with a 2.57 GAA and .922 save percentage along with a league leading six shutouts. However, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect him to be as good this season given the number of high quality scoring chances and shots the Jets defense surrendered to the opposition last season.
I like Calgary to win this game as I feel they are the superior team defensively coming into the season and I will back the Flames in this game as well as the over 5.5 as I envision the Jets defense to still be shaky and goalie Connor Hellebuyck to regress just a little bit. On the flip side, worth noting that Jacob Markstrom was fighting the puck and struggled in Calgary’s scrimmage game prior to the season. I think we’ll see enough goals to send this game up and over the total.
Calgary/Winnipeg Over 5.5 -120
San Jose Sharks @ Arizona Coyotes
The Arizona Coyotes finally got back to the playoffs last season and they hope they won’t be a ‘one hit wonder’ in that regard this season. Team continuity should be strong as they didn’t have many changes in the offseason aside from letting Taylor Hall leave in free agency which could be addition by subtraction based on the results teams with Hall have had in past seasons.
Arizona needs more out of Phil Kessel and a bounce back season from Clayton Keller and Conor Garland. The defense is still very solid and filled with depth, and Darcy Kuemper in net was outstanding last season although some sort of regression seems likely from him. Nevertheless, Arizona is a hard working and still a very competitive team on a nightly basis.
The concern is whether they have enough scoring up and down their lineup to win close games. That may not matter here though for Arizona in their season opener against a San Jose Sharks team which could wind up being the worst team in this division by far.
Last year was the fall from grace season for the San Jose Sharks which had enjoyed nearly two decades worth of consistency and playoff contender status but the Sharks stumbled to their worst season in a long time finishing with just 63 points. The Sharks didn’t have a lot of punch on offense last season as they had just four players with 40+ points.
The depth wasn’t there for this team both with their forwards and their defense. The Sharks goaltending from Martin Jones was below average. The result was a very dismal season and one that saw them dismiss Peter DeBoer in the first half of the season. The Sharks roster didn’t see much turnover during the offseason but they did bring in Devan Dubnyk goaltender from the Minnesota Wild to compete with Martin Jones for the starting job and I don’t trust either goalie at this stage as both had porous performances last season and appear to have their best days behind them.
San Jose was 28th in the NHL in profitability last season at -9.91 units. They have very few reliable scoring options in their bottom six forwards and their defense is going to struggle against any team with immense skill and speed combined with arguably the weakest goaltending duo in the NHL and I’m looking to fade San Jose and in particular their defense and goaltending at every reasonable opportunity starting right here with three separate wagers on this game.
San Jose/Arizona Over 5.5 -120
Arizona Team Total Over 3.5 +140
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