Why NHL Futures Will Be A Lot Harder to Predict for 2020
Ask some longtime hockey people about this coming NHL season and who they think is the favorite to win the Stanley Cup, and you’re likely to get a Forrest Gump, box-of-chocolates response.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much parity in the league as I do today,” NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire said. “I mean, I could name half the teams in the league and think they have a legitimate chance at the Cup.”
That’s kind of what the sportsbooks seem to be thinking, too in their futures markets. As of this week, 17 of the NHL’s 31 teams were +2500 or lower to win the 2020 Stanley Cup. That’s some impressive parity.
The NHL’s salary cap, introduced in 2005, is probably the biggest reason for increased parity. In the first season of the cap, 2005-06, the Stanley Cup Finals featured the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes - two teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs the season before (that was 2003-04. Remember, the 2004-05 season was canceled).
But other factors have contributed to even more equality among the teams, such as:
Free agency isn’t the difference-maker it once was
The availability of a premium scorer at a still-tender age (Artemi Panarin) in the free-agency period this year was something of an anomaly from recent years. Teams today usually lock up their best young players with long multi-year contracts.
That means most teams have a strong young “core” that sticks together for at least a few years. That makes it easier for teams to at least stay competitive. You don’t see the selloff of players by teams that couldn’t afford them any longer as you did in the older days.
Teams like Detroit and Colorado and the Rangers could buy up all the highest-priced players in the old days, making it harder for the more revenue-challenged teams to compete.
The league is getting younger
The Colorado Avalanche have only three players 30 or older on the current roster. The 2003-04 Avalanche had 13 players who played that season who were 30 or older. Most teams now and then have similar age histories. If you’re 30 or older in the league now, you’re getting up there in years. The old NHL was often just that - old.
All that youth has made the league faster, and there isn’t the disparity in team speed that used to characterize much of the old NHL.
Watching hockey today is like watching toddlers play soccer; everybody just swarms around the puck, making separation from the pack tougher. But that makes games more competitive.
So, you’re trying to lay down a good early bet on the next Cup winner, eh? With all that parity, what are some things early futures bettors be looking for? Let’s list a few:
Are your team’s best players locked up?
What you don’t want to do, as a futures Cup bettor at this point, is to throw a lot of money at a team that might not be able to keep any of their best players past the trade deadline. Let’s say you were a big believer in the Ottawa Senators last summer and put down a futures bet on them.
First off, our sympathies. But the Sens were never a good choice to do that, because they had too many good young players entering the last years of their deals, who could be unrestricted free agents. A pretty decent Ottawa roster at the start lost three of their best forwards - Matt Duchene, Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel - at or near the trade deadline.
Check Capfriendly.com for teams with potential UFAs for the 2020-21 season. The team you may be high on now might have to hold a fire sale at the deadline because of those UFAs.
Is your team locked in too much on underachievers?
According to CapFriendly, 178 NHL players currently have no-trade, no-movement clauses. The Chicago Blackhawks have six of them. Guess which team hasn’t made the playoffs the last two seasons?
It’s a sign of previous success if you’re a team with a lot of high-paid players with no-trade clauses. It’s also a complete albatross to future success when those players get a little older and can’t be moved. Not only are you unable to move them, you have little flexibility under the salary cap to make needed changes.
The Los Angeles Kings haven’t made the playoffs in two straight seasons either, and they have four high-paid players with no-trade clauses, three of whom are 30 or older (Anze Kopitar, Ilya Kovalchuk and Dustin Brown).
The trick in today’s NHL is not only to stay young, but have those best young players locked up long-term - but not too, too long - with judicious use of no-trade clauses. Do you think the Kings regret not only having the 36-year-old Kovalchuk on their books for two more years, at a cap hit of $6.25 million per, but also saddled by his no-trade clause?
Early 2020 NHL Futures Bets to Consider - and Avoid
With some of those things to look for, let’s list a few teams that I’d seriously consider laying down a futures Cup bet at the current odds listed at 888Sport:
CONSIDER: Colorado Avalanche (+1400) - Young, talented and still with good cap room. Nathan MacKinnon’s cap hit for the next FOUR years is $6.3 million.
BE LEERY OF: Tampa Bay Lightning (+700) - Yeah, they’re still the most favored team to win it all next year. But beware of this fact: they have seven players with no-trade/no-move clauses. Most of them are guys you probably wouldn’t want to trade, but there are a couple of worrisome contracts on the books, such as Tyler Johnson’s remaining five years, at a $5 million per cap hit.
CONSIDER: Carolina Hurricanes (+2000) - They are very young (only three players 30 or older) and have their young, top guys locked up long-term with few no-trade deals. Only two players, in fact, have them (Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk).
BE LEERY OF: Pittsburgh Penguins (+1700) - Age is starting to creep in on the once-vaunted Pens roster. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both now in their early 30s.
They have little cap room and five guys with no-trade deals.