The NFL season is behind us for another year and it is time to turn our attention to those other sports until next September. College basketball will be in the headlines until March Madness is over and then the NBA playoffs take over (at least until the Western Conference finals are done). After that, the Boys of Summer take the field and the national sports consciousness gives them the lion’s share of attention until football comes around again. The ugly duckling left out of the media spotlight (for the most part) is hockey. Today I will shed a little light on the NHL by looking at which teams are likely to surge or slump as winter gives way to spring and spring gives way to summer.
Hockey gets left out of the limelight partly as a result of the overlap of sports seasons and partly as a result of the fact that baseball and basketball are nation-wide where hockey is still fairly regional in interest. At least this is part of the excuse I have been giving hockey fans over the last year when they ask why I never write columns on hockey. The main reason of course is that NHL betting does not come anywhere close to what we see on baseball or basketball, although the growth in hockey as a wagering event has outpaced the other major sports in recent years. I had planned to discuss key numbers in the NBA this week, but I’ll shelve that for the next issue and give the hockey fans out there a little something to wet their whistle. This is based on a column I recently wrote for a magazine but I think they only asked me to write about hockey because I was born in Canada. I hope they don’t learn that I can’t skate!
Anyways, on to the fastest game on ice. I spend part of the year in Vancouver and the Canucks hype last April as the media piled on the bandwagon was borderline intolerable. (Imagine having to read 4 pages in to get an NBA box score. No wonder the Grizzlies headed for Memphis. Or were the NBA stats pushed back because the Grizz left and the hoops fans in Vancouver were bitter? I’ll never know!). Regardless, the big story was how the Canucks had come back from a horrible start so I got to wondering Just how easy is it for NHL teams to gain/lose momentum after the holidays? I decided to take a look and this column is the result of that research.
The Canucks weren’t the only team to surge last year. Fans of the Los Angeles Kings know that a bad start to the season doesn’t mean the playoffs are lost and fans of the New York Rangers know that early success doesn’t mean the Stanley Cup is in reach either. But are the great runs of the Kings and Canucks or the slide of the Rangers common? The answer is a rather boring no but let’s take a deeper look.
Over the past two full seasons (the only two with the current 30-team format), only six of the 32 teams that have been in playoff position (in the top 8 spots in their conference) at the end of play on December 31st have missed the playoffs and three of those even played .500 hockey in the second half (Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames last year plus the Canucks in 2000/2001). The worst decline was the Rangers last year. They were 22-15-3-2 and sitting in a tie for 3rd in the Eastern Conference with Boston when the New Year rang in, but could only manage to go 14-23-1-2 the rest of the way and finished 11th, seven points out of the playoffs. Perhaps they were out partying with Dick Clark in Time’s Square too late.
Conversely only six teams (obviously) that were not in playoff position on the morning of January 1st have made it to the postseason. Of those, the climb from the fourthest back was Vancouver last year. They came all the way back from a dreadful 16-22-4-0 start (11th place at the time) with a scintillating 26-8-3-3 second half that moved them into 8th place overall. The Kings last year managed to move from 10th to 6th with an impressive 26-11-4-2 record down the stretch. The other four teams to move up were all in the 9th position, which makes for a possible trend to watch.
Outside these few teams that turned it around, most teams seem to keep the level of play fairly consistent. The Stanley Cup winner each of the last two seasons has been in first place overall on December 31st and not a single one of the teams in 12th-15th place managed to even crack the top 8 for the second half of the season or even the top 10 for the entire season. It does make sense that the bottom teams wouldn’t improve much. Once you are 10 or 15 points out of the playoff race, a feeling of surrender and we’ll get them next year must take over, especially when playing the teams on the bubble that must be a little hungrier. There are just a few interesting tidbits to watch as the 2002/2003 regular season winds down. I wouldn’t go so far as to call these trends because the sample size is just too small but nonetheless!
Each of the last two seasons the Stanley Cup Winner has been in first place overall as of December 31st. Detroit last year held a 7-point advantage over second place Chicago and Colorado two years ago was a single point ahead of the St. Louis Blues. For those interested, the Red Wings are still 2/1 favorites despite their slump over the last two weeks. The Ottawa Senators were just a point behind.
Watch for a few teams that have proved to be Second Half Surgers (teams that have improved their level of play) each of the last two seasons. This group includes Boston, Colorado, Los Angeles, Montreal, New Jersey and Ottawa. A poorer first half record may mean a little value in betting on these teams in the second half of the season. The Devils look like they have already started their annual run with their recent hot streak.
On the flip side are the First Half Fakers (teams that have dropped off each of the last two seasons). There are 3 teams in this group: Calgary, Tampa Bay and Toronto. While the Lightning didn’t have far to fall (as is the case with the Flames this season), the Maple Leafs were actually in 1st place in the Eastern Conference on December 31st in both years before slipping a little in the second half of the season. A strong first half record could mean there is value in betting against these teams down the stretch. However, all are playing .500 or better hockey over their last 10 games so the fact that these teams dropped significantly both years may be a fluke (injuries were a factor as well).
Then there are the Terrible Twos (teams in second place in their conference) that have struggled a little after the break. The Devils stayed consistent two years ago but St Louis dropped to 4th overall that year and last year both Chicago and Carolina didn’t even crack the top 8 in their respective conferences after the break and made it interesting getting to the playoffs. A strange note is that the 2nd place Eastern team on New Year’s Eve has gone on to lose the Stanley Cup Finals both years (and the Devils could certainly fill that spot this year). Watch for a second half swoon from the second place teams as complacency may be a factor. The Devils were in the 2-slot and have looked strong as has Dallas in the West so again, this may be another fluke of the last two years.
Then there are the Nifty Nines. While 2nd place teams have cooled down, the 9th place teams have heated up in the second half. In fact, all four 9th place teams showed enough improvement after the first half to make the playoffs. Keep an eye on these teams for a second half surge as they are motivated to get into playoff contention. I made a note of the leaders on the 1st of January but I didn’t think to take stock of the 9th place teams until the 3rd of January so the teams that were in the 9-slot then were Montreal/Florida (tied for 8th) in the East and Los Angeles/Anaheim (tied for 9th) in the West. Of these four, only Anaheim looks to be inspired in recent weeks.
In summary, the only real trends to take advantage of are a slight letdown in the top four teams in each conference and a little bit of a surge in the teams in 6th-10h place. I would guess that motivation seems to be the key as the top teams relax a little (too much in a couple of cases) while the bubble teams in 6th-10th are motivated to fight it out night after night. No guarantees of course but a little something to think about when betting hockey for the next few weeks.
Now that I’ve appeased hockey fans (and the entire populations of Canada, Sweden and Finland) with a Frontlines column on the topic, we can get back to talking about the real other sports. I’ll be back with that look at the rumored existence of key numbers in the NBA in a couple of weeks. That is, provided of course, that NASCAR fans haven’t filled my Inbox with complaints about the lack of motor sports columns. Hmmmm!.at least I can drive.
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