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Washington are favourites to win this season’s NHL crown. NHL handicapping expert Jack Randall previews the new campaign and assesses the likeliest contenders

For many European hockey players, the National Hockey League serves as their inspiration, a far-off league where only the best of the best make it. Bettors treat the NHL the same way.

While punting on Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and other marquee leagues in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic is growing in popularity, it is wagering on the Chicago Blackhawks to retain their title or Alexander Ovechkin to return to Most Valuable Player status that captures the imagination on both sides of the Atlantic.

And with a truly international array of stars in some of the world’s biggest markets, the NHL has become an international success story for sportsbooks catering to the ‘Boys of Winter.’

Let’s take a look at the preseason favourites and their early odds of lifting the Stanley Cup.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS 13/2

It’s hard to describe a young team with a youthful core of superstars as being in a ‘must-win’ season, but two consecutive playoff blow-ups has fans and punters alike wondering if Alexander Ovechkin can get the job done.

The Russian superstar and two-time league MVP is the game’s most dynamic player, a hybrid of power, skill and tenacity one might only see in football if Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi were merged into a single player. Still, he was stifled in a first-round upset loss against Montreal in April, while his star teammates Mike Green, Swedish playmaker Nicklas Backstrom and Russian sniper Alexander Semin were also held in check.

This is a fun team to watch. On consecutive nights in February, they rallied from 5-1 down in the third, only to lose 6-5 in each game. Yes, defence is the big question mark, but whether Ovechkin has the stomach for playoff pressure is another. They have the shortest odds, but I don’t trust them to get the job done.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS 6/1

The Blackhawks ended a Cup drought dating to 1961 last season, with another stellar core of young players leading the way. In Patrick Kane (who scored the Cup-winning, overtime winner) and Jonathan Toews (pronounced ‘Taves’), they have two of the league’s top players.

But the team was dismantled this summer following their victory, a victim of the salary cap and too many players due for new contracts. By August, more than half the roster had been turned over, including key role players (Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel) who were terrific in the playoffs. In a surprise move, they also refused to re-sign Finn Antti Niemi, the rookie keeper who backstopped their Cup win, choosing to sign cheaper veteran help in the form of Marty Turco.

Winning back-to-back titles is nearly impossible and with more than half a team traded away, finding that elusive winning chemistry is all but impossible for Chicago.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS 7/1

Few teams can boast two former league MVPs, but Pittsburgh does in Canada’s Olympic hockey hero Sidney Crosby and Russian star Evgeni Malkin. In keeping with the theme of youthful talent, Crosby is 23 and Malkin 24.

The Penguins were the 2009 Cup champs and are still looking for some goal-scoring magic to ride shotgun with the aforementioned talented centres. Scoring let them down in May when they were upset by the same Montreal team that ousted Washington. But in goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and an improved defence (Paul Martin signed from New Jersey and Zbynek Michalek from Phoenix), Pitt doesn’t need to fill the net every game to win.

In my eyes, they are one emergent sniper away from being the Cup favourite, but they were not able to sign one this off-season.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS 9/1

The only Canadian team among the favourites boasts the reigning league MVP in Henrik Sedin, who pairs with twin brother Daniel to form one of the NHL’s most-feared lines. They have climbed the odds ladder for two reasons this summer: the uncertainty in Chicago over its dismantled roster and the acquisition of blueliners Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard to firm up the defence.

The Canucks feature sometimes-brilliant Roberto Luongo in goal and he is arguably the planet’s top keeper. But he hasn’t played like it the past few seasons and Vancouver needs top-flight play from him to contend. The offence is solid with underrated young players such as Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler making significant contributions. They have lost to Chicago the past two playoffs, but could be positioned to beat them this time around.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS 15/1

By the time this magazine hits the shelves, the Devils’ odds to win the Stanley Cup will be much longer or much shorter. It depends on how the Ilya Kovalchuk contract situation plays out.

The Russian sniper had signed a 17-year deal with New Jersey in July but the league killed the deal, saying it violated rules for contracts by circumventing the salary cap. The two sides were back at the negotiating table in late August trying to find a deal that would be acceptable to player, team and the league, but at press time this was still unresolved.

Before the controversy, the Devils had been 8/1 odds, but slipped to 15/1 at most sportsbooks tracked by OddsShark.com. With him, the Devils are a serious threat to Washington and Pittsburgh in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, armed with offensive talent like American Zach Parise and Czech star Patrik Elias and backstopped by three-time Cup-winning goalie Martin Brodeur.

The addition of shot-blocking, hard-rock defenceman Anton Volchenkov (from Ottawa) only cemented their reputation as Cup contenders, but the loss of puck-moving defenceman Martin (to Pittsburgh) is significant. Even with Kovalchuk, I don’t like their chances unless they find a puck-moving defenceman and unless Brodeur drinks from the Fountain of Youth.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS 14/1

If you are looking for a solid early long-shot play (and all of us are), the Flyers at 14/1 are an interesting choice. Although they lost the Cup final to Chicago, they got there riding an epic playoff run that featured a once-in-a-generation comeback against Boston and with an injured cast of players (including both goalies).

In captain Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Claude Giroux, the Flyers boast plenty of grit and talent and another year of seasoning for talented James van Riemsdyk, along with the risky signing of Nikolai Zherdev should provide enough goal-scoring threat. On the blueline, veterans Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen anchor the league’s deepest defence.

The question mark, as always in Philly, is around goaltending where they possess journeymen Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton. Both played very well at times last season, both also struggled at times and more Jekyll-and-Hyde-like displays should be expected. But in the playoffs, a veteran team deep in defence is a dangerous foe. It’s the main reason I peg Philly as my preseason upset pick to win the title.
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