No matter what point you’re at during an NHL season, you’ll tend to hear plenty of opinions regarding which teams are overrated or underrated. And with the playoffs coming up, you’re about to hear a lot more about who should be favoured and who doesn’t have a hope in hell of even getting out of the first round.
Analytics are useful in sussing this stuff out – eye tests less so. One reason I like to look at sports betting markets for this kind of thing is that, to a certain extent, they are quantifying fans and bookmakers’ opinions of teams’ abilities. Lines move around as teams go through ups and downs or sustain injuries, and near the end of the season you can start to get a sense of which teams have under or over-performed relative to those opinions.
Over the past few days I used oddsmakers lines and theoretical betting units of $100 to determine NHL teams’ performance to determine the most overrated and underrated teams in the league so far this season. Here’s how it works:
$100 winning bet on a +150 underdog returns $150
$100 losing bet on +150 underdog returns -$100
$150 winning bet on a -150 favourite returns $100
$150 losing bet on -150 favourite returns -$150
So let’s think of it like this: if you’d bought stock in a hot pre-season team, say, the Nashville Predators, all season, how would it look today? Let’s call it the team’s stock chart. Numbers include completed games up to and including March 22.
Not great, but not awful considering, to turn a profit, teams also have to overcome the vigorish charged by sportsbooks, not to mention how heavily hyped the Preds were at the start of the season. You can see they took a fairly big dip mid-season with their inconsistent play, but they’ve bounced back to solidify a playoff spot.
Be warned before we get into the top-five: some of these are going to seem counter-intuitive because we’re talking about some really good teams here. The point isn’t to determine which teams outperformed poor expectations, it’s to determine which teams outperformed their relative expectations. OK? So let’s get to the five most underrated teams.
5. The Washington Capitals
Here’s what I mean by counter-intuitive. If you asked a random person who the best team in the NHL is, there’s a good chance you’d hear “the Washington Capitals.” And they’d be right: The Caps are currently leading the race for the President’s Trophy. But if you were taking a market approach to the Caps, you could actually argue people aren’t giving them enough credit for how good they are. Let’s take a look at their stock chart.
Put another way, if someone had used $100 units and placed a bet on every Capitals game, they’d actually be up almost $1,000 over the course of the entire season (please note not all these charts take into account the team’s most recent game). This is impressive, given the Caps are a team you’d expect to be beloved by the public (and oddsmakers often shade lines against the public). More on that as we get a bit higher on the chart. Combine Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby and a monster all-around season from Nik Backstrom and you’ve got a very nice group indeed.
4. The Calgary Flames
It’s crazy to think how quickly this season could have gone off the rails. Take a look at Calgary’s chart.
That dip you see towards the start of the season represents an absolutely atrocious start to the season from No. 1 goalie Brian Elliott, who almost sank the team’s playoff chances before they even got going. The first spike you see is a combination of Chad Johnson taking over in goal and running with it, combined with oddsmakers putting out some very generous lines for a team most of us thought was dead. The last jump represents the team, and Brian Elliott, finally seeming to put everything together. That Calgary wasn’t worse off on this chart at the beginning of the season speaks to how low expectations were for this group at the beginning of the season. It’s fair to say they’ve exceeded them in a big way.
3. The Ottawa Senators
If I were picking a “most surprising team of the year,” it would be the Ottawa Senators. Here’s a low-spending, low-talent (excluding a handful of players led by Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson and Mark Stone, of course) team that many, myself included, expected to be well outside the playoff picture. Furthermore, many, myself included again, thought the team completely blew it when it chose to go with Guy Boucher as head coach instead of Bruce Boudreau, who seemed to have Ottawa as his first choice during his summer job hunt. Boucher, who rose to prominence with his 1-3-1 neutral zone scheme with the Tampa Bay Lightning, imported it to Canada’s capital with great success thus far. Given Ottawa’s shot metrics are not exceptional, the Senators often leave the analytics community cold, and certainly it’s scary to think of where they’d be without Karlsson. But their methodical approach to the game and a level of commitment in the D zone that was absent in previous seasons has played a big part in their resurgence. And if you’ll permit me one small eye test given this is the team I watch more than any other, it would be this: Ottawa is the kind of squad that, when it’s working its system well, is totally demoralizing to watch your team play against. They suffocate you in the neutral zone, they block a lot of shots, and they have one great goalie and one more-than-competent goalie. As a result …
Prettaaay, prettaaaayyyy, pretty good.
2. The Chicago Blackhawks
Here’s where I think a lot of people are going to @ me about how I’m an idiot. The multiple Cup-winning Blackhawks underrated? Please.
Well, hear me out. Like the Caps, we’re talking about relative expectations. I don’t think anyone expected the Hawks to be bad – I just don’t think as many people as usual expected them to be this good. Let’s take a look at a baseball scenario to understand why they’re underrated. There’s no question that, going into last season, 99.9 per cent of sports fans believed the Chicago Cubs were the best team in baseball. People expected them to utterly dominate the competition. But were they the most profitable? Not even close. They were seventh, because after a hot start, their odds got so oppressive that every loss was super costly and they started being valued more in line with that expected dominance. The top of the table was littered with bubble playoff teams that exceeded expectations, whether by luck, skill, or both – and it’s important to remember that some portion of this is due to luck. The Texas Rangers, at the top, were underrated based on performance, but they also weren’t very good and had a lot of good luck go their way. If I had to hazard a guess as to why the Baltimore Orioles, a team with a lousy OBP and questionable starting pitching, were second, it might be because few expected that the number of home runs they hit combined with having the best closer in baseball would more than compensate for their shortcomings. So, with that said let’s take a look at Chicago.
Why would a team with such a strong pedigree and such high-end, top-of-roster talent be so undervalued? We can only guess at that, and I have a few theories. I think maybe there’s a bit of Blackhawks fatigue at play here, especially given they had a bit of a down year last season by their standards (third in the Central Division). I found a lot of pre-season prognostication focused on how the cap crunch had forced them to get rid of so many good players and how their depth wasn’t what it used to be. And that may be true, but from a market perspective, people haven’t been giving them enough credit, either. The sheer talent at the top, combined with exceptional goaltending, can cover up a lot of flaws, and Joel Quenneville has done a masterful job with the spare parts afforded him at the bottom of his roster. It is, frankly, ridiculous that you almost never hear his name floated for the Jack Adams.
1. The Columbus Blue Jackets
I think it’s fairly safe to say that nobody saw this season coming, and as a result you get something like this.
There’s a lot that has to go on to produce this kind of a season. First of all, let’s get this out of the way: The Blue Jackets have benefited from a lot of luck this season. You simply don’t see the kind of run the Jackets had from around games 20-35 without the Hockey Gods smiling on you a bit (think of the Ottawa Senators’ almost-impossible playoff drive from a few years back). They also benefit, odds-wise, from being an unpopular team to bet on since they’re, well, the Blue Jackets. Given the Jackets are another team not beloved by advanced stats, are we to assume they’ll be due for a big drop-off next season?
Maybe some, but the fact they’re looking really competitive again after their mid-season lull has to be heartening to Blue Jackets fans. Some will no doubt argue that having the likely Vezina Trophy winner can explain a lot of this, and that’s fair to a point, but goalie performance is the one factor oddsmakers look at most closely when setting lines, so it’s not like Sergei Bobrovsky was flying under the radar here. And besides, it’s hard to accept the argument that “this team #actually sucks” when you also accept that the goalie is part of the team (any more than you can say, “yeah the Dodgers would suck without Clayton Kershaw.” That’s true, but it’s not an actual thing). Yes, as a whole, the Jackets aren’t the most talented or well-coached bunch, but when you look at the whole, it’s tough to deny that, this season at least, they weren’t the most underrated team in the NHL.