The Ottawa Senators are now Stanley Cup favourites.
It feels weird writing it down, but here we are. According to both mathematicians who sort this kind of thing out and the oddsmakers who set the lines, the Ottawa Senators now have the best chance of hoisting ye olde mug in a few weeks or so.
Although they still have a less than 30 per cent probability of actually pulling that off, it still puts them ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks overall. Now, this will probably change at some point: The Preds and Ducks are currently tied in their conference final, and that fact alone gives them a smaller chance of advancing and eventually winning it all. Whoever does come out of that series will, in all likelihood, emerge as the series favourite in the final – even if Ottawa has home ice advantage, which it would if it played Nashville.
And here’s the reason for that: Despite finishing second in their division, knocking off the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers and taking a lead against the defending Stanley Cup champs in the Eastern Conference final, the Ottawa Senators are still highly underrated.
The latest example: The Senators will again open tonight’s game as a home underdog (a rarity in the playoffs), despite so far shutting down a really banged up Penguins squad.
To Senators fans of course, this is nothing new. From dire pre-season projections to predictions of a laughably short playoff run, the Senators have received, and probably benefited from, a complete and utter lack of respect. This is entirely understandable, too. Prior to this season, the Senators had been pretty bad for a decade or so, and short of a new coach, they were bringing back pretty much the same group that missed the playoffs last season.
Well, the new coach thing turned out pretty nicely. Back in March, I looked at betting markets to try and get a sense of which teams were the most underrated and overrated in the NHL this season. Here’s how I approached it back then:
Using oddsmakers lines and theoretical betting units of $100 to determine NHL teams’ performance, my goal is 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.
At the time and by that measure, the Senators were already the second-most underrated team in the league. Here’s what their “stock chart” looked like back then:
Here’s what I wrote about them, which I think holds up well today:
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.
Now, you would think someone, at some point, would make an adjustment and start believing in this group.
Ahhhh … nah. Here’s what Ottawa’s playoff stock chart looks like, thanks in large part to being the underdog in all but two of their 15 playoff games so far:
At this point, it looks as though the only thing that will get the Senators the respect they deserve is actually lifting that Cup. Continuing to be underestimated along the way probably suits them just fine, too.
James Gordon is publisher of HockeyMarkets.com and OttawaReport.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/James_J_Gordon.