By Joe Speaker
Los Angeles, CA
The NHL is gearing up for a shortened season after months of annoying, teasing, downright infuriating lockout drama. The owners and players have reached a tentative agreement, with approval from both sides expected this week, followed by brief training camps and a reported January 19th opening day. At last, Canada's long national nightmare is over (sort of, since a Canadian team hasn't won the Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993). Now's not the time for any of the who's right and who's wrong and who's at fault. Let's just agree both sides are a bunch of dicks, forgive them (not you, Bettman and Fehr) and move on to the action on the ice, or, in the case of my defending champion Los Angeles Kings, the action in the Staples Center rafters.
Word is the league will play a condensed 48-game schedule, which should provide a few different and interesting angles to handicap the season. We can look at the last shortened NHL season in 1994-95 (and, to a lesser extent, trends in the NBA from last year) to get a handle on some opportunities to exploit.
First, stick with the established teams. The hectic nature of beginning the season--with players scurrying in from Scandanavia, Russia and, in the case of Dustin Penner, their couch--teams with returning coaches and the bulk of the same skaters as last year will be at an advantage. The Kings return their entire team and you can't go wrong backing Vancouver or Detroit or the Rangers, veteran teams that are always in the playoff mix. Shy away from teams with new coaches early on (Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and Washington) who are learning a fresh system. For historical precedent, look at 94-95, where 14 of the 16 playoff teams also made the post-season the previous year, including all eight in the Western Conference.
Since more games must be jammed into the next few months, the schedule will offer chances to get your money in smart. On back-to-back games, it always pays to stick with the deeper team, one where the coach rolls four lines regularly and distributes ice time more evenly (and you should also keep an eye on how much the ice time was spent on special teams in the front end of those back-to-backs). Younger teams will often have an advantage, as well, fresher legs and all that, in back-to-backs or the three games in four nights scenarios that are sure to occur. The under is also a good option if both teams are dragging through a tough and packed stretch of games.
We're looking forward to keeping an eye on trends in the first few weeks and passing them along to you. Almost as much as we're anticipating the first puck drop, the first snipe and the first time someone punches Ryan Kesler in the face.