As the future of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs faces continued uncertainty with the announcement that more NHL players have tested positive for COVID-19, we stress that the health and safety of the players, team personnel, arena staff, and all others involved in the Return to Play Plan should take first priority and the NHL must take appropriate action in upholding these safety standards.
While it’s not clear at this point what may happen with the upcoming playoffs, it’s worth noting that due to the 24-team playoff format, Canada gets a few extra teams into the post-season than initially expected.
During the 2015-16 season, Canada was shut out of playoff contention by season’s end. The Ottawa Senators were the best Canadian team with 85 points, good enough for 19th overall in the league. There’s been at least two Canadian teams in the playoffs ever since.
When the 2019-20 season was paused, the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, and Winnipeg Jets all found themselves in playoff positions. With the announcement of the 24-team format, two more Canadian teams entered the fold. The Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens earned a shot at the Cup, making it a total of six out of seven Canadian teams playing in the post-season.
Interestingly enough, all Canadian playoff teams will play in the best-of-five qualifiers, with the top eight teams getting byes being all American. With that being said, let’s see what Canada’s chances of being represented once the qualifiers are done will be.
|Qualifier Matchup with Seed||Regular Season Series Winner (Record)|
|Toronto Maple Leafs (8) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9)||Maple Leafs (1-0-1)|
|Pittsburgh Penguins (5) vs. Montreal Canadiens (12)||Penguins (2-1-0)|
|Calgary Flames (8) vs. Winnipeg Jets (9)||Jets (1-0-0)|
|Edmonton Oilers (5) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (12)||Blackhawks (2-1-0)|
|Vancouver Canucks (7) vs. Minnesota Wild (10)||Wild (2-1-0)|
Looking at the sportsbooks, Canadian teams have good odds of advancing past the qualifier round. The Maple Leafs, Flames, Oilers, and Canucks are all favourites to win their series based on “true odds” as calculated by comparing multiple sportsbooks.
The Jets and Canadiens are underdogs in their series. Montreal has the lowest probability of advancing out of any team playing in the qualifiers, as they face off against the heavily-favoured Pittsburgh Penguins. However, with Calgary and Winnipeg playing each other, Canada is guaranteed to have at least one team advance past the qualifiers.
Betting odds can differ from predictive models, but combining odds across several sportsbooks can be valuable in gaining a sense of how teams might be expected to perform. Further value can even be gained by comparing odds to predictive models and comparing how they agree or disagree.
So let’s see how sportsbooks have set the odds for the Canadian teams in the qualifiers.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Maple Leafs are the most favoured Canadian team to advance past the qualifiers with true odds of -149 and a win probability of 59.9%. Considering both the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets are tied in games played and standing points, what makes them so heavily favoured?
For starters, they have potent offence from their top-four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. As a team, the Maple Leafs managed to be fourth in the league for team scoring at the time of the pause.
On the other hand, the Blue Jackets offence suffered this year, mostly from a slew of injuries to their top players, including Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Seth Jones. Totally 419 man games lost this season, the Blue Jackets overcame a lot of adversity and roster changes to claw their way back into the playoffs.
Series decider: Goaltending. If Frederik Andersen plays well in net, then the Leafs should be fine to utilise their high octane game play. Between the tandem of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo, either goalie is quite capable of stealing games and the Jackets are in good hands regardless of whoever is named the starter. If history is any indication, the Blue Jackets can very well despite being heavy underdogs.
Edmonton Oilers vs. Chicago Blackhawks
The Oilers are also strong favourites over the Blackhawks, having true odds of -145 with a 59.2% win probability. It definitely doesn’t hurt to have Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid leading the team in scoring. Not to mention to resurgence of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the arrival of Kailer Yamamoto.
The Blackhawks are always deadly with Patrick Kane on the ice, and Jonathan Toews has enjoyed more potent offence as well. Add in Dominik Kubalik and Alex DeBrincat and this series should be poised to be a high-scoring showdown.
Series decider: Offence. Both teams, whether they meant to or not, made the playoffs by playing with the “score a lot and get scored on a lot, just not as often” models of hockey. Come time for the series, both teams have players that can come in clutch so it’ll come down to which players actually show up.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild
Another high-scoring team, the Canucks are have true odds of -118 and a win probability of 54.2%. They ranked seventh in the league in team scoring, led by J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson. The Canucks had players up and down their roster that could score. Bo Horvat, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, and Tanner Pearson all amassed at least 40 points this season. Come playoffs, Vancouver’s depth could bode well for them as they can roll all four lines.
The parallels between the matchups continue, as the Wild were also a team that relied on their depth. Kevin Fiala led the team with just 54 points on the season, but the Wild were still able to be in the top half of the league in team scoring, slotting in right at 15th. Ryan Suter, Eric Staal, Zach Parise, and Mats Zuccarello can all lead the charge when it comes to scoring.
Series decider: Depth scoring. This one’s a bit obvious, but both teams score by committee and the team that will come out on top will be the one that to has all their players pitch in despite the long break in play.
Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets
This series is the biggest coin-flip in terms of deciding a winner, so luckily the winner will definitely be a Canadian team. The Flames are slightly favoured over the Jets with true odds of -108. This puts the Flames’ win probabilities at 51.9% compared to the Jets’ 48.1%.
Calgary struggled to repeat their success last season, which saw them boast the best record in the Western Conference. It seemed like the team’s identity was one that lacked an identity, but more often than not, it felt like Matthew Tkachuk willed the team to finding their winning ways again. Further, the full-time arrival of Andrew Mangiapane took the pressure off of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm as the trio all regressed this year.
Over in Winnipeg, Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele took the reins in offence, but the absolute largest factor for their success was their goaltender. Connor Hellebuyck should be a strong contender for the Vezina, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he got some votes for the Hart to boot.
Series decider: Goaltending. If the Flames struggle to find offence, David Rittich will be tasked with doing everything he can to secure wins, and Cam Talbot might have to step in if Rittich succumbs to the pressure. Conversely, Hellebuyck might single-handedly steal the series for the Jets.
pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens were not expecting to play in the post-season at all. Just eking into the picture, their true odds are +177, good for a 36.1% win probability.
Tomas Tatar led the Canadiens’ offence by a significant margin, but they do have depth scoring from the likes of Phillip Danault, Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher, and Nick Suzuki. In net, Carey Price hasn’t had the greatest season, but he’d be a strong contender when it comes to a goalie that can get hot at the right time.
The offence was more potent for the Penguins, led by Evgeni Malkin. Of their top-five scorers, only Kris Letang played more than 60 games this season. Malkin, Bryan Rust, Sidney Crosby, and Jake Guentzel were all limited in games played, yet all surpassed the 40-point mark. A team well-versed with the playoffs, their experience can be all the difference.
Series decider: Experience. The Canadiens did not qualify for the playoffs in three of the past four post-seasons, and this team has a lot of new faces and young players. On the other hand, the last time the Penguins did not make the playoffs was 2005-06, and the team boasts many veterans with ample experience in the playoffs with a few Stanley Cups under their belt.
Return to play?
If playing for the Stanley Cup in 2020 does in fact come into fruition, then it’s pretty clear that sportsbooks are calling for Canada to be well-represented. It’s always nice to see the oddsmakers bullish for Canadian teams and with any luck, let’s hope they’re right.
Of course, it remains to be known how the NHL will respond to the recent COVID-19 news surrounding NHL teams and players. The NHL and NHLPA are both in agreement in pursuing a return to play, but with players continuing to test positive for COVID-19, the hopes of seeing NHL hockey this summer has rapidly diminished, and so too has Canada’s chance at the Stanley Cup.
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