NHL: Eastern Conference Dark Horses

(Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

The NHL playoff tournament will reportedly commence on July 30th and the beasts of the East are getting all the publicity, but what about the others? Is there any value to be had on the dark horses?

What are the Odds?

Before we discuss the dark horses to include in our NHL picks, let’s check out the odds to win the Eastern Conference. Once we see what some of the best online sportsbooks, like BetOnline, are dealing then we can determine which teams have value entering a postseason tournament that begins for the first time ever at the end of July. Without further ado, let’s check out the NHL odds to win the conference crown in this unusual abbreviated season.

Eastern Conference Odds

  • Boston Bruins +350   
  • Tampa Bay Lightning +375    
  • Philadelphia Flyers +500       
  • Washington Capitals +750    
  • Pittsburgh Penguins +800     
  • Toronto Maple Leafs +1200  
  • Carolina Hurricanes +2000    
  • New York Islanders +2500    
  • Columbus Blue Jackets +2800          
  • New York Rangers +2800      
  • Montreal Canadiens +3000   
  • Florida Panthers +3300         
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Let’s Go Shopping for Value

If there was ever a year for upsets, this is as good as any. Professional athletes, by and large, are creatures of habit and when those routines get disrupted it becomes a mental hurdle for the players to overcome. Team chemistry is very much a part of a winning formula and it is reasonable to suspect that the more talented teams could see the groove that propelled them to lofty heights from October through the middle of March suddenly dissipate into a rusty start where there is precious little time for recovery.

Although the sports are wildly different, let’s shift gears for a moment and see how the favorites did at the Charles Schwab Challenge, the first stop on the reopening of the PGA Tour since the global pandemic shuttered professional golf back in March. The favorites heading into the tournament were as follows, Rory McIlroy (+700), Jon Rahm (+1100), Justin Thomas (+1400), Bryson DeChambeau (+2000), Webb Simpson (+2000), Brooks Koepka (+2500), and Dustin Johnson (+2500).

Well, wouldn’t you know that a 60-1 shot named Daniel Berger bested Collin Morikawa, a 40-1 shot, in a playoff round to claim the title over an expanded field of 148 players. Bryson DeChambeau, the only golfer listed above as amongst the favorites, was the only one that even whiffed a scent of the top spot, tying for third place with two others when the dust settled.

What this tells us is that when the big boys falter, it emboldens the underdogs. And while we can’t make a direct correlation between the stunning results at the Charles Schwab Challenge and the race for the NHL’s Eastern Conference crown, it does give us cause for pause. It makes a legitimate case for an underdog upset, where every team is starting anew with no momentum or confidence with which to build upon entering the playoffs.

Carter Hart #79 of the Philadelphia Flyers. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images/AFP

Philadelphia Flyers (+500)

At odds of +500 the Flyers are not a bona fide dark horse; however, they do have plenty of value as they were an absolute juggernaut before the break, winning nine straight before their streak was broken by Boston shortly before the pandemic put a halt to the action. Philadelphia had also won 18 of their last 26 contests and the respite should aid the youngsters on the roster that could have hit the proverbial brick wall but now have a chance to rejuvenate. In addition, Philadelphia will get an opportunity to claim the No. 1 seed, a distinction that the Bruins had just about sewn up as the top point-getter in the regular season. It looks like things are breaking just right for the Flyers and if young Carter Hart gets white-hot between the pipes then it’s easy to see the Flyers claiming the Eastern Conference title.  

Columbus Blue Jackets (+2800)

The Blue Jackets will get a huge boost in the playoffs as their top defenseman, Seth Jones, will be available for duty after a fractured ankle in February pretty much doomed any chance of his return in the postseason. But he is ready to go and his presence is notable as evidenced by the Jackets winning 11 of 13 with Jones in the lineup but then quickly dropped 10 of 11 as soon as he was sidelined. I also like the fact that Columbus will face off against the Maple Leafs, a team with which they split the season series and one that has had little luck in the playoffs in recent memory. A first-round win over the Leafs could propel the Blue Jackets to an unexpected title run in August and September.

New York Rangers (+2800)

Let’s dare to dream and consider that the Rangers could be a Cinderella story, upsetting the big boys and sweeping into the Stanley Cup Finals where anything is possible. Twenty-eight-year-old Artemi Panarin was in the midst of a career year with 32 goals and 63 assists for 95 points in 69 games played. He is the crux of the Rangers’ offense and among the most explosive talents in the league this season.

Let’s also take into account that the Rangers have a white-hot goalie in the crease with the No. 1 prospect in the league before being called up in early January, Igor Shesterkin. The burgeoning star boasts a 10-2 record and a .932 save percentage after battling for the starting spot with the veteran Henrik Lundqvist and 24-year-old Alexandar Georgiev. If Shesterkin does wrest the starting job from the other two in the playoffs, this could get very interesting as the Blueshirts are 4-0 against their first-round opponents, the Carolina Hurricanes, this year and 10-2 against them over the last three seasons.