Gazing Into The Crystal Ball

Jayson Spikes
October 04 2017 12:52PM


The day has finally arrived! The puck drops tonight and the race for the 2018 Stanley Cup is on. While there are still 1,271 games to be played between now and the playoffs begin, everyone wants to talk about who will win the Cup. Will it be the Penguins getting the three-peat? The young Oilers or Leafs breaking through? Will Ovechkin, Backstrom and Holtby finally figure things out?

And, like every year, a lot of the digital ink spilled on answering these questions is related to the odds posted at Las Vegas sports book.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I talk about sports gambling odds a lot because they are a great source of information. And, as will be seen below, there is definitely correlation between these odds and playoff success. That said, nobody should be writing whole seasons off because of them. Rookies blossoming, injuries at the top, career seasons or prolonged slumps can happen to any team. As such, I thought it would be fun and interesting to look at the last 10 years of these types of odds to see what can be gleaned. I found a great site that has the odds for the last 10 years that you should check out if you are interested to see for yourself (it also shows odds throughout the season and playoffs). As the history shows, there are any number of reasons to swing the preseason odds between now and the end of the year.

Case in point: last season the Toronto Maple Leafs started the season tied for the words odds at winning the Stanley Cup (tied with Carolina), but, not only qualified for the playoffs, they pushed the President’s Trophy winning Capitals to overtime in game 6 in the first round of the playoffs.

It is important to remember that the Stanley Cup odds are just a number put out by sportsbooks based on public information and weighted for public betting patterns. To prove the point, in the last 10 years, the preseason Vegas odds have predicted the correct Stanley Cup winner only once! Before the 2014-15 season, the Blackhawks were the favourite (+700) and went on to capture the Cup.

Now, in reviewing the numbers, they are clearly not random. In the past 10 seasons, 8 of the Stanley Cup winners have come from the top 5 ranked teams (presently that would include Pittsburgh, Edmonton and Chicago, as well as the 6 teams tied for 4th in Washington, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Nashville, Toronto and Dallas).

The numbers aren’t perfect, though. The 2011 Stanley Cup was won by the Boston Bruins, who entered the season ranked 9th. The LA Kings then one-upped them 12 months later, winning the Cup after beginning the season as the 10th ranked team.

In the past 10 season, an average of 1.8 top 10 preseason teams have missed the playoffs. Alternatively, on average, 2.8 bottom 10 preseason teams have made the playoffs. Rounding these numbers off, that means if this year is an average year, we could see 2 of Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Chicago, Washington, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Nashville, Toronto, Dallas, Minnesota and the New York Rangers miss the playoffs, while starting ranked in the top 11 (because of ties).

Alternatively, 3 of Las Vegas, Vancouver, New Jersey, Colorado, Arizona, Detroit, Carolina, Buffalo, Winnipeg, Philadelphia and the New York Islanders could make the playoffs while starting ranked in the bottom 11 (because of ties).

But let’s take a closer look at some of the Nation Network teams and what their starting position suggests about their odds of making the playoffs or winning the Stanley Cup.

The odds I am using for this season can be found here (Bodogs odds as of September 20). Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.



Vancouver and Detroit

And if we are starting at the bottom, it doesn’t get any lower than this. As of September 20th, there was a 6-way tie for rock bottom at +10,000 odds of winning the Stanley Cup. Is it really as hopeless as that astronomical number might suggest? Should fans just tune out and wait for the draft lottery? Maybe not.

In the last 10 seasons, 28 teams had preseason odds of winning the Stanley Cup of +10,000 or worse. Of those 28 teams, 3 of them have gone on to qualify for the playoffs, being Colorado in 2010, Florida in 2012 and Calgary in 2015. The Calgary Flames in 2015 (+12,500) even went on to win a round in the playoffs.

An honourable mention should also go out to Toronto last year, who started tied for last with +8,000 and qualified for the playoffs, too.

Let’s not sugar coat it, 3/28 (10.7%) or even 4/30 (13.3%, adding in the two last place teams of +8,000 from last season) aren't great odds, but 10.7% or 13.3% are certainly better than you might think when looking at astronomical odds like +10,000. Plus, as the 2006 Oilers and 2012 LA Kings showed, even 8th place teams that squeak into the playoffs can go on magical runs (the Oilers to the Cup final and the Kings all the way to Cup glory).

So take comfort Canucks Army and Wings Nation! All is not lost and your teams may still surprise you.


Things are getting better by the time we get to the Winnipeg Jets, starting the season with +5,000 odds of winning the Stanley Cup, which puts them in a 5-way tie for 21st (as of September 20). Because we are looking at more of the middle of the pack, I want to look at a range. At this point in the rankings, the odds are pretty “chunky” (i.e. large increments), so I will look at all the teams ranked at or between +4,000 and +6,000.

In total, there were 51 teams within this range, or roughly 5 per year, which accords with the 7 we see in the sample I am looking at, with the teams usually falling in and around the 20th spot. Of the 51 teams, 17 of them made the playoffs, or 1/3 exactly. Those 17 teams managed to accumulate 7 playoff series wins. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound super rosy, but solace can be taken from the best team in that cluster, the 2011-12 Phoenix Coyotes, who started the season with +4,000 odds of winning the Stanley Cup (18th in the league) but made it to the Conference Finals, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings.


Things are getting even better by the time we get into the Calgary Flames range. The Flames, according to the numbers I am looking at, are sitting at about +2,500 on September 20, which puts them at 3-way tie for 15th. Again, because we are looking at more of the middle of the pack, I want to keep looking at ranges. However, at this point we are starting to get more gradation by this point, and so I will narrow the range a bit. Thus, I pulled all data on teams at or between +2,000 and +3,000.

In total, there were 59 teams within this range, or roughly 6 per year, which accords with the 7 we see in the sample I am looking at (there were 7 in each of the last 2 years, as well), with the teams usually falling in the middle of the preseason rankings in the middle 10. Of these 59 teams, 30 of them made the playoffs. That is a better than 50% success rate. Those 30 teams managed to accumulate 21 playoff series wins. Now, that doesn’t sound too promising, less than 1 win per playoff appearance, but there are two darlings in the sample set.

In 2012 the New Jersey Devils started the season with +2,800 odds to win the Stanley Cup but proceeded to find some magic in a bottle that took them on a brilliant playoff run that turned out to be the final NHL playoff appearance for Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk (up to this point). Those Devils finished 6th in the East and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and lost in 6 games to the LA Kings.

In 2014 the New York Rangers started with odds of +2,200 and found some magic of their own, finishing the season as second in the Metropolitan Division and beating Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in back-to-back 7 games series (the first time that had happened), before advancing to the SCF and losing, coincidentally, to the LA Kings, a team which by this point had established itself as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender chasing dynasty status with its second Cup in 3 years.


Toronto is starting the season with +1,400 odds of winning the Stanley Cup, which puts them in a 6-way tie for the number 4 spot (along with Washington, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Nashville and Dallas). The good news is that that means Toronto is in the top 10, which accounts for all of the last 10 Stanley Cup winners. It is a little anomalous to have that many teams clumped in the number 4 spot, but not unheard of. In the last 10 years, there have been 14 teams ranked number 4 or tied for that spot.

All 14 of those teams made the playoffs and, in total, they won 20 playoff series between them!

Even more impressive, the no. 4 ranked team has accounted for 3 Stanley Cup Champions: the ‘10 Blackhawks, the ‘14 Kings, the ‘17 Penguins. Pretty good company if you ask me.

As you will see under the next heading, these numbers are actually more impressive than the no. 2 ranked teams. As such, Leafs Nation should be feeling pretty good about where they are sitting right now.


On the bad news front, only one team starting the season ranked no. 2 has won the Cup in the last 10 seasons. On the good news front, that team was the 2008-09 Penguins, a young group led by a rising Crosby, Malkin and Fleury that had tasted playoff success the year before and a lot of people like to compare this Oilers team to. Of note, the Detroit Red Wings, the then perennial powerhouse team coming off a Stanley Cup win started ranked no. 1, very similar to the Penguins of this year.

That said, there was one preseason no. 2 to miss the playoffs over that period, the 2014-15 Bruins. In total, the 12 teams that started 2nd or tied for second over the 10-year period made 11 playoff appearances and accumulated 11 playoff series wins that can be broken down as follows

  • Lost in the first round 4 times
  • Lost in the 2nd round 5 times
  • Lost in the Conference Finals 1 time
  • Made it to the SCF but lost 0 times
  • Won it all 1 time


Evidently, being loved by gamblers at the beginning of the season does not offer much insight into how the season will go. Guys go on slumps while other go on tears. Some guys get injured while other teams are charmed and avoid major injuries all together. The Vegas odds are a good indicator of roster strength, but are not actually very good at predicting winners. A relatively low scoring team sport like hockey is too random, presently, to predict 9 months in advance. Even the worst ranked team has overcome low preseason expectations to make the playoffs.

Based on historical numbers the Canucks and Red Wings have a ~10% chance of making the playoffs, while the Jets have a ~33% changes, the Flames a ~50% chance and the Leafs and Oilers a ~100% chance. 

As the saying goes, that’s why they play the game(s).

But serious, enough of all this prognostication. Start playing the damn games already.

Jayson Spikes likes hockey and economics and, since sports economics is totally real a thing, he can write about two of his passions at the same time right here, discussing the behaviour and incentives of fans, players, coaches, general managers and owners. The business, finance and psychology of sports are other topics that interest him and may show up in his posts.