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NHL Futures: Best bets for first weekend of the new season

Vancouver Canucks Vancouver Canucks celebrate - The Canadian Press

Summer was fun, but hockey returning is even better. It’s time to put down the margaritas, sleep less, eat poorly, and bet heavily. With the first glorious weekend of the new NHL season (in North America) upon us, the debut performances of many teams this week provided important first impressions. What is real and what is noise? My best bets this week are about capitalizing on early opportunities, however fleeting.

Vancouver Canucks at Philadelphia Flyers

Saturday, October 15 – 4 PM ET

As a hockey diehard, I was extremely curious to see what effect coach John Tortorella would have on a Flyers team that has a distinct paucity of talent. As promised, the Flyers played Torts hockey. They played with energy in board battles. They forechecked hard and frequently in Thursday’s season opener. And, of course, they blocked shots. Against a Devils team that at times looked like they didn’t have a preseason or hold practices, the Flyers were up to the task of exploiting New Jersey’s mistakes and spotty goaltending.

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the Canucks are a different beast. They are not only replete with talent, especially at forward, but also demonstrate offensive versatility. Create off the forecheck? Check. Exhibit the speed and passing to strike in transition? Check. Possess a vigorous counterattack that puts a premium on puck management? Also, check.

The Oilers beat the Canucks on Wednesday night, but Edmonton’s superb man advantage played a large role in that. The Canucks outshot the Oilers at 5-on-5 and finished with a better expected goals percentage. Also worth noting, the Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Flyers do not.

All this adds up to likely trouble for Philadelphia. The Canucks pursue the puck on the forecheck like bloodhounds, and Vancouver urges its defencemen to crunch the opposing wings to disrupt the outlet on breakouts. At both blue lines and in the neutral zone, Vancouver’s defencemen fearlessly stepped up against Edmonton.

Against a weak Flyers roster, a Canucks forward group that can whip the puck around should thrive. The Canucks exhibited an ability to use the cross-seam pass to find the weak-side shooter against the Oilers. With the Flyers’ conspicuous lack of foot speed, I think the Canucks will feast on Philadelphia, happily exploiting those passing lanes.

Vancouver does have weaknesses. One thing the Oilers identified is that, if you bypass the neutral zone forecheck, the Canucks’ defencemen are vulnerable. But driving the puck forward past layers of Vancouver skaters is a tall order for Philadelphia’s present roster, and should the Flyers advance the puck and get time and room in open ice, they’ll be pitted against Vancouver goaltender Thatcher Demko, who is primed for a strong bounce-back game.

I think the Canucks are too good to start out 0-2 and the Flyers are too talent-starved to begin 2-0. I like Vancouver at the moneyline.

Pick: Canucks -120


Detroit Red Wings at New Jersey Devils

Saturday, October 15 – 7 PM ET

Watching the Devils’ opening game, two thoughts flitted through my head. “Wow, could Lindy Ruff get fired before the end of the season?” And “Oh my goodness, Jack Hughes is so good.”

To recap, the Devils flopped. They were sloppy in their defensive coverage and their goaltending was inadequate. But Hughes had moments where he looked like the best player on the ice – by far. Although it took him a few shifts to get cooking.

In the first period, Hughes struggled on the power play and was bottled up on his entries. But on a four-on-four at the end of the first stanza, he called his own number on a two-on-one, whistling a shot high and wide of the net. From that point forward, Philadelphia couldn’t really contain Hughes. While he did not score, he had multiple scoring opportunities. If Game 1 is an indication, two big sources of offence for Hughes will come from opposing turnovers and neutral zone regroups.

The prospect of turning over the puck when Hughes is on the ice will haunt many teams this season. Hovering high in the offensive zone, Hughes was ready to spring and spearhead the transition when the puck was mismanaged. After a Flyers’ turnover in the second frame, Hughes found Brendan Smith for a point-blank shot in the low slot, but Smith failed to put the puck on net and test Flyers’ goaltender Carter Hart. Hughes’s two-on-one chance in the first period also came off a turnover.

The neutral zone regroup is another situation where the Devils can wind up Hughes and let him rip through an opposing defence with speed. Dawson Mercer appears to have strong chemistry with Hughes, and a pass to Mercer in the neutral zone was effectively funneled to Hughes for a transition chance by way of Mercer’s bump pass. Hughes drove the puck to the net but was unable to stuff it past Hart.

Hughes’s individual advanced stats from Game 1 aren’t overwhelming. At all strengths and at 5-on-5, several teammates outpaced him in high-danger chances and individual expected goals. Since the Devils’ power play lacks a shooter with a powerful one-timer or heavy shot, this could hinder Hughes’ production on the man advantage.

But my suspicion is that Hughes is too creative a playmaker for the Devils’ power play to completely flounder this season. He will need to be the fulcrum, and while the first unit sputtered in Game 1, that doesn’t mean it won’t ignite in Game 2.

As for Hughes’s adversary on Saturday, the Detroit Red Wings, it is hard to know what to expect. The Red Wings were one of the worst coached teams in the NHL last season under Jeff Blashill. Now with Derek Lalonde commandeering a skilled, young roster that added several veterans, Detroit should prove a pesky and possibly formidable opponent.

The Red Wings were ghastly in the advanced stats, so one would assume that would improve with Lalonde behind the bench, but on Saturday the Red Wings will also be playing the second game of a back-to-back. This likely means the Devils will duck goaltender Ville Husso, facing Alex Nedeljkovic in his stead. This is great news for New Jersey.

Saturday will be the Devils’ first home game, allowing them to set Hughes up for success with matchups. Frankly, though, Hughes is so good I’m not sure he’ll need the help.

Pick: Jack Hughes O 0.5 points -164


Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins

Saturday, October 15 – 7 PM ET

Jon Cooper and Mike Sullivan are two of the most successful and, not coincidentally, longest tenured active head coaches in the NHL. But highly acclaimed coaches can sharply diverge on how their teams comport themselves. For these two coaches, the wedge issue is team discipline.

The Lightning are always the rule-breakers. Every season they are at the top of the NHL in penalties taken per 60 minutes. Last season, the Lightning were the second-most-penalized team in the league. They get away with their shenanigans because of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, but their propensity for putting themselves in shorthanded situations is a Cooper hallmark.

By contrast, the Penguins are like students who give their teacher an apple and ask for more homework. Last season, they took the second-fewest penalties. Ironically, the Penguins afforded the Arizona Coyotes more man-advantage chances than the Lightning did in their first game against the Rangers, but I imagine Sullivan will be very emphatic about avoiding putting the potent Lightning skill players on the power play.

Can Tampa Bay colour within the lines when goaltender Brian Elliott is presumably playing in goal? One hopes so because the Penguins have gobs of set plays they can run out of their power-play sets and this game could get away from the Lightning quickly if they give Pittsburgh too many man-advantage looks.

However, the Lightning’s problems extend beyond their lack of discipline and disadvantage at goaltender. With Ondrej Palat now in New Jersey and Anthony Cirelli injured, Tampa Bay lacks forward depth. The proposed solution against the New York Rangers was a super line of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point and a shutdown second line of Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul, and Alex Killorn. After all, a version of this strategy propelled them to the Cup final last season.

But in the regular season, the Lightning will need a modicum of scoring from their bottom-nine forwards. In Game 1, the second, third, and fourth lines together generated four high-danger chances to the Point line’s three. None of the lines scored at 5-on-5.

It is reasonable to assert that the Penguins have three viable scoring lines, centred by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jeff Carter. While the Coyotes are comically bad, the Penguins’ top-nine forwards all notched a goal on Thursday night and generated four or more high-danger chances.

One bizarre stat that should raise eyebrows is that the Lightning went 10-0-2 in the second contest when playing two contests back-to-back during the 2021-22 regular season. While that team was similarly undisciplined, it wasn’t this thin offensively and its defensive group wasn’t as problematic at defencemen four through six. I think the Lightning will figure out answers to compensate and overcome their depth issues. But at this juncture, they are a bad matchup against a veteran-laden and deep Penguins squad.

Pick: Penguins -130