Which team has a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup this season: The Ottawa Senators or the Detroit Red Wings?
Former Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson made his opinion clear on a conference call with reporters in July after signing a one-year, $5.5 million contract to chase a championship in the Motor City.
Several members of the Senators — all the way up to team owner Eugene Melnyk — have since politely disagreed.
Senators fans on Twitter clearly believe Alfredsson is vastly overestimating the talent gap. After all, the two teams finished in the same position (seventh) in their respective conferences last season and each advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Of course, each of those opinions is soaked in bias.
Alfredsson wants a Cup as the cherry on top of an already remarkable career (not to mention as justification for his decision to leave town). Melnyk wants a Cup for the glory and the revenue for the franchise. And Senators fans want the Cup to rub it in the smug faces of Leafs fans who invade their building each winter. Or, you know, something more positive than that.
So, what if you asked someone who had no rooting interest but a significant financial incentive to make the right call?
For Adam Burns, sportsbook manager at online betting firm Bodog, there’s no ambiguity.
“If you look at the divisions in our projections, in that Atlantic Division, we have Boston ranked one, Detroit ranked two and then Ottawa will sort of be fighting with Toronto and Montreal, I figure, for third and maybe that wild card spot,” Burns said in an interview Tuesday. “But when you look at it from an odds perspective, there’s no doubt Detroit has a better chance than Ottawa.”
Burns runs a team of about 25 oddsmakers who use mathematics to set the approximate probability of certain outcomes. For example, the Red Wings are currently sitting at 16/1 odds of winning the Stanley Cup, while the Senators are way back at 33/1.
There’s a catch, however. Sportsbooks also have to account for the amount of money fans will bet on each team and adjust their lines. If too many people bet on a big underdog that somehow manages to climb above its station in the league, the results are disastrous.
Burns says the last time his book really got soaked was the 2012 Super Bowl, when the New York Giants set a new record as the worst regular season team (9-7 record) ever to win the big game. “Some things got broken in the office” after that one.
“There’s a big process that goes into it, but we’re trying to rank all the teams, we’re looking at our projections, then we’re trying to put odds to those,” he says.
Then the books post an early line — Bodog had theirs out the day after the Stanley Cup final in the spring — and get a read on the market.
“Then we’ll look at where money comes in, we’ll look at our risk on each team and then trade and move the numbers a little bit.”
This has already happened with both teams in question. Burns says the Red Wings are the third-most heavily bet team in the National Hockey League to win the Cup at the moment, trailing only the finalists from this spring (the champion Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins). Thus, their line moved to 16/1 from 18/1.
The Senators, Burns says, are traditionally one of the smallest bet teams in the league. Their line opened at 28/1, but has since drifted to 33/1 due to a lack of action.
“It’s interesting in Canada for hockey — we do take a lot of money regionally,” he says. “So people in Edmonton, that’s a very regionally bet team. There’s a lot of people in Edmonton that will be backing Edmonton … I think we opened them at 33/1, but they took so much money that we dropped them to 20/1.
“A team like Toronto (at 25/1) is very regionally bet as well by people in that area. A team like Ottawa is not regionally bet at all.”
So, if you stripped out the public team factor, would Detroit and Ottawa be neck-and-neck? Not exactly.
Detroit would remain around a group of second-tier contenders like the Sharks, Canucks and Kings. The Senators would move up, but would only get as far as joining playoff bubble teams like the Leafs and Canadiens. Even if bettors started putting huge sums of money on the Senators, they “might drop to 28/1, but they wouldn’t move ahead of Montreal or Toronto or even get in the range of Detroit.” Burns puts Ottawa’s odds of making the playoffs at 50 per cent.
Interestingly, Burns says most free agent moves that are perceived as significant don’t have any impact. The Wings’ acquisitions of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss, for example, don’t really rate.
“Hockey’s tough,” he says. “Hockey, for a team to really move its odds a lot based on free agency, it would really have to do something pretty drastic.”
The best recent example is the Minnesota Wild, who signed both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year contracts last summer. Their odds quickly moved from 100/1 to 25/1.
So if Daniel Alfredsson, likely to be the Ottawa Senators’ first Hall of Famer, can’t even move lines, is there anyone besides a top tier player in the league who can?
“If big-time hockey writers or, I’ll just give an example, Bob McKenzie or someone like that, comes out to say, ‘I think this team is going to win the potential division in the West, this team is a good team,’ well, people listen to that and blindly bet it, and we’re aware of that as well,” Burns says.
“There’s no doubt we’re keeping an eye on what they say, following them on Twitter, watching TSN, reading their stuff.”
Of course, every year in the NHL there are a handful of teams that wind up surprising everyone. Last season’s injury debacle aside, the Senators are a young squad that should see a boost in performance from a healthy lineup this season. The Wings’ aging veterans could run into trouble of their own in a full 82-game schedule.
At the end of the day, you don’t really know what’s going to happen until the teams hit the ice.
So if the Hockey Gods could go ahead and arrange a first-round playoff matchup between the Senators and Wings, that’d be great.