Wings the best bet; Stars the best buy


Welcome to the second edition of "What are the odds?"

A year ago, we choked in the decision-making process after saying: "Looking at this week's odds at one major sports book on the Las Vegas Strip, the best 'buys' on the board are the Red Wings, Sharks and Devils."

Ultimately, the take-a-flyer (but not the Flyers) choice to win the 2003 Stanley Cup was the Sharks, who had come within one victory of making the Western Conference finals the previous season.

San Jose's odds were 8-1, but they played like a million-to-one shot.

A wager on the Sharks was like taking a horse in the fifth race at Bay Meadows, then having the jockey fall off two strides out of the gate.


Given their collapse, perhaps the wise course here would be to point out that there is a huge difference between pinpointing a good "buy" in futures wagering, and picking a team to win as if the fate of the free world depends on being right.

But here's a confession: The preseason feeling a year ago was that the Sharks were a reasonable second-tier choice to win the Cup, so it wasn't only the odds that made them attractive. At the very least, they sure seemed to have a lot better shot at winning the championship than the 80-1 Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

We could whine about Evgeni Nabokov's holdout, the premature firing of Darryl Sutter and the ultimate dismantling of the roster, but that would be unseemly.

You win some, you lose some, and some tickets you put through the washing machine.

This is about throwing down a few bucks on a team to win a championship during a visit to Las Vegas, forgetting about it, then scrambling to find the ticket when the team in question is on the verge of a champagne-drenched bacchanal in the champions' dressing room.

So we're going to take another shot at finding a team that has both a bona fide chance to win the Stanley Cup and a "value" price on the futures lines as posted on various Internet sports books and in Las Vegas.

This time, if the criteria is be-right-or-else, the pick would have to be the Red Wings, based on Dominik Hasek's return, Derian Hatcher's signing and even Colorado's uncertain goaltending situation. And unless something bizarre happens in the exhibition season, the Red Wings will be the choice when the come times to "predict" a 2004 NHL champion, without any consideration of the odds.

But "chalk" isn't any fun.

The Red Wings and Avalanche still are as low as 3-1 on some current odds lists. In fact, a month ago, as the bettors and then the oddsmakers reacted to the Avalanche's signings of Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya -- and apparently didn't worry about Patrick Roy's retirement -- Colorado dropped to as low as 9-5 in some Las Vegas sports books, including Caesars Palace.

Without a huge wager and a willingness to let that money sit for nearly a year, a bet on either the Wings or Avalanche isn't worth it. Not even at 4-1. That's a heck of a lot better return than a CD, of course, but it comes with no guarantee.

So we'll look farther down the list.

The Devils, who largely stood pat while bidding Ken Daneyko and the enigmatic Oleg Tverdovsky farewell, have a realistic chance of repeating as Martin Brodeur sets his sights on Patrick Roy's suddenly frozen records. Despite last season's postseason surprises, the East will remain easier to emerge from in the postseason than the West. New Jersey probably should have even shorter odds than the 5-1 available on-line. In that sense, they're a good buy.

But that's still not a good enough prospective return.

The still-young Senators are more like it, at 8-1, and aren't they due? They did a praiseworthy job of playing through the bankruptcy and ownership circus last season, and their seven-game conference finals loss to the Devils, while disappointing, certainly wasn't disgraceful or portentous of a slide.

So they're worth considering.

But double-digit odds are appealing, especially when they involve teams like the Stars, Canucks, Flyers and Blues. And, at least in terms of playoff hockey, that means any dissection of their chances has to start with Marty Turco, Dan Cloutier, Jeff Hackett and Chris Osgood, the respective goaltenders.

It's fashionable to knock the Blues' Osgood, and he did little to quiet the chorus after coming over from the Islanders. But for all his shakiness and faults, he at least has hoisted the Stanley Cup, and that's not to be dismissed. He still has a bona fide championship threat around him. Valeri Bure went back to Florida via waivers, and Martin Rucinsky signed with the Rangers, but maybe the Blues also are due to avoid the injury sieges that seem to have been an annual rite under the Gateway Arch. If Keith Tkachuk has his head on straight, and Chris Pronger has healed, the Blues could fool those who have written them off.

And what of those other goalies?

While it's tempting to say that Jean-Sebastien Giguere was an unproven playoff goaltender a year ago, it's also true that he was completely untested in that regard. In other words, we didn't know he couldn't do it. Along those lines, is anybody willing to put hard-earned (or ill-gotten, for that matter) money on either Hackett or, especially, Cloutier to be championship goaltenders?

Didn't think so.

So it comes down to the Blues or Stars.

Turco had his shaky moments in his first shot at being the man in the postseason. After Tom Hicks took back his blank checkbook and ordained relative financial restraint, the Stars were uncharacteristically inactive during the offseason. Hatcher went home to Detroit, but the Stars came out ahead in the dealing that sent Darryl Sydor to Columbus and brought Teppo Numminen from Phoenix. And the remaining core is capable of completing the recovery from the disaster of two seasons ago, especially if Bill Guerin is healthy in the playoffs.

If Turco remains unsigned for long, it could be a red flag -- the same one waved by Nabokov, Jose Theodore, Byron Dafoe and Brian Boucher in earlier contract disputes. But the Stars won't allow this to drag on.

So the Stars still represent the best combination of team and value.

They're the "value" choice, at 10-1.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."