Selecting the NHL's 'best buy'

Updated: August 16, 2006, 9:40 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Wanna bet?

Legally, of course?

Disclaimer: The last time I took a crack at selecting the NHL's "best buy," after checking out the list of summer odds of teams to win the Stanley Cup in the upcoming season, was in September 2003. After much hand-wringing and pondering which choice to make with my imaginary money, I decided to take the Dallas Stars, at 10-1. At the time, Detroit and Colorado were the co-top choices to win the Stanley Cup in 2004 on the online lists (at 4-1), but I decided that I needed at least double-digit odds and settled on the Stars.

Oops.

The Stars lost in the first round to Colorado.

Even worse, there had been a long shot out there to claim: the 25-1 Tampa Bay Lightning, who not only won the Stanley Cup in June 2004, but reigned for two years because of the Bettman & Goodenow Follies.

The previous year, I had taken a little shorter odds for my "value choice," going with the 8-1 San Jose Sharks as the pick to win the Cup in 2003. They didn't even make the playoffs.

Dominik Hasek
Elsa/Getty Images/NHLIThe Red Wings are a good choice to win the Stanly Cup, assuming 42-year-old goalie Dominik Hasek is at the top of his game come playoff time.
I didn't lose anything in those years, of course, except my imaginary money.

That went against the advice offered me early in my career when, as an offseason assignment, I covered horse racing. Legendary Daily Racing Form sage Pat Caudill scoffed when, after a race, I said I'd had that winner -- but only on paper. "Kid," he said, "don't make imaginary bets. You'll lose your mind."

So maybe that's my excuse.

After taking a year off, I'm going to take another shot, and I'm going to use futures odds from sports online wagering services Google can find in about eight seconds, but that grandstanding congressional members haven't decided to police, shut down or tax. I'm going to assume that the odds are similar in Nevada, with natural fluctuations caused by, for example, a Rangers fan walking in with a suitcase of cash and putting it all on the Blueshirts.

Here are the odds I'm working with, and they all seem to be roughly the same on the Web sites I checked:

6-1: Red Wings
7-1: Senators
10-1: Hurricanes
12-1: Ducks, Sabres, Flames, Devils, Flyers
15-1: Stars, Sharks
18-1: Rangers
20-1: Avalanche, Predators, Canucks
25-1: Lightning, Oilers
30-1: Thrashers, Panthers, Canadiens
40-1: Maple Leafs, Blue Jackets, Wild
45-1: Bruins
50-1: Kings, Islanders, Coyotes
90-1: Penguins
100-1: Blackhawks, Capitals, Blues

Some things jump out.

• Welcome to the New NHL. With the favorite at 6-1, that's an endorsement of the parity, even-ice surface concept. If memory serves me correct, there were times in the past decade when the favorite could be as low as 5-2 -- and 3-1 wasn't uncommon. So if anyone truly believes that Dominik Hasek can be both healthy at playoff time and close enough to the top of his game in the postseason at age 42, or even that if this team could win the Stanley Cup once with Chris Osgood in the net, it could do it again if Hasek is hurt, that's an amazingly good price on the Red Wings.

But that's not my choice.

• A defending Stanley Cup champion at double-digits? Given the relentless and demanding nature of the chase, there is no such thing as a "flukish" NHL winner. But the Hurricanes weren't even close to being a fluke and despite the necessary and not surprising offseason moves -- including the confirmations that Doug Weight and Mark Recchi were short-term rentals and watching Martin Gerber leave -- they haven't done anything to support the thesis that they'll slip. The only potential red flag would be if Cam Ward's playoff showing, which some seemed to forget wasn't exactly Herculean all the way through the postseason, anyway, was not an indication of immediate greatness.

They're still a good buy, but not my pick, either.

• The fun part can be constructing a scenario under which one of the longest shots on the board can pull it off. The only negative about having that is if one of those teams advances deep in the playoffs, regardless of the sport, it always leads to a predictable phenomenon: You hear so many people claiming to be holding a "live ticket" on the long shot in question, if they all were telling the truth, the odds should have been about what Secretariat went off at in the 1973 Belmont.

So I next found myself scrolling to the bottom of the list and working my way back up.

The Caps? Alexander Ovechkin is that good, and if Olaf Kolzig holds the fort … naw, never mind. Not yet.

The Blackhawks? I'm torn here, always have been. It would be so invigorating for the league, the sport and even the Chicago sports scene if there was some hockey magic again in the United Center. I've always tended to be overoptimistic about the Hawks. A year ago, I thought the Blackhawks had taken huge steps -- and even demonstrated some stunning financial aggressiveness -- when signing Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrian Aucoin. Of course, I heard from many of my Blackhawks fans saying, in effect, the combination of Murphy's Law and Wirtz's Penury would lead to continued ineptitude and that the exiled fans expected to continue holding the franchise at arm's length with fingers pinching noses. They were right. And that attitude probably will remain justified.

The Blues have too long a climb back after the ownership transition.

So the furthest I can go down the list and make a reasonable case is the Maple Leafs, at 40-1. They weren't that bad and Andrew Raycroft at least in theory can give the Leafs stability in the net after the departure of the physically (well, and maybe more than that) shaky Ed Belfour.

They're worth a look. But not my selection.

• Scanning up now, I'm tempted to settle on the Ducks, who came close last season and since have added Chris Pronger while sending Joffrey Lupul to the Oilers as part of the compensation. I'm of the mind that Jean-Sebastien Giguere will end up the No. 1 goalie again -- if he can get on the same page with Randy Carlyle, among other things. Any team in double digits after making the conference finals has to be taken seriously.

Maybe if they still were "Mighty," I'd take them. But I won't.

• I'm already on record that the Lightning made a savvy move in picking up Marc Denis, and it shouldn't shock anyone if Tampa Bay makes a run at its second championship in three seasons. That 25-1 price is awful tempting. But …

• I'll check out with this "best buy," and unlike at the chain store of the same name with capital letters, nobody is going to hit me up to commit to a magazine subscription "free trial" that never is free because I always forget to cancel the subscription in time to prevent me from being billed for another year.

Vancouver, such a dramatic underachiever last season, has a fresh start after Todd Bertuzzi's trade to Florida, which was good news for all involved, including Bertuzzi. Marc Crawford still is one of the best coaches in the business, but he couldn't escape the dark cloud, either, and his move to the Kings also will be mutually beneficial. The Canucks have added Willie Mitchell, and Roberto Luongo has the chance to affirm that the "given" -- he was a great goalie with a rotten team -- was true. Alain Vigneault's voice is fresh, at least in Vancouver.

So my "best-buy" pick is the Canucks, at 20-1.

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

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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