Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point
Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) crashes into Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72), who stops a shot during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

FOUR DARK HORSE STANLEY CUP CONTENDERS

This is the only time of year where bettors can sink their teeth into two different sets of preseason futures bets for two different pro sports leagues. Obviously, the NHL is not as popular for betting as the NBA is (nor the NFL or MLB for that matter), but that doesn’t mean hockey should be ignored – there are some worthwhile bets out there to be made. Maybe as a Canadian I feel some responsibility to do this. The marathon battle for the best trophy in sports is always a compelling one and will be more so this year as teams return to their ‘normal’ schedule and divisions after the 2020-21 Covid-ravaged season. A lot has shifted in the NHL since Andrei Vasilevskiy’s Bud Light-soaked tarp off celebration of the Lightning’s Stanley Cup win and a few teams may have emerged into championship contenders for 2021-2022. Some are upstarts looking to make a jump to the next level and some are veteran teams that have been there before. One of these four teams could make you a lot of money if things fall right for them. I’ve also included the site where their odds are the longest, so you get the best possible payout next June. What can I say? I’m a giver.

CAROLINA HURRICANES (+2200 on FanDuel)
Quick – which team finished the 2020-21 regular season with the most points east of the Mississippi? Not Tampa. Not Toronto. Not Washington. It was the Carolina Hurricanes, and they were no Covid season fluke, either – they finished third in SRS and allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the league last year. After a tough second round ouster from last year’s playoffs at the hands of the eventual champions, they’ve re-jigged their goaltending duo with former Maple Leafs’ starter Fredrik Anderson and Antti Raanta, who spent last season in Arizona. They’ll miss All-Star defenseman Dougie Hamilton but now they’re deeper on the back end with the additions of Ethan Bear, Ian Cole, Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith all signed to one-year contracts. If Anderson can shed the ghosts of playoffs past – and he’ll feel much less pressure playing in Raleigh than in hockey-crazed Toronto – the ‘Canes will be a force in the Eastern Conference. It’s doubtful Tampa’s salary cap trickery works out so well again this season, and if they lose a step – Rod Brind’Amour’s troops will be ready to pounce.

FLORIDA PANTHERS (+2200 on FanDuel)
This is a very good young team that no one talks about that has one big question to answer: who is their starting goaltender? Veteran Sergei Bobrovsky is the big salaried netminder, but he has underwhelmed in the playoffs throughout his career and is now 33 years old. On the other hand, 2019 first round pick Spencer Knight is the goalie of the future and played very well in limited opportunities last season. They have an enviable young nucleus that includes All-Stars Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, a future Hall of Fame Head Coach in Joel Quenneville and are coming off of the best regular season in franchise history. Adding Sam Reinhart will improve their depth scoring, and if Knight proves this is the year he can handle being a true #1, they could go a lot further into the playoffs than last year’s first round exit.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (+5000 at Caesar’s)
Yes, it’s a longshot, but that number is pretty inviting. This is the rare NHL team that won three titles, then rebuilt quickly enough to keep their key Cup-winning players to gear up for further Stanley Cup runs with a fresh crop of youngsters. Last season was a lost one for Chicago, with Jonathan Toews (still just 33) missing the entire season with immune system troubles and the entire organization weighed down with revelations of a sexual abuse scandal on the team during their 2010 title run. “Captain Serious” is expected to make a full return this season and they acquired ageless goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Seth Jones, adding veteran grit to a team with genuine young depth (see Alex DeBrinkat, for example). They also still have Patrick Kane, who remains one of the league’s elite right wingers.  Some other teams in their division have taken a step back this offseason and Chicago might now be the best-suited team to give Colorado a run for their money in the Central. After that, who knows what could happen?

NEW YORK ISLANDERS (+2000 on FanDuel)
It seems like Washington and Pittsburgh have been the two teams guaranteed to represent the Metropolitan Division in the NHL Playoffs forever. This might be the year that the run ends. New Jersey and the Rangers continue to improve, the Hurricanes are mentioned above as a serious contender and the Islanders have been to the Conference finals for two consecutive seasons. Last season the Isles lost a tough seven game semifinal series to Tampa in which they were also a little unlucky. This year they’ll return captain Anders Lee, who missed last year’s playoff run due to an ACL tear, they’ve added veteran scoring in Zach Parise and re-signed Kyle Palmieri, who gave them a real boost at last year’s trade deadline. The left side of their defense will miss Nick Leddy, who moved on to Detroit, but their depth remains mostly intact and features still-improving young stars in Mathew Barzal and Adam Pelech. No longer the hunter, the Islanders might now be the hunted in this division, but GM Lou Lamoriello has built a roster that can withstand the challenge and are poised to make the jump to the next level, perhaps hoisting the Stanley Cup again for the first time in nearly 40 years.

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