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Qualification Series Win Probabilities: Canadiens (36.1%) Biggest Underdogs; Leafs at 59.9% to Beat CBJ

2020 NHL qualification series western conference bracket
The 2020 NHL playoffs won't officially get underway until the eight "qualification round" series have been decided. Image from NHL.com.
  • Odds on all eight qualification series for the 2020 NHL playoffs have been open at numerous sportsbooks for weeks
  • Calculating the average odds and removing the juice reveals the “true odds” for each team to win their best-of-five
  • Montreal vs Pittsburgh is the most-lopsided series, followed by Columbus vs Toronto

The first part of the NHL’s return-to-play plan will see the #5 to #12 seeds in each conference playing best-of-five “qualification series.” The winners of each series will move onto the traditional first round where they will meet the top-four seeds in each conference (who are playing their own round-robin tournament to determine seeding).

The exact start date has not been established. August 1st has been rumored as the league’s target.

The qualification series matchups are as follows.

NHL Qualification Series Matchups

Western Conference Eastern Conference
#5 Edmonton Oilers vs #12 Chicago Blackhawks #5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #12 Montreal Canadiens
#6 Nashville Predators vs #11 Arizona Coyotes #6 Carolina Hurricanes vs #11 New York Rangers
#7 Vancouver Canucks vs #10 Minnesota Wild #7 New York Islanders vs #10 Florida Panthers
#8 Calgary Flames vs #9 Winnipeg Jets #8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs #9 Columbus Blue Jackets

Almost immediately after the new format was announced and the matchups were set (May 25th), sportsbooks opened series prices for each one. Those odds have been open for over three weeks and, judging by the movement in some of the odds, sharps have weighed in.

By averaging all of the odds available and removing the juice, we can distill the “true odds” that the betting market has set for all eight series.

For example, if only two sites had odds on Oilers vs Blackhawks at …

  1. Blackhawks +135 (42.6% probability) vs Oilers -166 (62.4%)
  2. Blackhawks +140 (41.7%) vs Oilers -160 (61.5%)

… the average odds would be Blackhawks +137.5 (42.1%) vs Oilers -163 (62%). Adding the two win probabilities results in 104.1% meaning we have to subtract roughly 4% from each win probability to get the “true odds” (i.e. no-juice odds).

The true odds in this example would be Blackhawks +147 (40.44%) vs Oilers -147 (59.56%). See how those two probabilities add up to exactly 100%?

I did the same calculation for each series using the odds at five different sportsbooks. The results are as follows, listed from most-lopsided series to closest series.

Qualification Series Win Probabilities

Series Favorite True Odds & Win Prob. True Odds & Win Prob. Series Underdog
Penguins -177  (63.91%) +177  (36.09%)  Canadiens
Maple Leafs -149  (59.91%) +149  (40.09%) Blue Jackets
 Oilers -145  (59.18%) +145  (40.82%) Blackhawks
Hurricanes -125  (55.47%) +125  (44.53%) Rangers
Predators -122  (55.00%) +122  (45.00%)  Coyotes
Canucks -118  (54.23%) +118  (45.77%) Wild
Flames -108  (51.94%) +108  (48.06%) Jets
Islanders -105 (51.30%) +105 (48.70%) Panthers

The Penguins and their three-time Stanley Cup-winning core (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) are by far the biggest favorites, facing a scrappy but, let’s be honest, under-talented Canadiens squad that will need Carey Price to stand on his head.

The Penguins (+28) have the second-best goal differential of the 16 teams in the qualification round. The Canadiens (-9) have the 16th-best, also known as the worst.

Putting This Information to Use

No reasonable sports bettor would argue that the NHL market is as efficient (i.e. accurate) as the NFL, where sharps hammer every game until the spread an moneyline are exactly where they should be.

But if you believe that the people moving these lines are relying on sound analysis, then the best way to use the win probabilities is to scour all the available sportsbooks for a line that is longer than the true odds.

Those won’t be easy to find at this point because (a) sportsbooks add juice, which the “true odds” above do not, and (b) the early, sharp money is moving the lines similarly at all of the books.

However, as the start date for these series approaches, more and more public money is going to come in. If and when the public money skews the odds from where they sit now, look back at these win probabilities to see which teams are potentially offering value.

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