Reggie Dunlop would love the way the Detroit Red Wings play hockey, but will bettors love them and their 4-1 odds to repeat in the NHL this season?  Among those teams that might give the Wings a run for their money are the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks who added to an already impressive defensive arsenal this offseason when they added Brian Campbell and goalie Cristobal Huet.

Hockey lost one of its most unlikely icons this week when actor Paul Newman died at the age of 83. Newman’s starring role as Reggie Dunlop in the 1977 film Slap Shot raised hockey’s profile immensely; Newman said that Dunlop was one of his favorite characters to play, and the film is a cult classic among hockey fans for its blue-collar ethos, savage humor and extreme violence.

Dunlop would probably be horrified to see sun-belt teams like Tampa Bay and Anaheim get NHL franchises, let alone win the Stanley Cup. But there’s hope for fans of old-time hockey in 2008. The Detroit Red Wings are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and the betting odds have them pegged as 4-1 favorites to do it again. The Montreal Canadiens (10-1) were the Eastern Conference’s top seed last year, while the Rangers, Blackhawks and Bruins are all on the rise.

Toronto is the only Original Six team in obvious trouble, mired in institutional mediocrity and undergoing yet another rebuild under Cliff Fletcher. Maple Leafs ownership is playing down expectations for this season; chairman Larry Tanenbaum expressed his preference for giving the team “two or three years” to become competitive. That seems to preclude having captain and free agent Mats Sundin (32 goals, 78 points) return to the Leafs this season.

It’s fitting that everyone is in a holding pattern waiting to see what Sundin does, because that’s what the NHL preseason feels like. You won’t find betting lines like you will for NFL exhibition games, which further limits the usefulness of studying the results. Better to focus on the injuries that invariably happen, like Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar going down for 4-6 months with a dislocated shoulder. Ryan Whitney (foot) is also out until mid-November, leaving Pittsburgh’s blueline in a bad way, especially on the man advantage.

Fading the Penguins just because they’re undermanned isn’t necessarily enough reason from a value standpoint – although you do have a chance to catch the betting market napping. The fact that the two injured players are defensemen certainly helps, though. These players rarely get their due compared to scorers like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But let’s look at an advanced statistic called Player Contribution (as developed by Alan Ryder) and see how valuable these players were to the Penguins last year:

  • 2. Evgeni Malkin - 113
  • 4. Sidney Crosby - 85
  • 5. Sergei Gonchar - 81
  • 7. Ryan Whitney - 55

Taking the goaltenders out of the equation, Gonchar and Whitney were Pittsburgh’s two most important players behind Malkin and Crosby – and not much farther behind, either. Kris Letang (50 PC) is going to be a very busy man this month; after him, the Penguins’ defense is a mess right now.

You can make similar judgments about the offseason comings and goings for each of the 30 teams in the league. The aforementioned Blackhawks were praised for their wheeling and dealing, landing star defenseman Brian Campbell (66 PC with Buffalo) and goalie Cristobal Huet (169 PC split with Montreal and Washington). Huet represents an immediate upgrade over recently waived Nikolai Khabibulin (138 PC), while Campbell’s arrival shuffles a low-contributing No. 6 defenseman off the roster.

Chicago can also look forward to the continuing development of youngsters like Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane (80 PC) and Jonathan Toews (49 PC in 64 games), who could become the biggest thing in the Windy City since Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. But neither player was as important to the Hawks on the ice last year as defenseman Duncan Keith (82 PC). Keith easily led the team in plus-minus at +30 and ate up an amazing 25:33 of ice time per game. It won’t be a disaster if he gets injured now that Campbell is on board, but it does further illustrate the difference between perceived and real value for stud defensemen. And remember: Defense wins championships.