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2021 NHL Betting Guide Part I

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2021 NHL Betting Guide Part I
Anton Khudobin #35 of the Dallas Stars makes the save on Brayden Point #21 of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Five. Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images/AFP

With the NHL partnering with the best sportsbooks in the past couple years, now is the time to begin looking at a very lucrative betting market! Welcome to the ‘Introduction to Betting on the National Hockey League’ guide. What follows will be an overview of the foundational markets of betting hockey [always evolving], which markets to avoid, various forms of information to be dissected, and a discussion on betting philosophy and volume.

The audience for this article is not simply people who want to open up their first sports betting account and wager on the NHL. I see it as rather an overlap between those who are already hockey fans and wish to be profitable month-to-month bettors, and those who are already familiar with sports betting but are looking to expand into a new sport. Or perhaps you are a mix of both and would like to simply refresh your approach. Either way I believe there can be something here for everyone. I am not here to lecture anyone on their approach to hockey betting, but rather only share mine which has been successful based on the time and resources that I have. Which brings us to the first topic.

The NHL Season

Before entering the bubble in 2020 many remarked that it would be a hockey post-season like no other. Well, the 2021 season can say the same – this is unlike anything the modern-day NHL has offered. My previous comments on the marathon-like test of a typical hockey season still applies, just in a condensed form. Teams will be playing about 70% of their normal quantity (56 instead of 82), and in a slightly shorter span – every two days instead of every two and a half.

The most noticeable distinction will be the division alignment for the regular season – no team will face an opponent from outside their division until the conference finals. Meaning at most the Stanley Cup winners will have only faced 9 different teams but could be just 8 if a team from Canada happens to win the Cup…if there was ever a year it would be the one with the greatest number of asterisks right Canuckleheads?

The NHL is taking a positive outlook on the potential for these intradivisional games, and it is what the rest of the hockey world ought to do as well. Connor McDavid gave a very thoughtful answer when asked what he would say to those that don’t think there should be a return to hockey during this ongoing pandemic and it is probably all sports fans, no matter the level of fanaticism, should keep in mind.

The NHL provided a few fun facts to get us going:

  • The North Division features five of the top eight goal-scorers over the past four seasons (Auston Matthews, TOR; Leon Draisaitl, EDM; Connor McDavid, EDM; John Tavares, TOR; & Patrik Laine, WPG) and three of the top six from 2019-20 (Matthews, Draisaitl, & Kyle Connor, WPG).
  • Former Metropolitan Division rivals and Stanley Cup-winners Braden Holtby (VAN) and Matt Murray (OTT) will keep their rivalry alive with new teams. Holtby (2015-16), Connor Hellebuyck (WPG; 2019-20), and Carey Price (MTL; 2014-15) account for three of the last six Vezina Trophy wins.
  • Nathan MacKinnon (COL) had 93 points in 2019-20, which was 43 more than his next-closest teammate and 27 more than any other current member of the new West Division (Max Pacioretty, VGK: 66). The Kings were the only team now in the West to hold MacKinnon without a point in 2019-20 (3 GP).
  • The West features Norris Trophy winners Brent Burns (SJS), Drew Doughty (LAK) and Erik Karlsson (SJS), and several other stalwart defensemen, such as Cam Fowler (ANA), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (ARI), Cale Makar (COL), Matt Dumba (MIN), Torey Krug (STL) and Alex Pietrangelo (VGK).
  • Tampa Bay and Dallas will become the first teams in 40 years to compete in the same division in the season after meeting in the Stanley Cup Final (1980-81: NYI vs. PHI in Patrick Division). Overall, three of the last six championship series have featured at least one team in the new Central Division (2020, 2017 & 2015), including head-to-heads in 2020 between the Lightning and Stars and in 2015 between the Blackhawks and Lightning.
  • The East Division is the only one of the NHL’s 2020-21 divisions where all members have playoff history against one another.
  • * The East Division features each of the last four No. 1 picks in the NHL Draft: Alexis Lafreniere (NYR; 2020), Jack Hughes (NJD; 2019), Rasmus Dahlin (BUF; 2018), and Nico Hischier (NJD; 2017), as well as 2017-18 Calder Memorial Trophy winner Mathew Barzal (NYI).
  • The Capitals and Rangers are set to experience an official changing of the guard in the crease, with Ilya Samsonov (WSH) expected to take over from Braden Holtby (VAN) in Washington and the tandem of Igor Shesterkin (NYR) and Alexandar Georgiev (NYR) slated to do the same from Henrik Lundqvist in New York.
  • Playoff series in which North Division teams will face one another in 2021, equaling the total number of all-Canadian playoff series contested over the last 15 years (2020: CGY vs. WPG; 2015: CGY vs. VAN; 2015: MTL vs. OTT).

While you may have thought I have been twiddling my thumbs waiting for the latest version of  EA’s NHL series to drop (the last one I bought was 08 by the way), I was actually running 31 team’s interviews of players and coaches since returning to camp. Through all that well-spent research I learned one thing. Yes, just one. Nobody is confident what this season will be like. We have coaches who have said they are using their first official games as training camp, and other coaches declaring that it will feel like the playoffs from the outset.

There are players making debuts on brand new teams who still haven’t met their whole club, and veterans who are undoubtedly out of shape. Even more interesting is that some coaches coming into this week aren’t sure how much ice time certain members of their roster have received nor what their starting lineups should be beyond the players they have had under the command prior and already seen skating in January. Even this very point is a monumental difference from other seasons, including last summer.

Like the 31 captains about to lead their ships into uncharted waters, as bettors our greatest value will be found in being easily adaptable.

Too ambiguous?

The sport of hockey is already one of the least dependable of major sports to isolate consistent predictability. This is largely based simply on the physics of the game, the amount (and speed) of moving pieces and the uselessness of star power. No, useless is not entirely true…but it is closer to where you ought start with your approach.

Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins. Andre/Ringuette/Getty Images/AFP

Before beginning an NHL betting season, or returning to one, every punter should be aware that if they are to extract the full value of the annual volume available to them they need to select the timing of their approach. Every season I witness casual bettors, social media cappers, and touts go through a rough patch at one or several points in time and question if they are going to continue. Alternatively, they will comment that they aren’t ‘seeing the games right’ and are going to limit their volume or unit size. Don’t confuse this with exercising conservative betting, which is never a bad idea, or these individuals would do it year round.

Every amateur bettor, professional trader, specialist handicapper, experienced tout, and guru will succumb to a ‘cold streak’. This could take the form of a series of bad beats, or fading the wrong team at the wrong time, or simply just hitting slightly fewer plays than your win percentage requires. Whichever form your ‘valley’ will take this season, yes I am promising you that you will have one or several, don’t throw in the towel. Acknowledging that it is nothing more than a cold streak and you do, in fact, have an edge on the market is paramount to do this over an entire eight month season and year after year…which I optimistically hope is all of you!

While every person who bets any sport may have you believe that they have all the time in the world to ‘handicap’ that sport, I can assure you that even in the sports betting industry, the time you enjoy wasting can still be wasted time. Before embarking on investing your free time into betting the NHL and other sports, create a personal schedule around it. Does this take the fun or casual nature out of it? Perhaps, but I assure you the more efficient your process becomes the better you’ll do, and making money off your own knowledge will outweigh the 20 minutes it takes you to make a monthly schedule. A few things that I do to save time – you might find the wacky and unnecessary (and maybe they are):

  • Envisioning the match lines while going through my morning routine (making coffee, having a shower, ignoring my kids).
  • Playing a podcast or video summarizing the games while having breakfast/on the way to work.
  • Line shopping sites open on a separate monitor (for the time that is free/dedicated towards research).
  • Social media notifications for injury/health status, starting goalie, starting lineups – any news that can significantly affect the price of a game (this year is more important than most).
  • If running live progressions, or simply looking for in-play opportunities; goal and end of period notifications.
  • Bookmark all my accounts, with logins saved (just a time-saver).
  • Visit the 2-3 sites that I trust with reliable consistent data for pre-game information that is easily digestible.

What I do not do:

  • Sit down nightly to watch multiple 2-3 hour games
  • Search numerous sites and forums for different flavor-of-the-week cappers
  • Engage in social media arguments about what so and so should be betting instead
  • Blacklist certain teams because of a bad beat [waste of time in a 31-team league]
  • Reflect on if yesterday’s plays were right or wrong, lucky or unlucky, etc [should be using the same metrics to assess if the play was value or not based on market and/or outcome]
  • Worry about the bankroll of anyone else [while I am happy to give advice and some generalities, you are the only person in command of your finances]

I am aware that many people pay for NHL picks to simply save time. Provided you understand the implied taxation of doing so, and still feel you can beat the market (after calculating the win rate, price for picks, and odds deferential), then go right ahead. On a separate, but somewhat related note, if you ever want me to verify the reliability of a particular betting salesman send me a message.

In order to successfully manage the enormous volume of the NHL season, I highly recommend setting aside a portion of your day or week to doing so.  Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are naturally more hectic given the schedule, so if you can get a head-start on the quieter days that always helps too! I also don’t want to discourage anyone from stepping away for a few nights or a week if it is a question of focus and motivation. However doing so simply because you are losing a little more than you would like is counterproductive! If you have any questions about the amount of time I might recommend for your schedule in particular, contact me anytime.

NHL 2021 Adaptations
Ondrej Palat #18 of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images/AFP

Hockey Markets

One of the greatest benefits of wagering on the NHL is the closeness in skill between the best and worst. The cliche ‘any team can win any game’, fully fits in this league. The worst handful of teams hover around that 35-40% win percentage, and the top echelon in each division perhaps just cross that 60% threshold, similarly to MLB.

The Lightning last year was an outlier in today’s NHL so don’t be looking for one of ‘those’ annually. Contrast this with the NBA and NFL where point spreads frequently reach double digits and it’s not wholly unsurprising to see a 20-25% win total. About 85% of the league hovers between the +40 to -40 goal differential each season. Meaning that in an 82 game season average of about a goal more, or a goal less, every two games can be the difference between playoffs and an early tee-time.

Basic Markets

I don’t refer to basic in terms of the easiest, this only means they are the foundational and necessary ones that you must be aware of.

Moneyline

  • Which team will win?
  • Represented by +120/-130, +100/-110, etc.
  • Your team can win in regulation time or overtime, there are no longer any ties in hockey. However, my European colleagues commonly like to squeeze out extra value by taking a hockey team on a 3-way moneyline, meaning to win in regulation. If it goes to overtime the bet is a bust, even if your team wins.

Total

  • The number of goals scored
  • Represented by 5.5/6/6.5 at -110/-110, -115/-105, etc.
  • Standard used to be 5/5.5, but in recent years we’ve seen that set almost an entire goal higher at 6/6.5, even in many playoff series.

Puckline

  • Represented by +1.5/-1.5 at -175/+155, -240/+190, etc.
  • Also known as the spread, handicap, or runline (in baseball).
  • If the average goal differential per team/per season is less than one you can see why these pucklines are priced in this range usually.

So if you believe the Washington Capitals vs. St. Louis Blues will be a low-scoring result that will see less than five goals scored and the line is set to 5.5 (-110), then you would need to be correct 53% of the time to break-even. Now, what if the line at your book only has it at 6.5 (-150). Well, that seems like a much easier wager to make right? Yes, but you have to account for the price. The -150 requires you to now hit 60% to break-even. You will have to determine game-by-game what the particular outcomes are and which play you think happens more frequently in comparison with the lines.

Another question I get asked frequently is why would the odds matter if I can just select winners for this particular game. It is easy to focus short-sightedly on the match-up in front of you and say ‘I can’t see the Blues scoring in this game so it will go under and I will bet it at -110, -150, -200 whatever.’ The only way this isn’t a completely ignorant view is if you are only betting this one game, withdrawing your winnings (cause, of course, you won the bet), and promptly retiring from NHL gambling.

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The most important thing to take away is that they are called ‘NHL odds‘ for a reason. I am not sure at what point the general public stopped reflecting on this terminology, but it ought to be the first thing in your head when you look to place money on a game. Every single line represents the probability of a particular outcome. That outcome can come about in an infinite amount of ways- this is the whole reason sports are popular.

In fact, take a moment and reflect in the past year on all the ‘unbelievable’ outcomes you have witnessed in sports. How many times kickers have hit the uprights on a game-ending field-goal, how many winning horses have been disqualified, how many fouls or errors have committed in the fourth quarter or ninth inning, how many match points have been wasted, how many 5-min major penalties have been handed out in the 3rd period of a game seven leading to 4 powerplay goals…

I hope you get my point. When you look at sports and specifically sports betting, the entire concept of the industry is based on the unpredictability of the endeavor. I hope this hasn’t made anyone too pessimistic, it is simply a philosophical perspective necessary to keep a cool head in the game.