“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”
Those words uttered by Wayne Gretzky have figurative application beyond the game of hockey, and certainly have relevance in light of the National Hockey League’s efforts to stay a step ahead of potential COVID-19 outbreaks.
They also should guide the thinking of sports bettors: Those whose bankrolls will grow, not shrink, are those who can accurately assess not only what has happened but what will happen.
The puck drops Wednesday on what was to be the 2020-21 NHL season, but can instead simply be called the 2021 NHL season. It will be unlike any season that came before: shortened to just 56 games per team, played mostly without fans in the arenas, with the league temporarily realigned into four mini-leagues. Three of those are in one country, one in another, and they won’t cross over and play each other until a champion of each has been crowned.
As if that all wasn’t weird and borderline dystopic enough, the NHL sold naming rights for the four divisions to corporate sponsors. Those traditionalists who still haven’t gotten over the loss of division names like “Norris” and “Smythe” are surely balling up their fists over the Scotia NHL North Division, the Honda NHL West Division, the Discover NHL Central Divison, and the MassMutual NHL East Division. Corpse of Art Ross, commence rolling over.
It will be strange and different. But it will be hockey. And for fans and bettors alike, that’s far better than the alternative.
NHL sowing divisional division
Of the 24 teams based in the U.S., 12 play in states (or districts) with legal sports betting — up significantly from the seven teams for which that was true when the previous season began.
A few things for bettors to keep in mind this season:
- Each team will play the same six or seven opponents over and over all season long, meaning familiarity will factor into results more than usual. Strength of a division will also play a major role in each team’s season-long point total and hopes of making the playoffs.
- The Canadian “North” division contains only seven teams, four of which will reach the postseason, which the sportsbooks have factored into their will/won’t playoffs odds.
- The league is implementing a new, more lenient offsides rule. According to the NHL, this rule would have led to 14 more goals being scored across the league last season.
- While the NHL is being stricter about COVID protocols and travel limitations than the NFL, NBA, and MLB, all of which have struggled to contain viral outbreaks when not playing inside a “bubble,” there is always the possibility of games being postponed or canceled. Sports bettors (and NHL DFS players) will need to be as flexible as Jonathan Quick.
Three frontrunners, and a big pack of chasers
There are three clear frontrunners in terms of the teams most likely to take home the Stanley Cup: the Colorado Avalanche, the Vegas Golden Knights, and the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Those three teams all pay less than 10/1 at all sportsbooks, and are followed by 11 more teams with realistic title hopes at 30/1 or lower.
Here’s a look at the most bettor-friendly payouts available on all 31 teams, and the mobile sportsbook where that price can be found. (“Multiple” means more than one operator offers that price.)
Among members of the hockey betting community, the predictive model used by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn is widely respected, and his 2021 numbers produce six teams whose chances of winning the Cup exceed the chances implied by their betting odds.
In other words, 25 teams don’t offer value according to Luszczyszyn’s model, but six do:
- Tampa Bay Lightning: 1-in-8.3 chance of winning, pay +950
- Toronto Maple Leafs: 1-in-9.1 chance of winning, pay +1400
- Boston Bruins: 1-in-10 chance of winning, pay +1500
- St. Louis Blues: 1-in-14.3 chance of winning, pay +2000
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 1-in-16.7 chance of winning, pay +2200
- Carolina Hurricanes: 1-in-20 chance of winning, pay +2200
At William Hill Sportsbook, the Leafs and Blues are both among the top teams in terms of the championship action they’ve attracted, as are teams of more questionable value like the favored Avalanche and Golden Knights:
Power plays on point totals
Luszczyszyn also projects points totals for all 31 teams, based on the assumption that they will play the full (condensed) 56-game schedule.
Per his projections, there are three teams that are 3.5 or more theoretical points away from where the consensus lines are:
- Detroit Red Wings: line 43.5, projection 49.6
- Chicago Blackhawks: line 49.5, projection 54.2
- Vegas Golden Knights: line 75.5, projection 72.0
It might make bettors uncomfortable to bang the under on one of the league’s best teams and the over on two of its worst, but the numbers indicate there’s value in doing just that. Playing in the relatively weak Central Division — ahem, Discover Central Division — could well help Detroit and Chicago get over those low lines.
In that same soft division, an “over” play on the Carolina Hurricanes’ 68.5 points is also a bet that has some momentum (Luszczyszyn projects them slightly over at 69.4).
There are, of course, countless other ways to bet NHL futures: teams to make or miss the playoffs; teams to win their division; or individual players to win end-of-season awards, lead the league in points, or go over or under a particular point total.
And to get you in the mood for it all, sit back and watch highlights of “The Great One” playing where the puck is going to be:
Photo by Perry Nelson / USA Today Sports