Pucks and bucks: Betting the new NHL

Andrew Folkes - Senior Writer

Break out the stick tape, foil up your knuckles and get the Zamboni in gear.

The National Hockey League is set to begin a new season after labor-management strife kept hockey off the betting board for an entire season. A new deal has been inked, the players are on the ice and big, toothless grins are back on the faces of hockey enthusiasts everywhere.

But as for oddsmakers - they’d sooner take an Al MacInnis slapper to the groin than go about hanging NHL lines, a market where their profit margin has always been razor thin.

“This is creating a huge headache for us,” says betCRIS.com oddsmaker Shane Catford. “There are a lot of things that we still don’t quite have figured out.”

“NHL is generally a league that gets a decent amount of sharp action,” adds betWWTS.com oddsmaker Michael Pierce. “Sportsbooks generally just tread water, either winning or losing crumbs.”

New rule changes promise to make the job of setting pucklines tougher than ever. In an effort to up the ratings for a sport that’s slipped to sub-WNBA levels, the NHL has introduced significant alterations it believes will make for a more exciting product.

Two-line passes have been legalized to cut down on clutter in the neutral zone and officials have been instructed to crack down on obstruction to keep the game flowing. The size of goalie equipment will now be regulated, and goaltenders will be restricted as to where they can play the puck. It`s all designed to create more scoring opportunities in a league that was criticized for its paltry production.

Perhaps the most significant change for sportsbooks is the introduction of the shootout. Games that remain tied after a five-minute overtime period will now be settled in a shootout in which three players from each side will take turns taking penalty shots.

This has forced oddsmakers to alter the way they grade traditional puckline bets. Pucklines, also known as Canadian lines, put a half-goal spread on the favorite in return for a bigger payout than the moneyline offers. Before this season, puckline wagers were graded based on what happened during the first three periods plus the five-minute overtime. Starting this year, most sportsbooks will only include the 60 minutes of regulation play.

Some books will now be offering a 1 ½–goal puckline in addition to the ½-goal spread, similar to the 1 ½-run baseline, or runline, used in MLB wagering. Like the runline, the adjusted puckline (which offers an even bigger payout on the favorite) is predicated on the fact that a significant percentage of NHL contests were decided by a single goal.

But the NHL is expecting more goals this season and more scoring should, in theory, mean more lopsided results. That figures to give the 1 ½-goal favorites added value.

“The new rules will favor some teams much more than others,” says Sean Murphy of Pat Miller Sports. “I`m sure we`ll see more mismatches early in the season as some teams struggle to adjust to the new rules. [In Wednesday’s preseason action] for example, only one of the seven games was decided by one goal.”

The NHL’s higher-scoring mandate may leave the books a little vulnerable on the puckline front, but they’re making a preemptive strike to protect themselves from over bettors.

“I believe you will see the totals about a half-goal higher for this season,” says Pierce.

Half a goal might not seem like much, but considering that’s 41 more goals per team on the season, sharps believe that’s just about right.

“As a whole, scoring probably won`t increase by more than 0.5 goals per game,” says Murphy. “We`ll probably see some games reach 10 goals, while others stay low scoring. The public will definitely be siding with the over early in the season, just based on what they`ve heard about the new high scoring NHL.”

But as with the puckline, you’ve got to read the fine print before you make your total bets in the new NHL.

“The scoring will count for the total if there is a score in overtime, but not in the shootout,” says Pierce.

Of course, that’s unless you take the “special totals” some books are offering that include shootout scoring… sort of.

“We will offer a total on the game including any overtime played or shootout,” says Pinnaclesports.com oddsmaker Simon Noble. “[But] in the event of the game being decided by shootout, only one goal will be added to the winner`s final score for betting purposes.”

Wagering rules and options aside, the biggest obstacle books have to overcome is setting lines on a league that’s been turned on its head.

When the new collective bargaining agreement was hammered out, an unprecedented number of free agents went up for grabs as general managers shuffled lineups to fit them under the salary cap. Teams that have undergone major restructuring will need time to gel, and that includes at least half the league. That should make for more parity in the new NHL but at this point, it also makes it awfully difficult to separate the underdogs from the favorites.

“I think you will see limits at a lot of books reduced on NHL bets due to the uncertainty of scoring and with the face lift the league took,” says Pierce. “We, for example won’t take any more than $1000 on a side or $500 on a total at the beginning of the season.”

“Our limits will be the same [as before],” adds Catford. “But yes, as a book you do feel vulnerable.”

So for now, sportsbooks and their customers find themselves on even ice when it comes to betting the new NHL. It’s nearly impossible to say which teams will thrive in this reconfigured league, but with scoring the order of the day, look for clubs that can ripple the mesh.

“The more skilled teams that struggled in the past, when defense ruled, will likely rise to the top,” predicts Murphy. “Detroit, Dallas, and Colorado are the teams that will probably still be overvalued in the early going.”

The puck drops on the 2005 NHL season this coming Wednesday. Many books are currently offering futures odds on the Stanley Cup winner. The Philadelphia Flyers are currently favored at 5-1.

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