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NHL embraces betting, but still tight-lipped about information

Updated September 7, 2021 - 6:11 am

The Golden Knights’ Game 7 against the Minnesota Wild last season, which had the betting handle of a Stanley Cup Final game at William Hill, had a key development in warmups.

Knights left wing Max Pacioretty stepped on the ice, signaling the team was getting its leading goal scorer back for the critical matchup. Pacioretty hadn’t played for nearly a month before the May 28 game despite coach Pete DeBoer calling him a “game-time decision” all series.

Surprises like that aren’t unheard of in the NHL, which doesn’t mandate injury reports like the NFL and NBA. Many teams also do not announce their starting goaltenders until warmups, while MLB clubs might list probable pitchers days in advance.

The NHL’s tight lips seem at odds with its desire to get into the sports betting marketplace. The league has several sports betting partners, including William Hill, MGM Resorts, FanDuel, Bally’s, Betway, PointsBet and DraftKings. The NHL also has Sportradar as an integrity partner.

Despite that, sportsbook operators and bettors don’t expect the league’s disclosure policies to change anytime soon. But they don’t seem to scare off many customers, and there are ways for enterprising fans to get information.

“To this point in time, that’s not being contemplated,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “People ask whether our sports betting partners have requested it, have expressed any concerns with regard to our current policies. None of that has been done.”

Information scarcity

The amount of official information available to bettors varies between professional leagues.

The NFL has a nine-page document outlining its injury reporting policies. One section says injuries must be specified with “a reasonable degree of specificity in terms that are meaningful.” Leg injuries must be reported as ankle, knee, thigh or calf, for example.

The NBA releases an injury report daily, and teams must “identify a specific injury, illness or potential instance of a healthy player resting for any player whose participation in the game may be affected.” The NBA fined the Philadelphia 76ers $25,000 for violating its policies in January. The NFL fined the Pittsburgh Steelers $75,000 and coach Mike Tomlin $25,000 for breaking its rules in 2019.

MLB has an injury report on its website and also lists probable pitchers for each of its games. Things are not the same in the NHL.

There is no “probable starting goaltenders” section on its website, though the league posts preview articles with projected lineups. There is no official injury report, and teams are allowed to be less specific about injuries, often describing them as “upper body” or “lower body.”

If the NHL wants to match the transparency of the NFL, NBA and MLB — which have larger betting handles than the NHL — it has a ways to go.

“I would like to see it go in that direction, because when you try to keep that information confidential, I think you’re going down the wrong hole,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of the Westgate SuperBook. “As only a certain amount of people have that information, some people could take advantage of that situation.”

Impact on handle

The issue with getting the NHL to change its injury and starting goaltending policies is there doesn’t seem to be a huge push to do so.

Sportsbook operators and bettors say they don’t think the lack of transparency is keeping people away from betting windows.

“People here want to bet the Knights,” handicapper Dana Lane said. “They want to have action on it. People that come into town want action on the game. I don’t think that hinders it at all. It may hinder who they bet on, but I don’t think the actual desire to bet the game is hindered in any way by who starts in net.”

Some sharp bettors can actually gain an advantage in the absence of official information. The Knights didn’t announce their starting goaltender until warmups all season, but the first one off the ice at the morning skate almost always played that night. Each team has various clues or traditions that can be used to pick up lineup hints.

Bettors looking for additional information can typically follow reporters covering the team and learn most of what they need to know. It’s rare that a club has a truly surprising and impactful last-minute lineup decision, such as Pacioretty coming back for Game 7.

“(Bettors are) on Twitter and Facebook and looking at all these different sites,” Red Rock Resort sportsbook director Chuck Esposito said. “The betting public is so much more educated now than ever before.”

Moving the line

Injuries to key players and who will start at goalie can affect betting lines, but not to the same degree as a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Esposito compared a missing skater’s impact on the handle to being down a hitter in baseball. Even the best ones, such as the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, bat only four or five times a game. Pacioretty, one of the Knights’ top skaters, is on the ice for less than 30 percent of each game on average.

Kornegay said a high-end player such as Knights captain Mark Stone could move a line 5 to 10 cents, meaning his availability could move a line from -185 to -195. But Stone, who was tied for 11th in the NHL in points last season, isn’t most players.

“There’s a few of those guys that are in that same category, but then you go to some others that might only affect the line by 5 cents,” Kornegay said. “The majority of them would probably have no effect on it.”

Goalies can have a huge effect on the line — up to 50 cents in some cases — depending on the difference between a team’s primary starter and backup. Lane said the change can be “gigantic” because a club’s confidence in its goaltender can affect whether its defensemen play aggressively or hang back to suppress scoring chances.

Still, Esposito said for the most part it’s easy to figure out who’s starting because of clues at the morning skate or a glance at the schedule. Few goalies start two games in two days, for instance. One way to ward off potential surprises would be to bet “listed” starting goalies like starting pitchers in MLB — the bet is only valid if both projected starters play — but there doesn’t seem to be much demand for that.

“It works for bettors and books alike, but I don’t know how many people will really be paying that much attention,” said handicapper Alex Smith, who has a hockey betting podcast called “The Ice Guys.” “Hopefully that changes as hockey betting grows. As of right now, we’re still probably a year or two away from that action becoming reality.”

Moving forward

The NHL’s transparency isn’t ideal, but books and bettors have made do.

Also, the league has had no trouble courting sports betting partners with its current policies and wants to continue to explore gaming opportunities as a means of growing revenue. Owners have taken a financial beating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The league hopes that new player and puck tracking technology will lead to more prop bets and gambling will become a more regular part of its broadcasts. It’s willing to take baby steps to embrace the world of gambling but not one giant leap.

“I’m a big proponent of throwing these guys up like baseball throws up their pitchers,” Lane said. “But that’s just not the way this game is.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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