RACE TO THE BOTTOM IN LATE SEASON NHL BETTING
It’s a well known fact that teams in any sport facing ‘must win’ situations are typically ‘go against’ plays. The bookmaker knows this information too and will ‘shade’ the betting lines accordingly. This means that players are paying a premium to bet on ‘must win’ teams right out of the gate. Teams in this situation are often ‘tight’ and play ‘not to lose’. Most importantly, if these teams were that good to begin with they wouldn’t be in a ‘must win’ situation late in the season.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? It is possible to find good betting opportunities among the NHL’s ‘bottom feeders’ late in the season. Just as good teams are motivated by the desire to finish in first place in the division, conference or league bad teams are motivated by the desire to not finish in last place. To some extent, you’ll see this in every sport but it is especially effective in pro hockey due to the special breed of athlete that plays the game.
SITUATIONS TO LOOK FOR
First, a word of caution—you shouldn’t make any play based exclusively on the type of handicapping concepts that follow. This is especially true with bad teams—some teams in every sport are just too bad to touch. The NHL has fewer ‘untouchable’ teams than other sports, but you’ll still find them from time to time. The purpose of these concepts is as a place to start your handicapping, not a rule for an ‘automatic play’. That being said, they can be helpful in finding teams with losing records that are playing well in the season’s final games. Teams like this can provide very strong value opportunities. In addition, we’ve got some ‘go against’ concepts as well:
–Go Against Teams That Have Made Their Intentions Clear: Translation—if a team is ‘tanking games’ it’s seldom a good idea to try to bet them. That applied to the Buffalo Sabres last year and applies to the Toronto Maple Leafs this year. Toronto is in the first year of the Mike Babcock regime and they’ve spent the season shipping every veteran with a long term contract out of town and clearing salary cap space. They’ve all but said that their top priority is to get the #1 draft pick and the right to select forward Auston Matthews. When a team tells you that they’re trying to lose don’t get cute by trying to bet on them. Teams that are trying to ‘tank games’ for a good draft position might not offer good value as a go against since the linesmaker is aware of what they’re doing. But don’t bet on them, whatever you do.
–Teams At The End of a Disappointing Season: Teams that came into the year with much higher expectations have to be dealt with on a ‘case by case’ basis. Consider the individual makeup of the roster, the character of the team leaders and where key players are in their careers. I’m writing this as the 2015-2016 NHL season is winding down and three teams—Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg—had much higher expectations. Vancouver looks to have quit on the season with a slew of season ending injuries to key players. Winnipeg is in a similar situation though not quite as bad as Vancouver. The common factor in my opinion is that these are teams built around older players and lacking a nucleus of young talent. Calgary, meanwhile, has started to compete down the stretch and I have to think that the fact that they’ve got young players like Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett playing in key roles is an important reason why.
–Play On Teams That Have Been Put On Notice: Just like teams that are ‘tanking’ down the stretch have made their intentions clear so too have teams that are in rebuilding mode under a no-nonsense coach. The Edmonton Oilers have plenty of young offensive talent and head coach Todd McLellan has ‘put the team on notice’ that he’ll be watching and making note of players that ‘phone it in’ down the stretch. No NHL player wants to be in their coach’s ‘doghouse’ and this risk usually produces a strong effort.
–Play On Teams With Tradition and Pride: Hockey players as a species are a proud, competitive type but some teams have a tradition that transcends personal qualities. The 2015-2016 Montreal Canadiens have had every reason to quit on the season. Nothing has gone right for the Habs this year, most significantly serious injuries to goalie Carey Price and defenseman P.K. Subban. But Montreal hasn’t quit and despite a lineup decimated by injuries at every position typically gives a good effort. For example, as I write this tonight the Canadians have beaten the Anaheim Ducks as a +160 home underdog. There may be other reasons for this but I have to think that the legacy of the ‘C’ that these players wear on their sweater has to play a part.