Betting basics for hockey season

Most sportsbooks offer a variety of ways to bet on the NHL. Here are some tips to help you understand the betting markets. 


Simply pick the winner of the Stanley Cup or a particular division. Maybe pick a player to win an award at the end of the season. It’s not as easy as some people make it out to be, though. Just look at the Stanley Cup futures market. The Colorado Avalanche have the best chance to win the Cup, but the field will win it approximately 90% percent of the time.

Futures markets typically have a very large hold, and uncovering value usually requires very good problem-solving and mathematical skills. While it is possible for just about anyone to build a futures portfolio and have it be full of positive expected value by the end of the season, you’ll always want to be first to market or close to it.

If you plan to place a futures bet, do so only if you believe the team has a better chance to win than the odds suggest. Think long and hard about whether you could make better bets with that money throughout the season. Is it worth tying it up for several months? If you still think a bet is a good one after you’ve asked yourself those questions, shop around for the best price and make your play.


Easily the most popular betting market, the moneyline involves betting on a team to win a game straight up. Overtime and shootouts are included, unless stated otherwise. Typically there’s a favorite and an underdog, but sometimes a game is deemed too close to call. 

The moneyline is where a lot of hockey bettors first start to travel down the path of trying to pick winners, and that’s a fool’s errand. If the goal was simply to pick the winner, I would tell you to pick the favorite because you would be right more often than not. The goal is to estimate the odds better than the market. Sharp bettors understand this and make their own odds. Then they take their odds and look for discrepancies.

For example, let’s pretend the Vegas Golden Knights are -160 favorites over the San Jose Sharks, which translates to about a 60% chance after removing the vigorish. Now let’s imagine that one bettor estimates that the Golden Knights have a 65% chance (-185), while another bettor gives them a 55% chance (-120). Both bettors predict the Golden Knights will win.

However, the bettor who gave the Golden Knights a 55% chance will choose to bet on the Sharks at + 140 (40%) in this scenario, because that bettor believes their chances of winning are closer to 45% or + 120. Meanwhile, the other bettor opts to lay -160 (61.5%) on the favored Golden Knights because he believes they should be closer to -185 or 65%. Both bettors have the right idea. They both believe they have estimated the odds better than the market, and thinking they have found value, they place their bets. Handicapping should be done before viewing sportsbook odds.

It should be noted that when it comes to predicting the outcomes of hockey games, research suggests an upper boundary of about 62%. That’s not to say that betting a team with odds greater than 62% is foolish. Just don’t expect to pick winners across a full season at a rate higher than that.


In sports like basketball and football, in which the margin of victory is much higher than hockey and the distribution is much wider, bookmakers create a point spread to level the playing field, allowing them to offer a 50-50 market. This is why some people believe hockey doesn’t really lend itself to betting in the same way. Those people are misinformed, however. 

Most hockey games are already considered coin flips, and the moneyline odds on a given game are usually close to 50%. Therefore, bookmakers use a fixed handicap that most people refer to as the puck line, typically set at 1.5 goals.

When laying the favorite, puck-line prices can look pretty appetizing to the novice bettor. But remember, the odds represent the underlying probability of an event happening, and the likelihood of winning by two or more goals (about 35% on average) is lower than simply winning the game.

Of course, the other 65% of the time, the score will be within one. That’s why you’ll often have to pay a price upward of -185 when taking an underdog on the puck line. The price is strongly correlated to the team’s chance to win the game. The better the team’s odds of winning, the higher its puck-line odds, and vice versa. Baseball is another sport that uses a fixed point spread called the run line. Because of this, bettors often label baseball and hockey moneyline sports. 

A common mistake that novice sports bettors make is electing to take a moneyline favorite on the puck line in an effort to avoid laying chalk. For example, maybe a bettor really wants to bet on a team to win a particular game (this is a bad approach), but when they get to the sportsbook, they see that the team is listed as a -200 favorite and they don’t want to risk $200 to win $100. 

However, instead of passing on the game, they decide they’ll bet on that same team to cover the puck line (-1.5) at + 130 odds. This is a mistake because assuming there’s no error in how the probability of the event occurring — in this case a team winning by two or more goals — was estimated, laying -200 on the moneyline and + 130 on the puck line are virtually the same bets.

A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t believe there is value in a market like the moneyline, assume there is no value in any of the markets that are derived from it. Unless, of course, you have a sophisticated way of finding value in a particular market.


This market allows you to bet on whether the number of goals scored in a game will be Over or Under a specific number. You might have heard pundits refer to the NHL as a 3-2 league because the average number of goals scored per game was about 5.5 for the better part of the last three decades, but goal scoring has gone up. Since 2017-18, teams have combined to average about six goals per game, and that number has risen slightly each year. So have the totals as oddsmakers typically hang six now.

However, during last season’s playoffs inside the bubble, scoring dropped to about 5.5 goals per game. Maybe it was the long layoff, or the fact that teams were on equal footing as far as travel and rest. There are a number of factors that could have led to it. It’ll be interesting to see how oddsmakers approach early-season games in 2021.


A derivative market is derived from a larger betting market. 

For example, bettors can wager on the total number of goals scored in the first period, which is derived from the full game total. The puck line technically is a derivative market. Oddsmakers use the game total and the moneyline to help them estimate how often a team should be expected to cover the 1.5-goal spread. Other derivative markets include player propositions, team totals and exact score markets. 

While some derivative markets, like the puck line, will move in lockstep with the larger markets (moneyline) they are derived from, bookmakers often arrange to have a third party provide them with player props and related offerings. As a result, these markets are easier to beat, despite not being all that easy to price. But it is for that reason that betting limits are typically very low, and bookmakers don’t take too kindly to bettors who mainly focus on these markets. 

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