It will be about two months before a puck drops in another meaningful hockey game, if all goes according to plan. At the least, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan gives him a head start on two other major pro leagues.
Hockey is not back yet. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, no guarantees exist. For the first five months of 2020, the only constant in this country has been chaos. But last week, when Bettman announced the end of the 2019-20 regular season and a framework for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, hockey was put on track to be back by late July or early August.
When most Las Vegas casinos reopen the doors and sportsbooks welcome walk-in business Thursday, NHL postseason odds will be featured on a slim betting menu.
“It was good to see Bettman do it, and it gives us the ability to put up something definitive that you can bet,” Westgate SuperBook oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said. “I think hockey will figure it out.”
Now, how about the NBA and MLB? By the end of the week, there might be some good news, though each league still has much to figure out.
There is something to like about the latest baseball proposal of a 50-game season with expanded playoffs — a sprint to the postseason, with more meaningful games. But Rob Manfred has resembled a clueless commissioner, and most owners have shown little urgency to salvage the season.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been surprisingly indecisive in forming a playoff plan. Silver is seemingly set on sending 22 teams — six too many, in my opinion — to Florida to stage the rest of the season at Disney World in Orlando. At this point, 2½ months after postponing play, the NBA could be perceived as a Mickey Mouse operation rife with disorganization. At the same time, Silver is a sharp guy, and he’ll get a deal done.
“This is the first time Silver has not taken a strong leadership stance on something,” Sherman said.
Bold, decisive leadership is the most important factor for success with any business. UFC President Dana White, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Bettman earned recent boosts in their power ratings. Bettman has proven to be a betting man. He was the first commissioner to gamble on Las Vegas as a viable city for a major-league franchise, and he’s among those leading the way to push his sport forward through this storm of uncertainty.
Bettors and bookmakers just need games on the board again, and we’re getting there. The Circa, Westgate and William Hill books are offering NFL and NHL futures along with weekly events for UFC, NASCAR and the PGA Tour, which restarts next week. NBA playoff odds could be coming soon.
Hockey moved ahead of the curve. After Bettman’s announcement, which left some ambiguity about division winners and player props, William Hill did something positive and paid off wagers for the NHL’s division leaders — Boston, Washington, St. Louis and Vegas — while refunding wagers on teams that were in second place in the division standings. Bets on the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and the Bruins’ David Pastrnak as leading regular-season goal scorers were paid as winners.
“We reached out to the NHL, and it wasn’t real clear,” William Hill book director Nick Bogdanovich said. “I thought it was the fair thing to do.”
The NHL, which has an official gaming partnership deal with MGM Resorts and allows William Hill advertisements for hockey games at T-Mobile Arena, has a responsibility to make statements to clarify betting decisions and avoid potential controversies.
When the league returns to the ice, the top 24 teams — 12 in each conference — will report to one of two hub cities. The top four teams in each conference receive automatic berths to the first round and will face each other in round-robin play to determine seeding. The other eight teams will play best-of-five series for the right to advance to the first round.
Jeff Davis, Caesars sportsbook director, said Tuesday he will pay out for 24 teams on his playoff props, which did not include a minimum number of games played in the written rules. (The Westgate refunded wagers on point totals, divisions, and player and playoff props because its rules stated 82 games must be played.) The NHL finally stated it will count stats from the qualifying round as playoff stats, so Davis decided to pay the “yes” for 24 teams instead of 16.
William Hill lists Boston (+ 550) as the Stanley Cup favorite, followed by Vegas (6-1), Tampa Bay (+ 650), St. Louis and Washington (each 8-1). Betting action has been basically nonexistent, but there’s still plenty of time and few reasons to bet this early.
“It’s nothing so far,” Bogdanovich said. “It’s just too far away, and nobody wants to tie up their money. There’s so much uncertainty.”
Surprises are common in the hockey postseason. In 2018, the Vegas Golden Knights made a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to Ovechkin and the Capitals. Last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, got swept out of the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. As stunning as that was, these Stanley Cup Playoffs could be the most unpredictable of all time.
“It’s a crapshoot,” said Brian Blessing, a Las Vegas radio host and hockey handicapper. “I think you really need to see who cares and who handles the layoff well. All of these teams come in healthy. I think there could be a bunch of upsets in the play-in round. Motivation will be a big question. But once you get to the next round, it could be some of the best hockey you have ever seen.”
The NHL has not picked the two hub cities, though Las Vegas is considered a frontrunner along with Edmonton and Columbus. Home-ice advantage is no factor without fans, and several handicapping riddles will present themselves.
“What if a star player tests positive for the virus the morning of Game 2?” Blessing said.
Columbus, a + 150 underdog to Toronto on the William Hill line, is a series bet that Blessing recommends in the qualifying round. A long layoff might benefit the New York Islanders, who had lost seven in a row before the season was postponed in March.
“With teams like Toronto, the last thing to come around might be skill guys and the passing,” Blessing said. “Columbus is a gritty team. A team like the Islanders, who were falling apart, might be able to turn things around and play great hockey. A hot goalie can get confidence, and a team could look completely different.”
The hockey playoff format seems fit for underdogs. It also seems fit for Las Vegas, which can set up an Olympic-style village for teams and has at least four venues with top-level ice — T-Mobile Arena, MGM Grand Garden, Orleans Arena and City National Arena, which is the Golden Knights’ practice facility.
“Once the NBA did the Orlando thing, Las Vegas has a lot of options and sounds pretty likely for the NHL,” Blessing said. “Honestly, it’s nothing more than a TV show.”
For those betting on and watching European soccer, Korean baseball and the UFC, it’s obvious the games can go on without rowdy crowds. A TV show is good enough.
“Any league can play without spectators and it’s not a problem at all,” Sherman said.
It’s a win for the NHL that Bettman was among the first to figure it out. When the next puck drops, the bettors will come back.
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS ODDS
Eastern Conference, qualifying round
(5) Pittsburgh -200 (12) Montreal + 175
(6) Carolina (11) -150 N.Y. Rangers + 130
(7) N.Y. Islanders -110 (10) Florida -110
(8) Toronto -160 (9) Columbus + 140
To win top seed: Boston + 175, Tampa Bay + 225, Washington + 400, Philadelphia + 450
Western Conference, qualifying round
(5) Edmonton -150 (12) Chicago + 130
(6) Nashville -130 (11) Arizona + 110
(7) Vancouver -130 (10) Minnesota + 110
(8) Calgary -120 (9) Winnipeg + 100
To win top seed: St. Louis + 225, Vegas + 250, Colorado + 260, Dallas + 450
(Odds from Westgate SuperBook)