A ‘Bettor’ Look at the Sabres’ Season

<em>Examining the alternate reality of NHL gambling and how the Sabres stack up.</em>

What if I told you the Buffalo Sabres were currently the 6th best team in the NHL? Well, technically, they are. That is, they are 6th best A.T.S., or ‘Against the Spread,’ in the entire NHL. In the alternate reality that is NHL betting, the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets are top dogs; the Sabres are better then the Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Vancouver Canucks and Seattle Kraken are the two best teams in the NHL...when betting the over or under.

Reality bending aside, NHL gambling has become more mainstream than ever. Long considered a taboo vice, today gambling odds are now routinely flashed throughout an NHL broadcast. Popular companies, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, have ridden the burgeoning popularity of fantasy sports directly into the business of sports betting.

So, with that, I decided to take a closer look at the unique and different world of NHL betting. Perhaps the best place to start would be a breakdown of the gambling ‘lingo’ and numbers that define the odds and the strategies behind NHL wagers.

To do so, let’s use the DraftKings’ odds on the recent Sabres vs. Caps game as an example.

Money Line

Washington:  -220

Buffalo:     +180

A money line wager is a straightforward bet on which team will win the hockey game. In order to handicap a game to make sure that the odds are indicative of the likely outcome of the contest, casinos or online betting sites, called sportsbooks, will set a money line. In American sports betting, the money line is always listed as a negative amount for the favorite team and a positive amount for the underdog team. These two money line numbers are based on winning $100 for the favorite and betting $100 on the underdog.

This is a standard equation for each NHL money line. For instance, the above money line shows Washington as the favorite at -220, meaning you would have to wager $220 to win $100 profit (so a $320 total return). Conversely, the Sabres were listed as the underdogs at +180, meaning if you bet $100 on Buffalo and they won, you would have received $280 back, so a $180 profit. The money line odds are applicable to every wagered amount on this particular game, not just $100. So even a winning $5 bet on the Caps would be paid at the same rate as a $100 bet, and therefore would return $2.27 (or $7.27 with your original 5 bucks back).

Puck Line

Washington:  -1.5 (+110)

Buffalo:  +1.5 (-130)

The puck line is where things get interesting. The standard spread, or ‘puck line,’ for any NHL game is plus or minus 1.5 goals. So, in each game, the favored team has to win by 2 goals (over 1.5 goals) and the underdog can cover (or win) if they lose by only 1 goal or win the game outright. Again, using Saturday’s Caps-Sabres game as an example, the Sabres were the underdog (+1.5 goals) and therefore were the eventual winning puck line bet having only lost by 1 goal. The number next to the puck line represents the payout for the winning bet and is applied in the same way as was calculated for the money line payout. Therefore, the Sabres were actually the “favorite” team on the puck line paying out at -130. So a winning puck line bet on the Sabres would have paid $230 to a person betting $130 yielding a $100 profit.

On the other hand, if you really thought that the Caps were going to beat the Sabres by 2 or more goals, a gambler would have gotten better value on the puck line rather than wagering on the money line, as the Caps were actually “underdogs” on the puck line pay out at +110. So a $100 bet on the Caps puck line (-1.5) would have paid $210, a better payout then betting on the aforementioned Caps money line.

Over/Under (O/U)

Washington vs. Buffalo Final Score:

Over 6 goals (-105)

Under 6 goals (-115)

Things get much easier with the last common betting category, the over/under. This is simply a bet on the total number of goals scored in the game. Like each of the previously discussed betting categories, the money line math applies to the payout. The O/U usually ranges from 5-6 total goals for most NHL games, with some games a bit higher or lower depending on the teams. The O/U for Saturday’s match in Buffalo was set at 6 goals on most sportsbooks. In this case, a bet on the ‘over’ paid out at -105 while the ‘under’ bet was paying -115. As you know, the game ended with 5 total goals and so the ‘Under’ bet was, in fact, the winner.

The results of a tie, or in gambling vernacular a “push,” is subject to the rules of each sportsbook. For example, if the O/U in last night’s game was 5 goals, and with the final score being 3-2, the O/U bet would be labelled a “push.” Most sportsbooks either win on a push or give you your money back. I’ve never seen a sportsbook pay the bettor on a push, but perhaps some do.

Top NHL Teams – A.T.S. (Against The Spread/Puck Line)

The Sabres are currently ranked 28th in the NHL in points. But when looking at the Sabres through the eyes of a gambler, they are the 6th best team against the puck line. In looking at the complete list of NHL teams A.T.S., the best teams are, more often than not, able to either win by more then 1.5 goals as a favorite, or lose by less then 1.5 goals as an underdog (abbreviated to just ‘dog’ if you want to sound cool around fellow bettors). Essentially, the ranking of teams based on their A.T.S. record reflects well for teams that either win big or lose small. Here are the current top NHL teams A.T.S. so far this season. (Wins - Losses A.T.S.)

  1. Anaheim (24-5)
  2. Columbus (17-9)
  3. Los Angeles (17-9)
  4. Washington (17-11)
  5. San Jose (16-12)
  6. Buffalo (15-12) & Florida (15-12)

Thus, arguably the second most popular NHL team in Las Vegas would have to be the Anaheim Ducks, who are currently 8th in the NHL points race, but are ranked 1st A.T.S. with an impressive 24-5 record against the puck line. Meanwhile, the NHL middling Columbus Blue Jackets and Los Angeles Kings are not middling in the betting world. In fact, they are both tied for the second best A.T.S. at 17-9.

The creation or publishing of a NHL sports line, whether it’s a money line, puck line or O/U, actually falls to only a few sportsbooks or gambling sites that are considered “market makers” for NHL betting lines. Certain sportsbooks, casinos or betting sites that take on a lot of NHL bets will have analysts who crunch numbers and publish the “opening lines” for that day’s NHL games. The smaller sportsbooks, or even big ones that just don’t take on a high volume of NHL bets,  will usually copy those lines and open with them as well, since they will be paying their analysts to focus on setting lines for more popular wagered sports on their site. For instance, a large sports betting site in say, Australia, where NHL bets are less popular, will likely “borrow” the day’s NHL lines from another source to use on its own site. The Australian site will then adjust the lines accordingly as the lines move on the market maker’s site to ensures that the Australian site is not losing track of any major money line shifts based on a game-changing current event.

If you’re not already asleep and this stuff interests you as much as me, this brings us to a fascinating part of analyzing sports bets: line movements.

Reading Between the Money Lines

Once a market maker has published a line on an NHL game, bettors start to place their bets  which can move the line depending on the volume and direction of the wagers (or ‘action,’ if you’re really trying to sound a little too into this).

As an example, the opening money line for Saturday night’s stormy Buffalo game on the Wynn Casino online site was published at -240 for Washington and +200 for Buffalo. By game time, the line had moved to -220 for the Caps and +180 for the Sabres, indicating that more bets were being placed on the Sabres, so Wynn Casino was likely trying to even things out by making the Sabres’ odds less attractive and the Caps’ odds more attractive.

The worst thing that can happen to a sportsbook (or sports betting site) is when too much money is bet on one team and that team wins the bet. In order to prevent this from happening, the sportsbook will move the lines up or down to try and get an even amount of money on both sides of the game. For those interested, there is something called the “hold,” which is a percentage baked into each bet that a sportsbook will stand to make if (ideally) both sides of a bet are equal. This is why sportsbooks move their lines, prior to a game, in an effort to get as close to that ‘hold’ as they can. In a perfect scenario where there is an equal amount of money on both teams during a game, a sportsbook actually stands to make money no matter who wins.

So line movements tell us where the money is being bet, but what actually drives a gambler to bet on a certain team? I can tell you it’s not a measure of whose fan base is bigger. Oftentimes, it’s player injuries or, more commonly in NHL gambling, which goaltender is starting for a particular team. Prior to the Sabres-Caps game, there was a noticeable money line shift when Vitek Vanecek was announced as the starter for the Caps.

Bettors started to put money on Buffalo when they found out that the Caps were starting their backup goalie. This caused the money line to move downward on a Capitals bet and upward on a Sabres bet, in order to try and get more bettors to balance out the game. Meanwhile, the Sabres’ last-minute announcement that UPL was starting did not have a big effect on the lines. However, it would have been interesting if the struggling Sabres netminder Aaron Dell was announced as the Buffalo starter. Given that Dell’s numbers have been terrible thus far, one would anticipate some big money being bet on the Caps, and therefore the money lines would have to be adjusted to stem the flow of cash onto Washington.

So what....

Thus far, Sabres fans have had a tough year, to say the least. An almost cruel mirage to start the season gave some fans a false sense of hope that has recently devolved into a lengthy winless streak. Yet, as most fans know, the organization has some very talented and exciting prospects that are waiting in the wings. Furthermore, the current squad of Sabres continues to play a blue collar game that can upend a good team on any given night. Nevertheless, with the losses piling up, maybe looking at the game through the obscure lens of puck lines and over/unders is refreshing to some, or perhaps even more frustrating for others. Either way, sports betting offers fans a look at the game-within-the-game that is NHL betting. This ‘game’ has a completely different set of standings and, in some instances, wins and losses don’t even matter. Given the current state of affairs in Buffalo, this alternate perspective may not be a bad thing.