Why Are NHL Favorites Crushing at a Historic Rate in the COVID-19 Era?
Marko Ditkun/NHLI via Getty Images. Pictured: Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby
The NHL loves to market itself as the league of parity. Any team, on any given night. That’s the ethos of hockey and the numbers, for the most part, backed it up. Laying big chalk in hockey — a sport ruled by variance, chaos and volatility — was not a winning strategy.
Over the past two seasons, favorites have gone 893-525 for a 63% win rate. If you bet $100 on every favorite since the league returned to play a year ago, you’d be up $3,807 for a +2.7% ROI. In other words, this is not the NHL we all know and loathe.
From the 2013-14 season (which is when the league re-aligned to it’s current format) until 2019-20, favorites in the NHL went 4,260-3,011, which is a 58.6% win rate. That may seem decent on the surface, but if you bet $100 on every NHL favorite in that span, you’d be in the red to the tune of $11,996 (-1.6% ROI).
It was especially tough sledding for favorites in the two seasons before the pandemic. From 2018-19 to 2019-20, the chalk went 1,354-1,000 for a 57.5% win rate that would have put a $100 bettor $9,611 in the red (-4.1% ROI).
The Year the Dogs Stopped Barking
I assumed that trend would continue in 2020-21 because it had all the makings of a chaotic season with the shortened schedule, intra-divisional schedule and the lack of normalcy. I thought more chaos would mean more success for underdogs, but I was quickly proven wrong. Favorites went 64-36 in the first 100 games of the campaign and barely slowed down.
By season’s end, favorites skated to a 538-325 record for a 62.3% win rate. If you blindly bet the chalk every game in 2021 you would have made $1,736 and saw a +2% ROI. It was the highest ROI for favorites since the lockout-shortened 2012/13 season.
In betting we often look at outlier seasons like that and expect things to regress back to normal. That meant, once again, I was wrongly anticipating that underdogs would have more success out of the gates in 2021-22. The regression never came. In fact, the trend only became amplified this season.
Through the first 555 games this season, favorites have skated to a 355-200 (64%) record. A $100 bettor would be up $2,071 for a +3.7% ROI.
If you want to flip it from the underdog perspective, you get a 200-355 record (36%) and a $100 bettor would be down a whopping $9,562 (-17.2% ROI).
Big favorites (-200 or longer) have been especially reliable since the pandemic started. Going back to last season, teams that closed at -200 or higher have gone 240-73 (76.7%) and would have won a $100 bettor $2,364 for a 7.6% ROI. This season, they are 100-27 (78.7%) for a +10.5% ROI.
Why Is This Happening?
Perhaps the simple solution is that the gap between good teams and bad teams has widened in the COVID-19 era. Like in other sports, the incentive to tank early in the NHL is greater than ever, so teams that are out of the playoff race don’t kid themselves much anymore.
But tanking isn’t a new phenomenon in the NHL and it does seem like we have more dead weight than usual this season.
Going back to 2005-06 (when the league implemented the shootout and got rid of ties), only 11 teams have finished a regular season with a points percentage of .375 or lower, with the lowest coming by way of Detroit (.275) in the truncated 2019-20 season.
This season, we currently have five teams sitting at .371 or below (Buffalo, Ottawa, Seattle, Montreal and Arizona) for the 2021-22 season and two of them — Arizona and Montreal — have worse points percentages right now than Detroit did back when it set the shootout-era record.
It is unique that we have this many terrible teams in one season and it would be pretty shocking if this becomes the norm.
In fact, only two other seasons since 2005-06 featured more than one team at .375 or worse (2005-06 and 2014-15) by the time the playoffs started.
Part of this phenomena could just be human nature. They’ll never admit it, but it can’t be easy for athletes to get up for a game when your team is out of the playoff race by Christmas. Throw in the pandemic restrictions and craziness they’ve dealt with the past two seasons and playing for a stinky team becomes even more of a drag.
And in a sport like hockey — where work ethic does matter — that type of existential weight can surely drag on a player and slow them down, leading to worse results.
I love betting NHL underdogs.
The two minutes of self-loathing immediately after a game where your +275 underdog fights and claws only to lose in overtime is my favorite thing about betting. I am sick in the head, undoubtedly, but that feeling is just as important to me as the euphoria of cashing a great bet.
But even I have my limits and — as much as it pains me to say this — it does seem like a pretty good idea at this point to tread lightly when it comes to big underdogs this season. I’m not going to suggest blindly betting every favorite until springtime, but it does seem pretty clear that there is a bit of a shift in the state of the NHL right now.
Like a lot of things in this existence, betting tends to be pretty cyclical. We saw a successful spell for underdogs from 2018 to 2020, but now the shoe is on the other foot.
There’s also plenty of reasons to believe that the pandemic is playing its part in all of this. The past two seasons, team have had players come in and out of the lineup at an unprecedented rate. If you take a few bodies out of a roster that already has plenty of talent, it’s not a huge deal because good players can paper over holes down the lineup.
But if you take players off an already thin lineup card, things become much more tenuous.
My guess (and hope) is that as life heads toward whatever new normal we’re heading for as a society, things in the NHL follow suit and normalize. Which means more chaos, more volatility and more upsets.