Puck luck? Hockey’s secrecy makes betting on NHL a gamble

When the Washington Capitals took the ice needing to win in regulation to keep their division hopes alive, it came as a surprise when top center Nicklas Backstrom and No. 1 defenseman John Carlson were declared out 30 minutes before the puck dropped.

At least Washington revealed who was starting in goal. Vegas coach Peter DeBoer made it perfectly clear when the season began he would do no such thing.

“We’ll announce a starter at game time,” DeBoer said. “Why give the other team any extra time to prepare than we have to for what they’re going to see in net?”

That philosophy won’t change this weekend when the playoffs start and the money bet on hockey triples from the regular season. The NHL has embraced legalized sports betting and partnered with several sportsbooks, but the sport that prides itself on secrecy won’t be giving up the goods on injuries or starting goaltenders any time soon.

It’s a wrinkle for sportsbook operators and bettors, who realize that is just part of the deal when it comes to gambling on hockey.

“They 100% understand what they’re getting into,” said Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s chief business officer and executive vice president of global partnerships. “It doesn’t matter how much information you might give in a sport — they would always want more. … We’re not going to change our system that we have right now because of sports betting.”

The Associated Press spoke with representatives from five of the six sportsbooks with NHL partnerships about the potential and pitfalls of hockey betting. The randomness of a bouncing puck deciding a game or series, the lack of injury disclosure and the subterfuge engrained in the sport all make it a challenging endeavor as the NHL seeks to make up ground on the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and others that attract more attention when it comes to wagering.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan is fond of saying his entire lineup is a “game-time decision.” New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, like DeBoer, won’t reveal his goalie.

“It is frustrating — I’m frustrated by it sometimes,” said FanDuel trading director John Sheeran, who also bets and whose company provides odds to The Associated Press. “To some degree, it’s accepted. We know what happens. We know why it happens. It’s not like teams are trying to keep it secret for any other ill intent.”

Good luck getting an early edge in hockey. Warmups that begin a half-hour before a game often reveal who’s in and out — far less time than the list of inactive players in the NFL that have to be submitted 90 minutes before kickoff.

“The more information we can get, the earlier the better, so everyone knows exactly what’s going on,” PointsBet senior sports content analyst Andrew Mannino said. “You don’t want bettors to feel cheated if a star isn’t playing after they’ve after they backed his team, and we want as much information as possible, so anything we can get that we can count on on an even basis would be great for us.”

Discussions between league and sportsbook officials happen all the time, but Wachtel said there hasn’t been pushback against the NHL over a lack of information. Hockey bettor Andy MacNeil likes it that way because he considers the sport a fun challenge to make well-informed decisions that amateurs need to dig to find out.

“That just screams that people want it to be easier,” said MacNeil, hockey analyst for VSiN, The Sports Betting Network. “But as a sports bettor, I’m not interested in helping anybody.”

BetMGM sports trader Seamus Magee said injury disclosure is an issue for sportsbooks, but the bigger challenge for bookmakers is finding out which goalies will start. More than half the playoff teams this year could use multiple goaltenders, so the guessing games will continue.

Surprising lineup decisions do not have as big an effect as other sports given the team-centric nature of hockey.

“The drop off and performance from a hockey team without their star player just isn’t as big a drop as it is for the Lakers without LeBron or for the Buccaneers without Brady,” Sheeran said.

And less money is bet on the NHL than the other major North American pro sports leagues. Nick Bogdanovich, director of trading for William Hill U.S., said, “NHL betting has always been way, way, way, way, down” below the NFL, NBA, MLB and other sports but points to the Vegas Golden Knights as a reason for optimism.

“I can’t even tell you how many people I know that didn’t even know what the puck was and now they live and die for the Golden Knights games,” Bogdanovich said. “People, once they see the game and are into the game, they like the game.”

Ted Leonsis has been betting on that. Not a bettor himself, the owner of the Capitals and NBA’s Wizards joked that he didn’t even know what an upper-body injury meant “and I own the team.” But he will open the first brick-and-mortar sportsbook at an NHL arena later this year.

“Our generation might have looked at gambling (as) just the term gambling is negative,” Leonsis said. “Sports gaming to a young person has no negative connotations. … I’ve been amazed at how quickly the stigma of gaming and gambling is draining away.”

Hockey is a global sport, but even in the 18 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized sports betting, it’s still a niche option for bettors. Canada appears close to legalizing single-game sports betting, which itself could be a boon for hockey betting.

The next major step in technology is puck and player tracking, which could provide bettors with thousands more data points and gambling opportunities and begin to approach what other sports have provided for years.

“It can’t come soon enough,” Mannino said. “That kind of statistical data being available for hockey is is certainly going to be a game-changer.”

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    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

    Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

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    BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

    The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

    In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

    They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

    Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

    Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

    Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

    “Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

    Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

    “This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

    The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

    “This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

    Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

    Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

    Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

    “We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

    Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

    TRIBUTE

    The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

    The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

    “It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

    FOR THE RECORD

    Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

    EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

    Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”