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What the puck? The Prophet tries to make sense of the "new" NHL

by Netprophet Sports

The 2005-2006 NHL season would be a unique challenge for a handicapper without any rule changes. Never before has an entire season of any sport been canceled, which means that the relevance of past performance data is even further minimized. In addition to the year long layoff there was rampant free agency and player movement, a by-product of the league's new financial agreement with the players association. This further invalidated past performance data, since most team's rosters looked nothing like they did two years ago. Throw in a two week long Olympic break and you've got an unprecedented set of unique variables to take into account when handicapping hockey.

These impact of these factors pale in comparison to the structural changes in the game itself brought about by the many rule changes implemented prior to the 2005-2006 season. The most significant of these is the changes to the overtime rules which have brought about the shootout and eliminated ties from the sport. That is very significant to the hockey handicapper, since that change forced a change in the traditional hockey pucklines. Historically, the puckline for an NHL game would be plus or minus a half goal (with the occasional plus or minus a goal and a half for extreme mismatches). For most of my NHL handicapping career, my favorite strategy was to find home teams getting a half goal. Since a team priced as a road favorite is obviously a top ranked team, the home team would frequently play for a tie to get a point and a "moral victory". With between 10 and 15% of all NHL games ending in ties, this was a solid strategy. The 5 minute overtime in the pre-shootout days was typically a conservatively contested affair, and the presence of the shootout has gone a long way to change that. The percentage of games decided in the 5 minute OT is up nearly 15% in 2005-2006 compared to the last full NHL season in 2003-2004.

The "no ties" reality of the new NHL has resulted in a change to the pucklines whereby the "average" NHL puckline is now plus or minus 1 and a half goals. A few books offer wagers on the regulation time of the game only at the old 1/2 goal pucklines (this arrangement is very common in European soccer betting) but this alternate puckline is the exception rather than the rule. I'm still not comfortable with the goal and a half pucklines--obviously its tough to lay the chalk since you're essentially betting on a "blowout" but the moneyline attached to the underdog is frequently prohibitive. As a result, I typically play side plays in the NHL on a straight moneyline. This can be nerve racking when the outcome of your bet comes down to a shootout, but this is still my preferred way to play sides.

The rest of the rule changes were done to increase scoring--the two line pass offside was eliminated, goalie equipment was more strictly regulated and the area behind the goal and neutral zone was made smaller. The greatest impact on the goal scoring, however, has been the new "zero tolerance" policy on calling obstruction type penalties. Despite the rule changes, the number of equal strength goals has seen only a fractional increase (10% or so). The number of penalties called has skyrocketed and with them the number of power play goals.

Back in January, the Wall Street Journal did a statistical analysis of the new NHL. They reported that in 2002-2003 there were an average of 5.33 goals scored per game. In 2003-2004 this number dipped to 4.95. At the time the article was written the average goals for the 2005-2006 NHL season was 6.14. At the time of this writing that number has dropped slightly to 6.10 but that's still an increase of well over a goal per game from 2003-2004. For the totals player, its also significant to note that the 2005-2006 numbers don't include the goal "awarded" to a team that wins in a shootout. These shootout awarded goals don't count for anything in the NHL scoring records, but they do count for NHL totals bets. Factor in the "awarded" shootout goals and the effective average goals per game rises to 6.3 or thereabouts.

At the time of the WSJ article, the number of power play goals had increased by 60% and the number of penalties called by 31%. I don't have a good statistical reason for why the percentage increase in power play goals scored is so far out of correlation to the number of penalties but I've got a hunch that the increase in penalties has resulted in a greater number of 5 on 3 power plays which have a much higher success percentage.

I've had the most success this year playing totals, but they've been hard to get a handle on as well. The knee jerk reaction would be to go OVER in most situations but total results have been all over the map. Calgary, for example has gone UNDER in 67.3% of their games while Carolina has gone OVER in 67.9% of their games. Anyone who has followed hockey for awhile knows that its a very streaky game, and you'll frequently see teams run off a bunch of wins followed by a number of losses. Totals players will see teams run off 8 or 9 UNDERs in a row followed by a streak of overs. One thing I've had success with is finding teams that played a lot of UNDERs early in the year with goaltenders that I felt were overachieving and playing them OVER. Columbus has been a good example of this, with Marc Denis getting off to a solid start in net before suffering through an injury and general substandard play. Despite this concept, I still play more UNDERs than OVERs--its still the value side in many instances and with the public perception that scoring has "exploded" this year will probably remain so through the rest of the regular season.

I don't have any hard data on this, but it sure seems like there are a lot more blowouts this year than in previous years. In theory at least, this makes sense: with the crackdown on obstruction tactics tired teams can't just "dog it" to get the game over with. In other words, games have a tendency to get "out of hand" when a team is having a bad night. For the totals player, it can be disconcerting when a play you liked UNDER ends up **WAY** over the total due to a multi-goal blowout. It's important to not read too much into a blowout loss and realize that they're going to happen more frequently in the "new" NHL.

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