Welcome to my weekly "Hunting The NHL" betting strategy column that will continue to focus on overall hockey trends and where we can take advantage as sports bettors. The goal of this piece will be to give you, the reader/bettor, valuable information that will allow you to have the best edge in beating the sports books, not just for a given weekend of games, but for the long term. Please note that each of these articles will be written on Wednesday and published on Thursday/Friday with a macro, "big picture" focus on all-around NHL betting strategy, as well as looking ahead to the upcoming weekend slate of hockey games.
Author's Note: Due to COVID-19, the 2021 NHL regular season will not just be shorter (56 games instead of 82), but teams will only play opponents within their own divisions. This means that teams will play each other 8-10 times in a condensed schedule type of format, which is unprecedented. I will monitor this throughout the season and adjusting my own betting strategy accordingly as we gather more data.
This week I am focusing my strategy on backup goalies in the NHL. Although I've mentioned backup goalies in passing throughout previous articles, I'm now going to dive deeper and look at the ways we can take advantage with regards to either betting on or fading these backup goalies, who have always played a very important role over the past few years in the NHL. Teams that can have a great goalie tandem can benefit, just like the Vegas Golden Knights over the last couple of seasons. Teams that rely on one main starter, on the other hand, often face goalie fatigue, uncertainty at net when injuries occur and poor backup goalie play when the starter actually needs a day off. From a betting standpoint, I simply look to target teams that have poor backup goaltending play and try to exploit it. Now having said all of that, it's not just as simple as "the backup is in, fade ‘em!" or a blind betting type of situation. To further explain, I’m going to dive into some statistics that will help us know who the best targets are both now and in the future.
When looking at a team’s backup goalie, it's important to value certain statistics over others. For instance, the "Wins" stat is much like a pitchers win stat in baseball - it doesn't always correlate with how good the goalie is, rather the team’s performance as a whole. In addition, the "Goals Against Average (GAA)" stat is a bit more accurate when analyzing a goalie, but it still has its flaws. If a team is brutal and doesn't help their goalie out, then it will have a high GAA despite having an actual good goalie. Now the SV% stat, just as it sounds, is the percent of shots saved, and this is based on total number of shots rather than on a per game basis, which is a stat I find more valuable. On average, in the last five seasons, there were about 12-15 goalies each season that play roughly 70% or more of their team's games, leaving that final 20%-30% to the backup. That 20%-30% in which the backup played are where I tend to target my bets and look for the "duds" in that group. (Also note that this season, in the NHL, backup goalies are being used at a higher rate due to the condensed COVID-19 altered season and a large number of back to back games for each team)
Finding a middle of the road team or better - with a pretty good starting goalie and a below average back up - can be a good place to start looking. Check both the SV% and the GAA here. There can be value on plays to the over on the game's total, and also in betting against that team. Sometimes a good team with a poor backup gets too much respect in the market. Other times, the place to look is to just on the total.
Another place to look is the "Quality Start Percentage (QS%)," in addition to "Really Bad Starts (RBS)," both of which both be found easily on Hockey-Reference.com. (I've also provided definitions of QS% and RBS at bottom of this article). These aren't the most "mainstream" stats to look at, sure, but they can help us target those bottom tier backups. When looking over the past five seasons in the NHL to see the amount of backup goalies that had a poor QS% and goalies that also had a high amount of RBS, the data shows that quite a number of "backup goalies" in the NHL have indeed struggled, and that's not even taking into account various outliers like third-string/fourth-string goalies who play when the normal backup is out.
For this specific backup goalie sample below, I used backup goalies that started between 10-25 games in an 82-game season and also had a threshold of < .400 QS%, in addition to four or more RBS in that span:
- 2015/16 : 7 goalies below .400 QS% - 9 goalies with more than 4RBS
- 2016/17: 5 goalies below .400 QS% - 6 goalies with more than 4RBS
- 2017/18: 6 goalies below .400 QS% - 7 goalies with more than 4RBS
- 2018/19: 8 goalies below .400 QS% - 8 goalies with more than 4RBS
- 2019/20: (shortened season) 6 goalies below .400 QS% - 5 goalies with more than 4RBS
As we said earlier, the 2021 season is a campaign in which backups are being utilized more than ever, and because of this there will be plenty of opportunities for us to take advantage and make smart wagers accordingly. Furthermore, with COVID-19 also effecting the NHL in different ways, many players (including goalies, of course) have also been ruled out for longer periods of time than normal injuries would call for, which allows for more backups and third stringers alike find playing time. The best way to take advantage of this is to check the goaltenders' game log. Also check the previous couple seasons of their individual stats with a simple search on any hockey database. This is an ongoing trend in the NHL every year, and there are always a handful of backups that can be exploited. Remember, there is a reason they are on the bench for most of the season, and all it takes is for us to be patient and pick our spots to place our bets.
Backup Goalie to Target in 2021: Fast forward to this season, and a starting point we can look at with the limited data we have at hand is with Ottawa back up Marcus Hogberg. Hogberg currently holds an 0-5 record with "0" quality starts and has 2 RBS to date this season with a save percentage of .873. He could be a target to play against or to look at the game total going over. As the 2021 NHL season progresses and we get more data behind these goalies, then we can have even more backup goalies to attack.
The betting lesson here is simple: take just five minutes out of your day to look up a backup goalie that you're unfamiliar with. It could make the difference between a winning play and a losing play in the NHL.
Quality Start (QS): when the goalie achieves at least the mean save percentage - for the season - in a game (if the goalie faces 20 shots or less, he only needs an .885 save percentage to have a quality start)
Really Bad Starts (RBS): A stat that is "awarded" whenever a goalie has a save percentage in a game less than 85%. A team only has a 10% chance of winning when the goalie posts a save percentage that low.