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Understanding Betting Odds

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A little piece explaining what betting odds mean, and how the information they provide can be useful.

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Betting odds are an interesting tool for understanding how both experts and NHL fans expect the season to unfold. Seeing how the odds change over the course of a season can tell you a lot about fan behaviour and team talent. The problem is that if you're anything like me, reading odds can be confusing. Which is why I decided to look a bit more into how to understand them and then explain them here. To illustrate, I'll be using the current NHL Futures odds from TopBet.

To understand how payout works, you basically need to understand the difference between "-" and "+" payouts. A negative number indicates how much money one would have to bet to earn back a dollar. The Montreal Canadiens are listed as -110 to win the Atlantic Division. This means that you'd need to bet $1.10 to win $1.00. A positive number indicates the payout you'd get if you bet a dollar. The Ottawa Senators are listed at +1200 to win the Atlantic Division. This means that you'd win $12.00 if you bet $1.00. Once you understand the system, it's actually not too hard.

Now, once you understand the stats, they can actually tell you a lot. No offence to NHL GMs or the stats mongers, but gambling institutions put some of the most work into determining statistical likelihood of events. If you know anything about casinos, it's that he house always wins overall. Sports betting has to work the same way for companies to profit. (And if they didn't profit, believe me, they'd get out of NHL betting odds in a hurry.) There is some evidence that hockey gambling companies were making use of shot-based metrics before NHL teams. Since these companies are in competition with each other, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that they're keeping track of newer stats and the general public never hears a whiff of it. So one reason why we should care about betting odds: gambling companies understand the importance of having stats on your side more than almost anyone else.

Gambling companies understand the importance of having stats on your side more than anyone else

The other big reason betting odds can be interesting to keep an eye on are because they show us something about fan behaviour. Companies not only predict how teams will perform, but also account for how people are betting in case they end up being right. As an example, the Maple Leafs are the league's richest team in the league's biggest market. The odds of the Leafs winning anything have to always be viewed through the lens that there are lots of people who will bet on the team no matter the outlook. So the fact that the Leafs are listed at +15,000 to win the Atlantic Division tells you just how terrible they're expected to be. Their odds would be even lower if they were a smaller market team like Arizona.

So coming back to Montreal, they're listed at -110 to win the Atlantic. Is this because their hot start gives them a greater than 50% chance of winning the division? On the one hand, they have been the best team by far in the division so far. Their possession numbers suggest that it's not just Carey Price keeping them afloat this year. However, results from past years (and the fact that they still have Michel Therrien as the head coach) suggest to me that the Canadiens will cool off, and the Lightning have a good shot at catching them. The odds of the Canadiens winning the division are probably inflated by the number of Habs fans who were inspired to bet on their team due to their hot start.

Sometimes though, the odds tell us what we already know. The Sens are listed at +5000 to win the Stanley Cup. That means that betting a buck would pay out $50, putting them tied for 19th-highest. Not low enough that I'd think it was a steal to bet on the Sens, which means they're probably about right.

Note: If you choose to gamble, Silver Seven encourages you to gamble responsibly. For more on responsible gambling, check out the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's Know Your Limit website.