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Sportsbooks stuck in limbo as NHL contemplates next steps for 2019-20 season

The uncertainty surrounding the NHL's season and what it could look like when, or if, the league resumes action has sportsbooks pondering the potential of pushed or voided bets.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the time since the NHL’s decision to suspend its season, it has become all too evident that the only thing we know for certain is that we know nothing. We don’t yet know when the league will be back in operation, what the format will be when, or if, the league decides to resume the regular season and how the league intends on playing out the post-season, if indeed the post-season is played at all.

To be sure, several ideas have been bandied about. There’s been talk of pushing the beginning of the resumed campaign back to August, suggestions about ways to play a condensed regular season, proposals about fast-forwarding straight to the playoffs and, if that’s the case, possibly even extending the field from its regular 16 teams to a 24-team tournament.

And while any tack the NHL takes will have an impact on the league and its teams, how the league proceeds also stands to have an effect away from the ice and on any of the many sportsbooks that have taken NHL-related betting action. Already, of course, sportsbooks have taken a hit with the loss of day-to-day action. According to Mohawk Online CEO Dean Montour, whose company operates Sports Interaction, business is down by substantial margins with leagues across the globe pressing pause on or outright cancelling events.

“We're all at the mercy of the pandemic right now,” Montour said.

But beyond the day-to-day, there’s another wrinkle to the present situation and the uncertainty that surrounds it. Throughout the past several months, dating back to the pre-season, bettors have been laying money on futures and prop bets of all manners, most notably division winners, playoff entrants, conference champions and an eventual Stanley Cup champion. However, most bets, if not all, were made under the assumption the NHL would play an 82-game regular season, not an abridged schedule. Thus, with the league in limbo, the sportsbooks find themselves in a similar position.

For right now, it's been status quo despite the season suspension. Sportsbooks are operating under the assumption the NHL season will be completed, and the belief is that once conference champions and a Stanley Cup champion is crowned, the tickets will be paid out. At this time, no refunds are being issued on those futures bets. “Where it does get to be a little unorthodox and unique is in regard to regular season win totals or, in the case of the NHL, point totals,” said Todd Fuhrman, a former oddsmaker and now co-host of the ‘Bet the Board’ podcast. “That if the entire regular season isn't finished, those tickets will become refunds based on stipulations that basically say, generally speaking, that you have to play the entire regular season for those bets to have action.”

Montour said internal discussions have led to the same conclusions. “If (the NHL) does get shut down altogether and there is no season, I think the only thing is to void the bets,” he said. “Call it a push, call it a void, call it what you will, but I think unless the whole season played out, it's almost impossible.”

There are some instances, however, where certain wagers will pay out. Available to bettors are props that include a team reaching certain milestones. To wit, a bettor who was bullish on the Boston Bruins or Washington Capitals entering the season may have laid down money on the club reaching the 40-win plateau. Both teams have done so, and if that bet was made, it will pay out, Montour said. “But if the result still isn't determined and they have to cancel the season, the only thing we're probably going to be able to do is push or void the bet,” he added.

Far less certain is what will happen should the NHL adopt an expanded playoff format and how sportsbooks will navigate that potential reality. As noted, there has been chatter about the NHL potentially nixing the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season and opening the doors to the 12-best teams in each conference. The resulting 24-team field would mean that several clubs who were set to finish on the outside looking in will have miraculously punched their tickets to the post-season.

“The one market that I'll ultimately admit I have no idea how they'll ultimately grade is yes-no props (for) teams to make the playoffs,” Fuhrman said. “I know the NHL has kicked around the idea of expanding the playoff format to 24 teams should they not pick up resumption of the regular season. That's a market that I'm honestly not sure how it will get graded because it's such a unique circumstance.”

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