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If the NHL wants to attract a sports betting and fantasy audience, it has some internal issues it needs to sort out.
The league has partnerships with a number of sportsbook operators in PointsBet, BetWay, BetMGM, and Bally's, among others, demonstrating a clear interest in diving into this market. What the NHL hasn't done, however, is put proper rules in place to help cater to this lucrative sector.
The NHL has a vague and useless injury designation system that gives bettors and fantasy players, who are placing real money on games, absolutely zero information.
Of the 101 players listed at the time of this writing with an injury designation according to NBC Sports Edge, 40 are tagged with either an upper-body, lower-body, mid-body, or "undisclosed" injury.
This type of injury listing is nearly unheard of in the NFL and NBA, as zero of the players in either league are currently listed with any of the aforementioned terms. Instead, players are classified with a more specific designation such as knee, shoulder, or hand. Additionally, it is very common that players in those leagues have the specific injury type (ACL sprain, fractured ribs, MCL tear, etc) listed as well.
To use a current example to illustrate the issue with the NHL's injury reporting, let's view what is happening with Vezina Trophy candidate Semyon Varlamov and the New York Islanders. Earlier this offseason, on Jun. 27, it was noted by Mollie Walker of the New York Post that Varlamov sustained an injury in the 2020-21 regular-season finale, and that after he discussed the issue with doctors, it was decided that "we're going to take care of that." Varlamov also stated that he'd be ready for the start of training camp.
On Sept. 23, head coach Barry Trotz claimed that the goaltender was dealing with soreness and was held out of the start of training camp for precautionary reasons, according to Newsday's Andrew Gross.
Fast forward to Oct. 12, and the tune is a little different. Trotz is now saying Varlamov will travel with the team, but it's unlikely he'll be ready to go for New York's opening game on Wednesday, according to Gross.
In just this one outlined example, there are a number of issues both fantasy players and bettors should be furious about.
For starters, it's still unknown to the public as to what Varlamov's injury is. The only description offered by anybody on the issue has been "soreness," and that limits it to just about anything under the sun. Additionally, it's unclear whether or not he underwent surgery to correct the ailment because "take care of that" can mean almost anything.
With the injury type, severity, and rehabilitation method all hidden by the team and player, it makes it near impossible to assess how this may affect Varlamov's play and his chance at re-injury.
The problems this creates for fantasy players and sports bettors are glaring. Anybody who selected Varlamov — who's rostered in 96-percent of Yahoo leagues — in a fantasy hockey draft on the basis that he told a reporter he'd be ready for training camp, and was later told that his absence was only precautionary, has been wronged. Additionally, any bettor who placed money on Varlamov in a futures bet to win the Vezina Trophy, or a bet on the Isles to win the Stanley Cup, conference, or division, likely isn't feeling too great that one of the NHL's top goalies is now going to be missing game time with no idea on when he'll actually be returning, and if his injury will linger and impact his performance.
Another wrongdoing the NHL has to correct as it continues its foray into sports betting and fantasy is how it handles starting goalie announcements. Currently, the best way to determine this information is to stalk the Twitter feeds of beat reporters to see which netminder was the first off the ice, as typically this is a good indicator as to who is starting that evening. Even this, however, isn't a full-proof way of determining who'll be playing and typically the starting netminder for any given game isn't made clear until moments before puck-drop.
NHL head coaches, like Vegas Golden Knights bench boss Pete DeBoer, won't name their starting goaltender at morning skate media availabilities out of fear of "tipping their hand." The very idea of this is pretty foolish, as teams have two goalies on their roster, not 25, and opposing NHL teams likely prepare for either goalie anyways.
The conundrum this creates for bettors is pretty evident. If the Tampa Bay Lightning are facing off against the Calgary Flames, a Lightning bettor will likely feel much more confident in their bet if Andrei Vasilevskiy is starting as opposed to backup Brian Elliott. Not knowing with any sort of certainty until near when the game actually starts, however, makes it difficult for a bettor to turn their money over with a full vote of confidence prior to this announcement.
Additionally, this creates issues for fantasy players, specifically daily fantasy players. If you're building a lineup for a contest under the assumption that Vasilevskiy is going to play, it wouldn't be foolish to include him on your roster. If you build your lineup in the morning and don't find out that Vasilevskiy is actually not starting until it's too late to swap him out, the lineup you paid for is now pretty much worthless.
This also creates another problem for daily fantasy gamers, as if they'd known Vasilevskiy wasn't playing against the Flames, they'd potentially be more willing to include some of Calgary's top players on their team.
It's pretty clear the NHL has a lack of protocols in place to make the sport more attractive to the betting and fantasy sports crowds. Luckily for the league, however, these issues are pretty easy to correct. The NHL should make it mandatory for all teams to list specific injury types, while also forcing head coaches to name their starting goalie at the morning skate media availability. This will allow fantasy players and sports bettors to adjust accordingly with actionable information, and only help the league continue to grow.
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