First Game, New Coach: Winning NHL Betting Strategy?

Coaches in the NHL and NBA can have a major influence on their teams' performance. (Photo credit: tsyp9 / Foter / CC BY-SA)

Firing a coach mid-season is one of the best ways for management to express its dissatisfaction to its players. When a team is going south, changing the man behind the bench often leads to a change in the team’s direction as well.

Does a mid-season coaching change also open up money-making opportunities for hockey bettors? After all, it’s a popular theory that the “first game new coach” angle is a profitable NHL betting strategy.

Let’s dig into this theory and see if it holds any water.

Why Might “First Game New Coach” Be A Good NHL Betting Strategy?

A 2013 article in the USA Today explained how NHL coaching changes often have short-term benefits. It pointed out how the Panthers, Flyers and Sabres improved their play after their coaches were canned, and gave four reasons why a new coach can change things in a hurry:

New voice, new energy:  Players grow weary of hearing the same coaching sermons over and over. After a while, especially if the situation is stressful, they begin to tune out the man in charge. That’s human nature. Everyone grows weary of a boss telling them what to do. Players are no exception. A new person in charge changes the dynamic. There’s excitement in the air.

Back to basics: The approach with a new coach is often a return to the basics, a greater focus on the small details that really matter. With a new man in charge, every aspect of a team’s game is re-examined. Usually, that reminds everyone of the value of playing the game the right way.  Bad habits can disappear. Players start to take fewer chances.

Players aim to please: There’s a new sheriff in town, and players aim to please that new sheriff. Their ice time depends on the new coach, and everyone on the roster views a coaching change as an opportunity to change their status on the team for the better. It’s a clean slate, a fresh start. Players go on their best behavior and they work hard to impress the new coach. That’s usually pays dividends for the team.

Winning starts with D: Usually, there is greater emphasis on defensive play because coaches know that is the fastest way to improve a team. You can’t make your team score more goals, but you can force them to improve defensively. You can teach defense and you can demand better defensive play, and new coaches usually do. That certainly has been the case in Philadelphia and Florida.

It all sounds great on paper. But does betting on a team in the “first game new coach” situation actually make you money over the long run?

Let’s see how teams have done in this situation in the past.

First Game New Coach: NHL Teams’ Recent Records

Here’s a list of how NHL teams have done recently in their first games following a mid-season coaching change.

  • Boston Bruins, 2016-2017: Boston beat San Jose 6-3 as -125 favourites
  • Montreal Canadiens, 2016-2017: Montreal lost 3-1 to Winnipeg as -165 favourites
  • New York Islanders, 2016-2017: New York beat Dallas 3-1 as -115 favourites
  • St. Louis Blues, 2016-2017: St. Louis beat Toronto 5-1 as -125 favourites
  • Florida Panthers, 2016-2017: Florida lost 2-1 in Chicago as +115 underdogs
  • Minnesota Wild, 2015-2016: Minnesota won 5-2 in Vancouver as -120 favourites (snapped 7-game losing streak)
  • Columbus Blue Jackets, 2015-16: Columbus lost 3-2 at Minnesota as +160 underdogs
  • Pittsburgh Penguins, 2015-16: Pittsburgh lost 4-1 at home to Washington as -105 underdogs
  • Ottawa Senators, 2014-15: Ottawa lost 5-3 to Los Angeles as +130 underdogs
  • Toronto Maple Leafs, 2014-2015: Toronto lost 6-2 at Washington as +115 underdogs
  • New Jersey Devils, 2014-15: New Jersey lost 3-1 at N.Y. Rangers as +190 underdogs
  • Edmonton Oilers, 2014-15: Edmonton lost 2-1 at Arizona as +135 underdogs
  • Philadelphia Flyers, 2013-14: Philadelphia beat Florida 2-1 as -150 favourites
  • Buffalo Sabres, 2013-14: Buffalo beat Toronto 3-1 as +120 underdogs
  • Florida Panthers, 2013-14: Florida lost 3-2 at Ottawa as +170 underdogs
  • Winnipeg Jets, 2013-14: Winnipeg beat Arizona 5-1 as +110 underdogs

Is There Value Betting NHL Teams In The First Game New Coach Situation?

Over the past 16 games in which teams were playing their first game following a midseason coaching change, they went 7-9. However, since NHL betting is based on the moneyline, a more accurate way of measuring profitability in this situation is by looking at the odds in those 16 matchups.

The average odds on the team playing its first game under a new coach over this time were +120, suggesting an average win probability of 45.5%. A 7-9 record over those 16 games is a 43.8% winning percentage, meaning teams didn’t quite perform up to expectations – and that you would have lost money betting on “first game new coach” teams in this 16-game sample size.

Granted, 16 games is not a large sample size, but this sample does go back over the last four years. It’s worth noting that over the last 12 games for NHL teams immediately following a midseason coaching change, they’ve gone 4-8.

Also, oddsmakers are aware of the immediate impact that a coaching change can have, and they adjust the odds on those teams accordingly.

Add it all up, and it certainly doesn’t look like betting on teams in the “first game new coach” situation is a winning NHL betting strategy. It may make sense in certain situations and could be profitable if you pick your spots properly, but we don’t advise you just blindly bet on teams in their first game after a midseason coaching change.