Friday's NHL: Gambling options open up as NHL starts tracking pucks this season

Associated Press

Detroit — The latest generation of NHL pucks have six circles on both sides covering tubes that allow infrared cameras to constantly connect the vulcanized rubber with a puck and player tracking system.

After a bumpy start last season with microchipped pucks that didn't slide right, the latest versions have worked so well that at least one coach wasn't sure if they were in play yet.

“I’m not aware that we have used those pucks yet this season," Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “I wish we would so we could feel them."

An NHL hockey puck with sensors is shown, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Detroit. The NHL is using real-time tracking technology in pucks and on the back of players' jerseys, shooting to generate more data for teams, broadcasters, fans and gamblers.

That seems to be a good sign. The NHL attempted to track pucks last January, but took them off the ice six days into the season.

“We went away from it because the puck didn’t glide right," Blashill recalled. “It didn’t feel like a real puck. Obviously, that’s the trick. I think puck tracking is a great thing that will really help the analytics a lot.”

That is indeed the key: Data generated by the pucks and from sensors about the size of a thumb on the backs of players will be used by teams to develop their players and to scout opponents. Passing, puck possession, takeaways, giveaways and more can be accurately recorded without the potential subjectivity of a scoring crew in an arena.

In contract negotiations, it isn't difficult to envision a day when teams and agents point to data generated by the tracking system.

“Everything that could be used against you, it could also be used for you," Winnipeg Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois said.

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TV networks will continue to display and talk about some of the information on broadcasts and studio shows.

“We have to make sure the data is used in the right context,” said former NHL player Anson Carter, now an analyst for Turner Sports. “We all know (Colorado center) Nathan MacKinnon is fast and if the data says he’s going nearly 40 mph, I’d use it if it showed that two or three other players were perhaps 7 mph slower and integrate it into an analysis to hammer home a point.”

Fans who want to know how fast players skate, how hard they shoot and more will be able to choose options that will show the data on an overlay as they watch on a big, medium or small, hand-held screen. Some details were announced in February.

“We're going to let fans decide how much or how little they want to incorporate it," NHL vice president of business development and innovation Dave Lehanski said. “They will be able to create a personally customized viewing experience."

Perhaps later this season, gamblers are expected to be able to wager on a new wave of bets. How far does the puck travel in a game? Who skates the fastest in the second period? Who has the hardest shot in the game?

“This is going to re-engineer the hockey better experience, which to put it politely is sub-optimal because it’s all about game outcomes,” NHL vice president of technology Keith Horstman said. “It’s exciting that this data is going to lead to in-play betting.

A sensor is shown with a Detroit Red Wings NHL hockey jersey, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Detroit. The NHL is using real-time tracking technology in pucks and on the back of players' jerseys, shooting to generate more data for teams, broadcasters, fans and gamblers.

“But, it's going to take some time to figure out what fans care enough to bet on and how the odds and probability will work. We’re working on it and I’d like to say it will happen this season.”

Brett Abarbanel, director of research at the UNLV's International Gaming Institute, expects there to be an appetite for the betting once the details are worked out by the NHL.

“This is the type of wagering that is attractive to fans so you’re going to see increased interest because these are wagers that can close more quickly,” Abarbanel said. “If I want to bet that the Vegas Knights are going to beat the San Jose Sharks, I have to wait until the end of the game. If I don’t want to wait, maybe I can bet on who skates the fastest in the first five minutes of the game.”

While gamblers will use the data to try to make money, coaches will take the information hoping to gain a competitive advantage to win games.

“The puck tracking piece is critical and we're excited about it with our analytics group," Blashill said. “We think it take some of the things we have in place and bring it to a whole other level."

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Montreal star Carey Price steps away for mental health help

Canadiens goaltender Carey Price has voluntarily entered the NHL/NHL Players’ Association joint player assistance program, a stunning announcement Thursday less than a week before the start of the season and just three months after the former NHL MVP backstopped Montreal to the Stanley Cup Final.

The league and players' union said the 34-year-old Price will be away from the team while he takes part in the program. The union did not specify why he entered the program, but Price’s wife, Angela, cited mental health as a reason in an Instagram post showing Price and their three children.

“Part of the privilege of being in the position our family is in, is that we also get a public platform to show how there is and can be a path for anyone who is struggling,” she wrote. “No matter what is on the line, we hope we can communicate the importance of putting your mental health first not just by saying it, but by showing up and doing the work to get better. Carey’s showing up for himself and our family and making the best possible decision for us.”

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) blocks a shot by the Vegas Golden Knights during the second period.

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said Price would be in the program for at least 30 days. He said the news caught him by surprise, but he encouraged everyone to seek help when needed.

“Because your hockey career lasts so many years, but you have the rest of your life — your kids, your family — that’s the most important thing,” he said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted his support of Price on Thursday night.

“Know that Canadians across the country are wishing nothing but the best for you, Carey — and we’re proud of you for taking care of yourself and putting your mental health first,” Trudeau said. “We’ve always rooted for you on the ice, and we’ll continue to root for you off the ice.”

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The issue of mental health among professional and amateur athletes has grown in prominence over the past year, with tennis star Naomi Osaka and Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles among those citing it as the reason they stepped away from certain competitions or events.

The issue certainly is familiar to the Canadiens. Star forward Jonathan Drouin has opened up about his anxiety and insomnia, which prompted him to take a break from hockey last spring during Montreal’s playoff push.

”(It’s) the elephant in the room sometimes. We don’t say anything and it’s very personal,” Bergevin said. “I salute (them for speaking out) and I’m glad they did. If there’s other players in the NHL who have different issues, whatever that is, I think the NHL and NHLPA are really looking at the well-being of their players.”

The NHL and NHLPA started the player assistance program in 1996, with players able to call a confidential phone line. The jointly funded group assists players and their families with mental health, substance abuse and other matters. Counselors are available in each NHL city.

Price's announcement rippled across the NHL.

“The amount of people this will impact and help by a guy of this magnitude coming out and saying he needs help will be astronomical," former Montreal forward Dale Weise said.

The news comes a day after Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said it would be unlikely that Price would be ready for the start of the season as he recovered from an unspecified illness. Price is also recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

Price was extraordinary in leading the Canadiens on an unexpected run to the Final over the summer, where they lost to Tampa Bay in five games. He won the Hart Trophy as league MVP and Vezina Trophy as top goaltender in 2015 and he has won Olympic gold for Canada.

Montreal initially expected Price to be ready for the start of camp. Instead, the Canadiens are expected to start the season with Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault as their goaltending tandem, with Cayden Primeau also available.

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Montreal is already dealing with change: Captain and veteran defenseman Shea Weber is dealing with potentially career-ending injuries. Phillip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Corey Perry, Eric Staal and Tomas Tatar have moved on.

Montreal opens the season Wednesday at archrival Toronto. Bergevin said he believes the team has enough leadership in the locker room to get through the adversity.

“I do. I think we have a good group,” he said.

Panthers, Barkov agree on 8-year, $80M extension

Aleksander Barkov was just a teenager when he arrived in Florida from Finland to start his NHL career back in 2013, spent a few weeks in his sunny new surroundings and came to the following conclusion.

“I could live here,” Barkov said.

He hasn’t left since. And the Panthers have ensured he won’t be leaving anytime soon.

Choosing loyalty over the chance to be an unrestricted free agent next summer and play somewhere else, Barkov has agreed to an eight-year extension with the Panthers, the team announced Friday. The deal is worth $80 million, with a $10 million average cap value, two people with direct knowledge of the talks told The Associated Press on Friday. They spoke on of anonymity because financial terms were not announced.

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov plays against the Detroit Red Wings in the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

“When I came here a year ago ... one of the foremost challenges that we were all confronted with was to make sure that we were on the way to creating an environment, creating a culture and an organization that Sasha would want to stay with," Panthers general manager Bill Zito said.

Mission accomplished.

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“All In," read the sign displayed aside Barkov at a news conference, where the signing of the player who won last season's Selke Trophy, given to the NHL's best defensive forward, and finished sixth in balloting for the Hart Trophy — the league's MVP — was announced.

“I'm really happy to stay here for a long time," Barkov said. “Now the work starts again."

The majority of the deal will be paid to Barkov in the form of a signing bonus, according to one of the people who spoke with AP. Structuring the deal that way was a win-win for both Barkov and the Panthers; for the player, it has certain tax advantages, and for the team, it allows future flexibility for other deals.

Barkov has been Florida’s captain since 2018, the leader on the ice and off, and securing this deal was the biggest piece of offseason business for a team that hopes to spend the next few years contending for the Stanley Cup.

He’s now under contract through 2029-30. This season marks the end of a $35.4 million, six-year pact he signed in 2016; the new deal kicks in next season.