I’ve avoided making sports-predictions in public over the past few months, for reasons that will be spelled out in an upcoming NCAA football preview. For now, suffice to say that WagerBop is not a “square-gambling” publication, and has no plans to become one. 2020 has changed just about everything when it comes to ‘capping teams and championships, and I had to test-out a few theories before feeling comfortable again when telling people how to wager their money.
Turns out that the keys to COVID-era betting aren’t so hard to figure out after all. Hunter S. Thompson and I have a few philosophical differences when it comes to beating a sportsbook, and they include “don’t take winning for granted” – pen enough predictions and you’ll come to take winning and losing for granted. Good publishing principles always apply, and a handicapper should serve to help household bettors break 55%.
That’s why it would be derelict to not mention this season’s IIHF World Junior Championship odds, for which preoccupied bookies have joined with speculators in creating sportsbook prices that border on the ridiculous. Yes, it’s a miracle that the World Juniors are even taking place, let alone facing-off on Christmas Day. Team Canada and Team USA will no doubt benefit from the familiar scenery of Edmonton in addition to the typical cast of young NHL skaters. But “futures” betting odds are supposed to correlate with real % chances to win, and that’s why Bovada Sportsbook’s odds below are mispriced.
The fresh IIHF odds from Europe look a little dodgy too, and offers a window into how home-cooking affects the “neutral” analysis of hockey handicappers on each side of the Atlantic. IIHF pond shinny is near and dear to your blogger’s heart, but the best feeling of all is finding sports prediction-angles that Las Vegas, London, and everyone else have missed.
Let’s take a bang-and-crash course in the changing landscape of international hockey, and how the upcoming event could invite a few savvy long-term investments from those who enjoy sweating-out a bracket on New Year’s.
IIHF World Juniors: 2020-21 Futures Odds and Line Movement
Bovada‘s current lines:
Czech Republic +3300
And here’s some WJC futures odds from the UK, courtesy of NicerOdds.com. World Juniors odds on the left and right indicate the range of current prices.
Canada + 225 + 175
Russia + 250 + 250
Usa + 350 + 325
Sweden + 700 + 500
Finland + 800 + 800
Czech Republic + 3 500 + 3 300
Germany + 5 000 + 5 000
Switzerland + 5 000 + 5 000
Slovakia + 7 500 + 6 600
Austria + 50 000 + 50 000
You can see the discrepancy “straight away” as they say in London – Russia is handicapped a gold-medal favorite by close to 40% more overseas gamblers as North American investors. Betting slips from Bovada show that Canada is not just favored by Canadians, but a majority of National Hockey League fans like the Maple Leaf’s U20 prospects better than the young Yankees.
Yet in European markets, Team USA and the Canadians are seen to be on pretty-equal footing.
We can nix the idea that Canada, or any U20 team, is elite enough within the ranks to be a legitimate (-105) favorite to win the 2021 World Juniors. Canada may have indeed won the WJC last cycle, but the faces change on U20 teams even quicker than on your favorite prep and college rosters.
Canada won gold only twice in the 2010s. Finland and the United States each won 3 times in the decade, a reason why Finland’s odds this time around could prove to be a steal in many markets. Russia is the only other recent winner, so why is Sweden getting more pre-WJC action as a superior program?
If Sweden seems more valued by gamblers in the USA, it’s because of the immense Tre-Kronor presence in the NHL (and in the NHL Draft). But there can only be a single explanation for Team Russia’s disparate odds across continents this time. State-side handicappers aren’t sold on the KHL as a growing brand.
Scroll and get a closer look at the 6 shortest bets for Edmonton.
Canada and Russia have sent marvelous rosters to IIHF World Championships over the past 10 years, but the rivalry has suffered, since the nations rarely stack their senior squads at the same time. It’s the junior ranks, unencumbered by gripping restrictions on multi-million dollar NHL veterans, that can be counted on to produce a barn-burner between 2 proud hockey cultures.
In the 2020 World Junior gold medal game, Canada fell behind Russia 3-2 (of course) before scoring 2 unanswered goals to win in regulation time (sounds about right). Remember, though, those who star in the WJC at age 19 cannot “opt-in” to another year wearing the Maple Leaf, unless they’re so good that the illustrious Canuck senior national team already wants them.
Akil Thomas of the Petersborough Petes, who scored the golden goal, is no longer eligible to play in the WJC. Neither is Barrett Hayden of the Arizona Coyotes, who led Canada U20 with 12 points in the triumphant tourney. Goaltender Joel Hofer, who was terrific against a deeper pool of talented teams than the World Juniors are used to hosting, is 20 years old and preparing for an audition with the St. Louis Blues.
To be sure, there’s a wealth of talent on the 2021 roster, starting with Alexis Lafrenière, the 6’1″ #1 overall draft pick of the New York Rangers, who scored 4 goals and 6 assists as an 18-year-old “redshirt junior” winger in the World Juniors. Lafrenière earned points at a blistering 2+ PPG average in the QMJHL last season. Centerman Connor McMichael is back after a strong WJC, having lit-up the OHL for a long time before going to the Washington Capitals at #25 overall. The defense won’t just be the set of post-junior hockey monsters you’d expect – they’ll be Paul Coffey-idolizers like 18-year-old Jamie Drysdale, who could menace Europe’s conservative penalty-killing units as a point man.
But I’m not sold on the Habs as a favorite-to-win, and not just due to the historical record. From a world-hockey POV there are few proven commodities on-hand. In many cases, COVID-19 circumstances have prevented players from facing NHL or KHL-level competition. NHL clubs have been trying to sweat through a rough time and have bigger fish to fry than developing hot prospects; the best thing NHL draft picks can do (and have done) is to sit tight. Now they’re supposed to up and play like a 1-to-1 favorite?
Of course Canada could win a WJC on home ice. That’s always a possibility, but it’s not a (-105) kind of possibility this time.
The Yanks return several key contributors from a roster that finished 6th at the 2020 World Juniors. “9 top-round picks!” is the slogan going around the 2021 squad, but you can always tag an impressive number on the 1st-round NHL draft picks of Team USA or Canada.
Team USA should have a solid advantage between the pipes. Boston College sophomore Spencer Knight is returning, along with 2020 Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the Year Dustin Wolf as his backup. Knight has been excellent in NCAA pond shinny with a perfect 4-0-0 record and 1.50 GAA to go along with a .955 save percentage this season.
Scoring depth could also be an asset. A pair of Team USA forwards, Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras, have already signed NHL contracts but haven’t suited up for a professional game yet. Zegras, who signed with Anaheim, led the Americans in last year’s WJC with 9 points, though he scored 0 goals and tallied all 9 as assists. But the Los Angeles Kings signee had 9 goals and 17 assists in 29 games in his only season at the University of Wisconsin.
The U20 team also returns leading goal scorer Arthur Kaliyev, who scored 4 times and added 2 assists in 5 games last year. Kaliyev has had back-to-back dominant seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs.
USA Hockey is tasking Jake Sanderson, the 5th-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, with anchoring the blue line in his international debut. Sanderson is among a half-dozen 18-year-olds who’ve made the roster, and is already starring on the pond at University of North Dakota.
NCAA vs KHL could make for a fascinating match-up.
More than half of the Russian roster is playing in the KHL, a burgeoning ice hockey league that does not get nearly enough credit in the Western media. Team Russia U20 is a 4-to-1 underdog to win the 2021 World Juniors in state-side betting markets.
Those facts are not unrelated.
It may surprise newcomers that “4-to-1” Russia lost the 2020 gold medal game to Canada in a heartbreaker. In the 2020-21 cycle, 18 of Team Russia’s 25 athletes have already been drafted by the NHL. Whether they’ll all choose to play here is another matter.
Goaltender Yaroslav Askarov is an 11th-overall pick who has been otherworldly in his professional debut with a 0.96 GAA and .962 save percentage in 7 KHL starts. 6-foot-4 Shakir Mukhamadullin will utilize size and strength to protect Askarov and anchor the blue line.
Scoring could be led by a duo of Maple Leafs prospects. Forward Rodion Amirov has registered 8 points in 23 KHL games, while fellow sniper Mikhail Abramov has tallied 14 points in 9 games for the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigers. Yegor Chinakhov shocked many pundits by getting drafted in the 1st round by Columbus in October. Yet he has 8 goals and 7 assists in a short KHL campaign, blowing-away expectations in his maiden pro season.
Kontinental Hockey League clubs are not usually as strong as NHL teams, though CSKA Moscow and a few others could fare OK against a modest NHL schedule. NHL Network broadcasts would have you think that KHL teams would lose to AHL teams. What’s undisputed is that the Russian league has been playing games, seasoning the U20 squad against big, fast, mature talent.
Team USA and Team Canada are filled with players who we expect to flourish in the pros, but they’re not there yet. Top KHL squads routinely smash anyone from any league _but_ the NHL. Keep that in mind vis-à-vis Team Russia’s WJC potential.
The only negative to the Russia (+385) pick is that the 2020-21 roster will not have had much practice on Canadian ice compared to the QMJHL and even NCAA kids on North American teams. An opening match with the United States on Christmas Day will be followed by Russia vs Czech Republic, and then Russia vs Sweden before New Year’s. Even the NHL-drafted Russian skaters will be trying to adjust to new angles on the fly while facing the 3 toughest squads in Group B.
But only 1 team out of 5 gets relegated, and the other 4 advance to an 8-nation elimination bracket and begin on even terms. You’ve got to beat all (or at least most) of the best competition around to win gold at the World Juniors, and the Russians are an underrated candidate to do so for a 4th time in the new century.
If there were a medal for winning preliminary games, the Swedes would easily get it. Sweden has won an impressive 51 straight games in Group play dating back to the 2007 World Juniors, yet has only a single set of gold medals (2012) to show for that dominance. No team was impacted by COVID-19 like the Swedes, who have had 4 players and their head coach sidelined by the virus, but Tre-Knonor can still boast the most experienced U20 roster in the tournament.
Sweden returns its starting GK from a year ago in Hugo Alnefelt. Alenfelt had a .924 save percentage and 2.12 GAA in last year’s WJC and has looked decent in the Swedish pro ranks. Sweden is led by a pair of top-10 NHL Draft picks at forward, Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond, but both wingers would have benefitted from the presence of center Karl Henriksson, a playmaker who was forced out of the mix due to COVID-19 precautions.
D-man Philip Broberg will play in his 3rd WJC after taking extended minutes in the Swedish Hockey League. Joining Broberg on the blue line are 2 players with NHL experience, Tobias Bjornfot and Victor Soderstrom. Bjornfot played 3 games last season for the Kings before finishing the year in the AHL, while Soderstrom spent a summer with the Coyotes.
2019’s gold medalists were distraught to finish 4th last cycle. The Junior Lions return 6 players with World Juniors experience, including 2 who played on the championship roster. Defenseman Ville Heinola is a Winnipeg Jets draft pick who will anchor Suomi on the blue line. Centerman Anton Lundell skated all 7 games in 2019 but missed last season’s WJC due to injury. Lundell is off to a fast start in Liiga with 12 goals and 8 assists.
Scoring, defense, gold-medal pedigree, and 14-to-1 futures odds. What could go wrong? Goaltending, namely.
There’s a small but noteworthy gap in the talent pool of Finland’s up-and-coming goalies, and as a result, a discrepancy between the average quality of Suomi skaters and goaltenders at the 2021 WJC. All 3 goalies on the roster play in the 2nd division of Finnish hockey – the Mestis – while almost all of its skaters are in Liiga, the top Finnish league.
Finland GKs include the experienced Kari Piiroinen and youngster Joel Blomqvist. Piiroinen was the backup for Finland in 2020 and allowed just 1 goal in his only appearance. Blomqvist provides more upside and is more rangy and agile.
The Czechs aim to ice an experienced team. Not a bad idea in junior competition. The current 2021 roster includes 43 games’ worth of seasoning at the World Juniors. A combination of 8 skaters and 2 netminders will return from a squad that lost a 2020 elimination game 5-0 to Sweden.
Scouts will stay busy watching the Czech Republic blue line. Stanislav Svozil is a potential 1st-round defender on a team that lacks overall star power. Svozil is a fluid skater with excellent play-making ability.
However, the Czechs must prove – like Finland – that goalies can keep pucks out of the net. Sweden isn’t even designed to win playoff games 5-0 against programs like the Czech Republic. 3-1 or 4-2 usually works just fine for Tre-Kronor.
WJC Group Winner and Gold-Medal Futures Picks
Regretfully, the best wager of opening day at the 2021 World Juniors won’t pay off very well. Team USA is likely to be a (-150) moneyline favorite (if it’s a longer line for USA to win, it’s only because ties are possible in Group play) and I do expect the United States to win the battle, if not the war, on Christmas Day. The Russians will need time to adjust to the rink in Edmonton.
In fact, the junior Red Machine could make a sweet mid-tourney futures pick or Q-final moneyline to whip a Group A stalwart in early January, be it Canada, Finland, or Switzerland. The problem is that not every sportsbook, including Bovada, is reliable and/or predictable in maintaining “floating” futures odds during a short holiday tournament.
If you happen to see Team Russia offered at (+400) or (+600) at the start of the medal round, then that’s a great gamble. In case it’s not there when the time comes, though, it’s worthwhile to invest in the 4-to-1 market before the World Juniors begin.
IIHF World Junior Championships: Group Winner Picks
Group A: Canada, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia
Canada (-275) and Finland are each reasonable bets to win Group A. The Habs, like the Yanks, should get a preliminary advantage from the atmosphere and local fan support, like a (quieter) Slovakian rally in the early stages of the IIHF Men’s World Championship in 2019. Finland is a simple value pick at (+275) as a squad that could upset Canada in a shoot-out on New Year’s Eve (when even the North American players’ families can be distracted) while keeping pressure off its own crease in 3 other contests.
Slovakia may jump off the betting board as a (+4500) sleeper, but Switzerland (+4000) is the strongest of 3 underdog picks to earn a top medal-round seed at the World Juniors. Switzerland keeps improving as a program, winning IIHF bling with hometown pros despite an annual bookmakers’ urge to somehow price Eisgenossen out of existence.
The only thing keeping the Swiss close to a true 40-to-1 underdog to win Group A is that top-division World Juniors games tend to get out-of-hand quickly, because many of the U20 kids haven’t learned how to defend (or goal-tend) for 3 periods on Olympic ice, on which the angles are always key, and where there isn’t enough close-quarters chaos to keep youngsters tuned-in. That’ll be less of an issue in a Canadian setting, even with family-only attendance or no attendance at all in 2020-21.
Group B: Russia, USA, Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria
Russia is WagerBop’s 4-to-1 pick to win the medal round, but Team USA is a wonderful futures bet to win Group B at (+180). USA Hockey’s struggles to win gold at IIHF (and IOC) events do not conjoin with a trend of doing badly in preliminary rounds.
Furthermore, the Yanks’ schedule makes it easy to run in front, with the boost of preparing for Russia in Game #1 to be followed by a lay-up vs Team Austria (USA vs Austria at the Men’s Worlds isn’t automatic, but it will be at the World Juniors), then a nice long rest and as leisurely of a face-off schedule to end a round-robin as the IIHF has ever booked for a team in a premier event.
There’s also no way the Czechs should be priced as long as (+1400).
Now for a quick look at 2021 World Juniors prop bets.
World Juniors Prop Bets and Predictions
“Winning Continent” Prop Odds: Winner From North America or Europe?
Without a calculator handy, the North America vs Europe odds appear to be fairer to overseas teams, at least when compared to the nation-by-nation futures odds. But remember that there are a maximum of 2 North American nations that can potentially finish 1st, and that every other team in the World Juniors belongs to the Continent with a capital C. That helps a Europe prop-investor out with real odds, i.e. actual chances for 1 of the teams to win gold.
Besides – and not to play a devil-on-shoulder here – a Winning Continent prop bet on a pool of 8 dad-gum potential winners is a fun holiday cheering experience. You can spend days full of left-over turkey rooting for a whole “allegiance” of hockey nations to bring home a golden ticket, and even cheer for woebegone teams like Germany, which lost 8 players from camp due to COVID-19, just to bother the favorites a little bit and help clear a path for Sweden or Finland.
Money is fun too. Europe at (+145) (compared to North America at a thin (-190)) creates a nice risk-reward ratio and is a safer pick-to-win than any individual 4-to-1 bet for gold, including Team Russia.
Top Goal Scorer Pick: Arthur Kaliyev (Team USA) – (+1200)
Top Point Scorer Pick: Vasili Podkolzin (Team Russia) – (+1200)
Top 3 (Gold, Silver, or Bronze) Pick: Czech Republic (+750)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.