Sports are like politics in that if a subject is careful to keep her opinion from getting pigeonholed, there’s always someone to come along and do it anyway.
Take the last dozen years of American football as example. If you think Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick were misused, misunderstood, and brave fore-runners of Lamar Jackson’s powerful modern-day NFL option game, then you must be a clown-car from Loony Land who credits each guy with a professional career worthy of the Hall of Fame. Think that Tom Brady (or any quarterback) can’t legitimately be called the “GOAT” unless having taken snaps against Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, and other icons of past eras? Hmm, tell me, why do you think Tom Brady sucks? Oh, and if you believe The Rock should probably not try to become a minor-league kingpin in the pigskin world, then you must think Dwayne was a poor wrestler who never should have been booked to go-over Mick Foley.
WagerBop could easily be pigeonholed as “international hockey nerds” given our annual focus on IIHF Men’s and Women’s tournaments. NHL junkies bemoan the lack of “best on best” hockey from year to year at the World Championships, with “best on best” presumably meaning that each nation is icing its absolute 20 best players at every turn, or else the competitions mean nothing. That’s not the standard used for gauging the prestige of cross-continental soccer matches – in fact, it’s definitely not the standard that hardcore NHL fans use for the importance of an upcoming faceoff. A season-ticket holder for the Colorado Avalanche might say something like, “it’s too bad Gabriel Landeskog is banged up, but the opposing team’s goaltender is also injured, which gives our other snipers a shot to make noise tonight.” Imagine an Avs enthusiast saying instead: “That makes a dozen injuries and scratches for this game, and you know, the NHL doesn’t mean anything in the wider scope of hockey. It’s just not best-on-best.”
Our pond-shinny blog has defended the IIHF Worlds on the basis of national-team hockey rosters fluctuating quite like “trading cards” teams from childhood. You didn’t always get Keith Hernandez on 1st base and John Smoltz on the mound each time somebody dealt-out “cards” teams, but some of the resulting lineups were, in fact, beautiful. There’s also a neat practical angle to the IIHF’s long-criticized May schedule, which leaves out scores of potential NHL-based talents from being able to compete with their international squads, even right through the late-May medal round.
IIHF scoreboards would look a lot different if the best 22 players from a country represented the team in every single appearance, and perhaps it wouldn’t please the “best on best” crowd, who would surely bemoan that nations without 1/10th as many organized skaters as Canada or the United States were winning just as many games at the top level. Denmark, to wit, would become a nightmare opponent thanks to its top-15 ranked skaters in the NHL, KHL, and elsewhere. If the Danes suffered 4-5 injuries, their performance level against “All-Star” lineups would crater, because Denmark has absolutely no depth to speak of compared to annual IIHF gold-medal contenders. However, that angle wouldn’t matter as much if a red carpet was rolled out for each flag’s very best possible roster every single time. The countries with exactly 20-30 elite players would have an enormous advantage in relative terms, and would always qualify for the Worlds, as opposed to an Olympic format that weeds-out some thinner talent pools. The IIHF Worlds’ contentious timing makes it impossible to win gold without a deep national-team system.
But the “trading cards” view of World Championship rosters has its own flip side…excuse the pun. There’s no point in making fun of IIHF Worlds haters if fans grant them the social-media ammunition of looking like a deluded cheering section from (you guessed it) Loony Land. When the weird timing of “World Championship” ice hockey tournaments leaves superstars out, it’s stupid to pretend. “B” tournaments are “B” tournaments, even if haters erroneously claim there have been 100 “B”s in a row.
Despite a brief groundswell of anticipation that disappointed would-be Olympic skaters would flock to Finland once their NHL teams were eliminated from Stanley Cup contention, the war in Europe and culminative fatigue from rushed post-COVID pro hockey schedules have discouraged marquee North American players who’ve been easy marks for their national teams in the past. Once again, the IIHF Worlds have become a test of substitute-cogs and national program depth in 2022.
2022 IIHF Worlds: Handicapping a World Tournament Without Name Brand Rosters
It’s been a backslide for the IIHF in getting premier NHL and KHL skaters to the World Championships, either as dynamos for Division 1 lineups or contributors at the elite level. 2019’s top-tier tournament featured a Russian team that walked off the screen of a fake “PlayStation” roster, and yet wasn’t even good enough relative to the field to win more than bronze. COVID-19 issues have obviously taken a toll since then, but even the crushing blow of an NHL-NHLPA pull-out prior to the COVID-plagued Beijing Games in February could have served to ramp-up IIHF Worlds interest among players who enjoy representing their flags. Instead, the rosters in Finland this year – so far, anyway – look a lot like we would have expected them to if NHLers did travel to play in China. Needless to say, 2021’s lineups weren’t all that exciting either.
Russia’s war-time suspension (and on-going political squabbling inside Red Machine ice hockey) has obviously taken a strong batch of KHL skaters out of the equation, in addition to NHL snipers like Alex Ovechkin who are always happy to suit-up and play under the IIHF banner. But it’s not as if Russia – a nation known for valuing international hockey gold above all else – has been doing well at putting elite rosters together since 2019. Canada’s best national-team loyalists like Connor McDavid and Ryan O’ Reilly are more likely to clash for Stanley Cup tournament bids than play in Finland. Sweden almost always produces a beautiful NHL-based lineup to take part in the World Championships, but not in 2022.
Then there’s the reluctance of NHL GMs (and even, we suspect, national team managers from North America) to send highly-priced NHL goalies to the IIHF Worlds. That syndrome is getting worse just as Canada comes off a miracle win over a weak field in the 2021 World Championship, and just as the landscape would be otherwise wide-open for Team USA to finally make a serious gold-medal charge.
Switzerland – yes, Switzerland – could have the best and most well-motivated NHL continent of any team in Tampere or Helsinki. That’s not reflected in the pre-tournament betting odds on a gold medal. But you’ll find that no matter what superstar absences may plague the annual IIHF Worlds, speculators can always find odds on international games and medals which are skewed unwisely by North American bettors and handicappers. In fact, as big of a bummer as it is from that childhood “trading cards” perspective, it’s arguably a bigger bonanza for ice hockey’s high-rolling sharks (from San Jose and otherwise) when the Worlds is a “B” level gala.
World Championship Gold Medal Odds in 2022
(Lines courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook)
Czech Republic +375
Great Britain +100000
We’ve already given away the recommendation that Switzerland will prove a valuable pre-tournament futures pick, and most likely a strong moneyline wager early-on in the 2022 Worlds round-robin, before Las Vegas can adjust to the team’s “surprising” success.
But like auto racing bets, or futures picks on PGA Tour golf, it’s best to divide units and “field a team” of more than 1 entry at a world hockey tournament. Where is Switzerland’s “teammate” on an IIHF Worlds betting board for which each pick has at least as many arguments against as for? Let’s use process-of-elimination to get rid of some national teams who absolutely can’t win gold in Finland this year, before moving to a closer group-by-group look at the best lineups.
France and Austria have been added due to the ban on Russia and Belarus, and join Italy, Norway, and Kazakhstan as teams who’re simply glad to be in the field, and hoping to mount some upset bids along the way. Great Britain coach Peter Russell refuses to use any of England’s semi-nationally bred NHL and AHL skaters, dooming the Brits to the same fate year-over-year. Still, it’s obligatory at this point to credit Team GB with restoring ice hockey in its birthplace.
Slovakia and Denmark don’t have the depth to win gold, Team Germany may not have the attacking prowess to prevail in an elite GMG (Germany didn’t in Korea in 2018, despite everything else going right for Trager der Alder against Russia), and Latvia, for all its timeless fanfare as a hockey program, is perpetually a goal behind in the 3rd period and nearly, but not quite, scoring the equalizer before time runs out. It’s just what Team Latvia does.
That leaves just 6 teams who could be viable gold-medal picks, and lo-and-behold, Team USA is among them. Let’s look at each contender in each group-stage pool before selecting a team to sit next to Switzerland as the best pre-tournament pick in 2022.
IIHF Worlds Group A Contenders: Canada and Switzerland
WagerBop’s prediction for Team Canada at the 2021 World Championships was so accurate, and so nearly a jackpot winner, that it’s bound to have caused some trauma among those few members of the betting public who went-in on our recommended pick. We’re sorry.
What happened? Canada put together a COVID-19 era lineup of NHL prospects and 3rd-liners that felt an awful lot like a Team USA roster at the Men’s IIHF Worlds…designed to nobly represent the brand but not necessarily to win. It’s a myth that reserve NHLers are natural favorites over championship all-Euro squads like the 2019 Finland national team, let alone a field of quality IIHF squads with plenty of NHL snipers from Europe mixed in. Michael Bunting was the Maple Leaf’s biggest scoring threat in 2021. Subsequently, our rather left-field prop betting pick prior to the 2021 Worlds involved putting just a half-unit on Team Canada to miss the medal round altogether. It has happened to Team USA with very similar rosters on hand.
Canada opened the Worlds with a losing streak, and sat in the cellar of the Group Stage standings. The Maple Leaf not only faced a win-out-or-else scenario, but needed a combination of other outcomes to fall into place just to qualify for the quarterfinals. Lo and behold, it all happened, taking what might have been a (+10000) odds payoff from the hands of gamblers. To add insult to “bad beat” injury, the Habs went on to win a crazy-improbable gold medal by defeating Russia, the United States, and the pesky Finns all in a row.
But the Canadians enjoyed the services of Colorado Avalanche star Darcy Kuemper in 2021; this time around it looks like Chris Driedger of the Seattle Kraken might be the guy, which makes Canada a less than “cracking” pick at very chintzy (+300) gold-medal odds in 2022.
Could a surprise early NHL playoff exit save the Habs’ goaltending? It’s more likely that McDavid shows up late to Finland to rescue a catch-as-catch-can attack. Besides, it takes some superstar power already on hand to lure great players overseas following a playoff loss.
Switzerland is a terrific Cinderella gold-medal pick at 12-to-1 odds, there’s absolutely no doubt about it. The dynamic Swiss blue line will be keyed by National Hockey League defensemen Jonas Siegenthaler and Dean Kukan, while NHL forwards like Nico Hirshier and Timo Meier should lead the event’s scoring stat-sheet if healthy through the medal round. Switzerland’s checking lines are full of fast, quality skaters from the nation’s underrated National League, and there are no superstar goaltenders present in Finland to simply out-class the Swiss in a gold medal tilt. We’ve said for years that the National League is 2nd to the KHL in training elite skaters to defend on IIHF ice, and for now, the best KHL snipers are mostly absent.
Group B: Handicapping the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, and Team USA at the 2022 Worlds
Finland continues to reach gold-medal games with a Liiga and KHL-based lineup that almost seems wholly divorced from the nation’s contingent of NHL stars. The Lions’ ongoing success is a credit to professional hockey outside the NHL, but we’re just not feeling a worthy annual underdog at bona-fide favorite’s betting prices. Assistant team captain Marko Anttila has been the “Stephane Matteau” of the IIHF in seasons past, scoring huge goals in elimination games while leading the squad’s unique checking efforts. But it’s uncertain how much the 36-year-old has left at this stage – he could be a liability and not a lurking threat in the medal round.
Sweden’s 2022 lineup is bananas-awful. Sweden’s best 100-200 skaters are mostly tied up in the NHL and AHL ranks, and yet a weird contingent of newly-signed KHL skaters could actually be leading Tre Kronor’s offense in Finland. Magnus Hellberg only looks like a legitimate NHL goaltender on the entry roster, having played in just a handful of games for New York, Nashville, and Detroit. The Czech Republic’s entry list, by contrast, includes 5 NHL skaters and could be about to welcome a few more, with Tomáš Hertl leading the way for a 4-to-1 pick that may have upgraded its goaltending and transition game at just the right time. There’s usually an elite Team Russia or Team Canada lineup to finally check the Czechs, but there won’t be this year.
Team USA’s lack of superstar juice doesn’t rule the Yankees out as a contender any more than it “disqualified” the victorious Canadians in 2021. The team’s typical “token” college kids, like Sean Ferrell of the Harvard Crimson, could actually make a splash in Helsinki, playing alongside a blue-collar forward group that includes productive newcomers like Vinni Lettieri.
But – as would be most predictable – the Team USA netminding situation is the pits. Alex Nedeljkovic of the Detroit Red Wings is the type of puck-handler who can flourish with a solid team, and did so with Carolina in 2020-21…before showing that he can’t do much to bail-out a dull lineup all throughout this season. USA Hockey is so disdainful of sending elite Yankee goalies to the IIHF Worlds that Strauss Mann – not to be confused with “David Mann” from the debut Steven Spielberg move “The Duel” – of the Swedish SHL is in 2022’s backup contingent.
It’s a crying shame about United States ice hockey. The way that IIHF rosters have been deteriorating in strength to begin the 2020s, it might take only a single great GK and a handful of snipers to put an end to Canada and Finland’s dominance and win gold medals for once. However, unless USA Hockey sets business concerns aside and recruits a higher-priced roster for the World Championship, it could be another 50 years before the watershed comes.
WagerBop’s Recommended IIHF Worlds Futures Picks: Czech Republic (+375), Switzerland (+1200)
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.