Fans of international pond shinny have gone from giddy to glum in a short few weeks. The NHL’s green light of NHLPA involvement in the Winter Olympics gives the IOC’s flagging Men’s Ice Hockey brand a potentially huge boost, and yet Beijing’s bad PR and worse timing could lead to bizarre roster scenarios for national teams.
Strangely enough for an all-too-familiar situation, nobody in the NHL’s blogosphere is asking the right questions about player “participation” in Olympic ice hockey. New outbreaks of COVID-19 seem to have already quashed any concept of an ideal “best on best” Men’s Ice Hockey tournament, as the NHL will likely have to cancel its All-Star Break festivities and focus on squeezing-in a few extra games in February. Some advance Olympic roster choices from North America and Sweden have already indicated they’ll be backing out of Beijing, unless China severely loosens its COVID quarantine and testing procedures for the Games. With the “omicron” variant of COVID-19 threatening most parts of Asia, there isn’t much hope of that.
But when it comes to NHL stars from Eastern Europe, the question might be what the NHL and NHLPA combined can do to stop skaters from going to Beijing. Sweden’s ice hockey culture has been swallowed up by the NHL ecosystem to some extent, and yet players from Russia (“Team ROC”), the Czech Republic, and elsewhere don’t think quite like NHLers (and certainly not like NHL fans) when it comes to playing for their national teams. Team Canada’s best proudly bear the Maple Leaf when conditions are ideal and everyone from 2 continents is looking on. Many of Russia’s best North American pros, vacillating between careers in the NHL and KHL already, would gladly trade Beijing’s now-fabled “3 to 5 weeks of COVID quarantine” for a medal in the Winter Olympics. Many players – including some Canadian and United States skaters – will still want to go to Beijing in mid-February no matter what the circumstances, especially if they’re not scheduled to play NHL games.
Or, of course, the omicron variant’s rapid spread could cause too many current NHL dates to be scuttled to avoid a manic February of fill-in games. In that case, get ready for
Kunlun Red Star Team China to have fighting medal chances against fellow KHL players (and exactly 2 solid teams from Russia and Switzerland) in Beijing.
A loud minority of NHL partisans – frightened by the thought of men’s ice hockey lineups who could yawn and beat the Calgary Flames 8-1 – are openly pleased with the negative developments. What they don’t realize is that an upcoming IIHF event which is championed by NHL chauvinists could also get hijacked in an unpleasant way this holiday season.
The World Junior Championship is a best-on-best tournament, at least among the best who’re just approaching their prime years. The best U20 teams are usually filled with 1st-round NHL Draft picks and a number of fledgling, productive pros. 2021’s medal round was an NHL prospect-watcher’s fever dream, Team Canada and Team USA fighting it out for gold, led by NHL rookies scoring goals and making saves.
In the 2021-22 cycle, the same jittery team owners who’ve been ready to picket the airport to keep Sidney Crosby from leaving for China are also shy to part with top U20 skaters who’re already contributing to their NHL clubs. As a result, the U.S. and Canadian WJC lineups of 2022 (with the “2022 World Juniors” set to face-off a day after Christmas of the previous year as per usual) are looking a little dodgy.
2022 World Juniors: Gold Medal Odds From an IIHF Holiday Cookie-Cutter
In case all such senior-level international hockey chatter seems superfluous to the task of handicapping the 2022 World Junior Championship, consider that the outcome of 2021’s IIHF World Championship has had a noticeable effect on the opening-line gold medal futures odds on this cycle’s WJC teams.
Canada won the 2021 Worlds in Latvia with a decidedly “C” roster, led by a few spare top-6 forwards from losing NHL teams, such as sniper Michael Bunting. Bookmakers who had offered optimistic prices on Team Canada bling were aghast while the squad looked even worse than predicted in the round-robin, threatening to lose 1000/1 Group Stage team prop bets by not advancing to the quarterfinals. When undermanned lines began scoring and winning in elimination games, London and Las Vegas odds-makers were vindicated again, and the tournament’s surprise finale made it seem as though there was no adversity that the Maple Leaf could not overcome.
Maybe that’s true. But the Canadians were fighting for senior IIHF gold against 15 other rosters hampered by COVID-19 and a late-ending North American season. Not a single team at the 2021 Worlds had anything close to an ideal lineup, a far cry from 2019’s tournament in which Russia iced a “PlayStation” roster and triumphant Finland found a formula for all-Euro success against A-list NHL skaters.
The 2022 World Juniors won’t be held on such a level ice surface. Yes, the event is taking place in Edmonton at a time when travel is a huge stress on players, especially young and developing players who compete in the World U20. But the relatively convenient location doesn’t require NHL owners and GMs – who’ve all but declared a guerilla war against world hockey – to send their top 19-year-old stars.
Canada and the United States will have to overcome the fact that other teams are trying to win gold, and win gold ONLY, while the Habs and Yanks try to win gold and protect their best U20 athletes by not even putting them on the team.
Looking at the opening gold-medal odds on the 2022 World Junior Championship, there’s no denying that hockey’s bookmakers aren’t quite being honest with the betting public this time.
It’s not absurd to think casual WJC gamblers will assume Canada and Team USA are skating with all of the best U20 roster selections possible. Therefore, odds-makers have hedged toward where the money is probably going, not where it should go, putting “standard” favorites’ odds on each North American team’s market.
2022 WJC Gold Medal Futures Odds
(Courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook)
Canada U20 +125
USA U20 +300
Russia U20 +400
Finland U20 +600
Sweden U20 +700
Czech Republic U20 +1600
Switzerland U20 +8000
Germany U20 +10000
Slovakia U20 +10000
Austria U20 +30000
If the WJC’s betting odds are influenced by the weird, wild 2021 Worlds, so are the gold-medal lines also reflective of Elias Pettersson’s career as a teenage prospect. Scandinavian pro leagues aren’t nearly as close to the NHL in on-ice quality as the Kontinental Hockey League.
Based on league vs league comparisons alone, bookmakers should be quick to give Team Russia (+400) far more betting risk as a contender for payoff-gold than Finland or Sweden, as the U20 Red Machine is liberally stocked with KHL skaters. But analysts recall when Pettersson took the National Hockey League by storm less than a year after lighting-up the “not as close” Swedish league in the playoffs. The logic is that if a youngster is good enough to set any league of European vets on fire, he’s probably good enough to fool NHL and KHL goaltenders upon maturing.
As for the North American teams’ gold medal odds, “maturity” could be the top asset favored Team Canada has in the tank. Team USA isn’t likely to have another Cole Caufield begin the season by crushing the WJC and end it by acing the Stanley Cup playoffs. But the Yanks enjoy the 2nd-shortest odds for gold anyway.
Let’s pick out the 2 best gold-medal markets available at Bovada’s (mercifully) restored sportsbook prior to the 2022 WJC’s opening faceoffs on 12/26.
2022 IIHF World Juniors: Group A Preview
(Group A: Canada, Finland, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria)
Canada’s optimistic odds are further boosted by the hosts’ placement in Group A. Edmonton and Red Deer will welcome plenty of proud national programs in the flagship round-robin, including Finland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. But only the Finns are considered strong enough to challenge for 1st place in a 5-team pool alongside Canada. It’s been a slow, downhill ride for Czech ice hockey following the glory of 1998, and Germany’s U20 squad had to fight-off relegation in 2020
The Maple Leaf’s other best hope is a bountiful crop of healthy 19-year-olds who grew stripes in the World Juniors last season. After all, any player’s lack of big-time pro experience should be outweighed by his form in the event at hand. 19-year-old Cole Perfetti led Canada’s apprentice corps of 2020-21 with 6 points in the World Juniors. Defenseman Jamie “Money Man” Drysdale was a spectacular plus-11 in the WJC as an 18-year-old skater, and will almost certainly man the point for the Canadian power play after earning a spot on Anaheim’s special teams.
Goaltending, an increasingly crucial factor with the scores of World Junior Championship games tightening across the top division, looks solid for Team Canada, with Dylan Garand and potentially the massive Detroit Red Wings hopeful Sebastian Cossa ready to step in for the 2021-22 tournament. (Cossa is 6’6″ and 209 lbs. as a teenager, and may have missed out on being a prized pass-catching “tight end” in American pigskin through the sheer luck of being born in Ontario.)
“Futures” betting is about the future, and the medal round (news flash) comes at the end of an IIHF event, not the beginning. Canada’s WHL-based team won’t be outskated by Finland’s green Liiga troops, and Team USA’s speed can’t bother the Canucks until the medal round begins in early January. But could Canada find just enough trouble in Group A to prevent a handy “warm up” seed in the Q-Final?
Look out for Team Germany to score at least 1 nice upset in the 2022 WJC, and perhaps even fluster the Habs’ new GK corps when the nations meet on December 29th. A trio of future Trager Der Alder stalwarts led by Tim Stützle scored more goals than any other contingent of 18-year-old skaters in Edmonton last year. John Peterka and Florian Elias scored 4 times each to go with Stützle’s 5 tallies, though the totals were aided by a 3-game relegation round.
Elias returns to lead a team full of “seniors” (19-year-olds) in 2022, but Stützle and Peterka appear to have been discouraged from appearing at the WJC during the 2021-22 AHL season, disappointing roster news for Germans hoping for Cinderella gold.
Finland has managed to get AHL skater Roby Järventie back on board for the 2022 World Juniors, and dual-citizen Brad Lambert will appear as an 18-year-old after shining in his 2021 debut. Goaltending concerns are what hold Suomi back from sleeper status at 6/1 for the gold, as likely World Junior Championship starter Joel Blomqvist has been an inconsistent racehorse (especially on the IIHF stage) in spite of a brief, lovely stint of starting performances for Oulun Kärpät this season.
Recommended Group A Futures Picks: No Bets
2022 WJC: Group B Preview and Futures Picks
If you’re going to go with a bet on 1 of last year’s gold and silver medalists, Team USA is the choice at (+300) futures odds, if for no other reasons than 3/1 payoff (compared to the thin payoff on a successful Team Canada pick) and history.
USA Hockey’s terrible record of producing medals at the senior IIHF/Olympic level hasn’t slowed the U20 Yanks down in the 2010s or 2020s. The United States has won 3 of the last 9 IIHF World Junior Championships, and has played in the holiday tournament’s gold-medal game in 2 of the last 3 cycles.
To be sure, there are plenty of talented American skaters on board in 2021-22, even as Team USA nods to the frosh NCAA ranks (not the WHL or AHL) for most of its roster. Top-round pick Matty Beniers
has been compared to Jonathan Toews and other NHL playmakers, while Sasha Pastujov‘s recent OHL numbers lend hope for a scoring spark from the would-be Notre Dame forward who opted into club hockey.
The USA has no goaltenders with significant WJC experience, but that’s a plight suffered by most World Juniors squads with only 2-3 years per every complete roster turnover. Sweden won’t have that problem with large 19-year-old GK Jesper Wallstedt manning the goal crease, but due to the NHL’s wary eye on its favorite top-line pipeline, Tre Kronor U20 is so devoid of elite-level depth in 2021-22 that the Swedish team almost looks engineered to show up and play for bronze medals.
Don’t be surprised, however, if Wallstedt is a “Wall” in Sweden’s opening game with Slovakia, a slower team that struggles to score on stout blue-lines to begin with. That should make the U20 Swedes a nice pick against-the-spread on 12/27. (Remember, sportsbooks usually offer “spreads” of varied width on IIHF games instead of the usual “Puck Line” of (-1.5) goals on an NHL favorite.)
Russia is the best futures pick of the tournament at 4/1 odds. Yes, there are several tough nations in Group B, but a difficult draw is most likely to trip-up the United States and Sweden while allowing the Junior Red Machine to coast through to a #1 elimination-bracket seed with great netminding and expert defense.
Russian GK Yaroslav Askarov will be wooed by the Nashville Predators to try America very soon, following his terrific performance for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL this season. Askarov has maintained a 9.52 save percentage against a league of (a few) NHL-level skating teams and a whole bunch of AHL-speed rosters.
Several of the Russian team’s forwards are already teammates of Askarov in St. Petersburg’s reserve ranks. Matvei Michkov has been a fabulous play-maker in U18 tournaments, and gives the squad a sneaky 17-year-old threat to go with forwards like Nashville draft pick Fedor Svechkov and Winnipeg prospect Nikita Chibrikov. Alexander Pashin is a 19-year-old daredevil who’s likely to score on at least 1 or 2 vintage Russian counter-attacking plays in Edmonton this winter.
IIHF nerds will tell you Russia’s having a problem developing star blue-liners, and they’re right. Kirill Kirsanov is an L.A. Kings draft pick and 2022 WJC weapon whose draft status at deep in the NHL’s 3rd round offers no optimism of Paul Coffey numbers. Most young defenders from Russia play a scientific style that includes a minimum of pinching-in. But that’s the sort of game plan that could combine with Askarov’s presence to make the Russians a stone-cold hard team to score on.
In a tournament where Canada, Sweden, Team USA and other favorites rely on lightning-fast attackers flying down the wing and creating unpredictable havoc, the “boring,” precise style of Team Russia U20 will be an ultimate antidote. Combine that with a lineup full of KHL experience, and the 4/1 wager carries strength from the outset of the World Juniors that North American picks lack this time.
We can’t expect 19-year-olds to react, adjust, and set their teeth like 29-year-olds, at least when it comes to winning a gold medal. That’s good news for an international field that’s sick of watching Canada win with its “B” squads, “C” squads, and approaching “Z” if Beijing turns out to be another KHL-fest in February.
Recommended Group B Futures Picks: Team USA, Team Russia
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.