It is rare for the junior level of a sport to receive more attention than the senior level. The Alabama Crimson Tide’s redshirted freshmen surely have their own scrimmages and intramural games, but nobody would ever kill a tree in retaliation for losing one. Hopefully not, anyway.
There are exceptions to every rule, however, especially in ice hockey where rules are meant to be bent.
The IIHF World Championships are held in Europe each May, and NHL fans literally make up fairy tales to get out of watching.
“Nobody cares and the hockey sucks.” (Last year, Patrick Kane led Team USA to a bronze medal over Connor McDavid’s Team Canada, and Sidney Crosby took the Maple Leaf to gold in 2015.)
“All of the best players are still in the NHL playoffs.” (There are exactly 4 NHL teams left alive when the medal round begins. Funny how the 88 best players on Earth are always on those 4 teams. How do the GMs afford the salaries, though?)
There are non-fictional reasons why the spring “Worlds” are ignored in the United States. Games from Europe are broadcast very late at night or in the morning. Gary Bettman would just as soon the tournament didn’t happen, and fans (and GMs) worry that their favorite players will get hurt while competing overseas.
But the World Junior Championships, known colloquially as the “World Juniors” or the “WJC,” are embraced by North America. The event is often held on domestic ice and features dozens of top-notch NHL prospects. Anyone under 20 is eligible to play.
The newest chapter is called the “2019 World Juniors” but begins on the day after Christmas, just under 2 weeks from press time. This season’s incarnation will be held in British Columbia.
If you’re tired of watching conservative hockey, the World Juniors are your antidote. There will be a whole lot of free-wheeling speed and talent on the ice. Goalies aren’t fully seasoned, players struggle with gap control, and goals are often plentiful.
Gamblers get in on the fun too. A 2-week tourney allows futures bettors to pick a country and cheer them from the opening round-robin to (hopefully) an 8-team single-elimination round for the gold.
The World Juniors catch national TV in prime-time during a vacation week, meaning that for once, nobody has to place a bet and then check Google to see if her pick prevailed.
Futures Odds for the 2019 World Junior Championships
Here are opening-consensus gold medal futures lines for each national U20 squad competing in Canada:
|(Group A)||(Group B)|
|Canada (Even)||USA (+250)|
|Russia (+600)||Finland (+600)|
|Czech Republic (+1000)||Sweden (+600)|
|Switzerland (+5000)||Slovakia (+5000)|
|Denmark (+20000)||Kazakhstan (+50000)|
Massive underdogs have almost no chance to win games at the WJC. Experienced pros from Europe have a knack for defending on big ice, which leads to upsets at the World Championships and Olympics. But that doesn’t factor into a teenage shoot-out like the World Juniors. Firepower rules the competition.
Canada, Finland and the USA have each won 2 of the last 6 gold medals. The last true sleeper to finish as high as 3rd was Slovakia in 2015. The Swiss, Danes, Kazakhstanis and probably even Czechs can be written-off immediately before handicapping the rest.
Canada is defending the 2018 crown, and 19-year-old Nick Suzuki could jump up and have the best WJC of any forward in Group A. But the Habs are dealing with a lot of turnover. Many members of the squad “graduated” last cycle. It’s easy to see why the hosts are strong favorites – Suzuki scored 100 points in the OHL last season – but they’re unproven for an even-odds wager.
It’s been a while since the Russians have won a WJC. Team Russia is built around goalkeeping, patience, and counterattack. It’s hard for a young squad to get the first 2 ingredients down.
Red Machine fans are excited about St. Louis Blues forward Klim Kostin. But key defenseman Alexander Alexeyev was seriously banged-up in a WHL game this week.
Kamloops' Zane Franklin given 5 and a GM for boarding Washington Capitals first-round pick and Red Deer Rebels d-man Alexander Alexeyev tonight. It has been reported that Alexeyev left the game and is at the hospital. pic.twitter.com/OlKNRiqYM1
— Brandon Rivers (@BriversWHL) December 12, 2018
Sweden could prove to be a stronger 6-to-1 contender than Finland. While the “Lions” are excited about the sniping prowess of Kaapo Kakko, the SM-Liga forward is only 17, and at a natural disadvantage at the WJC. For now.
Tre-Kronor plans to ice a stubborn defense, an untold luxury at an event with final scores like 8-5 and 9-2. Chicago Blackhawks draftee Adam Boqvist will lead a blueline with 5 top-round picks in the top 3 pairings, and goaltender Olle Eriksson Ek returns from a squad that won silver in 2017-18.
Team USA will boast a pair of exciting kids from the Vancouver Canucks system, defenseman Quinn Hughes and forward Tyler Madden. Ryan Poehling is a big, strong forward who scored almost a point per game for St. Cloud State last season.
But Jack Hughes, the American squad’s much-ballyhooed new center, is only 17. It’s hard to win in the medal round unless the team’s key players are maturing athletically.
Finally, Slovakia is an interesting 50-to-1 long-shot in an event where long-shots typically have no betting value at all. Martin Fehérváry of the Washington Capitals is part of an excellent class of 19 year-olds that Slovak fans call the “1999s.”
World Juniors Betting: Pointers and Predictions
Be wary of “under” bets at the World Juniors. While individual defensemen and centermen will be bragged on, no WJC lead is ever safe against an accurate passing and shooting team, and scores often go over the goal total before you can say “bad gap control.”
My favorite trick is to live-bet on heavy favorites ATS in the 1st intermission. Nations like Kazakhstan will often manage to go 20 minutes tied or losing by a goal to Sweden or the United States. That causes the goal spread to tighten. Then the underdog’s defensemen and GK get tired, and the final score winds up 10-1 for the powerhouse.
Who do I like in the futures markets? Canada is problematic at (Even) and the United States may look a bit fatigued in the final days. Either squad could conceivably win anyway. But I’m leaning toward Sweden at (+600) and Slovakia at (+5000).
The Swedes play a unique “torpedo” style and could have the best blueline in the tourney, while if Slovakia is ever going to seriously contend to win, this is probably the year it will happen.
Happy holiday hockey!
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.