Update 3/26: The Kontinental Hockey League has chosen to cancel the remainder of the 2020 playoffs. The Coronavirus pandemic has claimed yet another sports victim – but hopefully we can apply some of this year’s analysis to the next KHL season. That’s only if rosters don’t change too much over the summer, of course.
Update 3/16: Predictably, the 2 non-Russian clubs have now refused to take part in the KHL playoffs.
In an interesting twist, the KHL’s homeland contingent is now meeting to discuss a Gagarin Cup playoff system that would work for only the 6 teams remaining. The fact that the KHL has not given “byes” to the 2 clubs without 2nd-round opponents would appear to indicate that “byes” for top W/L seeds is not necessarily going to be a part of the solution.
For the short-term all KHL play has been suspended for a week, making it even more unlikely that the league will host expected restricted-attendance matches with the current bracket in place. Something new will presumably be devised for the remaining eligible contenders, who do not have to travel across national borders to play against each other. (Air travel may also be minimized.)
Will the KHL adopt an IIHF “B”-tournament format and have the 6 teams play a round-robin schedule for the Gagarin Cup “gold medal?” For years, this blogger has covered IIHF Divisional tourneys out of respect, not figuring any self-respecting NHL handicapper would stoop to care. Now there’s a chance the little-known Federation format for teams seeking promotion could be used to dole-out the ultimate promotion – a championship in the only active major sports league in the world.
We just can’t call the KHL title an “international” championship as of 2020 – 1 of the 6 Russian teams will lift the hardware if league operations are able to continue through spring.
A silver lining for Jokerit Helsinki and Barys Nur-Sultan – the teams voluntarily taken-out of Gagarin Cup contention in 2020 – could be the increased worldwide focus on a pair of brave franchises. Western sympathy for the Finnish National Team, Helsinki as a community, and even the Finnish system of government runs deep, but for some reason there’s not as much interest in the “Jokers” of Helsinki. More’s the pity, since the team is run by GM Jari Kurri – a name some of you may have heard – and has the coolest nickname anywhere.
Meanwhile, the latter-mentioned Kazakhstani outfit is a credit to international KHL clubs, and could probably whip the Kazakhstan National Team if only Dustin Boyd could be cloned to play against himself.
The only reason I know anything about Russian club hockey is – wait for it – I’m an insomniac. When you’ve made enough predictions on a sport, handicapping it becomes a game of its own, and blogging until midnight leaves only the AM hours for private speculating on pond shinny. I’ve learned that the KHL is not only the most noteworthy league in Europe, but as suitable for red-eye viewing as anything this side of the Far East. You can jump up in the morning and stream the Kontinental Hockey League, but you can also stay up all night, utilize the crazy time difference, and watch the KHL’s early schedule of 1 or 2 face-offs on winter weekends.
Update 3/14: Jokerit Helsinki has pulled out of the KHL playoffs due to Coronavirus concerns. League officials will be meeting on Tuesday to discuss the fate of the Russian hockey postseason.
KHL teams like SKA St. Petersburg, skaters from which comprised more than half of Russia’s gold-medal Olympic roster in 2018, often play in prime-time games. As in, “Eastern Hemisphere” prime-time. Despite being the only midday face-off on a plurality of dates, Russia’s stand-alone pro hockey broadcasts are scheduled for convenience and regional tradition, like the Detroit Lions always playing on Thanksgiving Day even after the club posts a terrible W/L record the previous NFL season. It is thanks to this quirk of the KHL that I am as well-acquainted with its dregs as its feature attractions.
Such familiarity could come in handy this spring, since a worldwide pandemic has brought 90% of the sports universe to a standstill. People won’t quit gambling on whatever events are available. When Sil from The Sopranos says “certain aspects of show business, and our thing,” he might be astute to add sports betting to X-rated movies and the mafia in the list of recession-proof businesses. Gambling action will survive – but viewers will have to pick from the major sports still in action, and the KHL is foremost in the pack.
State-side NHL blogs
like Yahoo Sports I won’t mention have published unfair, reprehensible smears of the KHL. Once in 2009, the KHL hosted an All-Star Game outdoors in Red Square, with Jaromir Jagr captaining a team and Alexei Yashin captaining the other. I’d have paid a dollar to sit in the stands for that one, how about you? But the American report on the game did everything but put “Ew, Gross” in the headline. With a certain thinly-veiled xenophobia, NHL bloggers’ overall theme was that Russian hockey was weird (and implicitly lousy).
That sort of talk has died down over the years. In fact, stories like those out of Los Angeles this weekend have KHL cynics’ cigars burning down to stubs. Nikita Nesterov turned down a lucrative offer from the L.A. Kings, choosing to remain with CSKA Moscow on a 5-year contract. The 26-year-old defenseman had a promising career going in the NHL as early as 2014. In fact, he was becoming a rare commodity – a plus-player who rarely took penalties and scored points from the blue line. But Nesterov has found a comfortable home with a premier team in Moscow, where he scored 11 points in the Horses’ postseason run to a Gagarin Cup in 2019.
Fans have been taught that if a player is not in the NBA, or the NHL, or even the Premier League, it is because they’re not good enough to be welcome there. The hierarchy is more complicated than that. KHLers like Nesterov are not NHL prospects any more than Mike James of CSKA Moscow’s EuroLeague basketball team is an NBA prospect at age 29. James worked hard for years to earn an NBA audition in 2017-18, in which he snagged rebounds and dished assists as a bench player in Phoenix and New Orleans. He struggled to shoot above 40% in the pros, but has obviously fixed that issue as the 2nd-leading scorer in Europe. James will probably be sought for an NBA training camp this offseason. But perhaps he’d rather flourish in Russia than fight for a starring role in the USA, much the same position that Nesterov is in.
How to Handicap the KHL Playoffs
The NHL would dominate a global Champions League of hockey. Just as the best 31 English soccer clubs would destroy the top 31 teams from France or Belgium or Denmark on aggregate. That doesn’t make Neymar a Premier League prospect and it doesn’t make Paris Saint-Germain less of a championship winner. Finland beating a PlayStation fantasy squad from Russia at the Ice Hockey World Championship with 0 NHL skaters handy should have iced any skepticism that the European clubs can play. American bloggers wrote about “a team of domestic Finnish players” but Marko Anttila and other Suomi standouts aren’t playing in Finland’s Liiga. They’re in the KHL.
A better way to make an NHL-KHL comparison to is look to major college sports. The National Hockey League can be compared to the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten, in which there are mostly pretty good (and some very good) teams and only a handful of stinkers. KHL rosters are more like Group-of-5 programs. Not all of ’em could compete without getting humiliated in a power league, but you know legitimacy when you see it. Team USA Olympic coach Tony Amonte said he thought the ’18 Russia (or “Olympic Athletes of Russia”) team could have beaten 2 out of every 3 NHL clubs it played, perhaps not realizing that he was staring at a souped-up version of St. Pete’s “Soldiers” in PyeongChang.
Ice hockey junkies who turn to KHL gambling while the Coronavirus takes its toll could be in for a big adjustment. The Kontinental Hockey League often behaves like a less-mature NHL from the 1980s or 1990s, with top-rated clubs biding their time and allowing underdogs to hang around in the standings until playoff series tell the tale. Glancing at KHL scores throughout the season, an NHL handicapper might conclude that anything can happen in Russian hockey. There are in fact a lot of strange upsets in KHL regular-season games, but in the postseason, betting those underdog moneylines can be a frustrating experience. Favorites have their brooms out, poised to sweep.
CSKA Moscow is a KHL favorite once again, following a striking regular-season campaign in which the club gave up only 99 goals in 62 games. The league’s weakness is that there aren’t enough quality homegrown goalies and defensemen to go around, so it stands to reason a team with both luxuries can mount a repeat Gagarin Cup bid in 2020. Horses galloped again in a 4-0 Western Conference quarterfinal sweep last week, though Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (bless you) forced overtime in the final 2 games.
KHL Futures Odds and Playoff Moneylines in Round 2
Offshore betting books made for American gamblers are hesitating to re-handicap the KHL now that all but 8 teams are eliminated. I say “hesitating” not because Kontinental Hockey League futures odds would be a Las Vegas priority under normal circumstances, but the coronavirus pandemic is in full bloom, and these are not normal circumstances. Bettors itching for action will turn to the Gagarin Cup playoffs before they wager on Australian soccer or some brave orphan of an overseas golf tourney.
Bovada has every reason to offer championship odds on the Russian league, but the sportsbook is meekly displaying lines-to-win the Eastern Conference only. AK Bars Kazan is the popular gamble in the market at (-170) payoff odds. Meanwhile, MyBookie (and Bovada) still offers futures lines on the 2020 World Championship, an event that just saw its sister Women’s Worlds event cancelled in Canada, and which will likely also perish once organizers realize that the usual cast of superstars will under no circumstances travel to Switzerland. At least overseas club hockey markets have a chance of getting an outcome instead of bets being returned! But there are no KHL futures at MyBookie as of Saturday morning in Moscow, despite Dynamo Moscow having beaten HC Spartak in the last Q-Final game on Thursday.
Never fear – we’ve got odds from London. CSKA Moscow is a (+110) wager to win another Gagarin Cup at BetVictor. (I wonder if Bet “Victor” is run by that gangster from the movie The Principal. Remember Victor? He’d run a pretty decent betting book but you’d want to avoid wearing suits around him.) Bars Kazan is a (+350) underdog to lift the hardware but St. Petersburg (+350) might be considered a stronger bet to win if only the Soldiers didn’t have to march out of a strong Western Conference.
It’s a team game of shinny in Moscow’s rival city, making St. Pete’s the “blue collar” pick for a Gagarin Cup. Team captain Sergei Plotnikov never scored a goal in a brief NHL stint with the Pens and Coyotes, and he didn’t score 10 times for the Soldiers this season. But he’s a contributor in the transition game, and likes to find 13-goal scorer Arytom Zub for shots from the blue line.
CSKA Moscow is your team if you’re looking for big names – Kirill Kaprizov is a 22-year-old marksman who will be sought by the Minnesota Wild in the near future. It’s crazy to think that Moscow forward Mikhail Grigorenko is only 25 years old – the man played for the Buffalo Sabres as a teenager. But he’s blossomed on Russian and international rinks since leaving the NHL over commissioner Gary Bettman’s anti-Olympic participation policy. 57 points in 65 KHL and IIHF games in 2018-19 speaks for itself, and Grigorenko remains a punishing player who can match big hosses like Plotnikov in strength along the boards.
Avangard Omsk is weirdly showing up as a market on British odds boards for some reason, even though the Hawks lost to Salavat Yulaev in the quarterfinals. Perhaps these numbers aren’t fully up-to-date, or maybe Avangard coach Bob Hartley has just inspired that much confidence after taking his club to the Gagarin Cup finals in 2019. They can’t win it now – the KHL playoffs are down to an (hopefully Corona-free) elite 8.
Oh, and if you really need to contact Russia’s air force, try Omsk information.
Rest assured the top 3 clubs won’t move around much when offshore books finally get around to offering 2020 Gagarin Cup futures again. At least not until we’re well into the 2nd round of playoff action next weekend. CSKA Moscow is regarded highly.
Oh, and don’t worry about the large ice surface of the KHL causing any major issues in handicapping. It’s true that large ice can be a talisman of boring games and occasional bizarre upsets. When a strong European team wants to shut down an opponent for a period or more at a time, it plays a “left-wing lock” or right-wing boundary system that keeps 3-5 players in the neutral zone to defend rushes. Coaches like Hartley have become renown for their defensive Xs and Os on the wide ice overseas. But also-ran KHL clubs have top-heavy defense corps and tend to struggle with gap control late in games. That allows fast-paced favorites full of NHL-level skaters to blow by most underdogs when it counts, and to overcome 2nd-period deficits in the process.
Don’t sleep on KHL forward lines just because they’re not scoring a ton of points in a “thin” league. The disparity of Russian hockey actually causes superstars to miss-out on potential 3 and 4-point performances. Ilya Kovalchuk spent many hours riding the pine (or guarding the neutral zone) in St. Petersburg once the team held a 4-0 or 5-1 lead on Dinamo Riga. Resulting raw stats led North American pundits to conclude Kovalchuk had nothing left to offer on an NHL rink. Those same “experts” might have lost their bets last week when Kovalchuk scored 3 points on the New York Rangers to help Washington eke-out a point on the road.
With the above in mind, feel free to browse the KHL Conference Semifinal Game 1 picks below, and don’t be afraid to add your own handicap and betting logic to WagerBop’s before indulging in some AM-hour streaming and gambling action.
After all, hockey is just hockey – goals from great snipers count for 1 everywhere.
Sibir Novosibirsk at Barys Nur-Sultan
*** Like the Jokerit Helsinki at St. Petersburg match-up below, this prediction is now merely a “Fantasy” thought-experiment for dedicated KHL-heads.
NHL fans can scroll down to our final 2 predictions for touts on face-offs that may still happen within a week or so. ***
Siber’s moneyline looks a little bit long at (+160), and it can’t be because they’re playing a club from Kazakhstan in the conference semis on Tuesday. Most of what state-side bettors know about Kazakhstani hockey is that the Kazakhs get their Borats beaten down every time the national senior or U20 team makes a TV tournament.
It must be the NHL transplants at Barys Nur-Sultan. Forward Dustin Boyd was a double-digit goal scorer in the NHL until he became chronic trade-bait in 2009 – the veteran flew over the Atlantic and turned into a reliable KHL cog. Team captain Darren Dietz had a promising debut with the Montreal Canadians before blossoming for Barys.
But I’m feeling the underdogs in Game 1 and in the series, because there’s nothing like a nuclear-hot goaltender to carry a club through early playoff rounds. Harri Sateri of the Siberians split games with Alexei Krasikov this season, but has an unreal 96.6% save percentage through 5 games in the playoffs. It may take the firepower and patience afforded to a Bars Kazan or a CSKA Moscow to solve and defeat him. That’s another reason why gamblers are weighing regular-season results too heavily – Sateri didn’t emerge as a brick wall-slash-game stealer until the postseason began.
Pick: Siber Novosibirsk
Jokerit Helsinki at SKA St. Petersburg
Update 3/14: Jokerit Helsinki has pulled out of the KHL playoffs due to Coronavirus concerns. League officials will be meeting on Tuesday to discuss the fate of the Russian hockey postseason.
Read below for a terrific underdog bet that wasn’t, unless you already got a push out of it.
Helsinki’s (+150) line for Game 1 is my most-confident underdog pick of the round. Not only is the Finnish club talented enough to beat St. Pete’s in a 1-game scenario (or in the whole 7-game series) but the roster is sure to be extremely focused on Tuesday’s task.
It’s not the gladdest of reasons. Jokerit Helsinki players comprise a nucleus of athletes who would likely have been chosen for the Finland National Team at the upcoming World Championships, including national squad captain Anttila and defenseman Mikko Lehtonen. Since those players earned gold medals last cycle, questions would have buzzed around the Helsinki club as to whether all of its national team members would be recalled – those who had won the WC in 2019 – or whether the team would face backlash for cutting last year’s heroes to make room for NHL skaters. Homeland anticipation for the Worlds would have reached a fever-pitch even as the KHL and Liiga playoffs carried forward. Ultimately, from a handicapping POV, the Helsinki club’s betting value increases as a result of a soon-to-be-cancelled World Championship.
Meanwhile the St. Pete’s roster isn’t quite as star-studded as it was 2 years ago. Vladimir Putin has taken heat for supposedly “stacking” SKA St. Petersburg, but if you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was taking steps to encourage KHL parity in 2020.
Pick: Jokerit Helsinki
Salavat Yulaev Ufa at AK Bars Kazan
Salavat Yulaev Ufa. That’s a mouthful, and probably a badge of shame for any habitual gamblers reading these predictions. “Ah, crap, I’m down to betting on a team called Salad Yugoslavia something!” browsers will say.
But seriously, we’ve got to pick a moneyline favorite in a Game 1 somewhere, and Wednesday’s early face-off in Kazan is as strong as any such market. The Snow Leopards of Bars Kazan finished 1st in the Eastern Conference with a roster that features 2010 Olympian Danis Zaripov on defense, former Toronto Maple Leafs winger Matt Frattin at forward, and a terrific young goaltender in Timur Bilyalov.
If (-210) feels a little skimpy for a sure-fire pick, go with Bovada’s tasty (+145) puck line on the (-1.5) Snow Leopards.
Pick: AK Bars Kazan
Dynamo Moscow at CSKA Moscow
Wednesday’s follow-up game faces-off just 30 minutes after the 1st one, so why not a low-stress Over/Under pick for those streaming both?
There’s always a temptation to pick the Under (4.5) when CSKA Moscow is hosting a game. Goaltending is a massive strength for the minus-odds favorites, with Ilya Sorokin emerging as a world-class GK and veteran Lars Johansson backing him up. Nesterov already has 3 assists in the postseason, and Canadian pro Linden Vey is nearly scoring a point-per-game through more than 50 appearances with the club in 2019-20.
But when the sportsbook is offering (Even) 1-to-1 payoff on Over (4.5) goals, it’s never a bad idea to peek over the abyss. Wednesday’s Game 1 will be a rivalry contest, a derby if you will, in 1 of the largest cities on the planet. CSKA (-385) was as cool as you like winning 3-0 in the last series debut against Torpedo. But I’m not certain a league built on showmanship and wide-open skating is about to host a snoozer in Third Rome.
Dynamo has some offense, starting with long-time NHL veteran Maxim Afinogenov. If the “visitors” happen to score in the 1st period, CSKA will probably feel compelled to open things up. This prediction could look flatly wrong, of course, after the hosts (or at least the hosts of a particular rink in Moscow) win a methodical 1-0 game as supporters from both sides whistle. But I’m expecting a free-wheeling contest and would also take the favorites to cover the (-110) puck line at Bovada.
27 players have scored points for the Red Army this year…a 28th might get to drill an easy empty-netter to cap off another win.
Pick: Over (4.5) and/or CSKA Moscow (-1.5)
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.