My spring pond-shinny blog always includes a 3-pronged preview of the NHL playoffs, IIHF Worlds, and Women’s World Championships, in addition to Nikola‘s recaps of all 3 tournaments. Hockey’s solis-tastic triumvirate took another COVID-laced body blow this April when the Women’s Worlds were cancelled (or at least postponed into summer), leaving only the Stanley Cup tournament and the IIHF Men’s World Championships to worry about for the time being.
While the NHL playoffs are fascinating to watch, and often lucrative for wise speculators due to the too-short betting lines gifted to
Toronto Canadian and northeastern teams, those who know this sports writer personally can attest that the World Championships would normally pique my handicapping interest more than NHL playoff predictions do – normally.
The Year of Our Lord 2021 isn’t normal times. There’s a cringe-y aspect to Men’s IIHF previews this year, and weirdly, this time, it’s not the NHL’s fault. National Hockey League officials didn’t try to squeeze-in a “full” 2020-21 schedule of games as some had initially feared. Still, a rash of COVID-19 outbreaks and hiccups in the plan have left whole divisions scurrying to finish a late slate while others prepare for a muddy playoff schedule, causing the funny cursing and complaining in NHL dressing rooms to take a darker turn.
Coronavirus was a large-enough barrier to getting NHL players to Latvia for the 2021 IIHF World Championship, slated to begin (gulp) this Friday, May 21st. (Vancouver and Calgary skaters are pretty much screwed out of Worlds participation, at least in Group Stage, thanks to playing-out the saddest string of NHL regular-season games ever right on through mid-May.) Fans will debate whether the Women’s World Championship will be a better tournament given 2-3 extra months for national teams to prepare, and a certain goaltender from Finland‘s fearsome presence may attest to that. There’s absolutely 0% doubt that the 2021 Men’s Worlds would be a superior event if hosted in June, or July, or August, but the IIHF is unlikely to push back its Men’s World Championship dates at all, calling the Federation’s strange timing into question once again.
“There’s No Skill at the Worlds,” He Said, While Watching Brendan Lemieux Punch a Guy
Be prepared, international hockey fans. The IIHF’s sloganeering haters are about to have a field day with the 2021 World Championship, an event for which bad timing and arduous travel gives only about 1/4th of the NHL’s talent pool a fair chance to participate.
Not only are NHL clubs preparing for playoff series, many of which will not begin for a few days yet, the league’s tentatively-confirmed participation in the 2022 Winter Olympics makes it even less-likely that national team mainstays will embark on a long, dangerous trek to compete in eastern Europe with only a few practices.
In short, the 2021 IIHF Worlds will be Men’s Ice Hockey at the 2018 Olympic Games – plus a handful of brave representatives from the NHL. Given the hesitancy of KHL top-liners to suit-up for Russia annually, it could be even more of a mixed bag than the dicey rosters in Korea.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Contrary to popular belief, it’s never supposed to be this way. Yes, the IIHF holds steadfast on beginning the Worlds before the Stanley Cup playoffs conclude because of the faster spring cycles of European club leagues, but 70% to 80% of NHL players are typically eligible to play for their national-team brands in May. Canada, Russia, Sweden, and Team USA manage to send All-Star rosters to the World Championship every so often, while other nations seem to labor to recruit NHL superstars to play. The constant flux of IIHF rosters makes the Group Stage a lot weaker than a best-on-best tournament, but it also tests each nation’s will to ice a noble World Championship squad that’s representative of the best of its talent in body and spirit. Otherwise, in the medal round, even All-Star teams can lose.
— Finnish Jr Hockey (@FINjrhockey) May 25, 2019
But there’s a fine line between welcoming just enough NHL and KHL stars to keep the IIHF Worlds relevant, and having the floor fall-in completely on the event’s precious base of willing skaters. 2021’s late start and restricted travel environment, in addition to a looming 2022 Winter Olympics ice hockey event in China, have decimated North American rosters to the pits of a D-list talent pool.
Just a glance at the Team Canada entry roster for this weekend is witness enough. If there was ever a year when the “none of the best NHL players go” crowd is finally correct (much like a stopped clock) about the IIHF World Championships, 2021 is it.
It’s also been well-established that Team Russia isn’t having an easy time getting its best KHL skaters to play, meaning that the Red Machine cannot simply take advantage of the circumstances to waltz to a gold medal.
What does that leave us? For supporters of legacy nations outside of Finland and the Czech Republic, it’s ominous news, or at least reason enough to ignore the Worlds.
But there’s damn good reason for gamblers to pay attention.
IIHF Worlds Gold Medal Futures: Crazy Odds More Lucrative Than NHL Playoffs
I wrote an editorial called “The Odds Must Be Crazy” years ago about those times when bookmakers and high-rollers appear to have gotten drunk together. Bovada Sportsbook’s wacky 2021 IIHF World Championship odds are really an example of an interesting psychological phenomenon, Ms. Thompson, and make me think of that title again now.
This year’s IIHF Worlds gold medal odds, in no particular order of illogic:
Russian Olympic Committee +250
Czech Republic +700
Great Britain +100000
First and foremost, the above IIHF Worlds odds appear based on historical results, not reality, at least as it pertains to top ranked ice hockey nations this spring. In other words, the gold medal odds are accurate to the results of past Worlds, but not to the outcomes of international pond shinny when the big shots don’t have any elite, veteran snipers to call on.
Canada played with 20 NHL “bubble” skaters at the 2018 Olympics, and was eliminated 3-2 by Germany. Few of Russia’s “developmental” rosters have ever contended for gold, and we saw the Czechs skate in mud without NHL workhorses in winter ’18. USA Hockey has given the “old college try” (literally) for decades on-end with teams laden of NCAA and NHL rookies in the IIHF Worlds. Not only are those lineups dismissed when bling is on the line, but 1 such squad was sent to a relegation round in 2010, and forced to defeat Italy and France to avoid a humiliating berth in a lower division. Yet, for example, despite icing almost no A-list lineup choices in 2021, the Russians and Canadians are drawing gold medal futures bets at 2.5/1 and 2.75/1 respectively. Sweden, often overwhelmed without quality NHL players to man every position, is about a 5/1 pick. Team USA has a slim shot at a medal, but 9/1 for the gold? Please.
Now look at countries that have proven they can contend for medals without NHL contingents on-board. Finland is finally getting some gold-medal action at 5-to-1, but the defending world champs can rely on a mean batch of KHL skaters more loyal to the brand than either 75% of Suomi’s NHL representatives, or NHL/KHL snipers on other countries’ wish-lists. Perhaps the Lions’ odds should be shorter than Canada’s in 2021. Switzerland at 25-to-1 gold medal odds is a practical joke, carried-out by bookmakers against themselves. Switzerland’s National League is debatably the finest training ground in the world for IIHF tournaments. Recent medals and upsets from the Swiss are the fruits of that preparation.
Then there’s host Latvia, an unreal long-shot on the odds board at 66-to-1 gold-medal futures. If goaltender Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets were playing, Latvia would be the futures-odds steal of the decade to win at least a bronze medal at 20/1. But his Blue Jacket teammate Matiss Kivlenieks has looked solid against NHL playmakers and terrific on large international ice, and could always emerge as the new hometown hero in ’21. Team Latvia is also a phenomenal “penny” prop bet at 150/1 to allow the least goals in Group Stage. Head coach Bob Hartley’s squad put a talented Tre-Kronor squad to sleep in the 2018 quarterfinals, losing by a thin margin as the Latvians so often do.
This time around, anything is possible in the IIHF World Championships. It’s hard to say which Cinderella will emerge from the pack, but top-ranked nations don’t tend to win gold medals with weak, green rosters following short camps.
The door is wide open for another surprise victor in 2021. Bettors who are willing to risk nickels on a variety of underdogs at long odds are set to prosper more from the tournament in Latvia than those who only ride 1 pony.
Because there’s no clear favorite, no obvious Cinderella, and few NHL stars at the IIHF Worlds in 2021, in-depth roster evaluations would be meaningless to most readers. Instead, scroll below for 16 “capsule” previews on Men’s World Championship nations taking the ice this weekend.
2021 IIHF World Championships: Group A
Bovada odds-managers could have mixed-up Russia’s IIHF Worlds bid with the nation’s upcoming Winter Olympic incarnation, in which another wrist-slapping measure from the IOC will obligate Team Russia to compete as “Russian Federation” athletes under a different flag, with everyone from journalists to announcers made to comply with the charade. Russia is already adapting its jerseys to Federation insignias as of the 2021 IIHF Worlds, but the IIHF website refers to the team as “Russia,” and there don’t seem to be as many branding restrictions that apply this time around. Punishing Team Russia for its sins, real or imaginary, is more of the IOC’s fetish than the International Ice Hockey Federation’s.
Russia has successfully recruited exactly 2 skaters over 29 years old to play at the Worlds (sizable forwards Anton Burdasov and Evgeni Timkin) but has avoided having to put any teenage and lower-division prospects on the team. In fact, the Red Machine will be icing a formidable defense corps that includes longtime wish-list NHLer Ivan Provorov and Artyom Zub of the Ottawa Senators, who scored 13 goals in 55 games in his last season on large ice rinks. Russia is another excellent pick to allow the least goals in Group Stage. The problem is that again, top KHL scorers like Vadim Shipachyov are sitting out the World Championship. Mikhail Grigorenko leads a tiny group of NHL forwards that could number as little as 2-3 players throughout the tournament, but they’ll still be tasked with leading the squad on the attack.
Russia leads-off the IIHF Worlds with a faceoff against the Czech Republic on Friday.
Tournament Wager: Pass
Come hell or high COVID-19 rates, the Swedes have managed to get some NHL playmakers to Riga. Adrian Kempe starred at the Worlds late in the 2010s and returns as a 24-year-old, joined by Richard Rakell and 2 full front lines of NHLers. However, Tre-Kronor’s blue line – and goal crease – will be manned exclusively (at least going by the entry-roster) by KHL and SHL players. Sweden’s junior ranks are a pipeline to the National Hockey League and its minor-league affiliates like no other country outside of North America, and its European club pros are almost 100% guys who were looked at by NHL scouts and didn’t have the skills to garner a shot.
Tournament Wager: Pass
IIHF pundits have often chatted-up the “up and coming” Czech Republic over the last few years, but competition is fierce among top-10 ice hockey nations. Success has failed to materialize in the Men’s medal round, and the brand hasn’t scored, goaltended, or “checked” its way to a podium at the World Championships since 2012. The Czechs have secured the services of several exciting NHL youngsters like Jakub Vrána, but CZE’s relative inexperience is underscored by Filip Hronek getting handed the team captaincy at 23 y/o. Czech supporters will hope KHL netminder Simon Hrubec is this year’s version of Kevin Lankinen.
Tournament Wager: Gold Medal (1 unit bet) (+700)
Holy heck, what’s not to like about Team Switzerland at 25/1 odds? Switzerland has the loyal services of 2 of the best 10 non-NHL players in the world in GK Leonardo Genoni and defenseman Raphael Diaz, and will ice an NHL contingent that’s got “quality over quantity” written all over it.
Don’t be surprised if Nico Hischier, already a captain in New Jersey in spite of tender years, leads the Worlds in scoring at some point before or after June 1st. The Swiss have won 2 recent silver medals at the IIHF Worlds against stronger brackets of 16. Team Switzerland is a wonderful (+250) underdog to upset Sweden in its 2nd Group A faceoff, after which we can expect Las Vegas and London lines on the Swiss to begin shrinking. 5-to-1 odds on Eisgenossen to finish top-3 is a jaw-dropping gambling market, kept dark-horse long by action from NHL chauvinists who think journeyman North American pros can out-play Europe’s absolute best. 9 out of 10 outcomes have proven that concept wrong over the years.
Tournament Wager: Gold Medal (2 units) (+2500) or Top 3 Finish (+550) (3 units)
The Danes make another amazing top-3 sleeper wager at 50/1 odds. Here’s a team that’s world-class on at least 3 out of 4 forward lines, yet Team Denmark doesn’t necessarily rely on its NHLers since an equal number of the squad’s playmaking aces skate full-time in the KHL, Finland, or Sweden. One rational reason for Denmark’s long odds is that its vaunted major-league depth chart is exceptionally thin this time around, and San Jose Sharks newcomer Alexander True may turn out to have the most jump in his skates in Group Stage. Still, in a tournament for which circumstances have whittled big-shots down to size, the Danes are worth adding to a gambler’s low-risk stable of possible Cinderella teams.
Tournament Wager: Top-3 Finish (1/2 unit) (+5000)
Team Slovakia’s entry roster includes only 2 (young) skaters from the world’s 2 dominant hockey leagues, Marian Studenic of the New Jersey Devils and KHL forward Adam Liska. But don’t count-out the Slovaks, another team of well-prepared European club players who play in almost every World Championship they’re invited to. Experience will count for a lot in an event without many superstars streaking around. Slovakia does begin the Worlds with 2 games it should win, faceoffs vs Belarus on Friday and then Great Britain on Sunday.
Tournament Wager: Top-3 Finish (1 unit) (+1600)
The Belarus roster is chock-full of KHL veterans, a precious commodity in a tournament in which Kontinental Hockey League skaters and goalies make up the real backbone of the field. But because of an unlucky draw, the Belarusians are not a worthwhile addition to a “platoon” of underdogs to invest in for the 2021 Worlds. The team’s old Russian style won’t tend to produce goals against the methodical defense of Switzerland, Russia, Sweden et al. World Championship upstarts need at least 1 big upset to earn a Q-Final berth, and Slovakia’s likely slow-motion takedown of Friday’s (+140) underdogs will set a tone for Belarus’ tough road ahead.
Tournament Wager: Pass
Britain’s return to the top-level of World Championship events in 2019 was a joy to behold. England had a huge hand in inventing modern pond shinny after all. Things looked bleak in what was essentially a “relegation game” against France when the hockey Bleus took a sizable lead. Then came the coolest comeback of the most-recent IIHF Worlds.
— JayOnSC (@JayOnSC) May 21, 2019
UK coach Peter Russell has a canny formula for survival at the top level, and it includes A) practicing way in advance with a cohesive team of native professionals, without regard for transplants or English-Canadian players, and B) allowing Team GB to play loose-and-easy hockey against NHL and KHL stalwarts, helping to avoid injuries and build confidence against the best goalies. It could be a much simpler task to avoid relegation against a weaker field in 2021, but the British are no use as a futures bet of any kind due to the team’s strategy of conceding offense to the IIHF’s aristocrats. Britain won’t pull off many Worlds upsets because the squad is not designed for that task.
Tournament Wager: Pass
IIHF Worlds 2021: Group B Analysis and Best Odds
Team Canada’s roster looks like a Team USA roster from the World Championship circa Y2K, and that’s not a compliment. The Habs are already inconsistent at recruiting the best goaltenders available for the Worlds; this time Hockey Canada has dipped into the AHL to welcome 21-year-old Michael DiPietro. Only 5 NHL professionals are currently practicing with the Team Canada defense corps, and Adam Henrique could be asked to lead the way on offense after producing a meager 21 points in 45 games and going on waivers this season. Michael Bunting will crash the net with all kinds of motor, but the Maple Leaf doesn’t have 3 forward lines’ worth of him. Latvia is not an ideal opponent for Friday’s debut in Riga, and things could go downhill if the hosts score an upset.
Overpriced is overpriced, but the sub-3/1 odds on Canada to win the World Championship feel more like charity, a souvenir for lonely Canuck fans of the international game. Canada’s (+100000) odds to finish 5th or worse and fail to reach the medal round is a potential windfall at penny-risk. What happened last time Hockey Canada couldn’t get 20+ established NHL guys for a clash of national teams?
Tournament Wager: Nein
Prop Bet: Team Canada to Miss Q-Finals (1/2 unit) (+100000)
The defending champs are easily the most-solid futures wager at 5/1, if only because Finland proved that it could win gold medals without any help from the NHL. Russia recruited a “PlayStation” team of NHL and KHL superstars in 2019, and Sweden and Canada’s lineups were full of NHL studs with plenty of gas in the tank – Finland beat them anyway and won Cinderella gold with European (and AHL) players only. Against a very limited number of NHL players in 2021, with the top 2 KHL scorers sitting out, the same type of squad must be considered a true favorite in the medal round. Besides, Finland’s drawn an easier lot than Russia, with a gimme against Kazakhstan to help the team gear-up on the maiden weekend of Worlds faceoffs.
Marko Anttila, who dominated the GMG against Canada in ’19, is back for 2021, and defenseman Olli Määttä gives the Lions 1 more active NHL player than the previous team.
Tournament Wager: Gold Medal (1 unit) (+500)
For once, anyway, we can’t blame USA Hockey for assembling a green World Championship roster on purpose, as part of a plan to “develop young players” for an Olympic title that never comes. In fact, Team USA has done well to recruit 3 goaltenders from the NHL, a sleek defense corps that should at least keep the puck moving, and some experienced forwards like Ryan Donato, who played in the ’18 Olympics as a youngster. Jack Drury is another forward to watch, a 21 y/0 Carolina Hurricanes’ draft pick currently on loan to the SHL.
You can argue that the Yanks drew the easier round-robin pool, possibly making the United States an OK underdog bet to win Group B at (+450). But speedy rookies tend to run out of steam by the 2nd week of the Worlds, and Team USA’s lineup has more in common with the also-ran U.S. Olympic squads of 1984-1992 than a contender for gold or silver.
Tournament Wager: Pass
Could the Germans rekindle the magic of 2018, when Marco Sturm led Träger der Adler to Olympic silver – and nearly gold – despite missing 5-10 North American pros? Sturm isn’t coaching any more, but at least some state-side pros can participate with the team in 2021, like Tobias Rieder of the Buffalo Sabres. German “DEL” skaters are made to compete in moderately-paced, scientific hockey games.
16-to-1 odds on a gold, silver, or bronze finish is a little thin for a squad missing all of its NHL goalies, though.
Tournament Wager: Pass
Perhaps 2021’s hosts won’t have the kind of overwhelming fan support Team Latvia usually gets, at least not live and in person, thanks to restrictions on Worlds attendance. As stated before, Latvia also won’t have its star goaltender. Those would be prohibitive factors in the 2022 Olympics, but lots of teams share those kinds of disadvantages in Riga. At least the Latvians don’t have the stress of long-distance travel in a pandemic, except for 3 brave souls from the AHL.
Bob Hartley’s squads have lost to top-5 IIHF teams by heartbreaking scores enough times over the years that a jackpot-seeking gold medal bet is probably taboo, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to like about Latvia as a top-3 futures pick. The nation’s European storm troops are there – Daugavins, Indrasis, Bukarts. AHL skaters like defenseman Janis Jaks can be fashioned into handy weapons. Team Latvia will benefit from cohesion as its KHL skaters are mostly teammates with Dinamo Riga. Veteran netminder Janis Kalnins has been excellent for Helsinki’s KHL club and gives Hartley another option between the pipes. How a disorganized Team Canada fares vs Latvia on Friday will tell us a lot about how the 2021 IIHF Worlds will go for North America.
Tournament Wager: Top-3 Finish (1 unit) (+1800)
Moneyline: Game 1 (Friday) vs Canada (+450)
Mathias Emilio Pettersen is an AHL forward to look out for on Team Norway, and veteran SHL blueliner Jonas Holøs is a valuable journeyman who’s played for the Colorado Avalanche in addition to 4 or 5 top European contenders. Regretfully, the depth below those players is comparable to a wet-weather creek, and Norway will be likely to struggle against the favorites of Group B. The Polar Bears can go a long way in avoiding relegation by earning 4+ points in opening contests against Germany and Italy.
Tournament Wager: Pass
The Italians are known for 2 things in IIHF hockey – losing at the top World Championship level and having rowdy players get into fights and be suspended. Italy was almost comically bad in 2019, but avoided relegation with an unlikely shootout win over Team Austria. Ironically, Austria is where most of the players on Italy’s 2021 roster play their club trade.
Tournament Wager: Pass
Don’t overlook the Kazakhstanis as potential upset moneyline winners, given the squad’s large number of solid KHL skaters and the presence of another Soviet-style system. Just about any KHL team worth a ruble could win a lot of games in the Group Stage of this year’s Worlds. There could be tasty lines on Kazakhstan to win straight-up over a Team Latvia or Team Germany that’s recently upset a highly ranked nation and ready to succumb to the trap-opponent. However, the goaltending on Team Kazakhstan is not world-class.
Tournament Wager: Pass
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.