It’s good to be able to pour some water in the haters’ champagne. The Year of Our Lord 2023 sets up to be a typical cycle of ignorance and disdain for international pond shinny, as Team USA sends what could be the Yanks’ worst team of a generation to the upcoming IIHF World Championship in Tampere and Riga. National teams whose top talent pools are flatly and inextricably tied into the NHL system are a day late and a dollar short in recruiting, causing Sweden among others to blow golden chances at the podium with Team Russia suspended. It won’t be surprising to hear North American club hockey fans’ typical choruses of jeers and jibes aimed at the Men’s Worlds this year. However, there’s one thing that the “NHL, NHL, and only the NHL” crowd (which does not enjoy ice hockey as a rule, but has a huge fetish about corporate logos) won’t be able to say about the World Championship this spring, and that’s that “all the best” teams and players – and all the best hockey – are stateside in ’23.
Boston and Colorado, considered the “best” lineups in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, have been eliminated in Round 1. The New York Rangers, another star-studded club of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, fell to New Jersey in a surprisingly one sided series-finish. Not that many of the NHL’s premier rosters of 2023 are sending many players to Latvia or Finland in May. IIHF team recruiting from the NHL has taken a nose-dive since COVID-19 obliterated an International Ice Hockey Federation calendar that produced a memorable women’s gold medal-game, and electric NHL vs KHL showdowns at the Men’s Worlds, as of 2019. Yet the domestic hockey playoffs won’t be full of well-known superstars either, and what’s more, 2023’s best national teams will almost certainly fare better than the Bruins, Rangers, or Avalanche in their elimination games, meaning the GMG is almost sure to be a corker.
Federations have been extremely late on the upbeat in submitting “long list” national team rosters at the 2023 IIHF Worlds, perhaps flummoxed by the calendar’s blessing of 75% NHL skater-availability once again, combined with a majority of disinterested NHL snipers who wound up doing nothing but taking-up space on IIHF general managers’ white board wish-lists. In other words, the NHL is finally being friendlier to the World Championship in the scheduling sense, but a deluge of “declines” from NHLers who’re often doggedly loyal to national teams, like Patrick Kane of the Rangers and Team USA, has kept IIHF nations’ exceptional Euro-club skaters on roster bubbles while NHL players turn down offers.
The World Championship isn’t designed so much as a “best on best” showcase in its ideal form, but rather as a test of where each hockey culture stands in being prepared to meet the arduous task of a Worlds calendar. NHL ticket-buyers who constantly croon for “best on best” international hockey would not always like the outcomes of best-on-best competition in an annual 16-team tournament, and it wouldn’t always seem fair either. Denmark, for instance, would compete for gold with a composite NHL/European All-Star team, if only tasked with manufacturing 3-4 forward lines and 3 defensive pairings out of the best 15 Danish hockey players alive. Freddy Andersen would lead the goaltending corps, and such a “perfect world” Team Denmark would be poised to upset Patrick Kane and “Team Perfect USA” at least 20% or 30% of the time, whereas at the actual IIHF Worlds, the depth of each country is tested. Playing with lineups that represent the “top 100” skaters from each nation, as opposed to merely the top 15, Denmark almost never comes within 3 goals of Canada in head-to-head meetings. That could change this year, and not because NHLers aren’t always welcome to show up, and blow-away the “Non-Perfect Denmark” squads of the Worlds at their leisure. It’s a myth that the IIHF World Championship occurs simultaneously with the bulk of the NHL playoffs. That hasn’t stopped big dollars from turning the Worlds into a test of depth.
Best-on-best would always be legitimate in its own way, and “mixed bag” teams of stars and role-players such as can be found at the World Championship can be plenty relevant too, like the warring national ballclubs of the World Baseball Classic. The danger for the IIHF is what happens when a handful of hockey nations try very, very hard to win the Worlds, while other pond-shinny powers just use the tourney as a training exercise for B-listers, and try to place well enough not to impugn their IIHF World Ranking prior to the next Winter Olympics.
2023, regretfully, looks like just that kind of year. Finland is icing a fantastic host-Worlds roster that combines the best of the Lions’ defending Olympic and IIHF champions with a “kissing and making up” cast of 7-10 deadly NHL skill players. In layman’s terms (or “Patrik Laine-man’s terms” if you will) the fast Finns are retaining all of the checking and discipline qualities that defeated All-Star lineups from Sweden, Russia, and Canada in succession in 2019, then knocked the Habs off the top of the podium again in 2022, but with a bunch of Team Canada quality snipers to score goals if a medal round game becomes a shoot-out. Switzerland is another IIHF Worlds contender that does not rely on NHL skaters as a rule, though the Swiss successfully kicked-off the year’s recruiting cycle by snagging Nino Neiderreiter of the Winnipeg Jets. The Czech Republic lurks as a forever-spoiler.
Bookmakers already had reason to give Suomi solid odds to repeat with gold. They might not have anticipated how many NHL standouts would also return to the Lions’ fold following several cycles of discord between skaters and coaches in America and overseas. The favored Finns, and a few underdog nations, are likely to have a field day (or a morning skate) at the 2023 IIHF World Championship. Most other teams in Riga and Tampere, to put it rather mildly, could be up the pond without a paddle. Team USA, Team Canada, and even Team Sweden comprise 3 nominal “short-odds” picks on the World Championship betting board, but superstars from those countries probably won’t be interested to play again until the NHL officially green-lights another World Cup of Hockey and/or Olympic participation in 2026. Why bleed for a flag that could confine you to club-team duty when the chips are down?
Canada stands alone as the NHL-based team that could win in 2023, leaving the rest of the year’s logical gold-medal speculation to resourceful Euro giants like Finland and Czechia. That’s not the story that pre-tournament betting odds are telling, though, making us wonder if sportsbooks are just too lazy to update their IIHF markets after so many big-name passes.
IIHF World Championship: 2023 Gold Medal Odds and Futures Picks
(Betting Odds Courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook)
Czech Rep +650
FanDuel’s odds on 2023’s potential world champion national teams have been stable for months, with only a few nickels and dimes separating the market prices on Team Finland, Team Canada, and a host of other contenders. That’s probably not a bad concept for IIHF betting odds overall, since medal rounds have hosted the same cast of teams for decades.
But as dished on above, the IIHF Worlds could easily turn into a lopsided affair this May. The host Finns are many miles ahead of other top-ranked nations in recruiting a championship level squad for 2023, an edge that can be added to Finland’s already stout confidence advantage after becoming the best international hockey team of the last 4 years.
Finland’s biggest problem could be the Lions’ necessary transition to a more wide-open style, with so many NHL snipers itching for looks at the net again. The conservative strategy that’s won Finland so many recent medals could be controversial in ’23. Team USA has signed up a promising advance-list of patriotic skaters that includes Jake Guentzel of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver forward Conor Garland, who scored 14 points at the 2021 IIHF Worlds. But there’s zero elite goaltenders in the USA’s early roster additions, and it’s getting late to attempt to talk a veteran netminder into taking part. Besides, the 2023 United States team is so thin in active NHL players with championship-level endurance that the Stars & Stripes may just as well be Denmark or Germany in bad recruiting cycles. We recapped the problems for Sweden’s recruiting in the above section as well, while Russia is of course eliminated from contention (and a spoiler-role) by the IIHF’s wartime ban.
So what’s keeping the Worlds gambling odds so even-handed, despite a tourney that’s setting up to be very lopsided in the Group Stage and through most of the medal round?
It’s not unwise to keep a 3-to-1 line on Canada in place. Team Canada has become the “Liverpool” of international hockey, a program that can have its Stanley Cup cake and eat-up the IIHF World Championship too, with amazing team quickness, power, and scoring depth on almost any kind of “B-List” or “C-List” roster that the Habs feel like sending to Europe each May. In football terms, North American national teams now go into each IIHF cycle with a “goal” in mind of what they’d like to get out of the event, and a measured approach to recruiting that stopped floating names like Crosby and McDavid about 3 years ago. Yet while the Yanks continue to flounder in world ice hockey, the Maple Leaf is resilient enough to occasionally knock-off Finland or Sweden and win gold while pacifying NHL GMs who worry constantly about superstar injuries taken in ancillary events. Liverpool, to draw the parallel, doesn’t always put its best lineup on the pitch in the FIFA Club World Cup. But we’ll be buggered if Reds don’t win almost every match in those competitions anyway.
It is less rational to hold Sweden at 5-to-1 when more than half of Group A could ice superior lines in the Tampere round-robin, to say nothing of the problems Tre Kronor may have as a suddenly thin squad facing the same medal round challenges as usual. We don’t believe the odds on Canada to upset Finland with another blue-collar team are too optimistic, yet the betting lines on several short-handed Top 10 nations are so inflated as to keep Canada and Finland’s gold medal odds cheaper than they otherwise would be. Team USA, Team Sweden, and even Team Czechia could turn out to be so flawed that the usual-suspect tournament favorites have an even easier path to the World Championship final on May 28th.
Don’t overlook “prop futures” picks on a bunch of potential bronze medal surprises, however. Denmark’s 70-to-1 gold medal futures odds, nearly 7 times longer than those on a comparable program from Switzerland, illustrate that there will be more bargains to be had on long-term picks, for IIHF speculators who wait patiently enough for more rosters and betting options.
IIHF Worlds Team Previews: Diminished Group A Sets Finland Up to Fly
Readers might hear that a “Ukraine War ban” has impacted the strength of IIHF Worlds brackets, but think that hockey analysts are just being subtle by mentioning it. After all, it’s only one team – Russia – that’s out of the running in a 16-team field. Right?
Not exactly. Belarus is also banned for the time being, and with all due respect to 2002’s underdog Belarusian team that knocked Sweden out of the men’s Olympic ice hockey event in Salt Lake City, the squad that the “Bisons” should have coming up in the mid-2020s is not your mama’s “Belarus.” Not only will the nation’s international lineup, when reinstated, be drawing from a pool of 5-10 talented skaters currently in the NHL or prepping for an NHL chance, but boasting the services of several European club skaters who’ve performed a practical coup in the Kontinental Hockey League. Belarusian players are vying for point-scoring honors on not 1, not 2, but 3 of Moscow’s major league clubs in 2022-23. Yet enthusiasts may not get to watch them together until the Olympic Games in 2026.
The IIHF’s big bummer is that unlike FIFA, it’s got no suitable teams with which to replace a medal contender and a spoiler-bid like Russia and Belarus. International shinny’s ranks fall off pretty drastically between the 10th and 15th-ranked teams, and Group A is feeling the effects of wartime sports-organizing most of all in 2023. Austria and Hungary, each common residents of “Division 1” qualifying events, are competing in Group A alongside France, Germany, Denmark, and badly diminished Team USA and Team Sweden squads.
That leaves Group A wide open for Finland to romp on home ice. We don’t expect the defending Lions to be anywhere close to an underdog in any Group A game, including the rivalry matchup with Sweden on May 15th. Garnering a #1 seed out of Group A could mean that Suomi faces a team as weak as Norway in the 2023 World Championship quarterfinal round. The Lions are at (-140) odds to finish atop the 8-team pool at Bovada Sportsbook.
Finland’s contingent of NHL skaters will include Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche, Kasperi Kapanen of the St. Louis Blues, and Kaapo Kakko, the New York Rangers forward who lit up the 2019 Worlds with speed, scoring, and puck-handling in the Group Stage. Laine of the Columbus Blue Jackets may also join the team after announcing his trip early, then getting an iffy medical check-up. That’s an embarrassment of riches for a program that’s already pretty good without the help of NHL skaters, who often don’t defend on expanded ice surfaces quite as well as the best skaters of the KHL and Liiga. The net-crashing attacks of NHL gunners, combined with the defense of Finland’s recent World Championship and Olympic weapons, could give the Lions a near-perfect balance in ’23 if Finnish goaltending is as solid as ever. To wit, Finland’s likely May 12th starter Emil Larmi had an unlucky AHL debut pre-COVID and never got a real shot with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he’s developed into a classy goaltender in Europe, and has already earned gold medals for Suomi at the 2016 Under-20 Worlds.
There’s still many underdogs who could trip-up a methodical team like Finland, or Team Canada ’23 at the IIHF Worlds this year. But they’re not slated to play in Group A.
Team USA’s recruiting doldrums must be seen on paper to be believed. Out of the 100s of available U.S.-born names from the ranks of the NHL, less than 10 active National Hockey League skaters have chosen to take part for the Stars & Stripes in Finland. It doesn’t seem to entail a conspiracy on behalf of the league’s front offices to get U.S. skaters to stay away. The player-response to a Worlds is simply night and day – mostly “night” – from what it was in 2018 and 2019, when the United States sent dozens of 1st-round draft picks to compete.
Another reason the Yank roster looks like a recruiting comedy-of-errors is that several star performers are marooned next to a terrible supporting cast of AHL journeymen and pimple-faced NCAA kids, as if a top-6 crew from an NHL club had all been traded to the Anaheim Ducks in the same year. Forwards like Conor Garland, Nick Bonino, and Alex Tuch may manufacture a great first-choice power play for Team USA in Tampere, but the 2nd power-play may require the Ontario Reign’s T.J. Tynan, and somebody named Rocco Grimaldi.
Stars & Stripes netminder Casey DeSmith is an excellent choice for a squad that could have done a lot worse between the pipes under the circumstances. But he’ll be inundated with quality shots-against and a number of tense, low-scoring games to battle through. USA Hockey, which has won a single men’s ice hockey tournament at the World Championships and Winter Olympics in well over 60 years, will probably learn nothing from the defeat of 2023. The tournament’s weakened Group A field ought to allow for a token Q-Final bid and help an undermanned team be politely forgotten later by the NHL fans who’ve tuned-in.
Germany and Czechia’s long Bovada Sportsbook proposition lines “to allow the least goals in Group A” show that each team’s discipline and depth are overlooked. It won’t take more than a #3 seed out of the IIHF’s round-robin for either team to draw a winnable Q-Final meeting.
Group B at the IIHF Worlds: The Core of 2023’s Medal Contenders
Finland may be a solid gold-medal favorite indeed, but most of 2023’s best silver-medal and bronze-medal picks will hail from Group B’s round-robin slate in Latvia. It’s almost as if the world federation decided that if you can’t have 2 strong fields at a single venue, you can at least produce a quality group of 8 nations in one of them.
Hockey Canada is sending a sneaky-good lineup as usual, with one rather important exception. The usual litmus-test for whether Canada can “win the world tournament,” as Don Cherry used to say, is whether Team Canada’s IIHF squad could give the NHL’s eventual Stanley Cup champions a decent game. This year’s Maple Leaf roster is led by veteran forwards such as Tyler Toffoli of the Calgary Flames, and 21-year-old Jack Quinn of the Buffalo Sabres, and as such would fare poorly against Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid’s top lines. However, this spring’s Habs will also be highly skillful right down through the 3rd and 4th forward lines, and through to the 3rd defense pairings.
The Maple Leaf is also comprised of big, tall, towering trees this time around. Only one skater on the team’s initial roster is less than 6 feet in height, and that’s Ethan Bear, a defenseman whose deft puck-moving makes him a candidate to play for the 2026 Olympic squad if the National Hockey League participates in Italy. Fast, diminutive skaters make such handy weapons at the Worlds that it can lead to GMs disregarding size and muscle, thinking that finesse is all that counts. Canada and Finland’s bruising teams have quashed that notion. Canada’s checkers will be so big in 2023 that it gives the Habs another unique strength.
Canada’s federation thinks it can win enough World Championship medals to stay ranked in the top-2 and top-3 hockey nations consistently, and thus draw excellent position in the next Winter Olympics preliminary…if there even is a preliminary for teams like Canada. But this season’s hiccup is that its IIHF Worlds team has been getting worse and worse in goal, and 2023 is no exception. Team Canada’s likely starter Samuel Montembeault has never put together a winning season in the NHL, and not a single alternative, active National Hockey League goaltender has said yes to Hockey Canada’s invitation as of Sunday 5/7.
One can understand why NHL general managers discourage their highest-priced goalies from taking part in annual World Championships. If a netminder is worth an 8-digit contract and has carried your NHL team through playoff victories, then allowing them to compete for the national team in a grueling postseason event is like the Baltimore Ravens letting QB Lamar Jackson make a guest appearance in the XFL Championship Game. Even personnel managers of Europe, where the IIHF is a religion, are nervous about their ace goaltenders playing 3 more weeks at the Worlds. Yet it also isn’t that hard for Hockey Canada to find a “discount” goaltender with a lifetime winning record whose GM would be okay with a Worlds invite. Perhaps the Maple Leaf is no more immune to the mass-declines plaguing Team USA.
Canada’s other problem is that Group B is loaded with solid teams. Switzerland’s “National League” remains the finest training ground in the world for young international skaters, while Czechia’s enduring talent could be matched by an up-and-coming Team Slovakia, coached by the familiar Craig Ramsay and featuring a handful of fast NHL rookies in 2023. Slovakia is poised to defeat at least 3-4 teams in the round-robin and reach the quarterfinals, where thinning ranks of gold-medal worthy brands could allow Ramsay’s team to surprise.
Slovakia is a terrific 8-to-1 Bovada Sportsbook pick to reach at least the bronze medal podium on May 28th. WagerBop has a soft spot for Switzerland, another dangerous team that will be toiling in Group B, but can’t quite fathom why the Swiss are drawing such pricier futures odds than comparable teams from Slovakia, Denmark, and Germany in a year so wide-open.
Switzerland’s goaltending could potentially shine over that of Group B counterpart Czechia if Akira Schmid’s New Jersey Devils are rapidly flushed out of early May’s playoff round. We aren’t likely the Czechs to get past the Q-Finals until there’s a faster lineup built around NHL netminding, or at least the very, very best of Europe patrolling the crease.
As for Group B host Latvia, the annual long-shot contenders can feel good about Rudolfs Balcers making a belated trip overseas, and the potential services of NHL goaltender Elvis Merzlikins. But there’s nothing to suggest that the Latvians won’t suffer from a lack of difference-making snipers as usual, and the 2023 co-hosts appear fated to be perpetually losing 3-2 late in the 3rd period as fanatical crowds roar for a goal that never comes. One positive on Latvia, though, is that the team’s skaters are no longer teammates on a losing Russian league club, as most of the national squad’s names once were with Dinamo Riga. Losing too many club matches as a team can lead to a dip in confidence when things go southward on IIHF ice, as we observed with Team China (aka Kunlun Red Star) at the Olympics. It offsets any natural edge from the teammates knowing each other so well.
Kazakhstan is another dangerous senior men’s team full of KHL veterans, which shouldn’t be drawing twice-as-cheap futures lines compared to the slow-paced Polar Bears of Norway. But there are no early-week futures markets at Bovada Sportsbook or FanDuel Sportsbook that would suit wise long-term wagers on the methodical Kazakhs, who won’t set any statistical marks at the 2023 IIHF Worlds, and are not likely to challenge for any kind of medals.
Live underdogs who make bad gold-medal picks are just one reason why the early game-odds on IIHF World Championship faceoffs should be appreciated. It’s a way for speculators to plot and prepare for making picks well in advance, a far cry from the furious hunch-playing of betting picks on the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each 24-36 hours that lines are available.
Peek below our tournament futures-picks for a few bets worth making before Friday. And enjoy the Good Old Hockey Game’s action at home and abroad in spring ’23!
WagerBop’s IIHF Worlds Futures Picks: Finland (Gold) (+250), Slovakia (Top 3 Finish) (+800)
Friday, May 12th Opening Round Game Odds and Picks
(Betting Odds Courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook)
Finland to cover (-0.5) ATS vs United States
Latvia vs Canada OVER (5.5) Total Goals
Germany to cover (+2.5) ATS vs Sweden
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.
pascal van deuren says
great pre tournament summary, made for excellent reading !