One of the reasons why the IIHF World Championship doesn’t get as much state-side respect as a legit tournament is because very high-priced club players are quietly discouraged from taking part, making roster-building of the IIHF Worlds into less of a waiting game to see which club skaters are available and more of an “FBS bowl season” free-for-all in which star performers can opt-out with all kinds of excuses. (A few seasons ago, Anze Kopitar of the L.A. Kings all but told the Slovenia National Team that he was too preoccupied with a baby shower and therefore couldn’t play.)
In contrast, the World Junior Championship is an event that NHL fans have a soft spot for, since it fits the old Minor League baseball slogan of “tomorrow’s stars today,” putting NHL draft picks on the ice in pressure-packed games over the holiday season. That’s not the only advantage that the IIHF U20s have on the IIHF Worlds that run concurrent to the NHL’s final four in May.
The senior Worlds create headlines for relatively-unknown youngsters, who can thrive in round-robin games with their swift skating legs in a less-physical setting than the NHL or KHL. Despite the obvious theme of U20 youth at the IIHF World Juniors, it’s not as hard for Yankee viewers to remember the name of the kid scoring all of the goals for Sweden, because he’s probably 19 and a reliable veteran of last year’s WJC. The junior tournament’s age range makes it more straightforward from an analytical POV. An experienced U20 team shines from the outset of most tournaments, instead of waiting for their opponents’ fast tykes to tire out.
But the NHL’s self-absorbed vibe is interfering with the purity of the World Juniors. USA and Canada rosters are becoming restricted from any “Sid the Kid at 19” appearances as the most talented NHL rookies are encouraged to stay with their club rosters or play low-risk AHL games on Christmas week. Canada has been less cautious than USA Hockey as usual going into the 2023 WJC, with skaters from the Seattle Kraken, Los Angeles Kings, and Arizona Coyotes in the mix. (Equally as indicative of changing-times is that those teams may have just been listed by order-of-merit.) Scenarios in which junior IIHF rosters can become too good for their own good, and suffer “upperclass” roster attrition, become a lot like a March Madness field full of 1-and-dones. Speculators can recall a similar trend in Les Bleus football over the past 10 years, as France’s teenagers got too deadly against Ligue 1 and Premier League goalkeepers to be prioritized as “Under-20” kids, and thus the French junior team’s lineup become a clean-plucked afterthought. (France last won a U20 World Cup on a tiebreaker in 2013.) It just so happens that the World Juniors is the most popular international ice hockey event among NHL viewers in the USA, as if millions of soccer fans in Paris were obsessed with the FIFA U20 and ignored the World Cup.
At the same time, there’s no “Gonzaga” or “UCF” from an unfamiliar league poised to whip “Villanova” by 12 points (or 4 goals) at the 2023 World Junior Championship. In fact, this season’s U20 medal-round field just doesn’t look that dangerous next to the best North American junior teams, with Team Russia missing and few top snipers to keep-up with the Habs or Yanks. No European forward scored more than 5 points in the 2023 World Juniors group stage, and a frighteningly big number of Europe’s top goal-scorers in the WJC are defensemen.
As a consequence, the 2023 World Juniors – to the dismay of many
IIHF haters NHL fans – are taking on some of the characteristics of a senior IIHF Worlds. It happens to coincide with various European junior cogs playing with sounder fundamentals and (at times) better goalkeeping than in the past. Now going glimmering are the “12-2” style victories for Goliath over David in the WJC round-robin, even though Austria’s lousy 2023 tournament makes the trend seem superficially healthy at a glance. Top-10 teams like Slovakia and Switzerland are scoring big upsets, only to take reversion-to-form in the group-stage rounds following, while Team U20 Latvia is losing one close game after another just like the senior Latvians tend to do.
Most importantly to state-side flag wavers, the U.S. and Canadian kids are mimicking the pattern of Team Canada’s miraculous senior IIHF Worlds teams, using losses in round-robin play as a learning experience to grow from instead of becoming downtrodden like Sweden, Russia, and other IIHF programs have had the tendency to do when group stage scores are disappointing. Team USA rebounded from a faltering start and a 6-3 loss to Slovakia by defeating 2 excellent international teams (Finland U20 and Switzerland U20) by a combined score of 11-3 to finish #1 in Group B. Canada, led by a record-threatening scoring binge from Connor Bedard of the WHL, roared back after losing its opener in a blow-out from Czechia to out-score an undermanned Group A 32-8.
Canada must face the dangerous Slovaks in Monday’s 2023 WJC quarterfinals, while the United States draws a much-easier contest against Germany’s blue-collar, U20 lineup. But with far tougher battles to come on Wednesday, is the USA’s relatively easy path to the final four causing a big discrepancy in World Juniors betting odds? Let’s glance at the current gold-medal futures lines at FanDuel Sportsbook before diving into Vegas odds (and predictions) for 4 upcoming face-offs.
IIHF World Juniors: 2023 Gold Medal Futures Odds (Quarterfinal Round)
Czech Republic (+750)
Not only is the USA’s easy Q-Final draw not causing a “rush” on betting the Yanks’ futures odds, but it’s as if FanDuel’s bookmakers haven’t even considered that Canada has to play Slovakia while the Americans probably coast past Germany. Canada is a “minus” gold-medal pick against the field for other reasons that have more to do with those now-anomalous “11-0” scores on the ledger. In fact, both North American’ teams leading championship odds can be traced to the 2020s’ brand of ice hockey the world-over, as Sportsbook odds (and the betting public) favor teams that specialize in sniping and scoring. As the Colorado Avalanche’s goal-total went up and up in 2021-22, and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s tallies started to come less frequently, the odds on Colorado and Tampa to win the Stanley Cup began to consistently move in Denver’s direction no matter what the goaltenders happened to be doing at the time. Canada’s draw against a solid, improved checking team such as Slovakia will probably keep Bedard from threatening Peter Forsberg’s record of 31 points in 7 games for Tre Kronor’s U20 at the 1993 IIHF World Juniors. Still, the young forward broke and tied Hockey Canada records in group stage with 18 points and a 4-goal hat trick. The chances of London and Las Vegas favoring a 2023 squad without Bedard skating on it are slim.
The cynical take on Bedard’s top highlights in 2023 is that “it was against Team Austria,” but Bedard has scored or assisted on 14 other goals in the event, and Austria is among the most well-respected checking-and-defending programs in Europe. Austria’s weak attack was the reason Canada got so many chances in the game, but it was the 17-year-old’s astounding touch that made the underdogs look like potential relegation-victims in Austria’s upcoming win-or-relegate battle with Latvia.
But it’s hard to shake the notion that overseas U20 teams are underrated in Las Vegas, or at FanDuel’s headquarters in New York. Slovakia has beaten the acknowledged most-talented team in its round-robin pool convincingly, whipping the United States to begin the tournament in a performance reminiscent of Tomas Tatar and Ladislav Nagy’s senior IIHF team of the late 2010s. Team USA’s success in the week since then should be raising Slovakia’s stock at the 2023 WJC, not lowering it, even though Dvadsiatka stands at just 2-1-0-1 after a shoot-out loss to Switzerland. Team Slovakia U20, however, is merely a (+10000) or 100-to-1 pick to win gold medals in ’23.
Switzerland, which defeated Team Finland in Group B behind a pair of assists from Jonas Taibel of the Moncton Wildcats, is another badly overlooked bet at (+10000) to win gold for the maiden time. One of the top-5 through top-10 ranked IIHF nations is going to win a Men’s World Juniors at some point before 2030, even though upset triumphs more likely in the round-robin. These are not pedestrian hockey nations that Switzerland and Slovakia are beating. Finland has prevailed in several U20 world championships and medaled most years since 2014, and USA’s U20 credentials need no recap.
Sportsbook investors must be willing to have patience that lasts years-on-end, putting very small-unit bets on those solid “100-1” teams at the World Juniors for as long as it takes to get one massive payoff on $2 or $5. If they played this year’s WJC 100 times, Slovakia would win at least 2-3 times. (Needless to say, Switzerland and Slovakia should be strongly considered in medal-round prop odds to reach the “podium” at anything longer than 20/1.) If fans worry that such dark-horse futures picks are an easy route to falling into the red even if your W/L record on other picks is above water at the end of the World Juniors in January, then there’s an easy solution – look to pick and win on those Q-Finals.
2023 World Juniors: Quarterfinal Round Game Odds and Predictions
Monday, Jan. 2: Finland vs Sweden
With a gold-medal level pairing in the WJC quarterfinals, it’s interesting that some sportsbooks are going the traditional “puck line” method and giving Tre Kronor’s gamblers (-310) odds and (+1.5) goals (Bovada Sportsbook) while others (like FanDuel) are utilizing the more common (and refreshing) “free goal spread” handicap with goals-given or taken determined by team value alone. Sweden’s (+0.5) and (-170) line at FanDuel Sportsbook is certainly the more down-to-Earth wager, but moneyline odds give-away how closely the rivals are matched for Monday’s earliest face-off in Canada. Finland is the New York sportsbook’s tiniest of favorites at (-112), but there are no game odds “favorites” to be found at Bovada, where both teams’ odds are 1.1/1.
Both sportsbooks offer very standard O/U (5.5) goal-total odds for the match as well, but we’re thinking there would be a state-side rush on the low-side pick if only more non-Scandinavians were interested in the 10:00 AM contest. Finland has faced 2 teams with something close to Sweden’s blue-line tradition of elite checking – Switzerland and Latvia. An average of 4 goals were scored in those games. Sweden’s workmanlike lineup doesn’t have the speed to engineer a “Torpedo” attack with 1 defenseman, 2 forwards, and 2 free hands (or 4 free skates) as Mats Sundin’s senior teams once did. Tre Kronor only managed 1 goal against Germany’s pedestrian blue line, and Sweden’s 2-2 regulation draw with Czechia is likely a precursor to what the Swedes’ medal-round bouts will be like.
Pick: Under (5.5)
Monday, Jan. 2: Czechia vs Switzerland
Switzerland’s 3-to-1 odds to beat Czechia can only be on account of IIHF handicappers not watching the international games as often (or as recently) as they ought to be. The game’s (6) goal-total line at FanDuel Sportsbook is also ridiculous for an era in which the best IIHF World Juniors squads are taking their time and playing methodical hockey, and could perhaps be inspired by angles as thin as David Spacek and Stanislav Svozil of Czechia being the first players to show up alongside the speed-sniping American and Canadian forwards on the WJC scoring ledger. Spacek has the name-recognition factor for NHL junkies, but each teenager is but a defenseman who’s been scoring points on simple passes and redirected shots from the point. WagerBop maintains its aforementioned conceit that there few game-changing snipers skating at the 2023 World Juniors, at least from the team-oriented Euro ranks.
Picks: Switzerland (+300) and Under (6)
Monday, Jan. 2: United States vs Germany
Now toiling without better-known junior stars like Tim Stutzle of the Ottawa Senators, the Germans have had 2 cracks against elite teams at the 2023 WJC, and belly-flopped to the tune of 3 goals to 19 against the Canadians and the Czechians. That makes it almost embarrassingly cautious of sportsbooks to take only (-4.5) goals away from Team USA, as the team’s NHL snipers-in-training have been on afterburners piling-up goals and padding leads ever since the wake-up call vs Slovakia.
Pick: United States ATS (-4.5)
Monday, Jan. 2: Canada vs Slovakia
Monday night’s match-up is drawing an immense goal-total line of O/U (7.5), which isn’t necessarily unwise due to the trend of better netminding and checking among the IIHF’s U20 top-10. An elimination blow-out of a weak, typical Slovakia team could easily post a final score like 9-3. Latvia and Slovakia are among the 2023 WJC clubs most plagued by soft goals allowed at inopportune moments. Bedard is unquestionably the most game-changing sniper in the tournament, for Canada or anyone.
But think of some of the “boring,” scrappy final scores that Canada has used to advance in both junior and senior men’s tournaments, as the Maple Leaf prepares for its trademark emotional race to the finish. Circumstantially, the junior Habs are set-up to win Monday night’s contest by a score like 4-1 or 5-0 unless the unexpected happens.
Slovakia’s coaches aren’t thinking of beating another North American team 6-3, not in the IIHF’s medal round. They’re putting a game-plan together to try to beat Canada on a couple of late goals in tight, stressful circumstances, the kind of upset that has allowed Switzerland to break through into the elite ranks of international hockey in recent years. Meanwhile, if Canada takes a 3-0 lead, the heavy tournament favorites could easily take advantage of the situation to rest Bedard on late shifts, and rest easy that Slovakia isn’t geared to come back from a 3-goal disadvantage vs Canada’s physical, gap-controlling roster of “Varsity” bruisers. Most critically, in a blow-out setting, the Canadians (who have matured a lifetime’s worth since trying multiple “Michigans” in the opening-round loss racked by cocky overconfidence) could call off the snipers as they so often do, still chip-in a few lucky 3rd period goals throughout the frame, and still not push over an 8-goal total alone. Slovakia will have to play an outstanding 60:00 to prevent the above nightmare – but if successful, the Euros could make it a nail-biter.
In layman’s terms, a Canada blow-out could easily go Under (7.5), and an upset bid for Slovakia almost certainly will. That’s not a shabby pick!
Pick: Under (7.5)
Visit this page again on Tuesday for updated gold medal odds and semifinal picks on the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship.
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.