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Improve Your International Hockey Betting by Handicapping the NHL This Spring

NHL IIHF Logo with Hockey Net and Puck
I’m quitting the NHL. Who gives a crap. The games aren’t best on best.

I went to see the Buffalo Sabres, and they didn’t have every Hall of Fame candidate who’s ever been with the franchise suited up and on the ice in his prime.

The opponents were even more disappointing. It was the Washington Capitals, and why, they only had 2 lines’ worth of All-Stars out there instead of 4!

See what I did there? I borrowed a time-honored diss of the Ice Hockey World Championship and applied it to the National Hockey League…with tongue pressed firmly in cheek, of course.

“Best on best” at any hockey tournament is a pipe dream. Even when NHL players have appeared in the Winter Olympics, there have been snubs, injuries, schedule conflicts, and other roster casualties that prevented top teams from icing an Everlasting Gobstopper of legends.

Nobody should need Mario Lemieux playing on the 3rd line to enjoy watching a game of shinny. But many superstars do play in IIHF events every year. You can find some of the greatest names from the NHL and other leagues skating for their nations in May.

Just not all of them. Contrary to popular belief, relatively few NHLers are blocked from playing at the Worlds due to their teams advancing in the playoffs. It’s mostly contracts, injuries, and/or plain old disinterest in flying to Europe for 3 weeks which help make eligible players finicky, and prevent national teams from stacking their Worlds rosters to the hilt with NHL studs.

Early futures lines for the 2019 Worlds in Slovakia will be based on recent gold and past trends. But what if there’s another way to handicap the tournament?

IIHF Worlds: NHL Players are Like Gold

The best KHL forwards are as skilled as above-average NHL players. KHL skaters are the backbone of the Worlds, or “World Cup” as it is called on the continent. The Russian club season is built to allow everyone to be eligible to play. Many veterans still turn down a roster spot, but the U25 contingent of the league fills countless International Ice Hockey Federation benches.

Yet it’s NHL talent which often determines the gold medal. NHL skaters possess sniping and close-quarters power untold to Euro defensemen and goalies. North American CEOs also spend fortunes to attract and keep the best goaltenders in the world. If you’ve got a fairly strong KHL-based Worlds squad and you can add a starting NHL goaltender and a sniper from the Montreal Canadians, it changes the paradigm for what you can expect in the Worlds.

Sweden has been dominating the World Championship with NHL players taking up 18 to 20 roster spots each May. Team Canada’s 95% NHL squad (large-ice specialists are sometimes called from Europe to play special teams) is always outstanding thanks to the Habs taking the IIHF seriously.

But even the Maple Leaf suffered in goal last season after too many starting GKs turned down the invite.

NHL players must check a number of boxes to make a World Championships appearance a go. They must be healthy, not be in a contract negotiation, and free of playoff commitments.

The timing of the Worlds and the Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t as bad as lazy American pundits like to say it is when dismissing the overseas tournament. Even some players who reach the NHL’s 3rd round can make the trip. But it absolutely helps get a commitment – and a lively performance – from a player whose National Hockey League club did not make the playoffs at all.

That’s where the savvy gambler can gain an advantage with IIHF Worlds futures, well before the rosters of the national teams are chosen.

Potential Difference-Makers on Poor NHL Teams

Let’s look at the NHL standings and the opening gold medal futures odds for the Worlds.

While looking at the betting board from top to bottom, I’m focused on mostly the bottom of the NHL heap. Who are the key international names among the clubs that are already out of it in late February?

In the Eastern Conference, the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, and New Jersey Devils are pretty much kaput. Those rosters will be mined heavily by Worlds GMs.

Detroit could help stock Team Canada (consensus odds-on favorites at (+300)) with young forwards like Tyler Bertuzzi, though the blueline corps is largely too old to be of help.

Czech Republic (+1100) brass should be pleased that youngsters Filip Hronek and Filip Zadina will be available.

Ottawa’s rangy goaltender Anders Nilsson was awesome for Team Sweden in 2018. He’s almost a cinch to start for the defending IIHF champs and makes Tre Kronor’s (+400) futures line attractive at this stage.

To Sweden’s dismay, however, there are 5 Canadian defensemen under 30 years old and making less than $2,000,000 per year for the Senators.

Team Finland (+800) would normally be excited to see playmaking defenseman Sami Vatanen available from the Devils. But his contract is up soon, and he suffered a concussion in mid-season.

The Devils can potentially send a legion of talent to play for the Stars & Stripes (+1300). Forward Blake Coleman skated for Team USA last May and is having a breakout season in the NHL. 2018 silver medalists Team Switzerland (+2500) might be the happiest about New Jersey’s poor record, though. They’ll send heart-shaped invites to Nico Hischier and defenseman Mirco Müller.

Western Conference standings are probably even more crucial to the Worlds this season. Connor McDavid and a host of Canadian stalwarts play on the Edmonton Oilers, who are destined to miss the playoffs again in 2019. McDavid captained a Maple Leaf team that lost to Switzerland in the semifinals before falling to Patrick Kane’s United States team in the bronze medal game.

Canada has suffered a blow with the sudden rise of the St. Louis Blues. Gateway City forward Ryan O’ Reilly is one of the legends of the modern IIHF game, donning the Maple Leaf over half a dozen times in the World Championships. But the Blues have put together an historic winning streak and could be money in the Stanley Cup playoffs, leaving O’ Reilly’s status with Team Canada in serious doubt.

What about Team Russia at (+500)? The L.A. Kings are going nowhere, and Ilya Kovalchuk remains one of the best Russian skaters in the game at age 35. But will he want to fly to Slovakia and play hockey in late spring? Kovalchuk could also be traded to a contender and wind up deep in the playoffs anyway. Alexander Ovechkin loves the Red Machine and plays at every opportunity, but his Washington Capitals are a much better team than the Kings and may be playing for the NHL crown again.

Anze Kopitar of the Kings could play for Slovenia in April, when “relegated” IIHF contenders like Japan, Korea and Ukraine fight for promotion. If Kopitar arrives, Slovenia is a good bet at almost any odds. He’ll dominate for periods at a time.

Richard Rakell of the hapless Anaheim Ducks is locked until 2022 and scored an amazing 14 points for Sweden at the Worlds last year. The prolific winger is having a burnout-type season with a losing squad, and is likely to relish a change of scenery and a chance to defend gold.

Sleepers at the 2019 World Championship

The countries which rely on European club players usually get a yes from their NHL stars to come to the Worlds when the timing is right. Nations like Germany and Latvia take fierce pride in ice hockey despite playing 2nd-fiddle to neighboring giants of the sport. The NHLers from such countries tend to consider it a solemn duty to play for their flags.

Besides, they know their countrymen are doomed without them.

Germany (+5000) is an interesting sleeper. Marco Sturm’s team nearly won a gold medal in South Korea last February, causing a stir in the Olympic Village (and a hastily-packed arena) as a game that was supposed to be a blow-out for the Russians turned into a dramatic nail-biter instead.

Sure, a skeptic might point out that the NHL did not participate in the Winter Olympics, leaving at least half of the “real” Red Machine to watch from home or from an NHL dressing room. But the Germans suffered from Gary Bettman’s decision too. Sturm was missing elite playmaker Leon Draisaitl, sleek winger Tom Kühnhackl and a host of other North American pros. Russia could replace its missing superstars with quality KHL guys. Germany couldn’t. Draisaitl played in Denmark last May as the upstarts beat Finland in OT but could not survive a tough round robin.

Slovakia (+2500) is hosting, so most of the country’s available NHLers will play in the Worlds. The problem is that there aren’t that many Slovaks in the league anymore, and some of the best play for the best clubs. Tomas Tatar of the Montreal Canadians may be available for a late visit home, and national scouts can hope that Richard Pánik’s Arizona Coyotes don’t howl in March. Defenseman Zdeno Chara is 800 years old and will play in the Worlds if the Boston Bruins are eliminated in time.

Latvia (+7500) has turned into a fine program with help of adventurous head coaches like Ted Nolan and Bob Hartley. Hartley’s ’18 squad nearly strangled the life out of Sweden in the quarterfinals. KHL skaters are terrific at defending in space on Olympic-sized ice rinks, and Hartley has crafted a formula with which to beat faster and meaner rosters from the NHL.

Dark horses like Germany, Latvia and Slovakia are best wagered to win a medal, not to be crowned world champs. Unfortunately, those additional lines will not be available on the sports betting sites we track until later in the IIHF betting season, so the NHL-watching method isn’t as handy for predicting the fates of those teams.

IIHF Worlds: Advance Betting Lean and Predictions

Remember, we’re dealing with the consensus odds out of London at the moment. Bovada Sportsbook has offered and pulled futures lines on the 2019 Worlds already. They’ll be back soon. If the Bovada odds are vastly different from what we’re looking at, adjust your handicap accordingly.

The 3 best bets on the board are currently Sweden (+400), Team USA (+1300), and Switzerland (+2500).

Canada is a weak odds-on favorite which must prove it can send a worthwhile goaltender to the Worlds to go along with a classic crew of skaters. The likely absence of Ryan O’ Reilly will hurt. I’m also not in love with the Habs’ Group A draw – Team Canada will face host Slovakia, Germany, Denmark, Finland and the United States alongside Great Britain (yay!) and France.

Sweden has its goaltending set, and the country’s NHL skaters adapt to an international format like riding a bike. Canada isn’t the true favorite. Tre Kronor is king of the mountain right now.

Russia is always a threat. Surprise visits from Ovie and Kovy, a rising goaltender in Ilya Sorokin, and Pavel Datsyuk dishing passes to the KHL All-Stars? That sounds like a gold medal. Problem is that it never works out that way these days. Not every bright spot is down with the Russian program. When I see a title-worthy roster in the ether, I’ll let you know.

Yankee hockey might be ready to break through in ’19. Now that the rosters are geared to win instead of to prepare for the Olympics, there’s nothing seriously holding the USA back. More speed and versatility in this year’s selections could push the team over the top.

But don’t count out the Swiss. Switzerland’s “NLA” league has bred 10-15 skaters who can compete with anybody on the big ice surface, in addition to excellent goaltenders. The country’s NHL speedsters are just icing on the cake. Look for the Eisgenossen to pile up Group B points against Norway, Italy, and Austria, and play their way into an advantageous seed in the medal round.

Just hope Bovada bookies whiff on Nico Hischier’s Devils having a rough season.