I’ll admit that I can be a bit of a nag about the Ice Hockey World Championships, especially to my friends who prefer club hockey. I can’t help but think of little excuses to bring up the international game. “Well, a silver lining of that team’s playoff loss is that so-and-so can play for Sweden now,” I’ll say. My pal simply nods “cool” or “mmm-hmm” before changing the subject.
Some people will never, ever like the World Championship. It’s no use trying to talk them out of it. My only frustration is that WC-haters often repeat things that are flatly untrue, like “none of the best NHL players go” or “the North American skaters just phone it in.”
Sweden’s squad that won the 2018 Worlds would be a load for any NHL team to handle, though they might get out-goaltended on a small rink. You can’t really compare World Champion rosters and Stanley Cup rosters because each are designed for a different style of pond shinny. Yet in terms of overall firepower, the top IIHF squads like Canada and Russia put NHL forward lines to shame.
The World Championship is becoming a stronger brand in spite of any weakness in the top division.
With the International Olympic Committee and the National Hockey League at cross purposes, Men’s Ice Hockey at the Games will continue to miss out on NHL talent in the foreseeable future. There will not be a World Cup of Hockey in 2020. Fans who like to see the best players in the world (not always all of the best, but players who are among the best) wearing national colors are running out of alternatives.
The Worlds have a monopoly on the Maple Leaf, the Red Machine and the Stars & Stripes, at least when it comes to NHL participation. With the elite 16 countries facing-off again on May 10th in Bratislava and points east (and broadcast on the NHL Network) we’d best get to know the gala.
Slovakia 2019: Why the Worlds are a True Championship Test
Another state-side myth is that the World Championships aren’t a true test of who the best hockey nations are, since the rosters aren’t what they would be if every skater was available.
Team Canada would look very different in an NHL-attended Olympics than it does at the Worlds. That much is true. Sidney Crosby’s most recent appearance at the World Championship was in 2015.
Connor McDavid represented Canada last year as the NHL’s leading regular-season scorer, though. That’s not too shabby. Nikita Kucherov, this year’s Art Ross winner, will represent Russia alongside names like Evgenii Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.
There are plenty of All-Star rosters at the WC – just not for every country in every cycle.
Maybe the Worlds are better off that way. An annual meeting of the 22 top-ranked players of each nationality would look homogenous from year to year. Russia would beat Canada 5-4, and 12 months later the teams would play again with the result 5-4 for the Habs.
It would prove only which set of superstars were feeling it on that particular day. Coaches and GMs would become celebrity babysitters and PR salesmen as opposed to tacticians and scouts.
The IIHF calendar – such as it is – produces an alternative scenario in which the organizational focus of a hockey culture is tested before and during the World Championship. National teams must overcome fatigue and other obstacles in the front office and on the ice. Persistence and sacrifice pay off.
Sweden is the defending winner because the best-available NHLers show up to play for Tre Kronor and do whatever it takes once they get there.
We couldn’t always say the same about Team USA at the Worlds.
Now, for the first time, maybe we can.
Teams from wintery European nations like Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic dominated the World Championship not too long ago. These days, it’s Canada and Sweden.
But although the Swedes remain solid in 2019, I’ve got a mind that an old, fierce, politically-charged rivalry – one you might be able to guess right now – could take center stage during the medal round in Slovakia.
2019 World Championship Betting Guide: The Preliminaries
The yearly IIHF cycle includes contests between a dozen teams in Divisions 1A and 1B, with the matches taking place in separate locations prior to the “dance.” The squads in 1A are fighting for a place in next year’s World Championship. Great Britain prevailed as a heavy underdog in the ’18 competition, qualifying for the top level for the first time in ages.
Slovenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are among the favorites in 1A this season.
Division 1B is for modestly-skilled rosters from nations like Korea, Romania, and Poland, each vying for promotion to 1A and a chance at the big time.
Bovada Sportsbook always offers betting markets on the preliminary Worlds divisions. Futures odds show up less often, since there’s no medal round or “brackets.” Teams just play each other once in a qualification-style format. But the moneylines and spreads can be interesting.
To properly handicap the late-April IIHF games in Kazakhstan and Estonia, we must turn back to what already happened in early April…and an embarrassing incident that the Federation won’t live down for a while.
The 2019 Women’s World Championship in Espoo, Finland turned into a corker. The host Finns surprised an ailing Team Canada in the semifinals before taking the United States to OT in the gold medal game, threatening to become the first-ever European women’s team to win the world title.
Petra Nieminen scored a winner for the Lady Lions, and the entire place went bananas.
The Finland goal in overtime seemed an instant classic, reminding fans of when Sid the Kid scored the “Lucky Looney” goal against Team USA in overtime at the Olympics in Salt Lake City to give Canada the podium. And then of how Team Canada was accused of goaltender interference 90 seconds later and everything was put on hold for a 12-minute review in which an anonymous video judge overruled the on-ice referees and made the call to erase Crosby’s goal and let the Americans win.
I could show you a clip of the USA winning in a shootout, but the result left even state-side fans with a sour taste in their mouths. We all know how important a team like Finland is to the women’s game. Goalie interference was a ticky-tack ruling. The Lionesses got jobbed.
The IIHF is nothing if not reactionary. The Federation is even moving to hold future World Championships on NHL-sized ice, hoping to attract bids from major American hockey towns. I’m thinking that the horrible finish of the WWC will result in some very careful – lawyerly if you will – refereeing in the Men’s divisions.
Refs will be given a little more leeway to let their own calls stand on the ice, but will be encouraged to call everything right down the middle and by the book, starting with the Division 1 games.
That should hurt the workmanlike teams of Japan and Netherlands, and benefit those with NHL and KHL standouts. Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings is traveling to play for Slovenia, and he’ll be too much for Belarus and other finesse teams to handle.
If defenders could clutch and grab? Sure, Slovenia could be out-worked and beaten in a slow chippy game. But if Kopitar gets a lot of man-advantage opportunities, he’ll pump goals past marginal GKs and lift teammates to make plays of their own. On the penalty kill, Anze could prove just as deadly.
Romania is the bet-against target in 1B because of a profound lack of size and checking. The Tricolori can skate and pass, but by the 3rd period they’re often worn down. Take big, bruising sides like Ukraine to cover ATS vs the Romanians.
Once the “kiddie” matches are over it’s time for the big boys on May 10th. Do you know where the names Kovalchuk, Dadonov, Malkin, Kucherov, and Vasilevskiy (and possibly Datsyuk and Ovechkin and Panarin) will all be playing on the same team in May?
2019 World Championship Team Odds and Previews: Group A
Canada and the United States will battle in an all-NHL grudge match in Group A, while Russia and Sweden must jostle in Group B. The top 4 teams from each round-robin advance to a single-elimination bracket of 8 nations. 3 more wins from there earns the gold.
All futures betting odds courtesy of Bovada.
Canada ((+210) Odds-to-Win 2019 IIHF World Championship)
Team Canada is taking its time with player selection, discreetly speaking to players and waiting for the 1st round of the NHL playoffs to finish. We can still make a few educated guesses.
The good news is that Matt Murray of the Penguins will start in goal, potentially curing the Habs’ biggest weakness in 2018 – the goaltenders.
Career backups and flashes-in-the-pan won’t do between the pipes at the Worlds…not if you expect to win gold, and Canada always does.
Tyler Bertuzzi and Sean Couturier are committed NHL selections, representative of the type of talented 2-way workhorses that the Habs usually select. Canada occasionally names a KHL player to the squad, and I’m hoping Alan Vigneault looks at defenseman Matthew Maione, a “Paul Coffey of the KHL” for Dinamo Riga.
Last year’s captain McDavid has excused himself with injuries, while Sidney Crosby has politely declined after getting swept by the Islanders in the 1st round of the NHL playoffs.
United States (+650)
The American roster is quietly one of the more impressive lineups headed to Slovakia, full of brawn and relentless legs. There are 11 1st-round NHL draft picks on the ’19 squad. That’s athleticism.
Looking at selections who have been through the Worlds before, like Gary Suter on defense and Patrick Kane at forward, you can only surmise that the returning stars have a burning desire to win or they wouldn’t be there. It’s crazy how people talk themselves into thinking that 31-year-old Alec Martinez would skip a gorgeous spring in SoCal to play hockey in Eastern Europe just for the lulz, or something.
The real factor that had held Team USA back is that Jocky McWolverine from the frosh team at Michigan all-too often found himself at the Worlds as a training exercise. Quinn Hughes, the only NCAA entry on the roster in ’19, is a 7th-overall draft pick with Men’s WC experience and feet like the Road Runner.
I’m only worried about the goaltending. Not one Team USA goalie on the roster has avoided a demotion to the AHL this season, and the fact that Cory Schneider is training with 2 green-horns in net already makes me think the spots are settled.
The U.S. must open against host Slovakia, a team which has bothered the Americans.
The Lions are having a hard time getting their finest skaters to the dance. Jari Kurri isn’t the GM anymore, and passing specialist Henri Jokiharju of Chicago is the only officially-announced commit as of press time.
Nashville’s loss to the Dallas Stars will likely help the proud Finns fortify in goal and elsewhere. Quality KHLers are available from Jokerit.
The advantage of playing host to the Worlds is that the tourney is such a big deal in Europe, players who are healthy and available dare not skip a trip home to play.
But with a limited number of NHL players and almost no viable KHL talent, Slovak skipper Craig Ramsay must follow the Stanley Cup playoffs and stay patient. He has picked up Marko Daňo from the Jets and Erik Černák from the Lightning so far.
The Germans have 2 things going for them. Coach Marco Sturm is one of the best in the business of the international game, and Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl’s loyalty to the national program is as impressive as his frenetic goal-scoring.
The German DEL is an above-average league, and its skaters make noise at the Worlds. But watch out for Dominik Kahun of the Chicago Blackhawks, a crafty forward who was fantastic against Russia at the Olympics.
The scrappy Danes are hoping that Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs is available now that the Leafs have lost to Boston.
The current roster is replete with quality European talent, and Mikkel Bødker of the Ottawa Senators is on the way soon. But Denmark is a different team when Andersen is there. He’s healthy, so chances are it’ll be a green light.
Antoine Roussel and other key cogs are hurt, meaning that France has no chance at the dance.
So don’t get ants in your pants about a 200-to-1 payoff which can never occur.
Great Britain (+100000)
Yet another “troll” line from our pals at Bovada. I’m thrilled to see the Brits back on the elite level of world hockey, and they can play really well, too. But the team is disappointingly turning into “little Russia.”
Top domestic league talent has been snubbed off the roster, complete with veiled sniping about work ethic. Coach Peter Russell hasn’t given a thought to inviting British-Americans from the NHL or AHL to play, as they surely would if Great Britain hosted the Men’s Olympic tournament.
A heavy underdog can’t afford a domineering staff that makes crazy roster moves just to prove points. Too much is riding on the squad’s bid to stay in the top 16.
Watch for NHL draft pick Liam Kirk to score a goal or 3 in the tournament.
2019 World Championship Team Odds and Previews: Group B
Bovada has placed a cautiously long line on the defending champs. Tre-Kronor is a machine. The squad consistently pulls from the very best of the NHL.
2019’s defense corps will be anchored by Oliver Ekman Larsson, who captains the Arizona Coyotes and just scored 44 points in the NHL regular season. Younger studs like Robert Hägg of the Philadelphia Flyers know how to pass the puck and operate the squad’s patented “torpedo” transition game.
Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks is the man to watch at forward, easily the most gifted and poised NHL rookie of 2018-19. When the 20-year-old Swede destroyed his domestic league as a teenager, many chalked it up to what any speedy NHL prospect could do against the Euros. A few months later and Pettersson was skating circles around the best U.S. and Canadian defensemen in the game. He’s an electric talent who can make the Tre Kronor offense purr.
Henrik Lundqvist and Jakob Markstrom are the current goaltenders (teams can always look at NHLers who are eliminated in the 2nd round when the time comes, though the GK position tends to be settled on early) which would give Sweden the best netminding pair in Group B in a typical year.
Not in 2019, though.
The Red Machine will either be pretty good, or scary good. It depends on how things shake out with remaining NHL candidates.
Imagine if Alex Ovechkin and Artemi Panarin are the only 2 NHL stars to join the squad already in place. Malkin can center Nikita Gusev, the KHL wunderkind on his way to a lucrative stint in Las Vegas, and Ovie on the other wing. The 2nd line could include any combination of Kovalchuk, Dadonov, Panarin, Mikael Grigorenko or PyeongChang golden goal-scorer Karill Kaprizov. In a word…wow.
Meanwhile, the blue line – an attacking weakness for the Russians in recent years – actually looks alive with Ivan Provorov and Nikita Zaitsev potentially pairing in Slovakia.
Finally the goaltenders. Vasilevskiy is the premier NHL goalie we know him to be – forget the Lightning’s epic collapse in which he became the goaltender from Slap Shot, yelling frantic instructions in a losing cause. In front of the green-horn Red Machine backlines of 2017 and 2018, there might be some type of mental issue for a GK who just lost 4 in a row. But not behind a blue line that will protect him.
Ilya Sorokin is the likely backup. He’s phenomenal, you just haven’t heard of him because he plays club hockey in Russia.
President Vladimir Putin is not known as a massive optimist. But the comrades in charge have to like what they see in the 2019 roster so far.
Czech Republic (+1000)
The Czechs have been backsliding internationally since winning Olympic gold in 1998.
Only a couple of NHLers are officially signed-up in 2019, but we can expect a few more. Coach Miloš Říha will want reinforcements early as Sweden lurks in the round robin on May 10th.
The glorious Swiss upset of Team Canada and subsequent gold-medal-game war with Tre Kronor in 2018 proved that Switzerland must be taken seriously as a medal contender. Whether gamblers trust the Eisgenossen to consistently compete for gold is another matter.
Too many NHL standouts may go missing in ’19. Nashville’s loss to Dallas could potentially free up defenders Roman Josi and Yannick Weber, which would be manna from heaven for a squad that is in danger of wearing down. Switzerland always creates chances to score with swift little National League forwards leading the way, but needs a bruising blue line to survive against the squads of NHLers.
Anxious pundits from Latvia wring their hands and trash-talk over the thinly-populated nation’s WC roster every year. And then the team usually surprises and plays spirited hockey.
Latvia’s Rudolph Balcers scored one of the most brilliant 3-on-3 goals you’ll ever see during Latvia’s excellent run to the quarterfinals last May.
Teodors Blugers of the Pittsburgh Penguins is on the massive training roster that coach Bob Hartley and company have released.
KHL talent abounds on the squad, and Hartley knows how to utilize the one skill at which the Russian league pros are the best in the world – defending in space on large overseas rinks.
But the key to the hockey-mad nation’s chances in ’19 lies in the Columbus Blue Jackets and their AHL affiliates. An extended North American postseason would keep wunderkind goalie Elvis Merzļikins from competing in the World Championships, an event at which he has flourished.
Norway suffers from not being able to draw 20+ players from top professional leagues. The Polar Bears’ best hope is to attract a few spare North American pros like Andreas Martinsen of the Blackhawks and Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers.
I would take a flyer on Tobias Fladeby, a 22-year-old NCAA player who has represented Norway in junior competition. Fladeby plays for unheralded American International College and posted ordinary stats until this season, in which he exploded with 18 goals.
The Austrians could potentially get all 3 possible NHL representatives to Slovakia.
Problem is, there’s only a battalion of 2nd-tier pros after that.
What exactly goes into handicapping a country with 0.00% chance to win the World Championship as 800-to-1 as opposed to 1000-to-1? Sure, Italy could probably beat Great Britain head-to-head. But both futures lines could be 1,000,000-to-1 and it really wouldn’t matter.
If the stars aligned just right, a team like Italy could make the quarterfinals and somehow fight to advance. But Bovada’s betting board displays markets to win the tournament. There is absolutely zero chance of Italy doing that.
2019 IIHF Worlds: My Futures Pick to Win Gold
What Brooks Koepka is to the PGA Tour and the 4 golf majors, Team Sweden is to the World Championship. Easy to forget about because they’re so coldly efficient, the squad often coasts through the round robin and then levels any contender in its path.
Canada’s formula for success is a proven commodity. But no leader has yet emerged to play the Crosby/McDavid role.
I’m liking a pair of teams who have been pushed aside in the medal round over the past few years – well, at least in one case, pushed aside forever.
Team USA is taking the Worlds seriously now. The roster is big, fast, and mostly headed into its prime. All 4 lines will be able to skate, score, and check, mirroring the best modern NHL teams.
Meanwhile, the Red Machine is going to be too much for defenders when fast-breaking down the ice. Pick at the roster if you must, but with a great goaltender in place, the counterattacks of the Russian forwards will crush nations on the scoreboard. Maybe even Sweden.
I’m thinking that the Yanks and the Russians could be on a collision-course for the quarters, semifinals, or even the gold medal match. The East, regretfully, will win thanks to superior goaltending.