The Ultimate 2018 Winter Olympics Hockey Betting Guide
Beginning in 1998 with Nagano, the Olympic hockey tournament featured NHL players. At the time, nobody was watching the NHL, which was mired in the Dead Puck Era. A deal with the Olympics made sense. The NHL needed the exposure, and the Olympics needed the talent. It was a match made in heaven.
But now, with the NHL experiencing a relative boom in popularity and profit, the league has barred its players from going to South Korea to participate in the Olympics. The move didn’t sit well with the players, but from a league standpoint it makes sense to keep your most prized assets from traveling around the world in the middle of their season.
The Russian-based KHL, unlike its North American counterpart, is taking a 33-day break in order to allow its players to participate in the Olympics. So it is no surprise to see that the non-disgraced athletes from Russia are the clear favorites to take home the gold.
Let’s go country-by-country and find some wagers to make for the hockey slate ahead.
The tournament consists of three groups each playing a three-game preliminary round between Feb. 14-18. After the preliminaries, the top team in each group and the second-place team with the best record will receive a berth into the quarterfinals. The remaining eight teams will play a single-game playoff beginning on Feb. 20.
Group A: Canada, Czech Republic, Switzerland, South Korea
Group B: Russia, USA, Slovakia, Slovenia
Group C: Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany
Olympic Athletes of Russia, -120
The Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League is the world’s second-best hockey circuit. The KHL was founded in 2008 and features 27 teams from Russia, Finland, Belarus, China, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia. Basically, the best players in the world who aren’t in the NHL, including plenty of former NHLers, are plying their trade in the “K.” This list includes household names like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.
The Red Machine is far and away the deepest team in the tournament, and it starts up front. We all know about Datsyuk and Kovalchuk, but there is a ton of firepower behind the former NHL All-Stars.
Sergei “The Best Player Never to Play in the NHL” Mozyakin has led the KHL in scoring six times in his career and has more points than any other player in league history. He will be joined by Nikita Gusev, whose 62 points (which would roughly translate to 46 points in the NHL) trails only Kovalchuk and his 63 points in the KHL scoring race this season, and Vadim Shipachyov — who you may remember from his brief stint with the Golden Knights this season. Any of Mozyakin, Gusev and Shipachyov could play — and likely succeed — in the NHL. So could 20-year-old Minnesota Wild prospect Kirill Kaprizov, who is currently lighting it up for CSKA Moscow, one of the best teams in the KHL, this year.
The Russians also boast a pretty strong blueline with former NHLers Slava Voynov, Alexei Marchenko and Nikita Nesterov leading the way. Vladislav Gavrikov will likely also be asked to play top-four minutes for OAR, giving them two solid pairs. The Russian defense is good, but almost as importantly there’s no offense in this tournament that will strike fear into the Red Machine, especially if their goaltending is in form.
Speaking of goalies, Ilya Sorokin has earned the reputation of being the most promising goalie not in the NHL; he could follow in the footsteps of Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy as the next great Russian netminder. Over his 190-game (including Cup games and the playoffs) KHL career, Sorokin has a .928 save percentage. That is quite impressive for a 22-year-old. There’s also the chance that the Russians decide to go with the experienced Vasily Koshechkin as the starter for the tournament. While Sorokin is probably the better goalie, the 34-year-old Koshechkin is no slouch either and is having himself another good year in the “K.”
Player to Watch: Gusev has been a beast in the KHL, and even though he’s 25, a good showing on this stage could put himself in the shop window for a move to the NHL over the summer. Currently, the Golden Knights own his NHL rights, but with Vegas making a Cup push, they could package Gusev in a move to bolster their roster at the deadline.
Pass or Play Analysis: There’s no value in backing a team at these odds in a 12-team tournament. Hockey is such a volatile sport — and so much is determined by luck — that it isn’t hard to imagine Russia getting caught off guard by an inferior team. You need only go back to 2014, when Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis put forth a mesmerizing, 55-save performance and almost led the Latvians over Canada, to be reminded that anyone on their day can do a job. The Russians are a cut above every other team, but that price feels more like a condemnation of the rest of the field than anything else.
The Verdict: Pass.
If it weren’t for the thick heads at the NHL, this would be Canada’s tournament to lose. Instead, the Canucks are pegged behind the Russians and sporting a roster that features a who’s who of fun name-drops for hockey nerds.
If it was 2009, Derek Roy would be the obvious focal point on offense, but it’s 2018, and it’s been a long time since the 34-year-old was a point-per-gamer at the highest level. Currently, Roy is playing with Linkopings of the Swedish Elite League, where he has 33 points in 39 games, which translate to about 19 NHL points. Roy may be a de facto first-liner for this team, but if we’re going by form, Canada is likely going to need Linden Vey, Wojtek Wolski and all-time bust Gilbert Brule to have big tournaments.
Vey scored in juniors and in the AHL but never really found his scoring touch in the NHL. The former fourth-round pick currently sits in fourth place in the KHL with 52 points in 50 games. With Vey and Wolski flanking Brule or Roy, the Canadians have a decent first line — by this tournament’s standards.
Compared with the rest of the rosters in this tournament, Canada’s is pretty deep and should be able to roll four lines against every team outside of Russia. A good portion of this group has seen relative success in the NHL; I mean, you can just imagine Don Cherry glowing about how Chris Kelly, Andrew Ebbett and Maxim Lapierre are going to be the best checking line in the tournament. But to succeed against the other contenders, they will need to punch above their weight.
Canada’s blueline provides more “where are they now” players, but it’s important to look at them in the context of this competition. Sure, a blueline headlined by Marc-Andre Gragnani and Mat Robinson isn’t going to win you many hockey games in the NHL, but this is far from the NHL. Most of this corps is playing, and succeeding, in the KHL. Gragnani’s 32 points are fourth-most among defensemen in the circuit, and Chris Lee — who never made it past the AHL in North America — isn’t far removed from a 65-point season in 2016-17. It won’t be easy for this group to slow down a high-caliber offense like Russia’s, but they shouldn’t have much issue imposing their will on the teams in their group.
Canada’s biggest weakness is in between the pipes. None of Ben Scrivens, Kevin Poulin or Justin Peters could cut it in the NHL, and they aren’t really setting the world on fire overseas either. The likely scenario is that Scrivens and Poulin will battle it out to start the big games, with Peters maybe getting his “Olympic moment” against Korea. No matter how it shakes out, the goaltending will be an adventure for the Canucks.
Pass or Play Analysis: At +400, the bookies are saying Canada wins this thing 20% of the time. What Canada has going for them is that they have an easier group to win than Sweden, Finland or the USA. However, Canada will be very susceptible to an early upset because of their goaltending issues, and that would complicate things big time.
The Verdict: Pass.
The Swedes will likely be the most-watched team of the tournament thanks to their decision to include Rasmus Dahlin, the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, in their Olympic plans.
Over the holiday period, Dahlin dazzled at the World Juniors. The 17-year-old is already playing in his second season in the Swedish Elite League, so there’s no question about whether he’ll be able to handle this level of competition.
With Dahlin in the fold, the Swedes’ blueline is probably the deepest in the tournament. Staffan Kronwall and Patrik Hersley currently rank second and third, respectively, in points among defensemen in the KHL this season, and former NHLer Erik Gustafsson and 2012 seventh-round draft pick Mikael Wikstrand should provide them with enough depth to compete with any of the offenses in the tournament.
In net, the Swedes have three former NHLers in Magnus Hellberg, Viktor Fasth and Jhonas Enroth. Going off current form, it will likely be between Hellberg (.926 save percentage in 51 KHL games) or Enroth (.924 save percentage in 51 KHL games) to grab the starting role. The edge likely rests with Enroth given his World Championships experience. Either way, Sweden’s defense is good enough to limit chances, and their goaltending shouldn’t be a huge problem.
Up front, the Swedes have some potential but are a little top heavy. Linus Omark, Viktor Stalberg and Alexander Bergstrom shouldn’t have too much trouble against most defenses in the tournament, and Oscar Moller, Anton Lander and Joakim Lindstrom give the Swedes some scoring depth.
Player to watch: It’s chalk, but there’s no other answer here besides Dahlin. Even if NHLers were playing, the wunderkind would probably still make this squad. Without them, he will have a serious role to play and will likely quarterback the Swedish power play.
Pass or Play Analysis: Some money has come in on Sweden to move them from +500 to +450 (though Sweden was all the way down to +400 for a time), and that makes some sense. One could even argue that Sweden is a better team than Canada and is probably deserving of being the second favorite, but the Swedes are priced appropriately here, leaving little value for speculators.
The Verdict: Pass
The Finns are always a tough out in these international tournaments because they’re well organized and have consistently produced solid goalies for the better part of two decades now.
This tournament, the Finns will likely lean on former New York Islander Mikko Koskinen in net. The 29-year-old has been stellar for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL this year, and if he falters, Juha Metsola and Karri Ramo have also put together decent campaigns in the Russian circuit.
The Finns have a couple of stars in the making on their roster in Miro Heiskanen, the third overall pick in 2017, and Eeli Tolvanen, who was selected 30th overall by Nashville in 2017.
Joining Heiskanen on defense are former NHLers Sami Lepisto and Lasse Kukkonen. The Finnish rearguard is deep enough and their goaltending is good enough to keep them in games, which is going to be paramount because scoring will be Finland’s biggest issue.
Even though Tolvanen looks like he’s on his way to big things, he is still only 18, and he’ll likely be matched up against the opposition’s best defensemen throughout the tourney. Teemu Hartikainen and Joonas Kemppainen have both scored in bunches in the KHL this season, but as we go further down the roster, it’s getting harder and harder to see where the goals will come from against better teams.
Player to Watch: Heiskanen will likely be the Finns’ No. 1 defenseman and will play in all situations. His hockey IQ is off the charts, and the youngster makes a terrific first pass. Like Dahlin, he probably would have made this team with NHL participation.
Pass or Play Analysis: If Finland’s scoring by committee approach works, they could make a run, because they shouldn’t give up many goals. A win over Sweden in the group stage would be huge, but I just don’t think this team will score enough goals to grab the gold.
The Verdict: Pass
Czech Republic +750
When the Czech Republic shocked the world by winning the gold medal at Nagano in 1998, they did it on the strength of a herculean effort by their goaltender Dominik Hasek. 20 years later and the Czechs will need a similar performance from Pavel Francouz.
The 27-year-old certainly won’t pop up on many radars in North America, but he is well known in Europe and is leading the KHL in save percentage for the second straight season. Oftentimes a hot goaltender can wreck these tournaments, and Francouz is a prime candidate to do just that.
Other than that, Martin Erat is the most recognizable name on the roster and the team’s captain. The longtime NHLer is currently a point-per-game player in the Czech League. Behind him, Jiri Sekac, Roman Horak and Lukas Radil will have to chip in. Sekac is an especially intriguing player because he’s still young and could earn himself another shot in the NHL. This is as good a time as any for him to show his game.
On the blueline, former NHLers Michal Jordan and Jakub Nakladal are a decent top pair. There’s some concern about the lack of depth behind them, but it’s plain to see this team will go as far as Francouz takes them.
Pass or Play Analysis: Aside from the Russians, the Czechs will probably benefit the most from the NHL banning its players from going to Pyeongchang. There may not be any star power on this roster, but two-thirds of the Czech team plays in the KHL, so there are good players on this side. There’s enough here to suggest that the ’98 champs could sneak a win over Canada in the group stage and earn an easier matchup in the quarterfinals. If they do that and Francouz plays like he has over the past two seasons, this team has serious dark horse potential. Both the +750 to win the tournament and the +190 to win the group are worth considering.
The Verdict: Play. (Though the +750 to win the tournament and +190 to win the group aren’t as attractive as the +900/+200 odds that were available last week.)
The Yanks are hoping that a blend of experienced ex-NHLers and a couple of promising NCAAers could help them pull off a mini Miracle on Ice.
Brian Gionta is the most recognizable name on the roster, but the “Rochester Rocket” has just been practicing with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League rather than playing overseas or signing a minor league contract. The Stars and Stripes will need big performances from NCAA standouts Ryan Donato (Harvard), Troy Terry (Denver) and Jordan Greenway (Minnesota). Of the three, Terry figures to be the most important player for the Americans. He could end up leading the team in goals when the tournament is over.
On defense, it is likely that Will Borgen, a fourth-round pick in 2015 currently playing at St. Cloud State, will hold the shutdown role for the Americans. He’s going to be joined by a slew of former NHLers like James Wisniewski, Matt Gilroy, Jonathon Blum, Bobby Sanguinetti and Noah Welch. The key for the U.S. will be maximizing their speed up front, so it will be paramount for the defensemen to play a quick and effective transition game.
Barring something weird, Ryan Zapolski will be goalie numero uno for the Americans. Even though he may not ring a bell in North America, the 31-year-old has put together a great season for Jokerit in the KHL. Say it with me, Team USA will go as far as Ryan Zapolski takes them.
Player to Watch: Terry, a fifth-round pick by the Ducks in 2015, will be a lot of fun to watch. He’s got a slick pair of hands and is a hound when it comes to forechecking. Zapolski will be the team’s most important player, but Terry is a close second.
Pass or Play Analysis: Well, would you look at that? A team of American misfits cast as underdogs in a tournament that is expected to be dominated by the Russians. Being in the same group as Russia means they will need to dominate Slovakia and Slovenia to avoid a play-in game to reach the quarters, and I have my doubts the U.S. can do that.
The Verdict: Pass
Every player on the Swiss National Team, including former NHLers Jonas Hiller, Tobias Stephan and Raphael Diaz, plays in the country’s domestic league, so at the very least they will be familiar with one another.
What can we expect from this team? Well, since they all know each other, this team figures to be well organized and could be tough to break down, but other than that there isn’t much reason to believe the Swiss can do much more than maybe pull off an upset in the group stage.
Player to watch: If the Swiss do take a scalp in this tournament, it will likely be thanks to Pius Suter, a diminutive 21-year-old who played Major Junior hockey for Guelph before moving back to Switzerland. Suter has been great in the Swiss League this season and could put himself on someone’s radar with a strong showing in the tournament.
Pass or Play Analysis: For a team like Switzerland to really threaten the podium, they’d need a blood-and-thunder show from their netminder — but none of their goalies seem capable of that kind of performance. So let’s do as the Swiss do and not get involved here.
The Verdict: Pass
There are a couple of familiar faces on Team Germany, starting with Christian Ehrhoff. The 35-year-old defenseman put together a pretty good career in the NHL and was a decent power-play quarterback in his day. He is most likely going to be the most important player for the Germans on the back end and will need to turn their man advantage into a strength if his team is going to be able to do anything in South Korea.
Marcel Goc, another longtime NHLer, will be the main pivot for the Germans. The entire team plays in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), so like the Swiss they will be familiar with one another and will need to use that to their advantage.
Pass or Play Analysis: Hockey is such a flukey sport that any team on this list can pull off a big upset, and head coach Marco Sturm should have his team well disciplined, so maybe Germany finds a way to pull off an upset during their stay. Other than that, it’s hard to imagine the Germans being good enough offensively to have much success in the tournament.
The Verdict: Pass
Team Slovakia has the best NHL throwback of any team in the tournament, and it isn’t even close. Nearly 10 years after his last NHL game, Ladislav Nagy is still doing the darn thing. The 38-year-old was a legitimate scoring presence in the NHL during his prime and has done pretty well in his twilight years back in his homeland. The Slovaks also boast former Penguin Tomas Surovy and former Islander draft pick Tomas Marcinko in their ranks.
Slovakia’s biggest strength, outside of the Nostalgic Nagy, is in goal with Patrik Rybar. The 24-year-old is having a great season in the Czech League and could be the game-stealer that Slovakia will need to make a little run.
Pass or Play Analysis: No thanks, but I think Slovakia can sneak a win or two in the tournament. The USA could be highly susceptible to an upset in the preliminary round, and if they get caught looking ahead to their showdown with the Russians, Rybar and the Slovaks could catch them off guard in Game 2.
The Verdict: Pass
Aside from the USA, there is only one other team that has an NCAA player on its roster: Norway. Ludvig Hoff isn’t an NHL prospect, but the fact that he’s playing at the NCAA level with North Dakota means he’s probably one of Norway’s best players. He, along with former NHLer Patrick Thoresen, will need to put on a show if Norway wants to find a win.
Pass or Play Analysis: Like with Slovakia, there’s some upset potential in Norway just because they could catch Finland looking ahead to Sweden. But they’ll likely be ousted early.
The Verdict: Pass
Slovenia pulled off a huge upset in 2014 by defeating big brother Slovakia in Sochi. But without the benefit of having Anze Kopitar, the Slovenians will need to get incredibly lucky to get anything out of this tournament. Their goalies aren’t very good, and outside of former Red Wing Jan Mursak along with Jan Urbas and Robert Sobolic, it’s hard to see how they will score against the better teams in this field.
Pass or Play Analysis: I don’t see the point.
The Verdict: Pass
South Korea +50000
The tournament hosts made some headlines by recruiting some North Americans to play in the Asian League so they could establish citizenship and play for their adopted country’s hockey team in the Olympics. Of this group, two stick out — former 15th overall pick Alex Plante and former Bemidji State goaltender Matt Dalton.
Both Plante and Dalton are playing for Anyang Halla in South Korea and, like their other former North Americans, have seemingly bought in to this whole experience.
Outside of their mercenaries, the South Korean team will be overrun by everybody else.
Pass or Play Analysis: This team is very bad, even by this tournament’s standards, so nobody in their right mind should even come close to this. The only way this team stays in any of their games is if Dalton goes Gudlevskis.
The Verdict: Pass
Photo: Rob Shumacher, USA Today Sports
All odds retrieved on Feb. 12 via Bodog.