The 2020-21 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship gets underway on Christmas Day (provided all teams can get through the Covid protocols and ice full squads prior to that), helping fill the void for hockey bettors until the NHL makes its long-awaited return in mid-January (that's been thrown around as a possible start date anyway).
Group A features defending champion (and tournament host) Canada along with Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia and Germany. Group B has last year's tournament runner-up Russia, Sweden, USA, Czech Republic and Austria.
Here's how the odds shake out entering the tournament.
Czech Republic +2000
It should come as no surprise that I'm picking Canada to take home its second straight Gold Medal as it ices a 'Dream Team' - essentially the fourth time it has done so in tournament history (three times previously due to NHL labor issues). Yes, we're being asked to pay a tariff to back the tournament favorite but that price might actually look cheap as this tournament goes on.
The Canadians certainly land in the softer of the two groups, with only Finland likely to pose much of a challenge. While that can sometimes hurt teams as they enter the knockout stage of the tournament, here I believe it helps Canada with most of the players having not seen real game action in months. It should give them a chance to ease into things and ultimately ramp up leading into the quarter-final round, with the game against Finland coming on the final day of the group stage on New Year's Eve.
Team Canada's roster is absolutely loaded with depth and talent, particularly on the blue line where this tournament is often won and lost. Canada's top defensive pairing is likely to feature two returning players from last year's golden squad, Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale. Byram, a first-round pick in this year's NHL draft, could very well be the best all-around player in the tournament. Drysdale made last year's squad as a 17-year old and should take a big leap forward as a cornerstone on the blue line this year.
Up front, Canada is brimming with talent. Kirby Dach will lead the group after being loaned from the Chicago Blackhawks, who he played a full season with in 2019-20. As far as forwards go, only Patrick Kane saw more ice time than Dach in the 'Hawks brief playoff run in August - a testament to just how high Chicago is on the young forward. Dylan Cozens was a big factor in Canada's Gold Medal victory last January and is primed to contend for the title of 'best forward' in this year's tournament as well. You can go up and down the list - Canada simply has no holes up front (as evidenced by the fact that it was forced to cut first-round NHL draft pick Hendrix Lapierre on Thursday).
If you're looking for a potential dark horse winner I would suggest Finland at a +725 return. With Covid concerns swirling and a number of teams already missing some key players due to the protocols in place, this is certainly a tournament where anything could happen - within reason of course. Finland has excellent pedigree in this tournament, often rising up to take the Gold Medal when you least expect it (it has taken the gold on five occasions). There's no question it will be a 'tough out' and we're being offered a generous price to back it in advance of puck drop.