The 2014 U20 World Junior Championship will be a very different experience for Finland on several fronts.
In past tournaments, the strength of Finland's team has been the cohesion gained by playing several years together and then competing as a group in Finland's second league, Mestis, during the Fall.
With several players on this year's team now playing in North America — and others playing key roles for their teams in Finland's Liiga — Finland coach Karri Kivi and his staff will face the same challenges as team's like the USA, Canada, Russia and some of the other favorites – trying to develop a close knit team structure in a short time span.
Like those perennial favorites, Finland will also be without two of its top players in the U20 talent pool because they are playing in the NHL and unavailable. Center Aleksander Barkov, the second player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft, and defenseman Olli Maatta, are playing important roles for their NHL clubs, Florida and Pittsburgh respectively, and won't be in Malmo.
The one area that remains constant for Team Suomi is goaltending as Juuse Saros and Ville Husso have been two of the top goalies in Finland's Liiga this season as teenagers.
Goalie Joonas Korpisalo (CBS) was arguably Finland's best player in last year's disappointing seventh-place finish. Korpisalo has been injured for much of this season and is thus not with the team this year but Saros and Husso are more than capable replacements.
Following his outstanding performance at last year's U18 World Junior Championship in Sochi, where he was named the tournament's top goaltender in leading Finland to a bronze medal, Saros was Central Scouting's top European goaltender heading into the 2013 NHL Draft and was drafted by the Nashville Predators in the fourth round. He has made a successful transition from juniors to Liiga and has been a key to keeping offensively-challenged HPK Hameenlinna in the playoff picture. In 22 games he is 6-9-5 with five shutouts and has the league's second best goals-against (1.71) with a .929 save percentage.
As good as Saros has been, Husso, who was eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft but was not selected, has been equally impressive for fifth-place HIFK, seizing the starter's role from veterans Brad Thiessen and Antti Ore. In 23 games he is 13-8-1 with two shutouts and has a 1.91 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.
Janne Juvonen (NSH), 19, was selected by the Predators in the seventh round (203rd overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft and has split the season between Pelicans and it's Mestis affiliate Peliitat. He is slated to be the team's third goalie.
Much of Finland's struggles last season had to do with breakdowns on the defensive end and turnovers – and Maatta was not at full strength due to illness. Maatta has been averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game with the Penguins with some of Pittsburgh's key players out so he is not available.
Ristolainen played in 19 games for the Sabres before being sent to their AHL affiliate in Rochester. Ristolainen scored two goals with two assists in five games for the Amerks before suffering a concussion. He is a question mark heading into the tournament but is set to make the trip to Sweden.
Pokka has played a full-time role for first-place Karpat in his third pro season and will be playing in his third WJC. An impressive skater and defender, Pokka has displayed an offensive playmaking component to his game this season. In 32 Liiga games he has three goals with a career-high 10 assists and is +20 with 8 penalty minutes, averaging 21:36 minutes of ice time.
Of the remaining nine defensemen on Finland's pre-tournament roster, two of them – returnee Mikko Vainonen (NSH) and 18-year-old Julius Honka – are currently playing major junior hockey in Canada. A fourth round pick by the Predators in 2012, Vainonen, who plays in the OHL with the Kingston Frontenacs, is a big, hard-scrabble defender who likes to throw his body around and plays a strong two-way game.
Honka, a late 1995-born player who is eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, is a gifted skater with an offensive flourish and will be one of the most closely scrutinized prospects in this year's tournament. Skating for the Swift Current Broncos, he is the third-leading scorer amongst WHL defensemen with 12 goals and 24 assists in 35 games.
19-year-old's Esa Lindell, Valtteri Parikka, and Juuso Vainio have all been playing in Liiga this season.
Lindell, who skates for Jokerit, was a third round pick of the Dallas Stars in 2012 and was the captain of Finland's U19 squad last year. Parikka has averaged 15 minutes of ice time in 26 games for last-place Assat Pori. Vainio played in last year's WJC but will be challenged to retain his spot with the addition of Honka.
Mikko Lehtonen, 19, who has split the season between TPS and Mestis' TuTo and 18-year-old Atte Makinen of Tappara are the other defensemen vying for spots on the blueline.
The biggest challenge for Finland will be putting together a group of gifted but undersized forwards into a cohesive group that is capable of both scoring and handling the physical rigors against some of the top teams in the tournament.
While the absence of Barkov is a blow — and this year's team won't have the marquee names like Granlund, Armia, and Pulkkinen that have played in recent tournaments — some of the younger players in this group have put up big numbers in international competition and are well-suited to the skating game played on the bigger rinks in Europe.
Jokerit's Teuvo Teravainen, the Chicago Blackhawks' first round pick in 2012, is now in his third Liiga season and is a gifted playmaker. He has been skating on Finland's first line with KalPa's Artturi Lehkonen. The Montreal Canadiens' second round pick in 2013, Lehkonen is currently leading the Kuopio club in scoring with seven goals and 13 assists in 33 games. Karpat's Saku Maenalanen (NSH), has been playing with Teravainen and Lehkonen during camp and adds size (6'2", 190) that the other two do not have.
Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Henri Ikonen, a sixth round pick in 2013, is a teammate of Vainonen's in Kingston and has been a strong two-way performer the past two seasons with the Frontenacs. He has 42 points (13 goals, 29 assists) in 28 games so far this season. Ikonen has been skating with 18-year-old Aleksi Mustonen and 2014 draft hopeful Kasperi Kapanen during Finland's camp.
Mustonen, who was ranked 49th in Central Scouting's final rankings prior to the 2013 NHL Draft but was not selected, has played for Jokerit and Mestis' Kiekko-Vantaa this season. He is one of the trio of gifted offensive players — along with Juuso Ikonen and Henrik Haapala —whose high technical skill level is high but whose stature is a concern to scouts. Mustonen (5'9", 160) has played eight games for Jokerit this season and has six goals and nine assists in 23 games for Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis.
KalPa's Kapanen, who was the team's youngest player at 17, is the son of former NHL forward Sami Kapanen and is currently ranked 12th in ISS Hockey's's December list of the top 30 skaters for the 2014 NHL Draft. Unfortunately for Finland, Kapanen has suffered a shoulder injury and will not take part in this year's WJC.
Juuso Ikonen (no relation to Henri), now playing for JyP, and Tappara's Haapala, 19, both passed through last June's draft without being selected despite impressive skating ability and offensive skills. There was some grumbling by fans when Ikonen, 18, was left off last year's team and Finland struggled to score . How Kivi and Finland's staff deploy the two (if both are on the final roster) could be a key to Finland's success.
When Finland finished fourth in the tournament two years ago it was the success of the team's four lower line players to frustrate some of the more talented players in the tournament that was a key. This year's team has several players vying for those roles.
Joni Nikko, who skated for Finland's U19 team last year, has eight goals and seven assists in 27 games with Lukko as a Liiga rookie this season but would likely be counted on to play a two-way role at the WJC.
Topi Nattinen (JyP/JyP Akatemia) and Ville Leskinen (Karpat/Peliitat) are two other 19-year-olds who have split the season between Liiga and Mestis. Nattinen is the cousin of Montreal prospect Joonas Natinen while Leskinen had 61 points in 41 games for Karpat's A junior team last year.
18-year-olds Otto Rauhala and Saku Kinnunen are talented and could gain valuable experience if they're on the final roster in Malmo. Kinnunen has played in 30 Liiga games with KalPa. Rauhala had seven points in seven games for the bronze medal U18 team in Sochi last spring and has appeared in 10 Mestis games with LeKi, spending most of the season with Tappara's A junior team.
Rasmus Kulmala, 19, is another undersized forward who played in 49 games for TPS last season and was a leading scorer for Finland's U18 team two years ago. Aleksi Rutanen, another 19-year-old, is also playing in Turku; he is a teammate of Lehtonen's on the Mestis club TuTo.