Finland, the host team for the 2014 IIHF U18 World Championship, finished fifth in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last summer despite winning three of the four games it played. With a number of key additions — particularly on defense — the U18 team competing in Imatra and Laapenranta should be stronger than the team that skated in Piestany, Slovakia.
The top addition will be left wing Kasperi Kapanen. The son of former NHL forward Sami Kapanen and the third generation of his family to play in the SM-Liiga, Kapanen was with Finland's U20 team in Lake Placid last summer and was slated to play for the gold medal-winning squad in January before suffering a shoulder injury.
He played in 47 games for last-place KalPa Kuopio in Liiga this season, scoring seven goals with seven assists while posting a -8 rating with 10 penalty minutes. Despite his slight size (5'9", 160 lbs.) Kapanen is highly-regarded and was the top European skater in Central Scouting's recently released Final Rankings for the 2014 NHL Draft.
While 11 of the 14 forwards on Finland's pre-tournament roster skated at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, the defense corps has four additions amongst the eight defenders that will skate for the U18 squad.
Scouts will be eager to see Pelicans Lahti's Eetu Sopanen. Sopanen impressed skating for Finland's U17 team last year but missed much of the season due to injury.
As was the case when Finland finished third in last year's tournament in Sochi, thanks largely to the play of goalie Juuse Saros (NSH), this team will once again feature a high profile goaltending prospect in Espoo Blues A junior goalie Kaapo Kahkonen.
Kahkonen, like Saros with HPK in 2013, enters the U18 World Championship after winning a junior championship in Finland. He was a workhorse for the champion Espoo Blues A juni-against average and .935 save percentage. Kahkonen played in 10 playoff games and had a 2.10 goals-against with a .915 save percentage. In three games at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, he was 2-1 with a 3.02 goals-against average and .893 save percentage.
Expected to challenge HIFK's Ville Husso for the top spot amongst European goalies after being ranked second in the mid-season rankings, Kahkonen slipped to fourth in Central Scouting's final draft rankings after a subpar showing as Finland was 2-2 in the Five Nations Tournament in Dmitrov, Russia in February.
Jokerit's Joona Voutilainen, who backed up Kaakonen at both the Ivan Hlinka and Five Nations tournaments, is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft as is JyP's Veini Vehvilainen. Voutilainen had a 4-3 shootout win over Slovakia in the fifth-place game in his only action at the Ivan Hlinka tournament.
Despite skating in just 15 A junior games for Lahti this season, Sopanen is the highest ranked defender amongst Finland's 2014 draft-eligible defensemen. He is ranked 31st amongst European skaters in the 2014 final rankings by CSS.
While Sopanen's game will be closely scrutinized, 2015 NHL Draft-eligible Samu Niku's play this season has also garnered attention. Sharing the scoring lead amongst defensemen with partner Miro Keskitalo with two points (one goal, one assist) at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, Niku's best asset is his skating ability.
Niku split the season between JyP-Akatemia in Finland's second league (Mestis) and JyP's A junior team. Niku had three assists and was +2 with 16 penalty minutes in 30 Mestis games. In 20 A junior games, he scored four goals with 10 assists and was +1.
Keskitalo (ranked 81st amongst European skaters by CS) has quietly but steadily impressed this season. A defense-first defender who is strong in his own end, Keskitalo has prototypical size and could be an interesting late-round flier pick for a team (particularly with the new CBA that lengthens the time a club can hold a European player's rights).
At the other end of the spectrum is HPK Hameenlinna's light but highly-skilled offensive defender Joni Tuulola (41st amongst European skaters according to CSS).
The son of HPK's all-time leading scorer Marko Tuulola (who still plays at 43 and was the team captain this past season), the younger Tuulola had a chance to play in three games with his father's team and scored his first professional goal. He can struggle in his own end at times due to his lack of bulk but is creative in the offensive end and has strong play-making instincts.
Joni Tuulola played 50 games for the HPK A junior team (including the three game playoff series with Pelicans) and was +13 with eight goals and 16 assists.
Sopanen and Tuulola are two of the four defensemen who did not participate in the Ivan Hlinka tournament along with Espoo Blues' Sebastian Moberg (57th in CSS rankings) and Mattias Mattson of Lukko Rauma (not ranked by CSS).
One player North American scouts have had a good chance to look at this season is 2015 NHL Draft-eligible Jarkko Parikka, who skated for the USHL's Des Moines Buccaneers.
While much of the attention will no doubt be on Kapanen, Finland's group of forwards is far from a one-man show and has the depth to match the top teams in this year's tournament.
In pre-tournament play, Kapanen has been playing on a line with TPS center Manu Honkanen and Jokerit's Joel Kiviranta. Both Honkanen (95th) and Kiviranta (82nd) are viewed as late-round prospects since neither have overly physical components to their game, but both are highly-skilled and have had success in junior play.
Like Kahkonen in the net, Assat left winger Juho Lammikko will be closely watched in the U18 tournament.
The 14th-ranked European skater in the CSS final rankings, Lammikko has the prototypical size of a power forward but does not play an abrasive style. Rather, he is an opportunistic scorer with the ability to find scoring areas. Lammikko finished as Finland's second-leading scorer behind Mikko Rantanen with three goals and three assists in four games at the Ivan Hlinka tournament. He has been dominant playing in his age group — he scored 17 goals with 25 assists in 37 games for the Assat A junior squad — but that same offensive productivity has not yet transferred to Liiga play, where he had one assist and was +4 in 20 games.
In pre-tournament competition, Lammikko has been playing on Finland's second line with 2015 NHL Draft prospects Aleksi Saarela of Lukko Blues at center and TPS's Mikko Rantanen at right wing. Saarela appeared in 12 Liiga games this past season while Rantanen scored four goals with four assists in four games to lead Finland in scoring at the Ivan Hlinka tournament.
The wild card for Finland could be its third line of Karpat teammates Sebastian Aho and Antti Kalapudas, and right wing Walterri Hoponen, a native of Espoo who grew up playing in the Blues system and skated in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers this season.
While playing in Oulu doesn't give players as much exposure as they would have playing in the Tampere, Espoo or Helsinki areas, Kalapudas and Aho were among the top scorers for the Karpat A junior team, which reached the playoff finals against Espoo after finishing fifth in the regular season.
Kalapudas was the team's top center and is ranked 32nd amongst European skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings. He was the fifth-leading scorer in Finland's junior SM-Liiga with 21 goals and 38 assists, finishing +21 with 14 penalty minutes in 44 games. In 12 playoff games, Kalapudas scored three goals with seven assists.
Aho, not to be confused with the defenseman from Sweden with the same name, is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. He was the top scorer for Karpat's A junior team during the regular season and fourth overall in Finland junior hockey with 24 goals and 34 assists in 44 games. In 12 playoff games he scored four goals with eight assists.
Hopponen was the tenth player taken in the CHL Import Draft last summer (by Everett) but the Silvertips were forced to release him after one game when import defenseman Mirco Mueller was returned by the San Jose Sharks (putting Everett over the league limit of three imports). In 54 games for Sioux City, he scored 17 goals with 14 assists and was +4 with 36 penalty minutes. Hopponen was ranked 122nd amongst North American skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings.
The fact that TPS center Teemu Lamsa, who is ranked 39th amongst European skaters by Central Scouting's, was skating on the team's fourth line is a testament to Finland's depth at the position.
Twin brother's Atte and Miro Makinen, who skated for Jokerit's A junior team and are ranked 97th and 135th amongst European skaters respectively, round out Finland's roster along with Tappara Tampere's Antti Kaupinen and Pelicans' Sebastian Repo (47th amongst European skaters).
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12