Team Finland finished the World Junior Hockey Championships on top — unfortunately it was the top of the relegation tournament. However, that experience allowed a trio of highly-regarded draft-eligible prospects to showcase their abilities on the international stage before potential future employers.
The Finnish squad featured three players who may be selected in the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft: defenseman Tommi Kivisto, and forwards Joonas Nattinen and Toni Rajala. The three are rated No. 22, 28 and 39 by ISS, respectively.
In addition to providing yet another on-ice stage to display their talents before the gathered masses, the last game against Germany offered the players an opportunity to showcase their internal fortitude. With little to play for, each player had to find their own motivation — something which they admitted was a challenge.
"It was a tough game for us today — really tough," explained Nattinen. "It’s hard because for us, the tournament was already over in there [points to his head].
"I’m very pleased with how the team performed today. There was a small chance that we could be [relegated out of next year’s tournament], so that’s what made us play better."
Nattinen finished the game, a 3-1 victory over Team Germany, with only one shot on goal to his credit. He ended the tournament with one goal and two assists in six games — numbers which represent a drop from his totals last year of two goals and two assists.
Kivisto suggested he had extra motivation due to the fact that he likely will be in Saskatchewan for next year’s World Juniors. This will be a point of pride for him as he plays for Red Deer in the WHL. He said the slight chance of relegation was worrying — and he broke though by finally cracking the score sheet with his first goal of the tournament on a beautiful point shot to open the team’s scoring.
"Well it was very hard to motivate, but I hope that I’ll be here next year and it would have been bad to go down to the other tournament, so that motivated me," Kivisto said. "Plus, it feels good inside to win."
Unlike his two teammates, Kivisto has had ample opportunity to experience Canadian hockey, playing for the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL. In fact, Kivisto’s goal was his first of the season, as his WHL totals, to date, have represented 16 assists in 37 games.
"Of course it’s nice to play in Canada. There’s lots of audience, very loud," he said. "The people are very excited and very nice. I think this tournament is different than the normal game here because there are a lot of European teams here."
The 6’1, 192-pounder added that the quality of play in this tournament, at times, is a step up from what he experiences in the WHL.
"There are lots of good players here — especially the good teams, like Sweden and Canada," he said. "You can’t do mistakes — they always score. But there are lots of good players in the WHL."
The third member of the trio, Rajala, apologized at first for his lack of English, but was able to express that performing well in this tournament was important to him as he knew the scouts were in attendance. Rajala finished the tournament with two goals and one assists in six games, and added four shots in his final tournament game.
"Yeah, I was very happy this tournament for me. For my team, not so good," he said. "It was good for me because I’m in draft."
He laughed when asked whether the presence of pro scouts added to the pressure of playing in this tournament. "Yeah, maybe. Yeah. Yes!"
Rajala has been the top Finnish forward amongst the 1991-born forwards since his C junior days – frequently playing with older players, and has appeared in eight games with Ilves Tampere in the SM-Liiga this season. Though there are some doubts as to his status as an NHL prospect because of his size (5’8, 160), his skills and offensive instincts are impressive. He has one assist and is -3 with Ilves on the year. The rest of his time has been spent with Tampere’s junior team.
Nattinen, for his part, said that knowledge of scouts at the WJC spurred him on to try to do more, but never outside of the team concept. "First the team and then me. I try to play my best for the team," he said. "Yeah, there’s a bit more pressure knowing that people are watching you but it gives you more motivation to do your best and show what you can do."
Nattinen is much taller than Rajala, at 6’2, but only slightly heavier at 169 lbs. What makes the right-shooting center an impressive prospect is his offensive instincts and playmaking ability. While he has yet to crack the Espoo Blues men’s lineup on a full-time basis (he has played 13 games with no points and a -3), he has a team leading 17 assists and over a point per game for the A junior team.
Kivisto explained that he’s hoping to take what he’s learned from the WJC tournament and apply it during the second half of the WHL season. "I gained lots of confidence here. I learned I have to skate well and work on scoring," he said.
While the presence of scouts was always in the back of his mind, he said that was something he felt he had to put out of his head once the games started.
"Of course you know you have to play good the whole time. You’re going to have bad games, but you have to focus on the team," Kivisto said. "Everybody would like to win the tournament and get in the gold medal game. You focus on that more than on upcoming drafts."
And now that the tournament is over, with Kivisto back to Red Deer and Nattinen and Rajala back in Finland, Kivisto is looking forward to a reunion of sorts in June at the NHL entry draft in Montreal.
"We haven’t talked about it too much. It will be nice to see [them] at the draft," he said. "We try not to think too much about the future. Maybe after the season we will."
Tony Piscotta contributed to this article.