In retrospect, the expectations that Finland might be able to match its gold medal-winning performance from the 2014 World Junior Championship were probably overly optimistic. Struggling to score goals through the entire 2015 edition of this tournament, the defending champions finished seventh after falling to rival Sweden, 6-3, in the quarterfinal round.
Playing both the United States and eventual champion Canada in group play, the Finnish squad had just five goals in four games during pool play at the 2015 World Junior Championship — scoring two of those in their only win, a 2-0 defeat of Germany — which did not win a game and was swept by Switzerland in the relegation round.
While the decision to start HIFK’s Ville Husso (STL) in goal over Juuse Saros (NSH) of HPK Hameenlina — who was the starter in net during the gold medal game in Stockholm — was viewed by some as controversial, that was not an issue.
Husso played well, and it was on the offensive end of the ice where the team faltered.
Much like the United States, which looked to highly-regarded 18-year-old Jack Eichel to carry their team at times — particularly on the power play — Finland seemed to look to their top players to carry them rather than utilize the team depth that carried them to a championship.
While Teuvo Teravainen and Saku Maenalanen led the tournament in scoring a year ago, Finland did not get the same type of performance from forwards Kasperi Kapanen, Aleksi Mustonen and some of their other top players this time around. The squad did not score a goal in 20 power play opportunities.
Perhaps an even bigger difference between the two teams was the veteran leadership and the offensive production provided from the defense corps in the 2014 tournament. Led by Dallas Stars‘ prospect Esa Lindell (two goals, three assists), every defenseman on that team had at least one point while Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen scored three goals, including the gold medal-winning goal against Sweden in overtime.
In this year’s tournament, Texas Stars’ defenseman Julius Honka. The lone returnee from the gold medal group, scored the only goal by a defenseman. To illustrate the squad’s offensive woes, Honka was tied for third among all skaters in points with two, recording one assist.
In a tournament that is generally dominated by 19-year-olds, Finland featured several youngsters, including 2016 NHL Draft-eligible forward Jesse Puljujarvi. While that put the squad at a disadvantage this year, that youth may pay dividends in years to come.
“This is a tournament that older teams have been winning a lot,” ISS Hockey‘s head scout in Quebec, Marc Lapointe, told Hockey’s Future prior to the quarterfinal game with Sweden. “Finland doesn’t have a lot of 95’s so (the younger guys) have been carrying the weight a little bit.”
With the struggles endured by some of the veterans of previous tournaments such as Mustonen (one assist) and Arturri Lehkonen (one goal, no assists) — as well as the aforementioned Kapanen, who scored his only goal (and only point of the tournament) in the quarterfinal game against Sweden – the top forward for Finland was 18-year-old Mikko Rantanen.
The only player with multiple goals for Finland, Rantanen scored four goals and was +3 in five games at the tournament. Like fellow 2015 draft-eligible forwards Roope Hintz and Sebastian Aho, as well as Puljujarvi, he seemed more effective at times than some of the older players for Finland.
“I want to say he’s been Finland’s best player, especially offensively,” Lapointe said of Rantanen prior to Finland’s game with Sweden. “Every time he steps on the ice he’s a threat. He loves to cut to the net. He’s got a big body and he skates pretty well. He’s got a lot of potential.”
With HPK defenseman Joni Tuulola unavailable due to injury and six of the seven defensemen from the 2014 squad too old to return, Honka carried much of the load on the blue line for Finland and was the team leader in ice time by a substantial margin.
Already skating in the American Hockey League as a 19-year-old, Honka is an offensive-minded defenseman but showed poise in all three zones. Despite having less than ideal size for a defenseman, he uses his significant skating ability to advantage and was a force throughout the tournament.
“He’s been one of the best “D” out there,” Lapointe said of Honka. “He logs a lot of minutes. He’s a very, very effective passer. He makes the first pass. He does a lot of small things well.”
As hard as it was to pick an MVP last year — since seemingly everyone contributed to the gold medal win — the choice this year was obvious. While some of the younger players showed potential, and both goalies Saros and Huuso were fine when called upon, only Rantanen stood out throughout the entire tournament.
Viewed as a potential top 10 pick for the 2015 NHL Draft when the season started before sliding a bit according to some draft services, Rantanen’s consistency and willingness to attack at all times bodes well for his future. Currently skating for TPS Turku in Finland’s Liiga, Rantanen shows a maturity to his game that belies his youth.
Few prospects from Finland have shown as much progress as 19-year-old KalPa defenseman Joonas Lyytinen over the past two years. Drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2014 after seeing a lot of ice time for then last-place KalPa over the second half of the 2013-14 season, he is again playing a full-time role this season.
In five games for Finland during the tournament, Lyytinen was +3 with one assist and four penalty minutes. While the focus for scouts was on those players not yet drafted, Lyytinen continues to develop and is making a strong case to eventually earn a contract with the Predators.
2015 Prospects that helped their draft status
Other than Rantanen, who is almost assured of being selected in the first round, the two other forwards that are eligible for this draft — Hintz and Aho — accorded themselves well in the tournament. While neither had overwhelming numbers – Hintz had two assists and Aho did not register a point – both proved capable of playing effectively against older players.
Aho is still eligible to play in the 2015 U18 World Championship and is expected to play on one of the team’s top two lines. Puljujarvi, though not eligible for the draft until 2016, did not have a point in the tournament but impressed as a 16-year-old.
“He loves to shoot,” said Lapointe of Puljujarvi. “He’s actually leading the tournament in shots. He’s been fun to watch.”
2015 Prospect that hurt his standing
While the young forwards did some nice things to gain the attention of scouts, the same could not be said of 18-year-old defenseman, Sami Niku.
One of the top players for Finland’s U17 and U18 teams in the past, the defenseman from JyP was expected to make an impact in this year’s tournament. Instead, his size and lack of strength, which has hampered him at times during the domestic season both in Liiga and Mestis, was an issue skating in the WJC, as well.
A fairly-skilled player and smooth skater, Niku may attract late-round interest and has the potential to develop into an effective defender with added bulk and strength. His play at the tournament tempered expectations.
Undrafted players worthy of a second look
Of those four, Ikonen, had the best tournament and would have to be considered the most likely to be drafted in 2015, though that remains a long shot.
Ikonen and Mustonen, both undersized, offensively-skilled forwards, skated for the gold medal squad a year ago and have begun to produce offensively in Liiga play. Both were hoping to make the transition from support roles to top-line duty. Instead, both struggled to generate much offense and after having passed through the NHL Draft twice already, neither likely did enough to be selected in June.
Similarly, defenseman Ilvonen, a freshman at St. Cloud State who dominated Finnish junior hockey last year for champion Espoo, failed to register a point in five games.
Makinen has the prototypical size for a defensive defenseman and is skating in a regular role for Tappara after playing in 10 Liiga games in 2013-14. His mobility is an issue and those shortcomings were evident at times against the better teams at the WJC.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12