The future of hockey in Finland has been much debated in recent years. Team Finland‘s bronze-medal-winning effort at the IIHF World U-18 Championships won’t do much to quell those debates. As with the Olympic bronze medal won in Vancouver, the effort of the U-18 team highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of Finnish hockey.
On the plus side, the first line of Mikael Granlund, Teemu Pulkkinen, and Joonas Donskoi — all eligible for the 2010 draft — was one of the most effective offensive groups of the tournament and was especially lethal on the power play. Goaltender Jonathan Iilahti, who was slated to be the No. 2 goalie behind Ilves’ Sami Aittokallio, made a name for himself at this tournament and proved, once again, that Finland continues to produce talented goaltending prospects. With two wins over Russia — including the 5-1 trouncing in the bronze medal game — as well as wins over Slovakia and the Czech Republic, there was much to be proud of.
What has concerned scouts and coaches about Finnish hockey in recent years is the lack of elite young defensemen and an inability of forwards to play a more tight-checking, physical North American style of game. The fact that no defenseman had more than two points in the six-game tournament and that the Finns were able to generate just 14 shots in the 5-0 semifinal loss to the United States would indicate that these areas still need addressing.
Granlund, after going from Karpat to HIFK this season, was the top rookie scorer in the SM-Liiga and has been heralded since his junior years in Oulu as a skilled playmaker who makes his teammates better. Though HIFK was upset by HPK in the playoffs, Granlund played well in the six game series (one goal, five assists). It was expected that he and Jokerit’s Pulkkinen would shine at this tournament — and the numbers would seem to back that up. Granlund’s nine assists were the most for any player in the tournament and he finished with a one goal, three assist performance in the bronze medal win over Russia. Thought highly of in some circles prior to the tournament, some of that enthusiasm among the scouts was tempered a bit by the game against the Americans, in which he generated just one shot and the line of Granlund, Donskoi and Pulkkinen finished -4.
Pulkkinen, a pure goal scorer, made his SM-Liiga debut with HIFK-rival Jokerit but spent much of the season at the junior level. In Minsk, he led all scorers with ten goals and 15 points. Like other recent scorers who have come out of Finnish juniors, there are concerns about his two-way play and his size is only average (5’11, 180). However, his ability to shoot the puck and score goals should attract attention. In the game with the USA, he had five of the 14 shots for Team Finland.
Donskoi, a teammate of Granlund’s last year with the Karpat juniors, split this season between the SM-Liiga and A juniors. In 18 pro games, he scored two goals and had two assists. At the junior level he was dominant, scoring 14 goals and registering 29 points in just 18 games. While players from Karpat seem to be scrutinized harshly, there’s no doubt he has some ability.
While the top line did its part, there must be at least some concern about the lack of offensive depth. Only two other forwards, Granlund’s 17-year-old brother Markus (one goal, five assists) and Mika Partinen (one goal, three assists), had more than two points for the tournament. Both the younger Granlund and Partinen played for HIFK’s junior team this season as did Mikael Salmivirta. While Salmivirta did not put up big offensive numbers in the tournament (one goal, one assist), his two-way play was "drawing some interest" one scout told Hockey’s Future.
In net, Iilahti’s performance at the tournament did more than draw interest. A product of the same Espoo Blues junior program that produced Islanders’ 2009 2nd-round-pick Mikko Koskinen and 19-year-old prospect Erno Suomalainen, he proved to be much more than just someone to work the bench door.
"Iilahti has definitely turned some heads here," the same scout told Hockey’s Future. "I know of several NHL clubs who are seeking more info. One who is very serious about him as high as the third round. He has developed very well this year and although he was to backup [Sami] Aittokallio he has really run with this chance."
Iilahti finished the tournament with a 2.79 GAA and .893 save percentage in six games. He turns 18 today.
While Aittokallio’s ankle injury forced him to miss the tournament — and thus may keep him off some teams’ radars — that would be a mistake.
"Aittokallio was circled on most teams’ sheets because they wanted to know more about him but since he got hurt most teams are blind to his abilities so he will likely fall in the draft," said the scout. "My opinion is that he’s the better goalie…but his development seems to have slowed slightly where as Iilahti is really developing quickly.
"Aittokallio’s biggest strength is his intelligence," he continued. "he has really good reflexes and athleticism but just seems to really be able to slow the play down and control it when he has to."
Defensively, in terms of pro prospects this group did not appear to be especially deep, particularly among the 2010 draft-eligible players. Kiekko-Vantaa’s Jani Hakanpaa, at 6’5, 212 has prototypical size for a defenseman. He has a bit of a reputation domestically and played on the first unit so an NHL team may take a late-round flier on him. The defenseman who shows the most promise, Julius Nyqvist, is another HIFK product who is eligible for the 2011 draft. Nyqvist had a strong tournament and could garner considerable interest in the future.