2015 U18 World Championship Preview: Question marks at defense, in goal could hamper Finland’s medal aspirations

By Tony Piscotta
Jesse Puljujarvi - Team Finland

Photo: Karpat Oulu forward and 2016 prospect Jesse Puljujarvi will be a player of interest for NHL scouts at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

 

 

The 2014-15 season has been a difficult one for Finland‘s U18 team. Both at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August and in the most recent Five Nations Tournament, the squad has been uncharacteristically charitable in giving up scoring opportunities and have left their goaltenders out to dry at times.

Much of the pre-tournament buzz about this year’s 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship tournament has been as much about the players who won’t be with the squad in Switzerland as it is about the players who will be in the Suomi lineup.

Right wing Jesse Puljujarvi, who is not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2016, will be one of the most closely watched prospects in the tournament and should be among the top forwards. Other than Puljujarvi, however, there are a lot of question marks surrounding this year’s team and the squad is flying under the radar.

While Puljujarvi will be with the squad, the team will be without two of the top prospects from Finland.

Forward Sebastian Aho, a 17-year-old who skated for the U20 team in the 2015 World Juniors, is playing for Karpat in the Liiga finals against Tappara, where he skates on a line with veteran center Esa Pirnes and Nashville Predators‘ 2013 draft pick, Saku Maenalanen. Defenseman Jarkko Parikka, who played in last year’s tournament and skated with the Kingston Frontenacs this season, suffered a leg injury during the OHL playoffs and is out for the tournament.

Finland hosted last year’s U18 World Championship and with highly-skilled forward Kasperi Kapanen in the lineup were expected to compete for a medal. Instead, the squad suffered a demoralizing 10-0 loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals. This squad will not face that same type of pressure and, generally speaking, when expectations are low has been when Finland has had its most success.

Game plan

Finland has a reputation for having small but talented skaters who play a strong game collectively to give teams with elite NHL prospects fits. This year’s U18 squad has a few of those prospects of their own in players like Puljujarvi, Julius Nattinen and Patrik Laine, but cohesion will be a challenge.

Head coach Mika Marttila will have some intriguing options among the rest of his forward group.

One player who will be interesting to watch is left wing Sami Tavernier. A native of Annemasse, France, Tavernier moved to Finland in 2011-12, where he played for the HIFK youth club. A consistent scorer at the junior level, he plays with a physical side to his game. Espoo Blues A junior teammates Kasper Bjorkqvist and Joonas Niemela have skated with Ilves’ Julius Mattila in exhibition play. Artu Ruotsalinen, who plays in Oulu with the Karpat junior program, was a team captain for Finland at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and plays the two-way role for which Finland junior teams have been known in the past.

Defensively the absence of Parikka could put a strain on a group that has been overwhelmed at times in international play.

The group has been in a state of flux throughout the season and there will be two new additions for this U18, 16-year-old Robin Salo and Rovaniemi native Vili Saarijarvi. Both are offensively-oriented defensemen. Salo, is the only player on the squad who skated with the U-17 team at the 2015 World Hockey Challenge. He appeared in six Liiga games with the Vaasa Sport men’s team and is the son of former Espoo Blues’ defenseman Robert Salo. Saarijarvi grew up playing for Roki and Karpat in northern Finland before skating for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers in 2014-15. Saarijarvi led Finland defensemen with one goal and three assists in four games at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and was the top offensive defenseman for the rebuilding Gamblers.

Veeti Vainio is the top 2015 draft-eligible defensemen for the team while KalPa’s Otto Leskinen did not skate in the Ivan Hlinka tournament and is a bit undersized by NHL standards. Jesper Mattila of Ilves, an October, 1997-born player, and 16-year-olds Markus Niemelainen and Juuso Valimaki round out the defensive corps.

Marttila has a challenging task in handling his goaltending situation. Both Veini Vehvilainen and Christian Heljanko have significant experience in international play but neither has been able to overcome the breakdowns in front of them — something that in recent years has been a staple of Finnish goaltending. Nico Viksten of Ilves enjoyed some success in the A junior playoffs but has yet to appear in a game with the U18 squad.

Vehvilainen clearly has been top goalie for the past few seasons among the 1997’s coming out of Finland, and is ranked 6th among European goalies in the final NHL Central Scouting rankings. He has not always produced at the level that his skill level suggests, but in fairness, both the Finland U18 team and JyP Akatemia in Mestis, his domestic club, have struggled at times. Heljanko does not have the prototypical size of an NHL goalie, as does Vehvilainen, but his play for HIFK’s A junior team has at times been outstanding and he was one of that league’s top goalies.

Who the NHL scouts will be watching

Veini Vehvilainen, G — Scouts who like Vehvilainen feel that he has all the tools and requisite skills to be a successful NHL goalie. The 2014-15 season was a challenging one — both in domestic play and with Finland’s U18 team. Playing for JyP-Akatemia in Mestis, he has been one of the busier goalies in the league and has played with poise. Things were a bit more difficult with the JyP junior club as the team struggled at times and Vehvilainen was frequently asked to keep his team in the game. Marttila turned to Vehvilainen to start the U18 tournament opener against the Czech Republic. The Jyvaskyla native stopped 26 of 27 shots in a 6-1 win.

Julius Nattinen, C — Nattinen opened the 2014-15 season with a flourish, scoring one goal with six assists in four games at the Ivan Hlinka tournament. With his combination of skill, size and offensive instincts, Nattinen has the potential to be a first or second round pick at the 2015 NHL Draft. Ranked 15th among European skaters in Central Scouting’s final draft rankings, he appeared in nine Liiga games with JyP Jyvaskyla and had three assists. A teammate of Vehvilainen’s with JyP-Akatemia, he scored 11 goals with 18 assists in 39 regular season games. Nattinen is the younger brother of one-time Montreal Canadiens prospect, Joonas Nattinen, and is a cousin of JyP-Akatemia’s second-leading scorer, Topi Nattinen.

Veeti Vainio, D — Vainio has the combination of size, skating ability and offensive instincts to be an effective puck-moving defenseman. His willingness to take chances sometimes creates scoring opportunities for opponents, but with experience those instances should happen less frequently. Originally intent on pursuing a college hockey scholarship, Vainio appeared in two Liiga games for Espoo Blues. He is ranked 25th among European skaters in Central Scouting’s final rankings.

Team strengths

Unlike Finland’s U20 team, which struggled to score goals at the 2015 World Juniors in Canada, this group should have some offensive ability — particularly on the top two lines.

The projected top line of left wing Jonne Tammela, center Nattinen and right wing Petrus Palmu compares favorably with some of the top groups in the tournament. While Palmu is one of the smaller players in the tournament, he has been a consistent scorer and is dangerous. He scored 22 goals in 62 regular season games for the Owen Sound Attack in his first season in North America this past season.

Puljujarvi did not register a point at the World Juniors but drew raves from scouts for his willingness to play in all areas and his constant activity. He skated with center Aleksi Saarela and fellow 16-year-old Patrik Laine against the USA in Finland’s final exhibition game. All three appeared in Liiga this year, with Saarela playing in 51 games for Assat Pori. Both Laine and Puljujarvi have the prototypical size to play a power forward role though neither is overly combative.

The attacking style of the defense corps, particularly Saarijarvi and Vainio, suggest the team could be dangerous on the power play — another area that was a sore spot for Finland’s U20 team.

Team weaknesses

Scoring goals has not been a problem, but breakdowns in their own end have prevented this squad from having success against some of the elite squads at the U18 level. Finland has shuffled its unit since the Ivan Hlinka tournament, and with the absence of Parikka will have three 16-year-olds on the roster.

The top two lines feature a talented group but there are question marks as to how deep Finland is at the forward position. Aho’s absence is a blow to that depth. Unlike in previous tournaments, when Finland’s lower lines featured role playing two-way forwards that made things difficult for opponents, this group has some scoring ability. But whether they can shut down some of the top opposing forwards in the tournament remains to be seen.

Synopsis

Finland has the scorers to handle some of the lower seeded teams in the tournament but has not yet proven capable of competing against teams like Canada, Sweden and the USA. With skill in the forward group, the team should have enough talent to advance out of the preliminary round — particularly in a group with the Czech Republic, Latvia and Switzerland. The squad will face a bigger challenge when it reaches the playoff round. The key will be its ability to compete against the better teams in the tournament.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12