2016 WJC Review: Combination of 2016 talent and veteran savvy lead Finland to gold

By Tony Piscotta
Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho, and Patrik Laine - Team Finland - 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship

Photo: Team Finland players Jesse Puljujarvi (L), Sebastian Aho (C), and Patrik Laine (R) celebrate their country’s gold medal win at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship (courtesy of HEIKKI SAUKKOMAA/AFP/Getty Images)

 

 

When Toronto Maple Leafs‘ prospect Kasperi Kapanen jokingly pantomimed throwing a fictitious monkey off his back after scoring his first goal of the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship for Finland — the seventh goal in what would be an 8-3 win over Slovakia in Group B play — it was a bit amusing.

Few could have known at the time that that was just a prelude to a much bigger goal.

Skating alongside Aleksi Saarela (NYR) in the four-on-four overtime period of the gold medal game against Russia, Kapanen scored a wraparound goal 1:33 into the extra period to give Finland a 4-3 victory. The gold medal was the second for Finland in three years and the win over Russia avenged the team’s only loss in pool play — a high scoring 6-4 game in the second game of the tournament.

“I just saw the D-men kind of step up and I tried to go one-on-one,” he said, describing the play to post-game reporters. “I went around the net and saw that the goalie wasn’t there and it went in. After that everything’s a little blurry.”

Heavily scrutinized after the team’s offensive struggles at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship in Canada when he scored just one goal, Kapanen was overshadowed in this year’s tournament by the high scoring “Kid Line” of 18-year-old Sebastian Aho (CAR) and likely 2016 first-round picks Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine.

But much like when Aho scored the Kanada Cup-winning goal for Karpat Oulu in Finland’s Liiga last spring, it was almost poetic justice that Kapanen would get his team’s biggest goal.

In a tournament that will be remembered for the outstanding play of its younger players —five of the top six scorers were players who are eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, with only Aho cracking that group — it was Finland’s “veterans” who came up big when it mattered most.

Team captain Mikko Rantanen (COL), who like Kapanen is currently playing in the American Hockey League, scored what looked like it would be the game-winner with just over two minutes left in regulation before Russia tied things with six seconds to play. Finland rebounded in the overtime and it didn’t take long for Kapanen to send the Hartwall Arena crowd into bedlam.

“We just felt confident going into the overtime,” said Kapanen. “We’ve been in tough spots throughout the tournament and we’ve always come back. I just told Saarela, ‘There isn’t two options right now. We’ve got to go out and score. I’m not going to walk out of here with a silver medal around my neck.’ I was happy we actually scored.”

The tournament win was also a coming out party for 17-year-old London Knights defenseman Olli Juolevi. But it was especially sweet for the 11 players who had played together for Finland’s U18 when the team hosted the 2014 World Juniors. That tournament ended with an ignominious 10-0 loss to archrival Sweden in the quarterfinals.

In one of the best games of this year’s tournament, Finland defeated previously-unbeaten Group A champion Sweden, 2-1, in the semi-final. In that game, Antti Kalapudas, another member of the U18 team in 2014, scored the game-winner on the power play while Rantanen and Kapanen had two assists each.

Minnesota Wild goaltending prospect Kaapo Kahkonen, who lasted just over two minutes into the second period after allowing five goals in that U18 loss to Sweden in 2014, was another one of the team’s heroes. Coming on in relief of starter Veini Vehvilainen in Finland’s 6-5 win over Canada in the quarterfinals this year, he was outstanding in that game, then remained in net for the rest of the tournament and getting the wins over Sweden and Russia.

Top Forward

Puljujarvi played for Finland as a 16-year-old in Canada last year — opening eyes with his ambitious style and leading the team in shots on goal — but failed to register a point. Some wondered how he and Laine would work playing on the team’s “second” line — given that both are 17-year-olds and each are vying for a top spot in the 2016 draft. Any concerns were dispelled in the tournament’s first two games.

With Puljujarvi’s Karpat teammate Aho serving as the perfect playmaker to the two high scorers, the line accounted for three of Finland’s six goals in a 6-0 win over Belarus and then contributed to the team’s first three goals as Finland jumped out to a 3-1 lead against Russia. The Finns allowed four straight goals in the second period as Russia held on for a 6-4 win but the tone was set for the rest of the tournament.

Finland scored power play goals in every game of the tournament with Puljujarvi and Laine being a big reason for that success with the extra man. Puljujarvi was chosen the tournament MVP after leading all scorers for the tournament with five goals and 12 assists in seven games. Aho finished second with five goals and nine assists and Laine was the tournament’s third-leading scorer, tying USA’s Auston Matthews for the tournament lead with seven goals and adding six assists. In a tournament which had several outstanding performances, Puljujarvi was the team’s top forward.

Top Defenseman

Juolevi led all defensemen in the tournament with nine assists, tying the USA’s Zach Werenski for the points lead amongst defenders and likely increasing his draft prospects with his all-around play. Heading into the tournament, the Finland defensive corps were a source of concern and at times the group seemed to be on its heels. The Finns defense unit was especially tested in the Group B game against the Czech Republic when — due to the leg injury suffered by Eeto Sopanen in the first game and Miro Keskitalo suffering from the flu — forward Miska Siikonen was pressed into duty. Keskitalo returned during medal play and was a key presence on the back end along with St. Louis Blues prospect, Niko Mikkola. Vili Saarijarvi (DET) was effective moving the puck, particularly on Finland’s lethal power play. But game in and game out the top player on Finland’s defense was Juolevi.

Team MVP

Puljujarvi was named the tournament MVP for his offensive exploits — and that was well-deserved — but when the tournament was on the line, no player shone brighter for Finland than Kaapo Kahkonen in goal. During pool play neither he nor partner Veini Vehvalainen were particularly impressive as the Finns allowed more than four goals in two of the four games. While that could be partially attributed to the defensive inconsistency, neither goalie distinguished himself.

Kahkonen’s only start in pool play came against Slovakia when he stopped 22 of 25 shots in an 8-3 win. Finland head coach Jukka Jalonen elected to start Vehvilainen in the quarterfinals against Canada, but when Canada scored its third goal midway through the second period the veteran coach turned to Kahkonen. Keeping his team in the game in the 6-5 quarterfinal win, the Espoo Blues goalie was masterful two nights later; finishing with 21 saves and preventing rebound opportunities in the hard-fought win over Sweden. In the gold medal game against Russia, Kahkonen made a spectacular sliding save midway through the second to prevent Finland from falling behind 3-1, allowing his team the opportunity to tie the game early in the third period.

“Before the game I was feeling completely normal,” said Kahkonen, following his 22-save effort in the gold medal game. “The atmosphere and everything is special but it’s still a hockey game. So you just need to prepare your best, rest, eat well, do everything normally.”

Unsung Players

In World Junior Championship tournaments in previous years, Finland has sent a sum-of-its parts team with one or two top players highlighting a core of hard workers dedicated to a system. This year’s team was different in that as many as five players were or will eventually be first-round NHL Draft choices. Two players who did not have the same acclaim coming into the tournament but who played key roles in the gold medal run were two of the oldest players on the team — defenseman Joni Tuulola (CHI) and winger Antti Kalapudas. Tuulola, who turned 20 on January 1st and was the oldest player in the tournament, had just one assist in seven games but was a steady force, particularly after Eetu Sopanen went down with his injury. Skating on the team’s top pairing with Juolevi he provided the structure to allow the 17-year-old to take chances.

Kalapudas, who plays for Hokki Kajaani in Mestis and has played 13 games for Karpat as a 19-year-old, was one of the final players to make the team and did not play in Finland’s first two games in pool play. With the injury to Sopanen he was inserted into the lineup, and when he was placed on a line with Kapanen and Rantanen, those two began to flourish. He was also a threat on the power play, scoring the game-winning goal against Sweden. Lacking the thickness and strength of a prototypical NHL forward, his game may be more suited to Europe but his play in the tournament’s biggest games was impressive.

2016 prospects that helped their draft status

Finland entered the tournament with three players – Puljujarvi, Laine and Juolevi – who will be draft-eligible for the first time and, barring any major surprises, all three pretty much sealed their positions as fairly high draft picks. Both Laine and Puljujarvi dominated, using their size and significant offensive skills to constantly create scoring opportunities. The two, in addition to their scoring exploits, displayed the willingness to compete at both ends of the ice.

Juolevi plays with a maturity and advanced skill set as a 17-year-old that few defensemen possess. His tape-to-tape pass springing Laine for a breakaway goal against the Czech Republic was one of the highlights of the tournament. He was also excellent in quarterbacking the power play. With a strong finish to his season with the London Knights it would not be surprising to see Juolevi join Laine and Puljujarvi in hearing his name called in the upper reaches of the first round in Buffalo this June.

2016 prospects that hurt their standing

While there were no other first-year draft-eligibles in Finland’s lineup, there were two players who could have put their name into draft discussions with strong tournaments — Pelicans Lahti forward Sebastian Repo and Vehvilainen. Repo has been one of his team’s leading scorers in Liiga play and it was thought that, with a strong tournament, the 19-year-old might garner some attention. After scoring a goal in the opening game against Belarus, Repo’s role gradually diminished throughout the tournament and he was the team’s 13th forward in the gold medal game.

Vehvilainen went undrafted in the 2015 NHL Draft despite backstopping Finland’s U18 team to a silver medal with a strong performance last year. He has put up big numbers in Finland’s Liiga with JyP Jyvaskyla and entered the tournament seemingly nudging out the older Kahkonen for the starter’s role. Things got off to a good start when he stopped all 10 shots in the shutout win over Belarus. Things continued to go well when Finland jumped out to a 3-1 lead against Russia in its next game. When Russia scored five straight goals it appeared to shake Vehvalinen’s confidence, and he was unable to regain his form. His lack of fluid motion seemed to hinder him, particularly in the games against the Czech Republic and Canada, and rebound control was also an issue. In four games he finished the tournament with a 3.79 goals-against average and .838 save percentage.

Undrafted player worthy of a second look

Few could argue with Kalapudas’ value to Finland in terms of helping his team win a gold medal. When considering potential as an NHL prospect, however, it was one of Finland’s lower-line forwards, winger Kasper Bjorkqvist, who garnered attention with his play. Ranked 105th amongst international skaters in the NHL Central Scouting final rankings last spring in his first year of draft eligibility, he passed through the 2015 draft without being selected. In seven games for Finland, he scored one goal with one assist and was +2. His combination of size and skating ability could make him an intriguing late-round option. With his sights set on playing NCAA hockey in the USA next season, Bjorkqvist is skating for the Espoo Blues A juniors team in 2014-15. He worked well with the Kingston Frontenacs’ Juho Lammikko (FLA) and was frequently in the face of opposing forwards or going hard to the net. The 18-year-old Bjorkqvist is eligible to return for Team Finland next year and should continue to develop.

Belarus | Canada | Czech Republic | Denmark | Finland | Russia | Slovakia | Sweden | Switzerland | USA

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