Team Finland 2012 WJC Preview

By Tony Piscotta
Photo: Christopher Gibson (LAK), is one of three untested goaltenders appearing in the WJCs for Finland. (Photo courtesy of Dave Connell/HF)

The 2011 Finland squad for the 2012 U20 World Junior Championship offers an intriguing blend of experience and youth – with arguably the tournament’s most high profile player, Mikael Granlund, skating in his third World Junior championship.

On the flip side, a trio of youngsters, one 16-year-old forward and two 17-year-old defensemen, are make their debut playing for Finland at this year’s WJC tournament and could be early choices at the 2012 and 2013 NHL Drafts respectively.

Throw in a first-year coach making his debut at the World Junior Championship and an untested, but talented, trio of goaltenders, and the fortunes of Finland are a mystery at this point.

Goaltending

Christopher Gibson, a second round pick of the Kings in 2011, started the team’s first exhibition game against Canada and has skated for the QMJHL‘s Chicoutimi Sagueneens. In 25 games for Chicoutimi, he is 13-9-3 with one shutout and has a 3.08 goals against average and .899 save percentage. Gibson was selected as a backup for the 2010 U18 tournament but did not see any action. His strengths are his aggressiveness and size, though he can be unorthodox at times.

Richard Ullberg had 18 saves in a shutout win over Slovakia prior to the tournament and has been impressive playing for SaiPa as an 18-year-old, posting a 2.31 GAA and .898 save percentage in 12 SM-Liiga games. A product of the HIFK youth system, Ullberg appeared in two games at the 2011 U18 tournament as a backup to Samu Perhonen.

Sami Aittokallio, was with Finland’s U20 team in Buffalo; backing up Calgary prospect Joni Ortio. Aitokallio stopped all seven shots he faced in his lone tournament appearance. The top-ranked European goalie according to Central Scouting prior to the 2010 NHL Draft (he was selected by Colorado in the fourth round), Aittokallio has split this season between Ilves and the Mestis club LeKi.

Perhonen, an Edmonton pick, has had an up-and-down season, appearing in two games as JyP’s third goalie and struggling for JyP’s second team in Mestis. He was not invited to camp as Canucks prospect Jonathan Iilahti, a 2010 draft pick, was the fourth goalie in Finland’s camp. Iilahti was cut before the team came to North America.

Defense

The greatest area of uncertainty for Team Finland is its defense corp, where only one defenseman, the London Knights’ Olli Maatta, has previous experience at the U20 WJC level.

In terms of scouting, no doubt most of the focus will be on the Finland’s two 17-year olds – Rasmus Ristolainen and Ville Pokka.

Ristolainen, 17, got off to a fast start in the pre-season and early weeks of the season playing for TPS. While his offensive scoring pace has slowed – he has three goals with three assists with 43 penalty minutes in 24 games – he has skated a regular shift for the Turku club. He has drawn comparisons to many of the prospects coming out of Finland recently for his skill set but also has the prototypical height and frame that a player like Sami Vatanen (ANA) lacks.

Pokka, who is also eligible for the 2012 Draft, has seen limited action in 16 SM-Liiga games for Karpat but has scored at better than a point-per-game pace for Kiekko-Laser in Mestis (the Finnish second league) and with Karpat’s U20 team. He is not a physically imposing player but is very good at distributing the puck and creating offense off of the transition.

Maatta, playing in North America for the first time this season after coming up through JyP’s youth program, competed in both the U18 and U20 tournaments a year ago. He had no points in six games with the U20 team and was an assistant captain and had four points in six games at the U18 tournament. The strength of his game is sound positional play, skating ability, and timely passes. He is eligible for the NHL Draft for the first time in 2012.

Assistant captain Jani Hakanpaa, who was drafted as a fairly raw prospect by the Blues in the fourth round of the 2010 draft (due largely to his size and athleticism), has steadily made progress and is playing well as a rookie for Espoo Blues. In 26 SM-Liiga games he’s scored three goals with five assists and has 10 penalty minutes.

Like Hakanpaa, defensemen Miro Hovinen, Konsta Makinen, and Simo-Pekka Riikola all skated for Finland in the 2010 U18 WJC. Hovinen, Makinen and Riikola are all 19-year-olds and were not drafted in the 2011 Draft.

Forwards

No team in this year’s tournament will have as much experience in its top two lines as Finland.

Granlund, who is the team captain, missed the 2011 tournament due to injury but skated in the 2009 and 2010 WJCs. He is one of five forwards who have competed in previous tournaments.

Granlund represented Finland on the gold medal-winning men’s squad at the 2011 IIHF World Championship and is currently the second-leading scorer in Finland’s SM-Liiga with 16 goals and 22 assists in 30 games. A first-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2010, there was some speculation that he might join the Wild this year before he returned to HIFK. He is the most well-rounded prospect to come out of Finland in recent years and is the type of player who make those he’s playing with better.

Teemu Pulkkinen, Joel Armia, Joonas Donskoi, and Mikka Salomaki all played for Finland at last year’s tournament, when the team finished a disappointing sixth.

Pulkkinen, a likely linemate of Granlund’s, has been a highly-regarded goal scorer since his early days of youth hockey. A fourth-round pick of the Red Wings in 2010, Pulkkinen plays for HIFK’s Helsinki-rival Jokerit and has scored nine goals with 13 assists in 32 SM-Liiga games. Pulkkinen has an outstanding shot and quick release and was the leading scorer for Finland in last year’s U20 tournament with three goals and six assists in six games.

Armia, a first round pick of Buffalo in the 2011 NHL Draft, played for both the U18 and U20 teams a year ago after emerging as a high-scoring rookie as a 17-year-old for Assat Pori. He had a nondescript U20 tournament, registering just one assist in six games. But was the leading scorer for Finland and finished fourth overall in scoring at the U18 tournament with four goals and nine assists in six games. He will likely skate on the second line with Donskoi and Salomaki. In the SM-Liiga he is playing on the league’s top line with former Rangers prospect Tomas Zaborsky and Stephen Dixon and has eight goals with 10 assists in 31 games.

Donskoi, an assistant captain, is more of a two-way player than pure scorer at the pro level. At last year’s U20 WJC he scored three goals with three assists in six games and had the best plus/minus amongst Finland’s forwards (plus-5). Now in his second full SM-Liiga season with Karpat, the 2010 Panthers’ fourth round draft pick has three goals and seven assists in 28 games.

Salomaki, like Donskoi is a skilled two-way player who is bigger and plays more of a physical style. A second-round pick of the Predators in 2011, he is a teammate of Donskoi’s with Karpat and currently has eight goals with nine assists and 42 penalty minutes in 27 SM-Liiga games. In the 2011 WJC he was plus-three with two goals and one assist and tied defenseman Rasmus Rissanen for the team lead with 14 penalty minutes.

Mikael Granlunds’ younger brother Markus makes his WJC U20 debut and will likely skate on the top line with his brother and Pulkkinen. A second round pick of the Flames in 2011, Markus skates on HIFK’s first-line as a rookie along with Mikael and one-time Penguin Janne Pesonen. More of a playmaker than pure goal scorer, he has six goals with 10 assists in 26 games. As a captain of the U18 team a year ago, he scored two goals with eight assists and was plus-four with six penalty minutes.

While the top liners are well-known to many scouts and Canadian hockey fans, 16-year-old forward Aleksander Barkov will be wearing a Suomi sweater in an international championship tournament for the first time. Barkov, whose father Alexander played the last ten years of his career with Tappara Tampere and skated in three World Championship tournaments for Russia during a long career, plays for for Tappara in the SM-Liiga and has seven goals with five assists in 21 games. He is eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft.

Barkov has skated thus far on the team’s third line with Phoenix Coyotes‘ 2011 draft pick Alexander Ruuttu and Miro Aaltonen. Ruuttu, a bit of a late-bloomer with the prototypical size and strength of a power forward, is the son of former Buffalo Sabre Christian Ruuttu and is playing in his first WJC tournament for Finland. He has scored one goal in 11 games for Jokerit this season and has had success with Mestis’ Kiekko-Vantaa and for Jokerit’s U20 team. Aaltonen has split the season between Espoo Blues in the SM-Liiga and Mestis’ Jokipojat in his Eastern Finland hometown of Joensuu. Aaltonen is more of a two-way forward who skates well.

In rounding out the roster, Finland selected a quartet of solid two-way forwards – Roope Hamalainen, Markus Hannikainen, Mikael Kuronen, and Otto Paajanen.


Conclusions

Head Coach Raimo Helminen is widely hailed as one of Finland’s great players for his play in Finland’s domestic league and with the national team; he was one of the early Finnish players to play in the NHL, spending time with the Rangers and Islanders. He is in the spotlight in his first go as junior team coach with arguably the most talented top two lines Finland has ever brought to the tournament.

Finland’s teams have had a tradition of playing a strong tactical game in which the team’s performance rises above what is perceived to be a limited talent level. It will be interesting to see if that remains the case when it is the Finns who are very talented.

Finland will know right off the bat where it stands – they open with one of the pre-tournament favorites, the host team Canada. In a group that also includes the United States and the Czech Republic, Finland will be in good shape if it can win two of three games against that trio.

Ironically, goaltending, normally a staple of Finnish teams in international play, is the big question mark and Helminen had yet to tip his hand as to which of the three goalies would handle the bulk of the work – or if the team would use some combination.

With the Granlunds and Pulkkinen together for one final shot at a U20 championship, and with the top two lines having a lot of experience, the expectations are unusually but understandably high for this year’s tournament. For Finland, though, the two keys to their success may be how quickly the many newcomers on defense, as well as their first-year coach, adapt to the high level of play; and whether or not one of the goalies can seize the lead role and provide a top-notch performance.

Offensively, this should be a fun team to watch. Whether it will be able to keep the puck out of its own net is the challenge.