With some of Finland’s top players in this age group playing all over the world — and four competing for the Finland U20 team that won a gold medal in Helsinki at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship — the 2015-16 season has been one of experimentation and mixing and matching for Finland U18 head coach Jussi Ahokas.
The one-time Espoo Blues A junior coach has shuffled nearly 60 players through the lineup since first coaching the U18 team at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last August.
While the consistent changes may have been a challenge in terms of developing cohesion, the result is one of the deeper rosters in Grand Forks and an opportunity for Finland to make some noise if Ahokas can get all the pieces in place.
Two of the heroes from that gold medal-winning team in Helsinki — both of whom are potential first-round picks in the 2016 NHL Draft in June — will not be available until the medal round if at all.
Winger Patrik Laine, one of the scoring stars for Finland at the WJC, is playing for Tappara Tampere in the Kanada Cup finals in Liiga while defenseman Olli Juolevi and the London Knights advanced to the OHL Western Conference finals by sweeping the Kitchener Rangers.
On the plus side, Jesse Puljujarvi, who led the Finland U20 team in scoring and is expected to be a top-three pick in this year’s draft, should join the squad some time in the preliminary round after Karpat Oulu was eliminated from the Liiga playoffs.
A Deep, Talented Blue Line
Even without Juolevi the strength of this year’s Finland U18 team is expected to be its’ defensive corps. Unlike in years past, when Finland’s defense groups were usually smaller, quick skating defensemen who made up for any deficiencies with outstanding positional play, this group is both big and talented.
Tri-City Americans defenseman Juuso Valimaki is expected to be one of the top players selected in the 2017 NHL Draft and is the team captain. A late season injury to Valimaki had an impact on the Americans’ push for a WHL playoff berth but he is healthy and should be a big factor both at even strength and on the Finland power play.
Robin Salo played 16 games for Vaasa Sport in Liiga and is another player drawing attention for next year’s draft. A two-way defenseman who skates well, Salo also spent time with the Finland U20 team this season though he was not part of the final roster at the WJC. He is an assistant captain on this team.
Stay-at-home defender Oliver Felixson is still with the Saint John SeaDogs in his team’s playoff series against Cape Breton but hulking puck mover Markus Niemelainen (6-6, 205 lbs.) is with the squad after the Saginaw Spirit were eliminated from the OHL playoffs.
Urho Vaakanainen, who is also eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft, played 25 games for the Espoo Blues in Liiga and is well-known to Ahokas having come up through the Blues junior program.
Scoring By Committee
Laine’s absence takes one big weapon out of the Finland arsenal but there are several players in the mix who will garner scouts’ attention.
Among the other 2016 NHL Draft-eligible forwards in the Finland lineup, Halifax Mooseheads’ center Otto Somppi and Aapeli Rasanen, who came up through the Tappara junior program with Laine, are potential late-round draft picks who could increase their draft prospects with a strong tournament.
Rasanen, while not a pure scorer like Laine or as offensively dynamic as Tappara U20 teammate Otto Makinen, plays a responsible, two-way game and has a projectable frame that suggests he can be a sound, two-way forward.
Three players who have not received as much attention as Laine, Juolevi and Puljujarvi but who could open eyes at this year’s tournament are Tappara’s Makinen, left wing Markus Nurmi of TPS Turku, and Karpat’s Janne Kuokkanen, who can play both center and wing.
Makinen was a dynamic scorer at the junior level playing with Rasanen for Tappara and is ranked 13th amongst European skaters in the Central Scouting final rankings. Nurmi did not play for Finland at the Ivan Hlinka tournament but scored 19 goals in 49 games for the TPS U20 team and was named Finland’s top player in the 4-3 shootout win over the Czech Republic in the opening game of this tournament. He is ranked 31st amongst European skaters by Central Scouting. Kuokkanen, who had six assists for Finland in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament, scored two goals for Karpat in his only Liiga game this year. He was ranked 20th by CSS. Kuokkanen scored the only shootout goal in Finland’s opening win.
Sixteen-year-old Eeli Tolvanen is undersized but finished with 38 points in 49 games for the Sioux City Musketeers in his first USHL season.
Emerging Talent in Net
The importance of goaltending in a short tournament cannot be overstated, and that will be the case for this team. Unlike in previous year’s when goalies like Juuse Saros (NSH), Kaapo Kahkonen (MIN) or last year’s starter Veini Vehvilainen entered the tournament as the clear number one goalie, this year the goaltending situation has been less certain.
Karpat’s Severi Isokangas was the starter for Finland at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament but he is not on this team’s roster.
Goaltending coach Aki Naykki, who has worked with several talented goaltenders both in Finland’s junior program and during his tenure in Karpat, has two talented netminders to work with in Grand Forks in Leevi Laakso and Niilo Halonen.
Slightly undersized by NHL standards, Laakso played for the Vaasa Sport U20 team this year and also appeared in two Mestis games with Hermes. He is ranked 11th amongst European goalies in the Central Scouting rankings. Laakso started the opening game for Finland, stopping all three shootout attempts after Finland had squandered a 3-1 lead in the third period.
Halonen appeared in one game as a backup to Isokangas at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament and is ranked 12th by Central Scouting. He split the year between the Jokerit Helsinki U20 and U18 teams, posting a 1.91 goals-against average in 15 games for the U20 squad.
Uukko-Pekka Luukkonen, a 1999-born goalie from the HPK Hameenlinna U20 team, is also with the squad.
Finland’s roster on paper suggests the squad should compete with any of the other teams in Grand Forks. As in any short tournament, trying to put moving parts in and out of the lineup will be a challenge to team cohesiveness. At the same time, the core group of this team has been successful, finishing second to the USA in last year’s U18 IIHF World Championship after falling in overtime in the gold medal game, and then playing a big part in the gold medal effort of Finland’s U20 team in January.
Finland’s talented roster should once again put the squad in the medal round. Without Laine and Juolevi, teams like the USA, Canada and Sweden will be big challenges, but that will no doubt be something the Finland coaching staff uses as motivation.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way