This fall SM-Liiga, the Finnish elite league, headed for its third season as a closed league, meaning that no team would lose or gain the right to play in the league based solely on their success in the rink. Among other things, this has concentrated the flow of young, promising players to the thirteen SM-Liiga organizations. Unlike last year, the entropic force known as the NHL wreaked little havoc whithin the rosters after the teams were built, allowing nearly all of the teams to prepare for the season as planned. However, there was no sign of such orderliness in the first rounds of regular season as goal counts boomed compared to last season (from 5.47/game to 6.15/game after the dust settled a bit) and the standings didn’t bear much resemblance to what was predicted. It would be easy to blame this on the seemingly ever-weakening level of goalies due to transfers to other leagues, but the main culprit is poor cohesion within lines.
As usual, the teams possess a wide variety of young talent, but they are the players whose roles and roster spots are the most uncertain. Although the situation will still change many times during the season, after 8-9 rounds this is a good time for an overview.
Espoo Blues has the resources to be a championship contender and in the offseason it first seemed that they were building a top-notch team, but it soon became apparent that there isn’t nearly enough depth in the roster. The ex-NHLers Marko Tuomainen, Juha Ylönen and Jan Caloun make a great but lonely first line, receiving little support from the other forwards. Teemu Elomo (DAL, 8. 3+6=9) has been a part of the deadly power play unit led by Caloun, but when it comes to consistent production on even strength, he can get nowhere near those numbers. In the defense Arto Laatikainen (NYR, 8. 0+0=0) and Juha Gustafsson (PHX, 8. 0+0=0) are not playing as solidly in the second and third pairings as you could hope for, and Tero Määttä (SJ, 7. 0+0=0) has showed little progress from last season after returning from the Sharks camp. Määttä is hoping to get more icetime in Ässät, where he will play as a rental until November, which is also when Mikko Viitanen (COL) is expected to return after a knee surgery. Jarkko A. Immonen (DAL) is playing in the junior league and is not likely to be called up anytime soon.
One of the two SM-Liiga teams of Helsinki, HIFK has been known for its gritty style of play for decades. The team is rebounding from a tough season: Several rookies were introduced in the lineup and as some of the veterans failed, the young team couldn’t handle the setbacks. However, now the struggle is paying off as the youngsters have provided the team with tremendous offensive power. Only five of the forwards have more than one season of professional hockey behind them, but the team has scored as many as 4.4 goals a game. In addition to close to perfect work ethic, Tuomo Ruutu (CHI, 9. 3+7=10) has been shut out in only one game and his linemates Joonas Vihko (ANA, 9. 5+2=7) and Timo Pärssinen (ANA, 9. 3+4=7) have not been much worse. The biggest surprise is the fourth line of Carlo Grünn (9. 6+4=10), Ville Viitaluoma (9. 2+4=6) and Ilkka Pikkarainen (NJ, 9. 3+1=4) putting up one of the best point totals in the league and becoming a power play unit. Arttu Luttinen (OTW, 5. 0+0=0) and Kim Hirschovits (NYR, 8. 1+0=1 after leading the team in preseason scoring) have been somewhat disappointing and knocked off the lineup due to tough competition. The team’s defense has been anything but impressive. Marek Zidlicky (NYR, 9. 0+7=7) and Robert Kantor (9. 5+4=9) have helped with scoring goals, but the rest, including Pasi Saarinen (SJ, 7. 0+0=0), are mainly responsible for the team allowing 3.8 goals a game.
Last season the pride of Hämeenlinna was a diamond in the rough, a team playing open and successful offensive game among all the clutching and grabbing in today’s world of defensive hockey. Scoring four goals per game, HPK was a serious championship contender but ended up having to settle with bronze medals. The trend was expected to continue this season until the NHL snatched Vladimir Vujtek and Hannes Hyvönen from the roster. Jan Pardavy was acquired to compensate for the lost offensive power, but the Slovak has been a huge disappointment so far. Antti Miettinen (DAL, 6. 0+3=3), Tommi Santala (ATL, 2. 0+3=3) and Eero Somervuori (TB, 7. 5+1=6) formed the best line in the league last season until an injury put an end to Santala’s games, and they picked up where they left. Unfortunately, Santala was suspended for five games for cross-checking in the second game. His absence completely paralyzed the team’s offense: HPK has scored only 15 goals in the first 7 games. Miettinen, who missed most of the preseason due to shoulder operation, hasn’t produced as much as last season, but the trigger-happy speedster Somervuori has been resourceful. Two of his five goals were game-winning goals scored in the last minute. 20-year old Janne Laakkonen (7. 2+2=4) is continuing his success story in the second line. Vladimir Sicak (ATL, 7. 0+2=2) is an important player in the struggling defense corps, but Tuukka Mäkelä (BOS, 7. 0+0=0) and David Printz (PHI, 7. 0+0=0) scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to icetime. Joni Puurula (MTL, 3-2-0, 2.60, .909) has been one of the very best goalies in the league so far and Hannu Toivonen (BOS, 0-1-1, 2.40, .912) can be happy about his performance in his first two SM-Liiga games.
Ilves prepared for the season with the playoffs in mind, probably not having a strong enough team to contend for the championship as the first rounds have indicated. The shooting star of last spring, David Nemirovsky, together with the new acquisitions Petr Vala and Lubomir Korhon have relieved Vesa Viitakoski and Raimo Helminen of most of their offensive responsibility. It took a while for Jesse Niinimäki (EDM, 5. 0+1=1) to recover from his thigh injury and start his season in the third line. Tommi Jäminki (CHI, 7. 0+0=0) is playing leftover minutes in the fourth line. Karri Akkanen (TB) will probably remain in the juniors all season. The inexperienced defense corps is the team’s achilles heel. Although Antti Bruun (8. 1+6=7) and Ville Koistinen (8. 3+1=4) have put up good numbers, the defensemen have allowed the opponents to roam freely in the nuclear zone. Teemu Jääskeläinen (CHI, 8. 0+0=0) has been offered a good chance to show what he can do, whereas Tomi Källarsson (NYR) broke his collarbone in the season opening and will be out of action until Christmas. A pleasant surprise can be found between the pipes: Tuomas Nissinen (STL, 2-4-1, 3.23, .899) found himself carrying a heavy burden due to Bruce Racine‘s injury and has performed admirably in his first SM-Liiga games despite what the statistics may suggest. Nissinen has held his own under heavy bombardment. Racine will return any day now but won’t be able to take back the starter’s post just like that.
The defending champion had an offseason that was very typical of the organization: Many losses but even more acquisitions. As a result, the team has ten defensemen and sixteen forwards worthy of a roster spot. With ten forwards who wouldn’t look out of place in any team’s top two lines, many of the organization’s numerous prospects must have thought “What on earth am I doing here?” At the moment the sick room is crowded with players: Ilkka Mikkola (MTL), Tomek Valtonen (DET, 5. 1+1=2), Tomi Mäki (CGY), Mikko Ruutu (OTW), Toni Sihvonen and Frank Banham are out of action and many others have missed games as well. Even still, the few guys who have suffered from a small role the most are not getting more icetime. Although the offense has been inefficient throughout the season, the perkiest players, Teemu Laine (NJ, 7. 2+0=2) and Sean Bergenheim (NYI, 9. 1+2=3), don’t appear to be promoted from the fourth line until Hell freezes over. Bergenheim had a particularly good start, accumulating his three points in the first four games. Valtteri Filppula (DET) is in the juniors and has little hope of playing an SM-Liiga game this season. The defense is still learning how to play together. Arto Tukio (NYI, 9. 2+3=5) has been shaky defensively but has tallied points in important situations. Markus Kankaanperä (VAN, 8. 0+1=1) has been solid while Olli Malmivaara (CHI, 9. 0+0=0) has reverted back to his old self after a promising preseason. Mikko Kalteva (COL) and Kevin Kantee (CHI) have yet to make their SM-Liiga debut. As expected, the team’s backbone has been Kari Lehtonen (ATL, 7-1-1, 1.75, .933). Despite the taxing military service he has played every single game so far and leads the league in save percentage. It is a good indicator of his clutch ability that Jokerit has a feeble goal differential of +9 in the seven games they have won.
As usual, JyP is making good use of its limited resources. This year they have assembled a team that can put up a good fight trying to make the playoffs. Other forwards have stepped up to make up for the lost production of Petr Ton, and the team has managed to score two to four goals in every game. The top gun Tomas Chlubna has been accompanied by the dynamic duo of Tuomas Pihlman (NJ, 8. 5+2=7) and Jarkko Immonen (TOR, 8. 1+4=5). Pihlman has left his past struggles behind and leads the team in scoring. Tuomas Mikkonen (DAL, 8. 1+0=1) has been perhaps overly energetic, his last game coming to an untimely end after he charged an opponent. He has solidified his position in the lineup, though. The team’s defense has not been as consistent, but Jyri Marttinen (CGY, 8. 0+0=0) is an integral part of the defense core.
The lonely giant of the north, Kärpät is renowned for the hordes of young players that blossom in the team year after year. The team is traditionally an integral member of the Finnish hockey family, but it spent most of the 90s in the second tier league, still maintaining its status as a springboard for youngsters, however. Now Kärpät is back on the top with an incessant flow of promising rookies to the roster. At the age of 21, Lasse Kukkonen (8. 2+1=3) is the youngest captain in the league and the defenseman’s rating of +11 is certainly a good example for the rest of the team. Kärpät lacks top quality defensemen and the somewhat disappointing performances of Mikko Lehtonen (NSH, 8. 0+1=1) and Joni Pitkänen (PHI, 8. 0+4=4) have only made the situation worse. It has been announced that the team will acquire a defenseman once the NHL camps are over. However, Topi Jaakola (FLA, 8. 0+1=1) has been a pleasant surprise and earned his spot in the top four. The offense has been inconsistent but efficient. Petr Tenkrat (CBJ, 8. 3+3=6) has not yet quite delivered what was expected, but Jussi Jokinen (DAL, 8. 1+7=8) and Jari Viuhkola (CHI, 6. 2+5=7) have put up good numbers with more than just a little help from their linemates. Henrik Juntunen (LA, 7. 1+1=2) has scored his first SM-Liiga goal and it looks like he is in the lineup to stay.
Lukko made do with a grossly inexperienced team last season, and in spite of acquisitions in the offseason, the players are still young and the hopes not that high. Goalie Petri Vehanen is still the team’s backbone and that leaves Mikael Vuorio (FLA) with very little icetime. Jaakko Harikkala (BOS, 6. 0+1=1) established himself as a core defenseman last season. Teemu Kesä (NJ, 8. 0+0=0) can’t be completely sure of his role until he starts being more consistent, whereas another youngster Janne Niskala (8. 0+2=2) is already relied on to help the offense. Speaking of forwards, Toni Koivisto (FLA, 8. 2+0=2) has disappointed like so many NHL rookie camp attendants before him. Samu Isosalo (ATL, 8. 1+1=2) has succeeded in making the team, but he won’t gain a big role in the near future. Juha-Pekka Ketola (NYI) is playing in the juniors.
After a surprisingly good season, Pelicans lost practically all of their key players and gained little in return. Three points in eight games doesn’t look good for the team. It would be a good time to offer big roles for young players, but they have few good prospects: Only the newcomer forwards Oliver Setzinger (NSH, 8. 1+2=3) and Teemu Sainomaa (OTW, 8. 0+0=0) have been drafted. Sainomaa has frozen after a promising preseason, but Setzinger gets good icetime in the second line. He has shown flashes of what he can do, but so far his production doesn’t match those of his linemates Jani Keinänen and Toni Saarinen. The emergence of 22-year defenseman Tero Paappanen (8. 2+3=5) has been more than welcome. Another 22-year old, goalie Mikko Rämö, is suffering from an injury at a bad time as the starter, veteran Pasi Kuivalainen, has been downright bad at times.
One of the weakest teams on paper, SaiPa has had a great start this season. All of the key players have been positive surprises. Juha Kuokkanen (2-0-3, 2.75, .913), Team Finland’s backup in the last WJC, has challenged Tomas Duba (PIT, 1-0-2, 2.34, .917) for the starting goalie’s post, but so far Duba has held his ground. Antti Hulkkonen and Harri Tikkanen (8. 1+4=5) have accumulated a nice pile of points, whereas more solid play can be expected of Juha Pursiainen (8. 0+0=0) and Matti Hana (8. 0+0=0) in the defensive zone. In the offense Aki Uusikartano and Lubomir Vaic have helped the team’s superstar Vladimir Machulda a lot, but Joni Yli-Torkko (4. 0+0=0) and Teemu Somppi (8. 0+0=0) have a lot more potential than what they have shown. Teemu Riihijärvi (SJ, 7. 1+4=5) is a very interesting player in the lineup even though Sharks fans would rather forget that he ever existed.
Two consecutive defeats in the finals have been a devastating disappointment for the local competitor of Ilves in Tampere. While Tappara doesn’t have a top-notch budget, it has stayed on the top thanks to smart acquisitions and low turnover. Tuukka Mäntylä (LA, 9. 1+5=6) and Mikko Luoma (EDM, 9. 1+3=4) lead the league’s strongest defense corps that makes things significantly easier for Mika Lehto (PIT, 4-2-1, 1.70, .928) between the pipes. Lehto may be walking in Jussi Markkanen‘s footsteps, having joined the team as an inconsistent, below-average starter. The offense, which has struggled as of late, is built around the veteran centers Janne Ojanen and Alexander Barkov. Jussi Tarvainen (EDM, 9. 5+7=12) will hunt for the top scorer’s title once again. Tappara has had trouble assembling the right lines, which Sami Venäläinen (PHX, 9. 0+1=1) has surely noticed as he is bouncing back and forth in the top three lines. Ville Hämäläinen (CGY, 9. 0+0=0) came to Tappara looking for a fresh start, but so far he has only sat on the bench. Defenseman Ville Mäntymaa and winger Teemu Nurmi, both eligible for the next entry draft, played rather well in the preseason but there was no room for them in the final lineup.
For the first time in a whole decade TPS was forced to find a new starting goalie outside the organization. With Antero Niittymäki and Fredrik Norrena gone now in the footsteps of Jani Hurme and Miikka Kiprusoff, the team decided on Jason Elliot of Cincinnati who must be happy to receive the same kind of training as those before him. Elliot started with mixed feelings as did the whole team which is used to being on par with the top contenders. This year the defensemen are inexperienced and the forwards are bland, but that means all the more responsibility for the prospects, right? Markus Seikola (TOR, 8. 1+1=2) has not produced much but is a part of the defense core. Marko Kauppinen (PHI, 8. 2+1=3) is finally showing the offensive potential which he is known to possess. Markku Paukkunen (8. 0+2=2) may be somewhat of a surprise in the lineup, but Jussi Timonen (PHI, 4. 0+0=0) has played only a few stray minutes. Fans of Minnesota Wild must be relieved to know that Mikko Koivu (MIN, 8. 2+4=6, all but one point scored on power play) is finally putting up good points. After starting the season in the second line, in the seventh game Koivu was promoted to the first line, where he now plays like a true scoring forward should. Michael Holmqvist (ANA, 8. 1+5=6) has met the expectations but his game hasn’t improved all that much. Marco Tuokko (DAL, 7. 3+1=4) started his season well after recovering from an injury but has cooled down since.
After years of poor management, Ässät has started pretty much from scratch and is at least temporarily way ahead of schedule, having gained a lot more points in the first rounds than expected. The SM-Liiga player of the month Markku Tähtinen (10. 4+4=8) together with Samu Wesslin have been in charge of point production. Juha Kiilholma (10. 1+1=2) has the potential to step up when the team is suffering from injuries. The defense is particularly cripple, so Tero Määttä was rented from Blues to help. Thanks to their abundant SM-Liiga experience, defensemen Mika Rontti (8. 0+0=0) and Iikka Törnvall (7. 0+1=1) are strong candidates to make Finland’s WJC team in December. The true hero of Ässät can be found between the pipes. Scott Langkow has had to carry the team for a while now and he has saved many points for the team in tough situations. Given the chance, Antti Jokela (CAR, 0-0-1, 2.98, .904) can show that he is a competent backup.
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