2003 WJC Preview: Team Finland

By Pekka Lampinen

Jersey number, position, name, club team/drafted to, birthdate, height/weight, shoots or catches

The team leaving for Halifax:

1 G Kari Lehtonen Jokerit/Atlanta 11/16/1983 6’3″/195 lbs. L
30 G Tuomas Nissinen Ilves/St. Louis 7/17/1983 6’2″/190 lbs. L

2 D Jussi Timonen TPS/Philadelphia 6/29/1983 6’0″/205 lbs. L
3 D Topi Jaakola Kärpät/Florida 11/15/1983 6’1″/195 lbs. L
4 D Joni Pitkänen Kärpät/Philadelphia 9/19/1983 6’3″/205 lbs. L
5 D Mikko Kalteva Jokerit/Colorado 5/25/1984 6’3″/190 lbs. L
19 D Teemu Jääskeläinen Ilves/Chicago 6/7/1983 6’1″/205 lbs. L
25 D Tuomas Immonen HPK 5/16/1983 6’0″/178 lbs. R
28 D Janne Jalasvaara Blues 4/15/1984 6’0″/190 lbs. L

8 C Jesse Niinimäki Ilves/Edmonton 8/19/1983 6’2/185 lbs. L
10 RW Sean Bergenheim Jokerit/NY Islanders 2/8/1984 5’11″/200 lbs. L
12 C Valtteri Filppula Jokerit/Detroit 3/20/1984 6’0″/178 lbs. L
13 RW Matti Aho TPS 1/28/1983 5’10″/178 lbs. L
14 C Tomi Mäki Jokerit/Calgary 8/19/1983 6’0″/185 lbs. L
15 C Tuomo Ruutu HIFK/Chicago 2/16/1983 6’0″/210 lbs. L
17 LW Henrik Juntunen Kärpät/Los Angeles 4/24/1983 6’2″/205 lbs. R
18 RW Matti Näätänen Blues 7/17/1983 5’10″/170 lbs. R
20 LW Jussi Jokinen Kärpät/Dallas 4/1/1983 6’0″/190 lbs. L
21 RW Juho Lehtisalo TPS 1/4/1983 5’8″/170 lbs. L
22 LW Tomi Sykkö TPS 1/21/1983 5’11″/190 lbs. L
23 RW Tuomas Mikkonen JYP/Dallas 3/25/1983 6’2″/205 lbs. L
24 LW Juha Fagerstedt HIFK 4/15/1983 6’0″/190 lbs. L

Substitute players staying home:

29 G Hannu Toivonen HPK/Boston 5/18/1983 6’3″/200 lbs. L
6 D Iikka Törnvall Ässät 1/13/1983 5’11″/182 lbs. L
16 D Hannu Pikkarainen HIFK 10/13/1983 6’1″/190 lbs. L
11 RW Juha-Pekka Ketola Lukko/NY Islanders 1/21/1983 6’1″/190 lbs. L
26 C Jarkko A. Immonen Blues/Dallas 1/18/1983 5’11″/185 lbs. L
27 LW Arttu Luttinen HIFK/Ottawa 9/3/1983 6’0″/200 lbs. L

Now if ever

After a near-disastrous performance with a weak team in the world junior championships back in 2000, three particularly talented age groups of young Finnish hockey players have emerged to fight for the gold medals in the past few years. The class of 2001 finished second after a bitter defeat to the Czechs in the final game, and last year an overtime defeat to Russia in semifinals crushed the golden dream. This year the unusually talented age group of 1983-born players will take their last shot at the championship, a team which has beed dubbed “the best Finnish team ever”. Two players, Kari Lehtonen and Tuomo Ruutu, will be heading for their third WJC tournament, and there are four more players with past WJC experience: Joni Pitkänen, Topi Jaakola, Sean Bergenheim and Jussi Jokinen. Finland’s championship title in 1998 is but a memory now, and if this team were to fail, it would be as if the talent youngsters had gone to waste. Losing is not an option.

Between the pipes

Kari Lehtonen may be a better goalie right now than anyone in the tournament’s history. His unnatural calmness and world-class net coverage make him the one to aid the defense, not the other way around. Goaltending alone will not win the tournament, but you could not ask for more in this department. Tuomas Nissinen has proven to be able to step in at any time and win a game for the team. Although Nissinen and Hannu Toivonen were one of the best options for a backup goalie ever for Finland, Nissinen’s performance is not likely to be decisive in the tournament.

The defense line

The choices in this part of the roster were particularly tricky this year. There were plenty of middle-sized, somewhat experienced and all around average players available, while specialization was needed badly. As a whole, the defense corps turned out to quite average when it comes to size and defensive capabilities, but everyone moves the puck well. Joni Pitkänen will be on the ice in all situations and he is expected to support the forwards more than he did last year. Topi Jaakola, who has played a lot with Pitkänen in their club team, can cover for him. Jussi Timonen and Tuomas Immonen are a little mistake-prone, but their good performance in national team games this season made them obvious choices. Teemu Jääskeläinen can rush the puck and be a quarterback on powerplay but still play a defensive role. Mikko Kalteva, a surprise pick to some, will provide the team with size, meanness and calm defensive game. Another inexperienced 1984er Janne Jalasvaara can be counted on to play a smart game. Kalteva and Jalasvaara are not likely to play powerplay, whereas Pitkänen, Jaakola, Jääskeläinen and Kalteva may be the first choices when killing penalties. The defensive pairings may look something like this:

Pitkänen-Jaakola
Timonen-Jääskeläinen
Kalteva-Immonen
Jalasvaara

Crashing the net

The center position seemed stronger than ever when the final roster was speculated earlier this year. Tuomo Ruutu had turned into a dominating player in SM-Liiga and showed that he can do even better in U-20, scoring five goals and assisting two in three games in early November. Mikko Koivu was expected to run the powerplay and produce on even strength as well, Jesse Niinimäki had the potential to turn any line into a high-scoring line and the team had another reserve of great skill in Valtteri Filppula. However, Koivu’s persistent ankle infection did not heal in time and he will miss the tournament. Niinimäki struggled in national team games and in SM-Liiga so badly that he was originally left out of the team. With Koivu’s injury, a place in the lineup opened to the only player even remotely similar to Koivu, and Niinimäki is expected to pick up where he left in SM-Liiga, scoring a point per game in the last half a dozen struggles. In overall the center position is still strong, but the problem is that all the three scoring centers need good wingers in order to thrive. Last year Ruutu and Koivu’s production was paralyzed by their inefficient wingers, and the same can be expected this year of the playmakers Niinimäki and Filppula. Another solution would be to move one of them to the wing, but there are no other centers in the team. Even Tomi Mäki, expected to center the fourth line, is more acquainted with the right wing position.

The wingers must deliver. The players available for these positions are good, but not great this year. There is exceptionally much speed in the top lines, though. Jussi Jokinen is practically guaranteed to score a point per game, while Sean Bergenheim can do even better if everything goes right. One more lock for the team is Henrik Juntunen, a dangerous speedster who plays like a power forward with the puck. Matti Näätänen, a national team rookie this season, has played a productive, energetic and mature game in SM-Liiga. How he will fare in this company remains to be seen. Tomi Sykkö has always delivered in the lion jersey and is a welcome addition to any line. At best he can be one of the top scorers in the team. Tuomas Mikkonen, who has developed steadily as of late, will supply whatever line he plays in with more muscle. Juha Fagerstedt well suited for the checking game, just like the surprise choice Matti Aho. Aho is neither big nor productive, but still an efficient grinder at this level. Juho Lehtisalo, a tiny skill player, can help the team score at a crucial moment, but there are better players for consistent defensive play. Players like Arttu Luttinen, who was expected to make the team but had to stay home. The final combinations may turn out to be something along these lines, with a clear first line, balanced skill and strength in the next two and a pure checking line.

Jokinen-Ruutu-Bergenheim
Juntunen-Niinimäki-Näätänen
Sykkö-Filppula-Mikkonen
Fagerstedt-Mäki-Aho
Lehtisalo