Finnish WJC review

By Pekka Lampinen

In the spring of 2002 the opinions on the Finnish national junior team were clear: the team fought valiantly and didn’t lose because of personal mistakes, but the 1984-born age group didn’t have the talent to do better than reach the fourth place in the U-18 World Championships. This winter the same talent pool faced the same prejudices, which appeared all the clearer with Kari Lehtonen, Joni Pitkänen, Tuomo Ruutu and Mikko Koivu all leaving junior hockey behind permanently. The situation was made worse by the careers of Jaakko Viljanen, Joni Lappalainen and Tuukka Pulliainen not progressing as hoped for over the last eighteen months, a total of 23 points in eight games simply faded away. As much as the young players would have to liked to prove the critics wrong, the happy ending to the 2004 WJC tournament was reached with the same strengths and weaknesses as one and a half years ago.

A sheer lack of talent is a rather merciful way to lose. While the fans would tear their hair out after each wasted scoring opportunity, in the end there would only be pride and happiness for the team’s achievements, with the blame going to players who don’t even exist. This tournament was a triumph of the North American teams, among which Team Finland took its place with its style of play, attitude and the medals hanging from their necks. Despite the defeat, the semifinal against the United States will go down in history as an exemplary way to wear the lion jersey in a battle against superior talent.

Of all the skaters, only six forwards remained on the same line throughout the tournament, but for the most part the lineup looked like this:

Nokelainen-Filppula-Bergenheim
Töykkälä-Immonen-Marjamäki
Tukonen-Kontiola-Oksa
Petrell-Piispanen-Nurmi

Kalteva-Lepistö
Jalasvaara-Kantee
Salmela-Varakas

Goalies:

Mikael Vuorio, Jukurit (drafted by FLA, 196th overall 2002)
L, 6’0″/180

GPIGAASV%WLTSO
11.000.9331000

Vuorio is a medium-sized goalie with a fair amount of standup left in his butterfly style of play. He didn’t have the talent to challenge Toivonen, so Vuorio was only counted on in the so-called unimportant game. He was shaky at first and could have caught Ukraine’s sole goal but handled the rest commendably, meeting expectations.

Hannu Toivonen, Providence Bruins (drafted by BOS, 29th overall 2002)
L, 6’3″/205

GPIGAASV%WLTSO
61.850.9204201

Taking a break from his AHL duties to join the team, Toivonen
made sure with his arrival that the long line of strong Finnish
netminders which spans a decade unbroken would continue. A good
performance throughout the tournament set the stepping stone for
the team high enough to reach the gold, the rest was up to the
skaters. The big, acrobatic butterfly goalie can only take blame
for his poor rebound control. He was very possibly the third best goalie
in the tournament behind Montoya and Halak.

Defensemen:

Sami Lepistö, Jokerit (2004 opt-in)
L, 6’0″/175

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1314+52
The Rest6134+58
Total7448+1010

The best defenseman in the tournament. Lepistö has taken
enormous steps in his development since last season and was the
team’s most valuable player together with Toivonen and Filppula.
Great opening passes and quarterbacking, excellent if not that
explosive skating and a top quality one-timer presented a threat
to the opposing team not that much short of Joni Pitkänen’s
abilities. The 6’0” defenseman laid hits in his own end and kept
mistakes to a minimum.

Janne Jalasvaara, Blues (undrafted)
L, 6’0″/195

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1101+20
The Rest6011+26
Total7112+46

A WJC veteran and an assistant captain, Jalasvaara was the
biggest disappointment in the defense corps as he played worse
than last year. He laid big hits eagerly despite his smallish stature, sometimes taking
himself out of position. All his three penalties were very
dangerous to the team. Jalasvaara never had the kind of offensive
abilities the team would have needed and he couldn’t even play at
his normal level with the puck. Despite all this, he was not a
decisive liability but a decent two-way defenseman.

Mikko Kalteva, Jokerit (drafted by COL, 107th overall)
L, 6’3″/200

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1011+50
The Rest6000-10
Total7011+40

Kalteva’s slowness was an issue before the tournament, but the
team’s biggest defenseman turned out to be most reliable. He was
hardly ever caught out of position and had no more trouble than
any defenseman is due. Also known for his decent offensive
skills, his puckhandling did look uneasy and he couldn’t produce,
so he focused even more on defending as the tournament
progressed. In overall, only one or two Finnish defensemen can
reach a defensive performance this solid each year.

Anssi Salmela, Tappara (undrafted)
L, 6’0″/188

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1112+40
The Rest6011-46
Total7123even6

After an absolutely horrendous start in the game against
Canada, Salmela quickly picked up his game not to plunge the team
into distress as certain defensemen did last year. An offensive,
non-physical defenseman by nature, he played powerplay throughout
the tournament demonstrating his capable slapshot. Unfortunately,
he couldn’t improve the unit all that much and ended up with only
passable production. Salmela kept his mistakes at a level
tolerable enough to justify his spot on the team, but he was
still one of the worse defensemen.

Ville Varakas, HIFK (undrafted)
L, 6’0/195

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1022+32
The Rest6022even0
Total7044+32

Varakas started the tournament as a depth defenseman and even
though all six defensemen got their fair share of icetime after
Korpikari’s injury, that was as far as the smallish physical
defenseman’s talent would take him. The team’s second most
productive blueliner got his points by participating in the
offense, but his skills set limits to that. He was too careless
with the puck and directly responsible for the goal that sank the
team in the semifinals. In the defense he skated hard, took the body and
blocked shots drawing comparisons to Jyri Marttinen’s performance
two years ago, but in overall Varakas didn’t compare to him.

Kevin Kantee, Jokerit (drafted by CHI, 188th overall 2002)
L, 6’2″/192

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1011even0
The Rest6000even4
Total7011even4

One of the defensemen who could really be counted on to make
it through one shift after another, Kantee showed good all-around
skills. His physical play, skating, hockey sense and puckhandling
were all above average, making him a most valuable part of the
team. Certain flashiness would have been needed on powerplay,
though.

Oskari Korpikari, Kärpät (drafted by MTL, 217th overall)
L, 6’2″/200

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1000+10
The Rest2000-32
Total3000-22

A member of the solid core with Lepistö, Kalteva and Kantee,
Korpikari did everything he could to help the goalie with his strength and good positioning whenever he
was on the ice. His shoulder injury in the game against Ukraine
cut his tournament short, but fortunately his loss didn’t prove
as devastating to the team as it could have.

Forwards:

Sean Bergenheim, Jokerit (drafted by NYI, 22nd overall 2002)
L, 5’11″/200

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1123+10
The Rest6011+22
Total7134+32

A huge disappointment. Bergenheim battled flu right prior to
the tournament and never quite got in shape. Although his great
speed allowed him to draw penalties and fly right to the crease,
it was all squandered by his abysmal finishing. Multiple
breakaways and at least a dozen top quality scoring opportunities
lost is a total matched by no one in the recent Finnish WJC
history. A point per game plus something extra against Ukraine
would have been a fair expectation, but one assist in six games
is something from a completely different reality. With
commendable finishing Bergenheim alone could have lifted Finland
to the final. An assistant captain this year, his third straight
bronze makes him one of only three active Finnish players (the
others being Kari Lehtonen and Tuomo Ruutu) with three WJC
medals.

Valtteri Filppula, Jokerit (drafted by DET, 95th overall 2002)
L, 6’0″/183

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1213+20
The Rest6246+12
Total7459+32

A tournament all-star forward, Filppula was all that and the
team’s savior. With exceptional stickhandling and the hockey
sense to match, he proved to be a playmaker equaled only by the
best. Flawless skating helped him be the team’s best finisher as
well. Last year he was still physically unfit for the WJC, but
now he seemed surprisingly strong in the corners, holding
opponents bigger than him at bay. Although counterattacks often
took the first line by surprise, Filppula himself played a good
defensive game. If Bergenheim had played at his normal level,
Filppula’s numbers would have seen considerable improvement
still.

Arsi Piispanen, Jokerit (drafted by CBJ, 138th overall 2003)
R, 6’3″/175

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1101+10
The Rest6000-20
Total7101-10

Piispanen earned a spot in the squad thanks to his great
chemistry with Petrell and Tukonen last fall. As expected, the
fourth line was not an answer to the team’s scoring problems and
it was soon dismantled. Piispanen, all inches and no pounds, remained in a small role as
planned. He couldn’t create much offense – or anything clearly
visible, for that matter. The experience was still invaluable for
Piispanen, who is at this point the best option to center the
first line next year thanks to his raw talent and stickhandling.

Tommi Oksa, Jokerit (undrafted)
R, 5’11″/183

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1011+22
The Rest6101-20
Total7112even2

Oksa is a typical Finnish junior player, a swift skater with a
great work ethic but no real talent. He can handle the puck but
when the time comes for the finishing touch, his hands freeze. In
the opening game against Canada he couldn’t even hold on to the
puck but improved his game soon like the rest of the team. Oksa
assumed the role of an agitator, seeking trouble more often than
necessary. Still, he is not ruthless enough to make a career out
of it. In the bronze game he finally managed to overcome his
problems in the offense. It was as if the entire team had scored
that game-winning goal.

Jyri Junnila, Kärpät (undrafted)
R, 5’8″/175

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1000+10
The Rest6101even0
Total7101+10

The smallest forward on the team with the skills to match the size started the tournament as the
thirteenth forward. Despite that Junnila was Finland’s best
player against Switzerland, he soon found himself on the bench
again. He could be effective against certain teams when he could utilize his talent, but the
bigger and stronger opponents would take him out with little
effort.

Lennart Petrell, HIFK (undrafted)
R, 6’3″/200

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine0000even0
The Rest5000-127
Total5000-127

The most undisciplined player on the team, Petrell caused
confusion among both friends and foes. He laid a lot of hits, one
of which was ugly enough to take both Michal Barinka and himself
out for two games. He created a fair number of scoring
opportunities on the fourth line but was also responsible for too
many and too serious turnovers. He is a fairly good skater for a 6’3″ player but lacks fluency and has trouble keeping up with a fast transition game. The coaching staff surely knew
what to expect as they picked him on the team, but they may have
been better off without him. What Petrell provided were already
some of the stronger aspects of the team.

Joni Töykkälä, Blues (undrafted)
L, 6’0″/175

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1022+40
The Rest6202+22
Total7224+62

Töykkälä had the honor to be the captain of the team just
like when the age group was still fighting for the U-18 World
Championship even though he doesn’t have the talent to be one of
the key players. His numbers do look rather good with the
priceless opening goals against the Czech Republic and Russia as
well as the team’s second best plus/minus rating to boot. Still,
the main impression the smallish and very fast winger gave was
that all he could do in the offense was to handle the puck –
together with tenacity, those qualities do make him what a
captain is supposed to be, a typical member of the team.
Töykkälä ruined his finest hour as he wasted the perfect
opportunity to tie the game against the United States by blindly
challenging Montoya alone on a 2-on-0 breakaway.

Teemu Nurmi, Tappara (undrafted)
R, 6’1″/192

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1112+20
The Rest6112-10
Total7224+10

One of the few pleasant surprises among the forwards, Nurmi
did what he could with third and fourth line icetime. His average
qualities probably cost him a chance to be picked in last year’s
entry draft, but now the complete package proved effective. He
has yet to mold his game to suit his abilities and his 6’1″ frame at a level this
high. Next year we may see him looking more like what he will one
day become, probably with a Christmas card from the team that
will draft him in his pocket.

Jarkko A. Immonen, Blues (drafted by DAL, 110th overall 2002)
L, 6’0″/195

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1224+40
The Rest6011even2
Total7235+42

Immonen failed to put his playmaking abilities to good use,
leaving his wingers Töykkälä and Marjamäki to create their
own scoring opportunities most of the time. In his defense,
Immonen’s performance wasn’t particularly disappointing, better
finishing would have left him with a good number of assists.
Domination against Ukraine contrary to stronger opponents
revealed the problems in his game: The lack of quickness in legs,
hands and mind alike. He was also perhaps the least tenacious
forward on the team. Despite all that, his importance in the
offense was never in question thanks to his great skill. Immonen
should also make better use of his 195 pounds.

Lauri Tukonen, Blues (2004 eligible)
R, 6’2″/197

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1112+20
The Rest6101-22
Total7213even2

The youngest Finnish skater in the WJC since over a decade,
Tukonen never had a clear role planned for him. “Let’s just
release him and see what happens” may have been the
intention as Tukonen is certainly the right player for that. His
skating, stickhandling and strength made in intriguing
combination used both in a checking role and on powerplay.
Surprisingly, he cut down on the number of hits compared to club
team performances, perhaps to focus more on the puck, and that he
did, to the extent that he would rarely deal a good pass as he
charged for the net with his head down. More experience and
routine should help with that. With admirable strength for a
player of his age, he dominated in the corners against most
defensemen.

Petri Kontiola, Tappara (undrafted)
R, 6’0″/188

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1101+32
The Rest6011-20
Total7112+12

Kontiola was one of the lesser known players on the team but
still not a surprise pick. He turned out to be a most reliable
two-way center over last fall. Although at times it seemed that
his attempts in the offense didn’t make the least bit of sense,
he was always there to lead the line’s defense, taking good care
of his territory. His talent isn’t up for the challenge of
production at this level, he would often just blindly deke his
way past one opponent and lose the puck to the second. A draft
pick may remain but a wish for him as his upside resembles that
of players who struggle to make the big league.

Petteri Nokelainen, SaiPa (2004 eligible)
R, 6’1″/188

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1000+20
The Rest6101even0
Total7101+20

At first the two caged youngsters Tukonen and Nokelainen
looked completely alike, two fast and strong wingers wreaking
havoc everywhere. Closer examination revealed that,
oversimplified, Tukonen was the one with the offense and
Nokelainen with the defense. Nokelainen had the chance to play
with Filppula and Bergenheim, which offered him more offensive
opportunities than expected. It was certainly not all for the
good of the rookie, as his surprisingly mature defensive game and
effective grinding helped the two older stars a lot. He did lose
his powerplay time to Tukonen, but soon became the team’s
go-to-guy when the penalty box was manned by a teammate. His puck skills were still too undeveloped to be effective at this level, but once he is no longer handicapped by his age, the numbers will be there.

Masi Marjamäki, Moose Jaw Warriors (drafted by BOS, 66th overall 2003)
L, 6’2″/200

AgainstGPGAP±PIM
Ukraine1011+40
The Rest6202-12
Total7213+32

The team’s Canadian import player has refined his game into
the mold of a maple leaf. Marjamäki was an instant fan favorite
with his big hits and straightforward offensive game. A lot of
the blame for his average numbers go to his linemates, but
Marjamäki himself was also a disappointing finisher, although
less so than most of the team. Still, he hit the net when it
counted, saving the team in the quarterfinal by tying the game
twice against Russia. He may be the team’s best forward next
year.