Finland sends young team to WJC

By Pekka Lampinen

Finland’s youth have struggled lately, but younger players will give the U20 team a new look and new hope. The roster totals
nine underaged players, a lot more than usual. Future drafts may prove that Finland has first-round talent in several players,
but that isn’t going to help the team now, as they suffer from inexperience.

There is less invested in preparing this year’s team than in
the tournament hosted last year. The experiment of regular games against semi-professional teams over the fall was discontinued. The coach has changed once again. While Risto Dufva can’t match the achievements of Hannu Aravirta, he has certainly earned his spurs over the years and is very familiar with Finnish junior hockey.

Young Finns are well trained, but with the talent level being what it is, the Lion Cubs have to fight the odds year after year. The outlook for the 2005 tournament is not strong.

Goaltending, the incredible heritage

Jussi Markkanen, Miikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, Mika Noronen,
Antero Niittymaki, Ari Ahonen, Kari Lehtonen, Hannu Toivonen are all
Finnish goalies who have started in the World Junior Championships since 1995. With the possible exception of Markkanen ten years ago, they have all performed remarkably well and made goaltending the No. 1 strength for Team Finland year after year.

The newest link in the chain will likely seem more impressive in retrospect. Tuukka Rask is a top prospect, a lot more so than the older eligible goalies, but there lies the main weakness: experience is at the cost of potential. Since Vesa Toskala, Finland has
produced an U18 All-Star goalie in odd years. Mika Noronen could not
flourish until Toskala left junior hockey, Noronen in turn kept Ari Ahonen at
bay, whereas Ahonen was the starter in a tandem with Kari Lehtonen. The
1985-born age group couldn’t meet the expectations and so paved the way
for the 17-year-old Rask. It is reasonable to expect that, on paper,
Rask as the youngest starter in recent history is also the worst. But looking at the group, that’s not an insult.

Finland might once again need a savior between the pipes due to the weaknesses in other areas. Fortunately, Rask’s superb game breaking ability is his best attribute. Consistency and top form at the right time can’t be guaranteed, though. Should Rask fail, Joonas Hallikainen is
another goalie who can save an entire barrage of shots, in that sense his strengths are the same as Rask’s and he doesn’t exactly complement the starter.

Defense, the decisive factor

In recent years, depth defensemen have cost Team Finland the
tournament. In 2004, Ville Varakas and Anssi Salmela committed some of the decisive mistakes. In 2002, the problems weren’t many, but all the more visible when Topi Jaakola lost the puck in semifinal overtime. The most infamous example is 2003 when Jussi Timonen, Tuomas Immonen and Teemu Jaaskelainen were a constant liability.

Earlier this year the team’s defense looked hopelessly problematic.
The entire defense corps consisted of moderate two-way ability, with
compromises in size and strength at depth positions. No
miracles took place between that time and the choosing of the final roster, but the final group appears fairly promising. As long as Anssi Tieranta and Juuso Hietanen manage to overcome their weaknesses, opposing teams shouldn’t capitalize on the Finns’ mistakes too often.

The all-star performances of Joni Pitkänen in 2003 and Sami Lepisto in 2004 were invaluable and crucial. Even though Lepisto came largely out of nowhere, it is easy to say that it won’t happen again this year.
On the other hand, a few defensemen could easily rise onto a level where they can adequately support the offense.

Offense, the besetting sin

Taking into account the modest names on the backs of
jerseys, Finnish teams haven’t had much trouble controlling the puck.
However, the limits are still there. The defense may have allowed bad
goals in big games, but the forwards have nearly always been
inefficient near the opposing crease. In short, the offense has never been strong enough.

The age group headed into the season with the depth of offense as
their main strength, but injuries to Valtteri Tenkanen and Pasi Salonen
together with less than optimal performances by Lauri Tukonen,
Arsi Piispanen and Juhamatti Aaltonen have dulled the edge some.
At this point the first line is perhaps a little short of dominant, the
second is reduced by aforementioned reasons to merely good,
the third has decent potential and the components of a smart and strong
checking line are also there. The forwards have relatively high
shooting biases in general, although finishing skill is still scarce. They have good size for a Finnish team, but on the flip side not much in the way of real toughness.

The last two tournaments have witnessed all-star performances not
only by Finnish defensemen but by centers as well. Tuomo Ruutu in 2003
and Valtteri Filppula in 2004 made the difference between success and
failure. Will anyone step up and dominate this time?

Predicted lines

Korpikoski-Nokelainen-Tukonen
Nurmi-Piispanen-Marjamaki
Joensuu-Nabb-Seitsonen
Riska-Makkonen-Hokkanen

Honkaheimo-Mantymaa
Korhonen-Laakso
Kuukka-Hietanen
Tieranta

Goalies

#30 Tuukka Rask
6’1/173 lbs, 3/10/87
Ilves Jr A (undrafted)

Rask’s great performance in the 2004 U18 World Championships in
April set him on track for the U20. He already established himself as the primary option during offseason and the last tournament in November
only reinforced his position. Rask is a swift, temperamental and talented
goalie who can take any number of shots and still win the game. That
ability will be called upon at some point during the tournament, and the
team has no choice but to count on him to deliver. Stamina is a problem
for him and he has played some bad games over the course of the fall,
so success is by no means guaranteed. Still, goaltending has to be
considered a strength for the team with Rask between the pipes.

#1 Joonas Hallikainen
5’11/180 lbs, 10/5/85
Jokerit Jr A (undrafted)

Hallikainen was a national team regular in U17 but slowed down in
2002 and 2003. Last spring he picked it up again and finished the season with impressive U20 national team games. That gave him the inside lane
when it came to building the World Junior Championship team. Hallikainen is a technically sound and solid goalie but lacks top potential. He can be expected to play one game in the tournament.

Defensemen

#3Anssi Tieranta
6’4/192 lbs, 8/7/85, L
Ilves Jr A (undrafted)

Tieranta entered the picture at the last possible moment after
gradual improvement in Jr A and a successful tournament in Sweden in
November. Besides adept puckhandling, his strengths are obvious. At 6’4 he isn’t very physical. Ultimately, Tieranta isn’t among the most solid
defensemen in the squad and hence a question mark.

#4 Otto Honkaheimo
6’1/197 lbs, 8/3/85, L
Lukko (undrafted)

Honkaheimo is an unsung hero in the age group, always a core
defenseman. He isn’t that offensive but still traditionally the
highest-scoring blueliner. He has had a fragmented fall season bouncing in and out of the pro roster and his consistency is only average, so in relation to his ability a positive performance can’t be guaranteed.

# 5 Risto Korhonen
6’3″ / 200 lbs, 11/27/’86, L
Karpat Jr A (undrafted)

18 years and a month is very young for a defenseman in the
World Junior Championships. Another problem for Korhonen is that the
Karpat pro team is stacked and he has yet to play in SM-Liiga, so he will now be facing the hardest competition ever. The upside is well worth it — sheer strength and solid defensive play by the toughest player on the team.

#7 Ville Mantymaa
6’2/195 lbs, 3/8/85, R
Tappara (drafted by Anaheim, 9th round, 284th overall in 2003)

Mantymaa captained the infamous U18 team in 2003. He developed the
earliest of all in the age group and has played solid in stretches
throughout his career. He is the leader of the defense and should again wear a letter on his chest. Mantymaa has proved to have problems with the most talented of opponents at times but should fend off most juniors with
ease.

#12 Mikko Kuukka
6’3/192 lbs, 11/3/85, L
WHL Red Deer Rebels (undrafted)

Kuukka’s promising career took a severe blow from the disappointment
of his rookie season in the WHL last season. He has now worked hard to
redeem himself and is a very welcome addition to the Finnish team. He
may not get many special team and second pairing minutes but can still
offer a valuable combination of defense, offense and strength.

#26 Juuso Hietanen
5’10/175 lbs, 6/14/85, R
HPK Jr A (undrafted)

Hietanen plays a finesse game yet to develop for higher levels of
competition. Despite struggling with Pelicans in SM-Liiga this season, he managed to earn a roster spot in the tournament. At best he can be very productive in the offense and at worst a serious problem in the own end.

#28 Teemu Laakso
6’0/188 lbs, 8/27/87, R
HIFK Jr A (undrafted)

Like Rask, Laakso redefined his future in U18 last spring. His
journey to the WJC squad was laden with questions
concerning his maturity. Only a few weeks younger than Laakso, Joni Pitkanen was deemed unfit for the rigors of the tournament, just as
all the other Finnish defensemen have been, too. Laakso, a fairly offensive defenseman, proved in a tournament in November that he can play defense as well.

Forwards

#8 Iivo Hokkanen, RW
5’10/170 lbs, 5/3/85, L
Jukurit (undrafted)

Hokkanen has been with the national team for a good while but hasn’t
been able to establish himself as a key player. Now he has his best
chance ever after making the squad propelled by his vast experience of
semi-professional games. Hokkanen has been effective in U20 games this
fall. Still, his ability remains a questionable compromise between offense and defense for a player of his size.

#9 Petteri Nokelainen, C
6’1/193 lbs, 1/16/86, R
SaiPa (drafted by NY Islanders, 1st round, 16th overall in 2004)

Nokelainen was the only underaged player in the U18 World
Championships in 2003. As a returning U20 WJC player as well,
he is now able to lead even his elders from the middle of the first
line. He absorbed the domestic media’s attention prior to the tournament and will likely wear the C. The center position isn’t altogether natural
for him, but with his trusty linemates Korpikoski and Tukonen he can
score enough to meet the expectations. In any case, his incredible
two-way effort and ability will prove very valuable.

#11 Teemu Nurmi, LW
6’1/197 lbs, 2/24/85, R
Tappara (undrafted)

The 2004 World Junior Championships boded well for Nurmi this year,
but he has been absolutely paralyzed this fall with production
virtually down to zero in both SM-Liiga and Jr A. His experience and talent was still too much to pass up on. History proves that recent performance reflects heavily on even short tournaments, so it wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect Nurmi to wander in from the shadows.

#13 Filip Riska, LW
6’1/195 lbs, 3/13/85, L
JYP Jr A (undrafted)

Riska began to make a name for himself this fall. The winger was
never a sure bet to make the team and still a depth player now, but his
combination of hard work and strength is an excellent fit for the lower
lines. Perhaps it will earn him some points as well.

#15 Jesse Joensuu, LW
6’3/195 lbs, 10/5/87, L
Assat (undrafted)

If the tournament were only about the competition between the teams,
the spotlight wouldn’t find Joensuu very often. In reality, with the
stands creaking under the weight of scouts and the masses checking out
the future talent, he is a much sought out player. Lauri Tukonen’s
modern-day record for the youngest Finnish skater in the tournament lasted only a year. Joensuu has been too young to make a big splash with Assat in SM-Liiga yet, but his play has definitely been effective and will likely work well in the World Junior Championships as well.

#16 Arsi Piispanen, C
6’3/175 lbs, 7/23/85, R
JYP (drafted by Columbus, 5th round, 138th overall in 2003)

Piispanen has usually been the age group’s main offensive weapon. He
gained important experience in last year’s tournament and has now
made a complete and final transition onto professional level of play in
Finland. However, his production has been weak this fall and that may affect the numbers he can put up in the tournament.

#18 Aki Seitsonen, RW
6’2/197 lbs, 2/5/86, R
WHL Prince Albert Raiders (drafted by Calgary, 4th round, 118th overall in 2004)

As an underaged player located in Canada, Seitsonen has had few
opportunities to allow the coaching staff to gauge his ability at U20
level. He did attend the camps in the offseason and gave a strong impression of his talent. As an unspectacular player and not yet among the best forwards, he won’t enjoy a particularly visible role but will still provide the team with valuable depth.

#19 Masi Marjamäki, LW
6’2/203 lbs, 1/16/85, L
WHL Moose Jaw Warriors (drafted by Boston, 2nd round, 66th overall in
2003)

Marjamaki saved the team in last year’s quarterfinals and now has a
chance to do even better. His confident style of play is extremely
arrogant, though in a positive way, which makes him most exciting to watch. He is one of the top forwards and very important to the team.

#23 Kim Nabb, C
5’9/180 lbs, 4/30/85, R
Sport (undrafted)

Once a top scorer for the age group, the small forward faded away
well before the U18 World Championships in 2003. Nabb is now back with a
new physical dimension to his play, which makes him useful in the lower
lines as well. He was productive in the fall’s tournaments and can be
an offensive engine to a certain extent.

#24 Janne Kolehmainen, RW
6’3/203 lbs, 3/22/86, L
SaiPa (undrafted)

Originally cut from the team, Kolehmainen re-entered the roster due
to Valtteri Tenkanen’s injury. Although underaged, Kolehmainen plays a
strong, smart two-way game and has experience from professional games.
Like Riska, his upside is limited but he makes the ideal fourth line
player.

#25 Lauri Korpikoski, LW
6’1/180 lbs, 7/28/86, L
TPS (drafted by NY Rangers, 1st round, 19th overall in 2004)

Korpikoski isn’t far along in his development and has faced a
challenging transition to professional hockey this fall. With months of low production behind him, the condition of his offensive game is a question
mark. If unsuccessful, he may mimic the tradition of speedy TPS wingers
in the tournament (Mikko Kankaanpera and Janne Jokila in 2002, Tomi
Sykko and Juho Lehtisalo in 2003) with hands of stone. Fortunately, recent performances and the support of his linemates Nokelainen and Tukonen suggest that he doesn’t have to settle with mediocrity.

#27 Lauri Tukonen, RW
6’2/200 lbs, 9/1/86, R
Espoo Blues (drafted by Los Angeles, 1st round, 11th overall in 2004)

Last year Tukonen caused trouble to the opposition with his strong
and speedy moves, yet his inexperience limited his efficiency. He is
still very young for a World Junior Championship player but can now
provide more versatile offense thanks to being able to read plays better. At best Tukonen can be Finland’s No. 1 scorer, and his downside is still a valuable effort.

#29 Jussi Makkonen, C
6’4/197 lbs, 4/24/85, L
TuTo (undrafted)

A surprise pick, at times Makkonen has been criticized for having
limited offensive upside, sometimes for being a moody player who can’t
put it all together. As a depth player Makkonen adds size and experience. A promotion to a bigger role seems less likely to him than to other players.

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