In the Under-18 European Championships of 1995, Finland started a streak of success that was simply unheard of in the country. As the medal streak that yielded four gold medals, two sets of silver and one bronze saw its end with the fourth place in 2002, the tournament had long since expanded to include the whole world. With the failures that resulted in seventh positions for the ’85 and ’86 age groups, the momentum of the glory days is lost.
In 2004, the team missed the top six by very little, a last-minute game-tying goal by the Czech Republic being just a small part of the story. They did groom stars for this year’s team, as Tuukka Rask, Teemu Laakso, Jesse Joensuu and Miika Lahti now return with valuable experience. Continuity still goes on. All three underaged players, Robert Nyholm, Max Wärn and Joonas Kemppainen, who joined the age group’s national team this season made the final roster.
IFK from Helsinki offers an extraordinarily substantial contribution to the age group. Their Jr B team was strengthened by its Jr A stars for the playoffs once the elder team was eliminated. Timo Seppänen, Joni Haverinen, Jonas Enlund, Teemu Ramstedt and Robert Nyholm led the U18 team to a championship title. Together with Max Wärn and then-injured Teemu Laakso they now form a major part of the national team. The defensemen Seppänen, Haverinen and Laakso and eligible for the next draft whereas the forwards must wait for 2006.
National teams can’t be built like club teams per se, but Finland has had the privilege of building from the net out. Tuukka Rask already dominated in 2004 and after a challenging season and went on an incenerating streak in Jr A playoffs with 0.87 goals against for every 60 minutes and 37 saves for every shot. The rest of the roster has been announced, but the backup goalie has yet to be decided between the two small goalies Juha Toivonen and Antti Härmä. The choice is of little consequence since Rask will play every game he can. Provided that he gets sufficient help from the defense, the lightning-fast butterfly netminder can beat any opponent even on their game.
Another player only the team’s success short of an all-star nomination in 2004 was Teemu Laakso. A superb two-way defenseman at this level, Laakso will carry the team in all situations, especially on power play. Juho Mielonen and Mikael Kurki have traditionally formed the age group’s core, but in 2004-05 Tommi Leinonen broke out to add more punch to the blueline. All three can move the puck, but at 5’10 Kurki needs to rely on his heart more than his body.
In 2004 the team reached both extremes among defensemen. Tuomas Gärdström ended up taking costly penalties due to his slowness and Vesa Kulmala due to his small size. Now all the depth defensemen, Timo Seppänen, Joni Haverinen and Henrik Maunula are compromises between finesse and physical play by European standards.
The team’s most efficient forward is Perttu Lindgren. He recently led Ilves to Jr A championship, dominated the postseason point leader table and earned the playoff MVP honors. He has flown under the radar of draft scouts so far, but not much longer if he keeps up the pace. Together with Lindgren, the captain Jesse Joensuu will spearhead the offense. Now with WJC experience, he should be able to dominate against his peers. Look for some magical puckhandling when the first line is on the ice.
The team has depth up front at least on paper. Jonas Enlund has constantly underachieved with the national team compared to his success back home. This would be high time to take another step forward. Ville Korhonen and Mikko Lehtonen complete the core. Lehtonen can play both ways, but rarely at the same time. Playing by the system is not always a given with him. At best he can dominate, at worst he has to be taken off the line.
Jussi Peltomaa, Miika Lahti and Robert Nyholm are elite checkers, which will help balance the team. However, Nyholm has been suffering from injuries and may not completely regain form on time. Checking abilities are often displayed also by Tommi Huhtala and Max Wärn. Oskar Osala can play both ways but hasn’t reached a visible role in international games despite his experience. The youngster Joonas Kemppainen can play in nearly any role but may have to wait for the spotlight until next year. Finally there is the skilled finesse speedster Teemu Ramstedt, who provides reserves for scoring.
The age group has underachieved as a team nearly throughout its existence. When it has tried to play offensively the goals haven’t come, and the defense has been dysfunctional every now and then. Now they no longer need to suffer incomplete rosters nor aim for longer-term goals, so perhaps the potential will finally be untapped.
Team Finland started the pre-tournament practice games in the following lineup:
Ville Korhonen – Perttu Lindgren – Jesse Joensuu
Mikko Lehtonen – Jonas Enlund – Jussi Peltomaa
Tommi Huhtala – Miika Lahti – Teemu Ramstedt
Joonas Kemppainen – Oskar Osala – Max Wärn
Tommi Leinonen – Teemu Laakso
Mikael Kurki – Henrik Maunula
Joni Haverinen – Juho Mielonen
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