At the 2012 World Junior Championship, much of the focus was on high profile forwards Mikael Granlund and Teemu Pulkkinen – veterans of previous tournaments who were making one last attempt to win a gold medal. While Finland came up short of that goal, losing to eventual champion Sweden in a shootout in the semifinals, the team's fourth place finish would have to be considered a success.
Finland once again has some high profile forwards, including two that were selected in the first round of the NHL Draft and one who very likely will be next June. But the real strength of Finland's team appears to be its corps of defensemen.
Goaltending is generally a strength of Finnish teams and this year's club enters the tournament in a very similar situation to last year. Heading into the 2012 tournament, it was uncertain which goalie then-coach Raimo Helminen would go with as the starter. Sami Aittokallio eventually emerged and was very good in goal. This year there are again three goalies vying to start.
Coaching-wise, veteran Harri Lindell took over for Helminen this year, coaching the team in the Lake Placid summer camp and throughout the fall both in the squad's Mestis exhibition tour and the Four Nations Tournament in Sweden. He has a pretty good handle on his team's abilities and should be able to mesh the various personalities.
Due to the NHL lockout, much of the focus of this year's tournament is on the star-studded lineups of clubs like Canada (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau), defending champion Sweden (Filip Forsberg) and Russia (Nail Yakupov, Mikael Grigorenko). While Finland is flying under the radar, its teams have traditionally shown tremendous cohesion and exceeded expectations, and this year appears to be more of the same.
With Granlund and Pulkkinen no longer around, the top line appears to be Markus Granlund (CLG), who skated alongside those two a year ago, along with fellow returnees Joel Armia (BUF) and Miikka Salomaki (NAS).
Markus Granlund had 2 goals with 5 assists in last year's tournament and will be in a more prominent role this time around. Armia, a Buffalo Sabres' first round pick in 2011, scored 5 goals with 2 assists and led Finland with 16 penalty minutes at the 2012 World Junior Championship skating on a line with Salomaki and Joonas Donskoi. Dominant at times but hard to notice at others, he has seemed more consistent in pre-tournament play this year. Salomaki, who plays for Karpat in Finland's SM-Liiga, will be playing in his third world junior tournament and is one of Finland's top two-way forwards.
Depending on the line combinations Lindell chooses to use, there are a trio of high-scoring forwards in Teuvo Teravainen (CHI), Aleksander Barkov and Artturi Lehkonen that are as talented as any forwards in the tournament.
Teravainen, chosen in the first round by Chicago in 2012, was a controversial cut from last year's team but was outstanding for Jokerit at the end of last year's SM-Liiga season and in the playoffs. After a slow start this year, he is playing on Jokerit's top line with veteran Illari Filppula and American Steve Moses and has 7 goals with 12 assists in 24 games. Barkov skated for Finland as a 17-year-old last year and is the second-leading scorer for Tappara in his second SM-Liiga season. He is 6-2, 195 pounds and almost a lock to be picked in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft. Lehkonen, like Barkov born in 1995, is the second-leading scorer for KalPa Kuopio with 9 goals and 13 assists in 32 games. He should also hear his name called at the 2013 NHL Draft.
As with last year's team, when the hidden strength was the play of their solid third- and fourth-line players, there are several forwards vying for the final roster spots who play a well-rounded game (Editor's note – Finland had not made its final cuts as of their pre-tournament game with Canada).
Miro Aaltonen and Markus Hannikainen, both 1993-born players, played for Finland last year and both return. Aaltonen played on Finland's third line in last year's tournament with Barkov and Coyotes' prospect Alexander Ruuttu. While his size (5'9”, 154 lbs.) has likely been the key factor in him not being drafted to this point, he is a highly-skilled player and has 11 goals in 32 SM-Liiga games for the Espoo Blues this year. Hannikainen has split this season between Jokerit and Mestis' Kiekko-Vantaa thus far. In last year's WJC he was part of the interchangeable fourth line with Mikael Kuronen, Roope Hamalainen, and Otto Paajanen that Helminen relied on in key situations.
Among the rest of the forwards still in the mix, Henrik Haapala, Barkov's teammate with Tappara, is on the smaller side but can fly and has some significant offensive ability. Ville Jarvelainen, at 5'5 and 150 pounds the smallest player on Finland's roster, played for the USHL champion Green Bay Gamblers last season and plays a solid two-way game.
On the other end of the spectrum, Thomas Nystrop (6'3, 190), who also skated in the USHL last year (Tri-City Storm) before returning to Finland to begin his pro career with HIFK, seems to have the mindset and competitiveness necessary for a two-way role.
Robert Leino (HPK), Matti Lamberg (Jokerit/Kiekko-Vantaa), and Saku Salminen (Jokerit) were the other forwards battling for the final roster spots.
The London Knights' Olli Maatta (PIT) was expected to anchor Finland's defense unit last year but missed most of the tournament after suffering a concussion in the opening game. Maatta is back for Finland this year and according to one OHL scout has "taken his game to another level". In addition to his defensive play, Maatta has both the willingness and skill to create plays in the offensive zone. London has been the OHL's dominant team, winning 21 straight at one point, and Maatta has scored 3 goals with 21 assists in his first 32 games.
Ville Pokka (NYI) had a strong tournament in Maatta's absence last year and once again returns for Finland as does 2013 draft-eligible Rasmus Ristolainen. Pokka, who played 35 games in the SM-Liiga for Karpat as a 17-year-old last year, is more of a defense-first defender but has chipped in offensively for Karpat, scoring 4 goals with 4 assists in his first 25 games. Ristolainen made his SM-Liiga debut as a 16-year-old last year and showed poise beyond his years in last year's U-20 tournament. In 29 games for TPS Turku this season he has 2 goals with 6 assists.
The three returnees (all 1994-born) are impressive but the real factor in whether the team can have the same success it did a year ago is how quickly the five defensemen playing in their first WJC can get up to speed. In last year's tournament, 19-year-old's Jani Hakanpaa (STL), Konsta Makinen, Miro Hovinen, and Simo-Pekka Riikola all contributed significantly.
Of the 1993-born defenders on this year's team, team captain Petteri Lindbohm, who plays for Jokerit, is the only NHL draftee so far, taken by the Blues in the sixth round in 2012. Riikola's younger brother, Juuso, who plays for KalPa, has 5 assists in 19 games in his first SM-Liiga season. Henri Auvinen, who has split the season between JyP and JyP-Akatemia in Mestis, is a sound defense-first defenseman.
One 1994-born defensemen, Juuso Vainio, is also on the pre-tournament roster. Vainio is playing in the SM-Liiga with HPK and in 19 games is minus-two with 1 goal and 1 assist.
The goaltending picture for Finland is much different than what many outsiders and fans may have expected. While none of the three goalies heading to Ufa have competed in a U-20 WJC, all three candidates provide Lindell with a solid option in net and have played in pressure situations.
Joonas Korpisalo, a third round selection of Columbus in 2012, was the starter for Finland in the WJC U-18 tournament last spring and in five games for the U-20 this fall had a 1.24 goals against average. He's played 15 games in Mestis for Kiekko-Vantaa and also appeared in one game for Jokerit.
Janne Juvonen made his pro hockey debut last spring as a 17-year-old, skating in two games for Pelicans. He was then thrown into the fire during the SM-Liiga playoffs, making two starts in place of injured Pelicans starter Niko Hovinen. Juvonen and Richard Ullberg were the goalies for Finland this past summer in Lake Placid during the annual evaluation camp.
Eetu Laurikainen is playing for Swift Current in the WHL after a strong season for JyP's junior team last season. Laurikainen handled the bulk of the goaltending for JyP's U-20 team in 2011-12 after Oilers' prospect Samu Perhonen had some early season injury issues and inconsistent play. Laurikainen has played in 32 of 38 games for Swift Current so far this season and is 13-15-4 with a 2.55 goals against and .916 save percentage.
The emergence of Korpisalo, Juvonen, and Laurikainen has been impressive, but the fact that Perhonen and Ullberg were not in the mix was surprising.
Perhonen, currently splitting time with Sami Rajaniemi for JyP-Akatemia, has appeared in one SM-Liiga game this year and appeared in three Mestis exhibition games with the U-20 national team. Ullberg, who backed up Aittokallio and Christopher Gibson at the 2012 WJC, has struggled to regain his form after appearing in 23 SM-Liiga games for SaiPa a year ago. He played for the U-20 team in November's Four Nations Cup in Sweden but did not have a great tournament and so far has appeared in five games for SaiPa as a backup to Jani Nieminen.