Finland’s seven-year medal streak at the Under-18 level came to an end in 2002. Although the age groups since have taken two medals home from the U-20 World Junior Championships, things have looked bleaker for younger-aged players. With a poor finish in the previous year, Finland has been placed in the round robin group that forces a top seven hockey country out of the quarterfinals. This has happened three times in a row now, and they have failed to make the cut every time.
No spotlights, no shining stars
Finland desperately needs a break from the lack of success in the U18 World Championships, but it won’t be easy this year either. The 1988-born age group has had only mediocre success so far. Its players are very similar, mostly due to the lack of star power, and it gets little to no help from underaged players, as the 1989-born age group appears very weak at this point.
Tactics have been developed accordingly. The coach Rauli Urama has chosen to ice four lines, all of them two-way lines. This way anyone can become a go-to guy, but on the other hand looking at the roster it is no wonder if no one does actually do that when direly needed.
The defense is built to support the offense, which was bad news for stay-at-home defensemen like the hulking Atte Erkamo, who will literally be staying home. The challenge will be to move the puck under physical pressure, whereas the forwards keeping the unit together will be the key against direct attacks. The average size on defense is unimpressive at roughly 6’0 and 175 lbs. and the forwards are no taller, only bulkier.
Three players have experienced the tournament before. Not so coincidentally Joonas Kemppainen, Robert Nyholm and Max Wärn are the three biggest and most physically mature skaters on the team. The legacy being left for next year’s team is the weakest in recent history, with Niclas Lucenius as the only player able to return next year.
Finland is looking to defeat either Canada, Sweden or Slovakia for a spot in the quarterfinals, a goal which is certainly reasonable. The team can’t be happy if eliminated in the quarterfinals and missing the medal games, but that is far more likely to happen than not.
Starting goalie chosen
Since the beginning of the 2004-05 season, the two big butterfly goalies Niko Hovinen and Riku Helenius fought neck to neck for the starting spot. They both stole games over the months in Jr A and on international ice, also struggling equally at times. After the international tournaments in February it still looked like there would be no resolve, but then Hovinen’s play took a wrong turn in the spring. He lost playing time at home to an older goalie and wasn’t in top shape at the initial WC camp. At the same time Atte Engren picked up where he left with his team Lukko at home and debuted strong in the lion jersey. Urama chose to go with the hot goalie and to everyone’s surprise Hovinen stayed home.
Helenius stands at 6’3 and is a rather conventional big butterfly goalie who can save any number of shots. At international level, though, what would be a first-star performance in Finnish Jr A doesn’t necessarily carry the team to victory. Provided that he delivers at the right time, he can still win Finland the decisive round robin game all by himself. However, the starter’s position is not set in stone yet, although Engren may have to start on the outside lane in that race. Smaller than Helenius, Engren doesn’t have any special qualities, but if he continues his hot streak while keeping his head cool, he can be a good goalie at this level.
Finland no longer has the luxury of Tuukka Rask (TOR) between the pipes like in the two previous years, but unsurprisingly goalie is the strongest of the three positions for Finland.
Lehtivuori to lead the defense corps
The poster boy of the offensive-oriented defense corps is Joonas Lehtivuori. He is the leading blueliner of Ilves’s Jr A team, a young player in terms of both age and physique but able to assume responsibility on the ice. Lehtivuori has been commended for his performances on the national team in the past and is expected to tally a good number of points in the tournament. His club teammate Jarkko Näppilä doesn’t have many national team games under his belt, yet a strong spring season and successful performances at the right time earned him a roster spot. Näppilä is smallish and his play with the puck most often involves first passes and simple moves in his own end.
Lehtivuori dressed for one pro game in 2005-06, and the only player on the team to do so besides him is Eetu Heikkinen, who played for Ässät in nine games. Heikkinen is far from flashy, but in contrast seasoned for his age and has good qualities all around, which makes him the team’s second most important blueliner. Another fairly experienced defenseman is Miko Malkamäki, the only defenseman other than Heikkinen to play Jr A hockey already in 2004-05. Malkamäki grew in height early, but gaining mass hasn’t come natural for him, which is why he may still have junior-like qualities to his all-around game for a long time.
The closest player to a defensive defenseman is likely Mikko Kukkonen. He didn’t play regularly for the junior national teams until this season, but he impressed in the Viking Cup and can now easily be seen as a valuable part of the team. Despite the relative defensive bias Kukkonen’s game is still to be described as two-way.
Joonas Jalvanti was the first defenseman to distinguish himself from the pack in U16 but couldn’t quite keep it up. He has good raw puck skills but can be inconsistent, so he was no lock for the team until named. Markus Himanka has also been around for a good couple of years. So far Himanka hasn’t achieved anything spectacular at U17 and U18 levels. Still, he was a solid choice for the tournament. His domestic season continued quite long as Kärpät made the finals in Jr A and lost to JYP.
Captain Juutilainen expected to deliver
Finland can boast no bona fide stars up front, but past tournaments have revealed somewhat of a centerpiece. Jan-Mikael Juutilainen is the team’s top scorer, oldest player and captain. An extremely skilled playmaking center, Juutilainen is still only mediocre in terms of speed, strength and defensive play, yet still is very good on international ice. The players around him have changed regularly, but one who could take a leading position alongside him is Robert Nyholm. Although Nyholm didn’t quite impress as an underaged player in the tournament a year ago, at best the power forward can look absolutely dominant on the ice — he can deke, pass and shoot at full speed without trouble. The way he charges to the offense seems almost feral. At this point his hockey sense is lacking, which can keep him outside the best action on the ice for periods of time.
The other two returning players are Joonas Kemppainen and Nyholm’s HIFK teammate Max Wärn. Kemppainen has had an uneven season; he has had dry periods of weak production and at other times he has been nearly knocking on the Ässät’s door. The big winger developed early, but doesn’t have exceptional skills to propel his offense. Much like the rest of the team, he can be a scorer in this tournament or left sidelined from the scoresheet. Over the past year, Wärn has developed to become even more of a defensive specialist, even playing the position of defenseman regularly. As a strong skater he is still better suited for forward, where he can play a defensive game and score a couple of goals in the process. Wärn has worn the captain’s C on occasion this season.
Other players looking to be key forwards include Nico Aaltonen, Juuso Puustinen and Juuso Antonen. Aaltonen hasn’t had much chance for heroics on the stacked HIFK teams back home, but he has always been a solid part of the age group’s national teams. He possesses nice potential with the puck for a well-rounded player who isn’t a star. KalPa’s Puustinen has been somewhat of a loner, usually standing out of the pack all by himself to appear on the scoresheet. If he ends up alongside two overachievers, he could be a very prolific scorer in the tournament. Despite being one of the age group’s best scorers internationally, Antonen has been a rather unsung hero. He skates well and often finds the puck near the crease before others do.
Juhani Jasu recovered from an injury-riddled 2004-05 season and got his Jr A career going this year. Although he didn’t score much at home, Jasu impressed in the national team tournament held in Russia in February. The center will likely try to assume a big role, but his production may not be up to the challenge. Sometimes seen playing next to Jasu is Jani Savolainen. The speedy winger earned his roster spot at the WC camp when he scored twice in one of the two games against Switzerland.
Savolainen is one of the two forwards not yet eligible for the 2006 Entry Draft, the other being the 16-year-old Niclas Lucenius. It took until spring when the coach Urama finally decided to try out an underaged player for the U18 squad. Lucenius was the only forward tested and he didn’t disappoint. He plays a flashy game both with and without the puck, be it complex dekes or mean hits. It is still rather uncertain what kind of a role he could assume in Finland’s uniform flock of forwards.
Goalie wasn’t the only position where Urama decided to go with hot players. Kaarlo Jormakka was rather new to the lion jersey; Ilkka Heikkilä had good experience but he was no go-to guy. The two JYP players won Finnish Jr A gold and scored six and seven points in 10 playoff games, respectively. The wingers are a little on the smaller side but deemed fit for lower line roles on the national team.
Finally, there is Jan-Mikael Järvinen. The team includes five Ilves players who played the regular season in Jr A and were eliminated in the quarterfinals, then moving down to Jr B to help the club’s powerful 1988-born age group win gold. Järvinen led the league in postseason scoring and has put up points for the Lion Cubs over time as well, although he hasn’t played in that many games. His weaknesses are obvious, but the 5’8 center sure has potential to produce, especially if accompanied by someone like his Ilves teammate Antonen. On the negative side, the smallest of forwards have experienced their worst troubles with adaptation in the past when entering the U18 WC level of play. That can also be said of other kinds of players to an extent — Team Finland must accept that as they divide the offensive responsibility relatively equally, many of the players will underachieve.
|29||G||Atte Engren||2/19/1988||6’0||175||Lukko Jr A|
|30||G||Riku Helenius||3/1/1988||6’3||203||Ilves Jr A|
|2||D||Markus Himanka||2/27/1988||5’10||182||Kärpät Jr A|
|3||D||Eetu Heikkinen||7/8/1988||6’1||185||Ässät Jr A|
|4||D||Miko Malkamäki||5/1/1988||6’1||160||Tappara Jr A|
|5||D||Jarkko Näppilä||6/6/1988||6’0||175||Ilves Jr A|
|6||D||Mikko Kukkonen||1/19/1988||6’1||173||KalPa Jr A|
|8||D||Joonas Lehtivuori||7/19/1988||6’0||170||Ilves Jr A|
|10||C||Nico Aaltonen||6/15/1988||5’11||188||HIFK Jr A|
|11||W||Juuso Puustinen||4/5/1988||6’1||185||KalPa Jr A|
|12||W||Ilkka Heikkilä||7/1/1988||5’11||183||JYP Jr A|
|13||W||Joonas Kemppainen||4/7/1988||6’2||205||Ässät Jr A|
|14||C||Jan-Mikael Juutilainen||5/1/1988||5’11||183||Jokerit Jr A|
|16||W||Robert Nyholm||3/7/1988||6’1||195||HIFK Jr A|
|18||W||Jani Savolainen||10/5/1988||5’11||182||KalPa Jr A|
|19||W||Kaarlo Jormakka||7/2/1988||5’10||183||JYP Jr A|
|21||C||Niclas Lucenius||5/3/1988||6’0||177||Tappara Jr A|
|22||C||Juhani Jasu||1/19/1988||6’0||180||Lukko Jr A|
|24||W||Juuso Antonen||2/8/1988||6’0||173||Ilves Jr A|
|25||D||Joonas Jalvanti||7/9/1988||5’11||185||Pelicans Jr A|
|26||W||Max Wärn||6/10/1988||6’2||195||HIFK Jr A|
|27||C||Jan-Mikael Järvinen||2/26/1988||5’8||157||Ilves Jr A|
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.