High hopes are justified for Finland, which is sending an experienced team to the 2007 World Junior Championships. The last two years, the U20 team carried players who would still be eligible in 2007. Now, with only two underaged players participating, the country is focusing on success here and now.
Rask returns for third tournament
For over ten years, goaltending has been the strongest position for Finland at U20 level. A returning WJC all-star in Tuukka Rask (BOS) erases any doubt that it will be the case this year as well. One of the quickest butterfly goalies in the world, he had 53 saves in a 1-0 overtime victory against Sweden in last year’s quarterfinals. Rask has been in a challenging situation heading into each of his WJC tournaments. This fall he had as many starts as he could handle behind the grossly inconsistent Ilves team in the Finnish league, also preparing for international duties while taking care of military service, too. Despite this, Rask hasn’t struggled much yet, and he has made progress on his weaknesses: consistency and rebound control.
Antti Härmä is expected to be a very solid backup behind the team’s cornerstone Rask. With the shoulder injury of Riku Helenius (TB), and Niko Hovinen having trouble with his health as well, Härmä didn’t have much competition for the job. Härmä has completed the wall that is the Espoo Blues defense in the Finnish Jr A league, posting supreme numbers among the league’s starting goalies. Solid performances in U20 practice games sealed his place on the team. The quick and technically sound goalie could handle even some of the tougher competing teams in the tournament.
The defensive corps retains its identity
The fact the team has three WJC veteran defensemen isn’t the only reason why the Finnish defensive pairings resemble those of last year. By necessity, the defensemen chosen are smaller and far less experienced than the country’s junior forwards, as in previous years. Working with players who haven’t had many chances to play against tough competition, the coaching staff is facing the challenge of how to play defense against quick and strong opponents. Team Finland has often, if not always, failed because of mistakes by the depth defensemen, who haven’t had much legitimate competition when the teams have been built. However, this year there were more options for the team than usual.
Teemu Laakso (NAS) had a strong tournament in 2006 despite mediocrity in domestic games over the season. This fall Laakso has assumed a lot of responsibility playing for the IFK pros, so all things bode well for the team’s top defenseman. He scored three key goals for the team the last time around and could now be at least as important for the team. Laakso’s offensive bias has changed a lot over the course of his short career, so it isn’t certain whether Finland could be getting a scoring threat in the power play or a sturdy pillar for its defenses.
The other two WJC veterans are Timo Seppänen and Tommi Leinonen, both of them prospects of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Seppänen was paired with Laakso last year and experienced a strong spring season after the tournament. The 2006-07 season hasn’t been as bountiful for him, as after a series of disappointing performances he changed teams in the Finnish SM-liiga from HIFK to HPK. Seppänen would have the size and attitude for strong defensive play and the skill for offensive production, but problems with his ability to read the game have held him back of late. Leinonen obviously learned new things during the WJC tournament last year, as lackluster physical effort gave way to more successful play. Like Seppänen, Leinonen has had a challenging season, too. He has barely made the Kärpät pro team but hasn’t been sent down to juniors as often as most young seventh defensemen are. As a result, he has logged relatively few minutes on ice. Whereas Seppänen’s performance could range from a top pairing defenseman to a liability, Leinonen is more likely to assume a solid role for certain and feed the players around him with smart and skillful moves with the puck.
The team’s only underaged players can be found among the defensemen, and the similarities do not end there. Joonas Lehtivuori and Joonas Jalvanti are puck-moving defensemen who headed into the season out of junior ranks. Sooner than expected they found themselves in the men’s SM-liiga. Lehtivuori was long anticipated to be the foremost young defenseman to reinforce the WJC roster and learn for the following year 2008. The lightest player on the team, he isn’t certain to be at home in WJC rinks, but so far his play among men has dispelled the most serious of worries. Lehtivuori boasts puck skills of high potential, whereas Jalvanti is more reliant on his hockey sense. Professional games this season have proven him surprisingly ready to play at higher levels than Finnish Junior A. Team Finland will need his puck skills in order to play balanced hockey with its units.
As blasts from the past, Mikael Kurki and Joni Haverinen enter their first major international tournament since the U18 WC in 2005. Kurki, formerly the captain of the age group at U17 level, is the shortest defenseman on the team but has a big heart. His career path has been bumpy recently, as he has failed to make the stacked pro line-up of Espoo Blues. Thus, he has practiced a more than responsible role in Jr A, yet he may not be able to translate the offense there onto international ice. Haverinen has remained with the HIFK Jr A team and plays the role of a solid depth defenseman in the WJC. With smooth movement for a big man and calm decision-making, he was the best remaining candidate style-wise.
Forwards — they are big, but are they scary?
To have no underaged forwards on a WJC team is practically unheard of and speaks of the sad state of the individual talent of Finnish scorers aged 17 or 18. Out of the older players available, players of considerable size have been the best options, with the average height approaching 6’2. The forwards have enough talent to be above the average of Finnish WJC squads over the years in both offensive potential and physical play, but whether they can realize that potential and intimidate opponents remains to be seen.
Finland could have a forward second only to Tuomo Ruutu and Olli Jokinen in the past ten years in the tournament in Perttu Lindgren (DAL), yet the appropriate expression may be “could have had.” Like Ruutu and Jokinen as U20, Lindgren reached a point-per-game in SM-liiga last spring. This season, however, showed that players can’t be asked to do just anything and then move on with the season as usual. With an ongoing military service, a visit to Dallas Stars training camp messed up Lindgren’s preparation for the season and he has been a shadow of his former self. Lindgren will likely outplay opponents consistently in the WJC, but in order to convert that into production, he would have to find his game again, as he did in a couple of the last games.
Even behind Lindgren, Finland is fortunate to have multiple players scoring roughly half a point per game in the domestic pro league. Jesse Joensuu’s (NYI) international performances have been disappointing throughout his career, but at home he is performing positively. Provided that he play with the same drive, his moves with the puck are all but certain to result in scoring opportunities and now even in finishing at a higher probability than before. Futhermore, Joensuu is relatively unreliant on his linemates, although on the other hand, he can rarely help them as much as one could hope. A third guy who loves the puck is Mikko Lehtonen. Able to score, pass, deke and crash the net, Lehtonen is a valuable asset to Team Finland unless he happens to be going through a bad spell. The gifted winger is not as consistent as to be able to guarantee a good performance.
The Lion Cubs were blessed with a new forward with game-breaking potential this season. Jori Lehterä has been a plague to his opponents, with 35 points in 15 Finnish Jr A games, eight points in 16 pro games and over a point per game with the U20 national team. The big centerman is quite a finesse player but still only an average skater. Lehterä can make difficult passes and he rivals the aforementioned forwards in stickhandling, being a lethal finisher at short range. His greatest asset in scoring is his knack for finding empty space on the ice. Lehterä’s toughness is questionable at this point, so whether he will produce in the most important games is far from certain.
Along with Lehterä, Tuomas Huhtanen has been a top scorer for the U20 team in practice games this season, so a role on the team was found for him as well. Huhtanen is versatile enough to play on a checking line, although that could keep him from his full potential. Next to scorers he would have to produce or contend with being one of the depth players.
Leo Komarov was a surprise pick for captain this year, as Laakso, Kurki and Joensuu among others have worn the C in the past. Komarov is a foul-mouthed and valuable agitator prone to take stupid penalties, so placing responsibility on him was both a risky and smart move, hopefully containing his aggression. Him being a WJC veteran and one of the oldest in the squad surely influenced the decision. Komarov has played second-line center with the team so far, which is a questionable choice, as his vision and skills aren’t enough to build offense in the neutral zone. A sensible choice could be to move him to a more natural position on the wing and promote Lehterä to the second line.
Complementing the team’s selection of centers are Jonas Enlund and Miika Lahti. Enlund used to be a top scorer for the national team but has struggled in that end this fall. He has very solid two-way abilities, which would make him an ideal third-line center. So far with Komarov in the middle, Enlund has played wing. Lahti has traditionally been at his best when in a limited role, although now his decent production back home (he even led all U20 players in SM-liiga scoring early in the season) could make him a viable solution for more than just the fourth line. If he does play there, however, Finland will be set with impressive depth at the position.
On the wings, Finland needs more scoring depth. Lindgren’s old sniper Sami Sandell likely can’t provide that, as two years in the WHL have stagnated his puck skills. Still, he could play on the scoring lines, providing support for his linemates. Also with CHL experience, Oskar Osala (WAS) is the team’s largest and meanest player but for now without accolades on international ice. Osala’s ability to score in the WJC is questionable, but he may surprise yet.
Teammates on the Pelicans, Vili Sopanen and Marko Pöyhönen could theoretically look out of place in the tournament. Prolific scorers of the top line of the Jr A Pelicans but without experience in tougher games, they are stereotypically the kind of players who couldn’t make a career internationally. Thanks to consistent performances on the national team over the course of the fall, they are now headed to the WJC. Sopanen is a big winger with somewhat of an offensive bias and could possibly thrive next to strong linemates in the tournament, but by default he isn’t one of Finland’s most important players. Pöyhönen is more of an in-between with mediocre size and suitable for a more defensive role.
Finally, Team Finland is getting aid from North America. Kai Kantola has worn both Finnish and American national team jerseys, but now he makes his final statement of identity in his first official IIHF tournament over the age of 18. Kantola has lived most of his life in the United States, with just one year of hockey in Finland. His aggressive style of play was enough to convince the coaching staff at camp. Despite him being no stranger to handling the puck, the biggest scoring hopes may be best placed on others.
The sum of the parts
On paper, Team Finland looks quite capable. Even Finland can’t hope for a goalie better than Rask at this point, and the list of defensemen improves for the second consecutive year, being the most solid for the Finnish WJC teams since 2002. If Lindgren can reach his best level (though that is a big if), then the forwards are the best group the team has had in some time.
Since 2006, Finland has lost the renowned coach Hannu Aravirta. Based on the practice games so far, Jarmo Tolvanen hasn’t implemented particularly sophisticated tactics with or without the puck, so Finland may suffer from its typical problems with its team game this year. When icing the current line-up, Finland was defeated 4-3 by Jukurit, the top team of the men’s second tier semi-pro league Mestis, after which Finland soundly shut out Kiekko-Vantaa, a weaker team of the same league. On Dec. 20, Team Canada defeated the Lion Cubs in Helsinki 5-2. During the preparation for the tournament, a stomach flu swept through the team.
Finland’s biggest problem this year is that its top forwards tend to succumb to mediocrity. The MVP Rask could potentially carry the team anywhere, but to rely on that would be to accept defeat on many fronts. Unless the coaching staff can find new solutions, incohesive defense and paralyzed neutral zone offense may cripple the Lion Cubs. The team doesn’t need miracles, but purely by default the Finns won’t reach a medal. Lindgren, Joensuu and Lehtonen can’t afford to play at the average level of their international performances. Within their reach there is glory that would bring their careers momentum, aiding them also as NHL prospects.
Team Finland used the following lines for its practice games:
Huhtanen – Lindgren – Lehtonen
Joensuu – Komarov – Sandell
Sopanen – Lehterä – Enlund
Osala – Lahti – Kantola
|6’2||192||HIFK Jr A||–|
Blues Jr A
|Pelicans Jr A||–|
|6’3||207||Pelicans Jr A||–|
|187||Pelicans Jr A||–|
|9/11/1987||6’1||177||Bowling Gr. (NCAA)|
The last cuts made from the team were defenseman Aleksi Holmberg and wingers Ville Korhonen and Juuso Puustinen (CAL). Puustinen was enjoying the most productive CHL season by any Finn in recent years with over a point per game for the Kamloops Blazers, but he was deemed incapable of getting his offense to work on international ice. The only injured absentee among skaters is the unlucky Juho Mielonen (DET), who has missed two WJC tournaments and more than half of all games between 2005 and 2007 due to repeated shoulder injuries.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.