Team Finland U18 WC preview

By Pekka Lampinen

The U18 World Championship tournament returns to Finland after a period of six years. Playing in both the towns of Tampere and Rauma, the host country would of course like to ice the strongest team possible, but in junior hockey the talent pool of a single age group ‘is what it is.’ The 1989-born group of Finnish players is among the country’s weakest ones, which has shown in preliminary draft rankings all year. They have also struggled as a team, especially in past seasons at U16 and U17 levels. Fortunately, the practice games indicate that the U18 team is now playing some of its best hockey, just in time for their most important games so far.

Much has changed from 2006

Achieving silver, the Finnish team of 2006 left but a small legacy for the following year: Niclas Lucenius is the sole player with experience from the tournament. As a result of the 1990-born Finns lacking in star talent, the situation will be even worse in 2008, as Finland heads into the tournament without a single underaged player for the first time in modern years. The 17-year-old forward Teemu Hartikainen remained with the team until the last moments but ended up in the reserves.

The team has little else similar from last year either, counting on different strengths. The Finnish team of 2006 was small but nimble, and whereas they distributed playmakers and offensive prowess to all four lines, this year such a thing will happen only by necessity should the go-to players disappoint. A combination of smaller and bigger players allows for diversity, but does it help find unique tools for victory?

Finland will face the Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovakia and Switzerland in round robin. Reaching the medal games would be a fortunate outcome for Team Finland.

The cornerstone belongs in the crease

Like most Finnish teams, this one’s key strength is between the pipes. While the rest of the team remains unspectacular, Harri Sateri and Juha Metsola can soar higher. Looking forward to playing in their hometown Tampere, both goalies are modern Finnish netminders by style and boast game-breaking ability. Sateri has been somewhat of a favorite for starting goalie since last season. With a positive trend in performance toward the end of the season, he can be expected to carry most of the workload. Sateri has the coverage and quickness to make the necessary saves as well as the mental abilities to keep up with the game.

A smaller goalie, Metsola isn’t far behind after several first-star performances in domestic and international games this season. His poise was enough to beat capable goalies like Tomi Karhunen and Juha Jarvenpaa for the backup spot.

Defensemen share responsibility

Very few defensemen, if any, could be confident about their chances of being selected to play in the tournament a month back. The Finnish defense corps is a diverse set of players, any of whom may end up assuming a core role and ice time on special teams.

Eligible for the 2008 entry draft, Joni Liljeblad has been the most dominant defenseman of the age group for quite some time. He leads Finnish blueliners in points in international games in 2006-07, often carrying the puck and orchestrating the power play. Equipped with tools for sound defensive play as well despite his modest size, Liljeblad is needed on the ice in the most dire of situations. Matching him in offensive skill, Jesse Jyrkkio has had his ups and downs this season, having not been selected to many national team tournaments. Jyrkkio has the creativity and speed worthy of top units at this level, but his consistency and overall play remains a question mark.

Another young rearguard, Niko Kluuskeri has had a fantastic season. The young playmaking defenseman has been a key player for TPS back home, also rewarded with his first appearance in the professional league. Kluuskeri was among the most solid Finnish defensemen in spring season tournaments. At best, he could play nearly flawless games in the tournament.

Towering defensemen like Joonas Jarvinen and Jere Olander weren’t seen in the Finnish squad last year. Jarvinen, the team’s elder, is a leader and has proven a fairly solid performance level in numerous national team tournaments. Olander, on the other hand, has taken the outside track to the tournament. He was dominant by growing to his big size early, then developing slower in 2006. With promising raw talent, he convinced the coaching staff to pick him for the tournament. Like Liljeblad and Kluuskeri, Olander isn’t yet draft eligible in 2007.

Sami Martikainen is another early developer. Below average in height but quite stocky, Martikainen has good hitting technique. What the team really needs of him is mistake-free defense and simple effective passes, and he does have the potential to fulfill that. Finally, Jonas Alatalo has assumed a bigger role along the season. Now the speedy defenseman could be a mainstay on power play.

Lucenius, Kokkala lead the offense

It is no small challenge to go from a depth player in 2006 to a figurehead in 2007. Niclas Lucenius leads all U18 Finns in scoring in 2006-07, having reached his pinnacle with four goals and four assists in four games in a Christmas tournament. Able to play center or wing, Lucenius is versatile also skilled. He has both solid work ethic and flair, the ability to make plays and finish them. Scoring success won’t come automatically for him, though. He needs a functioning line to play on and must perform at a high level in order to contribute to the team in all games.

Lassi Kokkala has seen alongside Lucenius at times, but it may be that the team’s best two forwards remain separated for the tournament. Not all unlike Lucenius, Kokkala is a center with plenty of strength, speed and puck skills. He paid a visit to the professional league too, after having carried his linemates to great deeds in the Finnish Jr A league. A top scorer from time to time, Kokkala being one of the offensive dynamos is necessary for the team to triumph. A strong performance could entice scouts to consider picking him as high as the first round in the draft.

A typical part of the top lines, Nestori Lahde is an experienced national team player. His production in the domestic leagues has always been rather mediocre, but Lahde still feels comfortable in the pace of the international game. He has gained considerable strength as of late, helping him make plays in traffic better. Another good bet to be found next to Lucenius or Kokkala is Antti Roppo, a sniper playing with Ilves. He has some abilities typical of effective, straightforward Canadian scorers, although no truly elite skills.

A mature yet not particularly experienced player, Tomi Pallassalo became a more important player for the team as the season progressed. Centering the second or third line, Pallassalo could propel the trio to strong play in both ends of the ice. One player who could use such support is his Jokerit teammate Janne Tavi, the youngest forward on the squad. Tavi doesn’t have much physical strength to speak of but enough quickness, smarts and puck skills to rank among the most productive Finns this season. Like Tavi, Eetu Poysti is slightly limited in size but not finesse. Packed with raw talent, Poysti is known to successfully make difficult plays from time to time. His hockey sense still needs improvement, as he can remain invisible for long periods of time.

Tomi Sallinen is the best example of hard work and checking game on the Finnish team. Always a welcome addition to the team, he provides leadership by example and can score a few key goals in the process. Coming from outside SM-liiga organisations, Anton Kokkonen brings the most experience of playing against men. A prolific scorer in the second tier league relative to his young age, the short but feisty center could be a wild card for Finland.

Two forwards from the Pelicans/Kiekko-reipas organization, Antti Tyrvainen and Topias Raty weren’t the most obvious choices to play in the tournament. Like the U18 WC veterans Kaarlo Jormakka and Ilkka Heikkila in 2006, Tyrvainen and Raty recently won the Finnish U20 championship, and that experience is hoped to benefit the rest of the Finnish team. Tyrvainen will be a solid checking player, while Raty was an offensive threat in the Finnish U18 league. The small winger has the least experience of all players from U20 level and was perhaps the most surprising choice for the tournament. In 2005 Teemu Ramstedt was a top scorer for Finland, coming from a similar situation, but Raty may not quite have his skills to match the production.

Jokerit became the most represented Finnish club team in the tournament with the selections of Olavi Vauhkonen and Tommi Ranta. They both earned the spot on the team with productive games in a five nations tournament in February. Vauhkonen kept growing in height along the season, now dwarfing all other Finnish forwards at 6’4. His upside in the tournament is a very good third liner. Ranta has good size too at 6’2, while his ability to repeat his point-per-game pace from February is very much at question. Ranta has experience of scoring in the U18 league this season, but his overall level of play may force him to a small role now that the opposition is tougher.

#

Pos

Name

Birthdate

Height

Weight

Club team

1

G

Juha Metsola

2/24/1989

5’9

147

Ilves Jr A

30

G

Harri Sateri

12/29/1989

6’0

190

Tappara Jr A

2

D

Niko Kluuskeri

11/3/1989

6’0

163

TPS Jr A

3

D

Joonas Jarvinen

1/5/1989

6’3

215

TPS Jr A

4

D

Jere Olander

10/2/1989

6’4

193

Jokerit Jr B

5

D

Joni Liljeblad

9/17/1989

5’11

173

Karpat Jr A

7

D

Jesse Jyrkkio

6/27/1989

5’10

170

Assat Jr A

27

D

Sami Martikainen

6/29/1989

5’10

190

Blues Jr A

28

D

Jonas Alatalo

5/31/1989

6’0

175

Ilves Jr A

10

W

Niclas Lucenius

5/3/1989

6’0

185

Tappara Jr A

11

C

Lassi Kokkala

3/20/1989

6’1

192

TPS Jr A

13

W

Antti Roppo

2/9/1989

5’10

180

Ilves Jr A

14

C

Antti Tyrvainen

4/3/1989

5’11

187

Pelicans Jr A

15

W

Olavi Vauhkonen

1/24/1989

6’4

205

Jokerit Jr A

18

C

Tomi Pallassalo

8/17/1989

5’10

160

Jokerit Jr A

19

W

Eetu Poysti

1/16/1989

6’0

180

HIFK Jr A

21

W

Janne Tavi

9/13/1989

5’10

180

Jokerit Jr A

22

W

Topias Raty

4/11/1989

5’10

165

K-reipas Jr B

23

W

Tommi Ranta

3/16/1989

6’2

200

Jokerit Jr A

24

C

Anton Kokkonen

8/13/1989

5’9

185

TuTo (2nd tier)

25

W

Nestori Lahde

8/12/1989

5’11

190

Tappara Jr A

26

C

Tomi Sallinen

2/11/1989

6’0

173

Blues Jr A

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