2015 WJC Preview: Finland looks to repeat last year’s gold medal performance

By Tony Piscotta
Julius Honka - Texas Stars

Photo: Texas Stars defenseman and Dallas Stars prospect Julius Honka will be a key piece of Finland’s defensive unit at the 2015 U20 World Junior Championship (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)


When the 2014 World Junior Championship tournament started there were few “experts” who would have picked Finland to emerge with the gold medal. With Canada a heavy favorite as the home team and many of the stars from last year’s Finland squad having moved on, that is once again the case at the 2015 U20 World Junior Championship.


While logically that makes sense — as last year’s gold medal championship squad proved — championships don’t always come down to reason. With two of the top netminders in the tournament on their roster and a host of exciting forwards, it might be a mistake to count the Young Lions out this time around.


Finland captured last year’s title by defeating heavily favored Sweden 3-2 in overtime in Stockholm in the gold medal game. Much of the accolades for that success went to center Teuvo Teravainen, the tournament’s overall leading scorer with 15 points, and Saku Maenalanen, whose seven goals were the most in the tournament. That championship team also featured a core group of experienced defensemen who were strong in their own end while contributing to the attack.


And of course, there is 18-year-old goaltender, Juuse Saros.


Of that core group only Saros and defenseman Julius Honka return for this year’s tournament. Pittsburgh Penguins 2014 first round pick Kasperi Kapanen was slated to play in last year’s tournament before suffering an injury. He will skate for this year’s squad.


Saros plays for HPK Hameenlinna in Finland’s Liiga where he was the top rookie last season. With a year’s experience, he should be even better. Ville Husso, a fourth round selection by the St. Louis Blues in last June’s NHL Draft, played in two round-robin games for Finland last year and also returns. Like Saros he is also in his second season in Liiga and is the starter for HIFK Helsinki.


Goalie instructor Mikko Eloranta, who works with young goaltenders in Finland and Russia, has liked what he’s seen from both this year but feels Saros will see most of the action in Canada.


“If the team starts right and he’s playing in a normal level, (Finland head coach Hannu) Jortikka is gonna put him up front,” said Eloranta, who is curious to see how former pro goalie Miikka Kiprusoff works with the pair after succeeding Ari Sulander as the team’s goalie coach.


“He knows the game but can he coach?” he wondered. “We will see about that.”


Minnesota Wild prospect Kaapo Kahkonen, an 18-year-old currently playing for TuTo in Mestis, is in Canada as the team’s third goalie but is not expected to play and is mostly there to gain the experience for next year’s tournament.


Honka, a Dallas Stars prospect who is playing in the AHL with the Texas Stars as a 19-year-old, skated in a lower pairing role at last year’s tournament but will likely play a prominent one this time around. While not as big as some of the players on Finland’s blue line last year, he is a dynamic, highly-skilled attacking defenseman and is dangerous on the power play.


With the exception of Ottawa 67’s defenseman Alex Lintuniemi, Stars’ draft choice Aleksi Makela and Tappara’s Atte Makinen, the defensemen on this year’s roster do not have much size but are very talented playmakers who all skate well.


Jortikka will have some tough decisions to make in putting together the squad’s defense corps as his players have been scattered this season.


Lintuniemi, a second round pick of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings last June, joined the rest of the team in Montreal along with defensemen Erik Autio (who was later cut from the team) and Mika Ilvonen, who are in their freshman year of college hockey at Penn State and St. Cloud State, respectively. Ilvonen and Autio, both small by NHL standards, were teammates along with Kahkonen on the Espoo Blues team that won an A junior championship in Finland last year. With Honka returning, Autio ended up being the odd man out.


One of the players who scouts will watch closely is 2015 NHL Draft-eligible JyP product, Sami Niku. A member of the Finland team that hosted last year’s U18 World Championship, the 18-year-old has split this season between the JyP men’s team in Liiga and it’s Mestis affiliate, Akatemia.


Makela, like Honka a Stars’ prospect, is playing for Ilves in Liiga. His game is similar to some of the defensemen from last year’s team, like Esa Lindell and Mikko Vainonen in that he is a big player who skates well and plays a strong game at both ends of the ice.


Tappara’s Makinen, not to be confused with Makela, is another huge defender who could earn a spot to complement some of the smaller playmakers. He was ranked 89th in Central Scouting’s rankings prior to the 2013 NHL Draft but was not selected and passed through the draft this past June as well.


KalPa’s Joonas Lyytinen, a fifth round pick by Nashville in 2014, came to prominence after skating for the Kuopio club in the second half last season as it finished last in Liiga. He has been a big part of the squad’s turnaround this season and his +6 rating trails only veteran Jussi Timonen on the club.


Kapanen will likely garner a lot of the media attention as the son of former NHL forward Sami Kapanen, whom he skated with in Kuopio last season, but the 18-year-old is a gifted offensive talent in his own right. Heading into the WJC he was the rejuvenated club’s second-leading scorer despite skating in just 19 of 32 games after returning from the Penguins’ training camp and missing time due to injury.


The top returning forward for Finland is Montreal Canadiens prospect, Artturi Lehkonen. KalPa’s leading scorer last season, Lehkonen is playing in Sweden for Frolunda this season. The undersized but talented forward scored two goals and two assists in last year’s tournament but drew special praise for his penalty killing, shot blocking, and willingness to compete all over the ice. This will be his third World Juniors tournament.


Heading into the exhibition games, Lehkonen was skating on the team’s top line with Roope Hintz and Aleksi Mustonen, who are teammates on the Ilves men’s team while Kapanen was playing on the second unit with Hannes Bjorninen and Juuso Ikonen.


Hintz, a late 1996 birthdate who is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, spent one season playing junior hockey in Tampa Bay in 2012-13 and is playing for Ilves in his first pro season. He will be watched closely. Mustonen, at 5-7″ and 160 pounds, is a bit small for NHL standards and has gone through two drafts without being selected. But he is a gifted offensive player and is Ilves’ fourth-leading scorer.


Ikonen plays for JyP and was part of last year’s U20 team. He is another undersized but highly-skilled forward. Now in his third season in Liiga, he has regained the scoring touch and confidence he showed as a rookie two years ago and should provide leadership with so many first-time players in this year’s lineup. Bjorninen is one of several promising young forwards who skated for the Lahti Pelicans junior program and is playing a support role for the Pelicans’ men’s team in his first Liiga season.


What could be an X-factor for this year’s Finland squad is the play of its third line. In the pre-tournament game against the Czech Republic the team used three players who skated for the Karpat Oulu A junior squad last season.


Sebastian Aho, not to be confused with the Swedish defenseman with the same name, is playing for Karpat as a 17-year-old and scored Finland’s only goal in the Czech Republic game. Antti Kalapudas, an 18-year-old, is one of the top scorers for Hokki in Mestis . In terms of NHL prospects the most intriguing player for Team Finland may be 16-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi, who is not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2016. Puljujarvi has skated in both Liiga with Karpat and for Hokki this season.


One strength of the Suomi teams throughout the years in the World Juniors has been the ability to roll four steady lines and get valuable minutes from what on other teams would be considered the bottom of the roster. Judging by the lineup the team used against the Czech Republic it would appear Jortikka has the same type of depth.


Highly-regarded 17-year-old Mikko Rantanen from TPS Turku and Detroit Red Wings‘ prospect Julius Vahatalo both have the size of traditional, power line checking forwards, but all are also skilled offensively. Florida Panthers prospect Juho Lammikko, who is with the OHL‘s Kingston Frontenacs this season, also fit this mold, but he failed to make the final cut for this year’s squad.


Tappara Tampere forward Otto Rauhala did not skate in the pre-tournament game against the Czech Republic but is a returnee from last year’s team and played well in a more traditional checking role in 2014. Assat Pori forward Niko Ojamaki rounds out the roster and, while not as big as his former junior teammate Lammikko, he can play a responsible two-way game.


As is generally the case, Finland enters the tournament as somewhat of a dark horse team — particularly playing in a group that includes both Canada and the United States.


But after defeating Sweden in Stockholm to win the gold last year this team would love an opportunity to do the same thing to another host country this time around.


Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12