Few nations take as much pride in their national hockey teams — whether at the men’s level or in junior play — as does Finland. After a disappointing seventh-place finish in Canada last year, Suomi is hoping to challenge for the gold medal when it hosts the 2016 World Junior Championship.
Two years removed from winning gold in Stockholm in 2014, this year’s squad figures to face some pressure playing in front of the home crowds in Helsinki. But unlike last year when the squad struggled to score goals, this team — on paper at least — should have a balanced scoring attack with the top three lines being capable of putting the puck in the net.
Former first round picks Kasperi Kapanen and Mikko Rantanen are currently playing in the American Hockey League, and both players were allowed to leave their squads to skate for Finland. Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi — both of whom are playing in Finland’s Liiga as 17-year-olds — are expected to go in the first round of this year’s draft.
In last year’s tournament, which culminated with a 6-3 loss to neighboring Sweden in the quarterfinals, Finland scored just five goals in four round-robin games.
Rantanen, who appeared in six NHL games this season with the Colorado Avalanche before being sent to Colorado’s AHL affiliate in San Antonio, led Finland in scoring as an 18-year-old, scoring four of the team’s eight goals. Kapanen — the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ first round pick in 2014 who is now in the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ organization — had his only goal (and point) of the tournament in the quarterfinal game against Sweden.
Fortunately for both players, this year’s team appears to be much deeper which in theory means that success or failure does not appear to be solely on their shoulders.
Puljujarvi, though he did not register a point in last year’s tournament, impressed scouts with his hard, high energy, two-way game and impressive mobility for a player of his size. He is skating in a regular role for two-time Liiga defending champion Karpat Oulu. His Karpat teammate Sebastian Aho — the Carolina Hurricanes‘ second round pick in June — also skated for Finland in last year’s WJC. He is currently tied for the team lead for Karpat with 10 goals in his first 26 Liiga games.
Like Puljujarvi and Aho, Tampere native Laine played for the Finland U18 team that team won a silver medal at the 2015 U18 World Championship, falling 2-1 to Team USA in the gold medal game. Laine scored eight goals in seven games, sharing the tournament lead with the USA’s Auston Matthews. Laine is a lethal sniper with a hard, accurate shot who has scored eight goals with eight assists in 24 Liiga games for third-place Tappara.
Veteran national team coach Jukka Jalonen, who spent two seasons with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, replaces former coach Hannu Jortikka behind the bench.
With Rantanen not joining the club until the tournament, Jalonen used several combinations with his forward groups in the two pre-tournament games to try and get a feel for some of the players battling for the final roster spots. Finland lost both games, to Switzerland and the United States respectively, but the team should have a far different look when all of the pieces are assembled.
Kingston Frontenacs’ forward Juho Lammikko, a third round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2014, was one of the final players cut by Jortikka last year. He is scoring at a point-per-game pace in his second OHL season and should provide both size and skill this year’s Finnish squad. Lammikko’s former Assat Pori junior teammate, Aleksi Saarela, was selected by the New York Rangers in the third round in 2015 and has scored 10 goals in 27 games in Liiga play with the Assat men’s team.
Center Julius Nattinen, a second-round pick for the Anaheim Ducks last June after playing for JyP-Akatemia in Mestis, is currently the Barrie Colts’ third-leading scorer in his first OHL season. Roope Hintz, a second round pick for the Dallas Stars last June, missed the start of the season due to injury but has been a welcome addition for HIFK Helsinki after growing up in the Ilves Tampere junior program. Like Lammikko, Hintz is tall and rangy with significant offensive abilities.
KalPa Kuopio right wing Jonne Tammela, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, is another drafted player vying for a spot. Finland also has several undrafted forwards who should add depth and strong two-way play should they make the final roster.
One intriguing player in that group is Pelicans Lahti winger Sebastian Repo. Having passed through the NHL Draft twice, Repo is having a breakout season in his first full Liiga season. After spending time last season with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, he is using his size to his advantage and playing with confidence while sitting among the leading scorers for Pelicans.
Karpat’s Antti Kalapudas is capable of playing myriad roles and is the last of six returning forwards who played for the U20 team in Canada last year. Kasper Bjorkvist (Espoo Blues), Miro Makinen (Jukurit-Mestis), Patrik Virta (TPS Turku) and Repo’s Pelicans teammate, Miska Siikonen, are the other forwards vying for roster spots.
Vehvilainen passed through the 2015 NHL Draft without being selected despite backstopping the Finland U18 team to the silver medal in Switzerland last spring. After spending time in Mestis earlier this season, he has made a strong push for the starting job for JyP Jyvaskyla, posting a 1.79 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in his first 15 Liiga games.
Kahkonen, a Minnesota Wild draft pick, was Finland’s third goalie at the WJC in Canada last January behind Juuse Saros and Ville Husso. He is playing well for the Espoo Blues in his first Liiga season, sharing time with veteran Christian Engstrand. Kahkonen has a 2.26 goals-against average and .920 save percentage on one of the league’s weaker teams.
Emil Larmi has opened eyes as a 19-year-old with his play for Heinola in Mestis, but barring any surprises he will be the team’s third goalie.
Things are less certain on defense.
For the first time in some years there won’t be a big name player at defense with World Juniors experience, such as Olli Maatta, Rasmus Ristolainen, or Ville Pokka. This group figures to be one of the younger defensive corps in this tournament, but there is some talent.
Small but dynamic Vili Saarijarvi was one of the key players for Finland at the U18 tournament last spring. He was subsequently selected in the third round by the Detroit Red Wings and is now playing in the OHL with the Flint Firebirds. Olli Juolevi, a 17-year-old playing for the London Knights in the OHL, is having an outstanding season for the Knights and is a potential first round pick for the 2016 NHL Draft.
Among the older defensemen, two players are currently drafted. JyP Jyvaskyla’s Sami Niku, a seventh round pick by the Winnipeg Jets in 2015, is the only defensive returnee from the team that skated in last year’s WJC and is eager to make amends for the disappointing showing. Joni Tuulola missed last year’s tournament due to an injury. The HPK Hameenlinna defenseman was selected in the sixth round of the 2015 draft by the Chicago Blackhawks in his second year of draft eligibility. Tuulola is an effective puck mover with significant size and should complement the skilled forward group.
Eetu Sopanen, like Tuulola, has struggled to stay healthy the past few seasons. Currently skating for Pelicans’ affiliate Heinola in Mestis, the 19-year-old is 6’5″ and 225 pounds and is a strong, stay-at-home defender with some skating ability and passing skill.
Jesper Mattila, a 2016-draft eligible player who is an assistant captain for the Ilves Tampere junior team, is slightly undersized but played well for the silver medal U18 team earlier this year.
Robin Salo recently turned 17 and is not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2017. He was part of the U18 team last spring and has skated in 14 Liiga games with Vaasa Sport this season. Joensuu native Urho Vaakanainen has also skated in Liiga as a 16-year-old, appearing in 10 games for Espoo Blues.
Keep a close eye on…
Vehvilainen, after being passed up in the 2015 NHL Draft, has played well in Liiga and will be cast in the spotlight to start the tournament. Opinions are mixed on his ability to carry a team in a short tournament — particularly with all the pressure he will face playing in front of the home fans — but his stock should rise with a strong tournament.
Finland often enters this U20 World Junior Championship with lower expectations before exceeding expectations and finding itself in medal contention — as the U20 team did when it won gold in 2014 and last spring’s U18 team did in Switzerland. That will not be the case this year as the tournament hosts have one of their most talented teams in years and one of the most highly-regarded coaches in Finland behind the bench. How much the pressure of playing in front of their home fans affects the team could be a factor. Along with Russia and the Czech Republic, the team figures to be one of the favorites in Group B play. Anything less than earning a medal would be a disappointment but the Finns appear to have the talent to compete with the likes of pre-tournament favorites Canada, Sweden and the United States.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way