Back to the Good Old Days
Early this year it was announced that Hannu Aravirta, a long-time coach of the men’s national team and the coach of the 2004 World Juniors team, would return to lead the U20 age group that was about the take over the reins. The system of 2003-04 was soon reinstated and the “Lion Cubs” played several games against Finnish second tier club teams, something to which much of the good results of 2004 were attributed. This allowed two goals to be reached that are normally mutually exclusive: testing a large number of players (71 to be exact) and building a cohesive team over a long time.
In U18, the age group depended largely on a small group of star players and boasted no depth. As usual, time addressed the weakness and in U20 a sufficient number of players have emerged to support the go-to guys and even join them. After the worst age group in half a decade in 2004, Finland is back in action to compete for a medal. That is also the official goal set by the coaching staff. A valuable legacy will also be left for next year, as eight players can return to the tournament next year. However, having no 17-year-old players in the roster now happened only for the second time in ten years.
Tuukka Rask (TOR) and Joonas Hallikainen struggled in the 2005 WJC, the first Finnish goalies to do so in ten years. Right after the tournament, Karri Rämö (TB) began his breakout and started the battle for the starter’s spot that still goes on. Rämö had the perfect start to his SM-Liiga season but has been the only goalie to post disappointing stats with the national team. Conversely, Rask excelled against the lesser competition with the Lion Cubs, but his professional games with Ilves were turbulent. Things changed when Rämö was sidelined for a month with a knee injury and his performance returned to a less consistent normalcy upon his return. Rask in turn got his game going and has recently played the best professional hockey so far in his short career.
The competition was at even odds when the goalies began their camp with the team. Finland faced the best offensive club teams of the semi-pro league in mid-December: First Jukurit fought their way to a 6-6 tie against Rämö (34/40) but Salamat were defeated in front of Rask (27/29). This gave Rask the pole position in the race, the outcome of which can be decided in the pre-tournament games. Finland has only one good opportunity to offer: on the 21st they faced Latvia and as expected, Rämö (8/9) didn’t get a chance to really prove his quality. The obvious plan seems to be that Rask gets to face Slovakia on the 23rd, and if he plays well, there is nothing Rämö can do to begin the tournament as the starter. Rämö is still likely to get to start a tough game in the tournament, though, and that could change things.
Rask is a butterfly goalie as fast as lightning and has superb game-breaking ability. However, his stamina is lacking and that has led to serious inconsistency. Last spring he had a fantastic playoff run with Ilves Jr A, so if he manages to prepare for the WJC properly, he can handle the entire tournament. Rämö is not completely different from Rask, a butterfly even slightly bigger than the younger netminder, but plays a more conventional style. He has also proven able to take large barrages of shots and rebound from the defense completely letting him down. Either of the two is good to have when the goalie has to win Finland the game.
As the WJC neared, coach Aravirta proclaimed that with the players available this year, the defense will be consist of boys while the offense will be built out of men. Only one of the defensemen has long-term SM-liiga experience. The NHL draft indicates the problem — not one Finnish blueliner of the natural 2004 draft class has been picked. Experience isn’t the only problem, either. On paper, the defensemen boast little in the terms of top-end skill and they are generally a mediocre bunch. Fortunately Aravirta has noted that over the fall, the defense has worked well no matter who is playing. That may help with the most serious traditional problem of the Finnish U20 squads, as depth defensemen have cost the teams many games with mistakes. Last year the team was in even more trouble when the rearguards lacked the skill to start the offense and play the puck out of the zone, getting defeated by forechecking like being run over by heavy cavalry. Fortunately, this year the players are generally good at making the first pass.
Paradoxically, the experience among the defensemen is represented by their youngest, Teemu Laakso (NSH). He enters his second WJC tournament with the responsibility of the top defenseman. He also needs to lead the offensive support despite his relative lack of creativity. He did manage that two years ago in U18, so to expect success isn’t unreasonable now either.
Risto Korhonen (CAR) is a returning player who struggled badly last year. The behemoth of a defenseman was outskated and often caught out of position. His domestic season so far has been no breakout and he has recently recovered from injuries, but two sub-par WJC performances in a row is a phenomenon largely unheard of. His experience from last year will likely pay dividends.
Tommi Leinonen (PIT) is underaged and got his first chances with the age group early this season, putting up impressive performances. In addition, he has been the best defenseman in the Finnish Jr A league this fall but hasn’t had the opportunity to gather pro experience with the powerhouse Kärpät yet. His two-way game will be valuable to the team, to which he was practically a lock already a good while ago.
Juho Jokinen, the younger brother of the Dallas Stars’ Jussi Jokinen, has led the Lion Cub defensemen in points this season. He isn’t a career junior national team player, but earned his spurs in domestic Jr A and became a core player for the 1986-born age group. He now needs to show intensity and confidence in order to play a strong tournament. Timo Seppänen took the outside track to the squad. He is only the second undrafted underaged defenseman to make the cut in recent years. He is able to both score important goals and clear the crease, and this season he has found more solidity to his game.
Matti Koistinen has been called to represent Finland in his age group regularly and now faces his greatest challenge yet. As the oldest defenseman on the team, he is counted on to play a solid tournament. Even if he is capable of moving the puck, dependable defense is now much more important. Theoretically, Erkka Leppänen is the biggest problem of the squad: mid-sized depth defensemen with good puck skills have usually been the most mistake-prone of them all. However, Leppänen has some notable SM-Liiga experience under his belt and the typical pitfalls are a worst-case scenario.
As coach Aravirta described, the offense is the more mature half of the team. The staff didn’t find it beneficial to choose a single forward who has played more than a couple of games in Finnish Jr A this year. The group of 13 youngsters is quite a motley crew. There are speedsters, big guys, individualists, solid team players, pests and more.
The Finnish U20 teams have lived and died with their top centers – their point-per-game performances correlate strongly with medals won. The 1986-born team took a huge blow when Petteri Nokelainen’s problems with his knee deprived them of their leader as well as the most versatile, mature and valuable player. However, Aravirta has said that this could be foreseen as early as back in July. The fall season presented them with a new option: Perttu Lindgren (DAL) entered SM-liiga with plenty of noise. He has centered the third line of Ilves commendably, being nearly the sole creator of offense in his unit. With impressive scoring instinct and playmaking vision, he is contending for the title of the rookie of the year and has the potential to produce by the ton against junior players. The Stars’ pick is only a month and a half short of being the youngest player on the team, so to carry the team is a massive challenge for him.
Lindgren needs the best support available for his task: overall ability, speed, strength and finish in that order. He has had chemistry with Lauri Korpikoski (NYR) on the national team this season, and to complete the line with Lauri Tukonen (LA) to form the primary offensive weapon would make sense. Tukonen has improved his production greatly in the AHL since his SM-liiga days and may finally be able to carry the team offensively in his third WJC tournament.
However, Korpikoski has also found new chemistry with the duo from Pori. The Estonian-born Leo Komarov took a big leap to SM-liiga this season. The smallish pest grinds like there is no tomorrow and although his long-term potential in hockey sense and offensive skill is limited, he has managed to get them both working this season. Komarov centers the top 2006 Finnish prospect Jesse Joensuu. Joensuu’s progress this season has been very good, and against junior opposition he can create plenty of scoring opportunities. Joensuu-Komarov-Korpikoski was the best line built for offense in the last domestic practice games, but they are prone to temporary offensive dysfunctionality.
Lindgren likes to carry the puck, Joensuu prefers to hold on to it even more, but the worst underaged puck hog is Mikko Lehtonen (BOS). The three don’t match optimally on the ice and that must be considered when assembling the lines. Lehtonen may be the team’s best puckhandler and although he is good at the aspects of the game all around, he can go for shifts with hardly using his linesmates at all. Still, that means he can break into scoring opportunities all by himself and capitalize on them. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him humiliate the opposing defense with big dekes, but neither would it surprise to see him buried to a lower line.
Aki Seitsonen (CGY) returns from last year’s team and supports the top players in whatever role necessary. He can play either center or wing, and whichever position is chosen for him, Finland could be lacking a good second line player at the other one. Another returning blue-collar forward is Janne Kolehmainen (OTT), although he may end up playing on a lower line. At 215 pounds, Kolehmainen is like a tank when skating up and down the wing and getting the dirty work done.
Petteri Wirtanen and Jari Sailio are a dynamic duo who were already playing together back in 2001. Wirtanen is an extremely dependable two-way center, while Sailio is a skilled speedster who put himself back on the inside track for the national team with good performances in the preseason. The two guys play fourth line for HPK in SM-liiga, but internationally Wirtanen’s lines have also managed to score. Two scoring lines will likely be assembled outside of this duo, and theirs will be the third that can also chip in when production is needed.
Henri Heino found his game at the right time for the WJC. He has centered the third line on a poor Pelicans team and established himself as the ideal choice for Finland’s fourth line with unspectacular yet solid play. The natural wingers for him are Mikko Alikoski and Tomas Sinisalo. The diminutive Alikoski suffered a blow to his international career upon failing to score in the U18 WC of 2004, but he has fought his way to the strong Kärpät squad in a more defensive role and must now face the physical challenges of the WJC. Tomas is the son of the legendary Flyers forward Ilkka Sinisalo. He plays a colorful game both with and without the puck. He basically the only forward who made the team thanks to achievements with the national team without the backing of equally strong club team performances.
The Big Picture
Sharing goalie duties hasn’t yielded results for the Lion Cubs in the past, but if it works in hockey in general, it seemingly couldn’t hurt the team. All in all, goaltending remains the greatest strength for Finland.
For the defensemen’s offensive support to work, Laakso has to answer the call in the first pairing and someone else (likely Jokinen or Leinonen) in the second. The top defenseman’s task can be made easier by one forward line standing out (cases: Mäntylä behind Salmelainen-Hämäläinen-Rita in the 2001 WJC, Lepistö behind Nokelainen-Filppula-Bergenheim in the 2004 WJC and Laakso behind Korpikoski-Nokelainen-Tukonen in the 2004 U18 WC). Beyond that, the defensemen will simply either be good enough or they won’t. Since mediocre finishing by forwards is close to a constant over the years, the defensemen are the decisive factor in the team’s success.
Three players picked in the NHL entry draft are not with the team. In addition to Nokelainen (NYI), the second-pairing defenseman Juho Mielonen (DET) injured his arm in late November and had surgery. The huge winger Miikka Tuomainen (ATL) improved immensely from last season at first, but then slowed down and didn’t make the cut.
The team played its last domestic practice games with the following line-up:
Sailio – Wirtanen – Kolehmainen
(Huhtala) – Lindgren – Lehtonen
Joensuu – Komarov – Korpikoski
Alikoski – Heino – Sinisalo
Koistinen – Korhonen
Seppänen – Laakso
Leinonen – Jokinen
(Kurki) – Leppänen
|2||D||Matti Koistinen||1/18/1986||5’11||195||Tappara Jr A||–|
|6||D||Timo Seppänen||7/22/1987||6’0||208||HIFK Jr A||–|
|8||D||Juho Jokinen||7/25/1986||6’1||187||TuTo (FIN-2)||–|
|14||D||Tommi Leinonen||5/14/1987||6’2||185||Kärpät Jr A||PIT|
|9||RW||Lauri Tukonen||9/1/1986||6’2||205||Manchester (AHL)||LA|
|18||C||Aki Seitsonen||2/5/1986||6’2||197||Prince Albert (WHL)||CGY|
Reserves: Niko Hovinen, G; Riku Helenius, G; Tuomas Gärdström, D; Mikael Kurki, D; Miika Lahti, C; Jonas Enlund, C; Tommi Huhtala, W; Ville Korhonen, W
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.