2013 U18 WJC Preview: Hard-working Finland looking to compete for gold

By Radoslav Vavrina

Artturi Lehkonen - Finland

Photo: Finland’s U18 squad will look to offensively talented forward Artturi Lehkonen to provide some offensive punch to their lineup (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Finland hasn't won a U18 WJC gold since winning it twice in a row back in 1999 and 2000, but the potentital is there for this country to accomplish that feat once again.

The Finnish team shouldn't be very different from other teams iced by Suomi, as spectators can expect tough hockey mixed with top-level skill. Among players recently coming out of the Finnish program, the technically-gifted Granlund brothers or intimidating blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen, whose blasts from the point can be deadly, are examples of the best that Finland has to offer.

Last year in the Czech Republic, Finland finished fourth, losing to Canada in the bronze medal game. Over the summer, the team improved and advanced to the finals at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. In the end, they returned home from that tournament with silver, failing to beat Canada once again.

On the back-end, returning to the Under-18 WJC scene are netminder Juuse Saros, who is a definite number-one goalie, and big rearguard Atte Mäkinen. Up front, talented playmaking prospect Artturi Lehkonen, who is coming off his first full Finnish SM-liiga season, will také part, as is Juuso Ikonen, another serious prospect for the upcoming draft, along with Aleksi Mustonen and Joose Antonen, who both had utility roles a year ago. The season-ending injury to Finland's top prospect for the 2013 NHL Draft, Aleksander Barkov, will, however, affect the team and not in a modest way. With him, the Finns would have a much better chance of competing for the U18 championship.

Strengths: The Finns are generally a heart-and-soul type of team. The effort they give each game, the way they can't wait to sacrifice their body and the cool temper they can keep in even the most exciting situations, makes them difficult to beat. Combine that with the European spice, the gift of precise technique and you have a reason why they, alongside Sweden, almost always end up at or near the top. It's the same formula that the Americans use in their program, and the mix that most of other countries lack.

Weaknesses: The biggest weakness of the team is that the aforementioned mix causes the Finns to be good at most aspects of the game, but they dominate dominate in any one aspect. They will still be technically at a lower level than Russia and less physical than Canada. This might be the case with the U.S., too, but unlike the Americans, Finnish players are used to being leaders on their clubs.

Key player: Mostly, technique gets you more goals than toughness, if you're really good at it. 5'10“ winger Artturi Lehkonen has the offensive skills, which is why he is the key player for Team Finland. Last year, he led the team with seven goals and a total of 10 points in seven games. That left a huge impression on a lot of prospect-fishing scouts, and the fact that he managed to light the lamp fourteen times in his rookie season in the SM-liiga, the elite senior league of Finland, only raises his draft ranking. Barkov is definitely the best Finn out of this draft class, but as long as he's gone, Lehkonen takes over the wheel.

Who NHL scouts will be keeping a close eye on: Lehkonen is sure to be the top topic of their conversation regarding the Finnish team, but Juuso Ikonen will be right behind him at number two. He's only a little bigger than Lehkonen and, surprisingly, he scored almost as many goals as Lehkonen in this past SM-liiga season, finishing with thirteen as a member of the Espoo Blues team. Ikonen disappointed last year as he only collected one point during the entire event, but he's put himself back on the map and now should be looking to prove that he belongs. Also, athletic netminder Juuse Saros will attract some attention.

Unexpected gem: There is only one Finnish player based in the Canadian Hockey League at the upcoming U18 WJC. His name is Jonatan Tanus and he transferred to Canada last summer, becoming a member of the Peterborough Petes. He played a solid brand of hockey at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August and collected 33 points in his first OHL season. He's looking to make sure that he gets drafted, but will most likely have to deal with being in the shadow of Lehkonen and Ikonen. Or, he could be a center on the top line between the two biggest stars, which would definitely raise his draft stock.

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