Finnish U20 League report

By Pekka Lampinen

The A-Level Youth Finnish Championship League, or Junior A SM-liiga, is the highest level of junior hockey in Finland. Like in adult hockey, the league structure of the U20 level is strictly hierarchical nation-wide as in the European team sports culture in general. Eventually any U20 team can play for promotion to the league to replace one of the 14 participants. However, the 14 teams that play in the league happen to be the exact same as those of the Finnish professional league since 2005. This is largely due to the fact that at this age the best players seek their way to the organizations where they have the best career prospects.

Junior A teams can dress five overaged players (in 2006-07, born in 1986). 19-year-old players make the largest age group in the league, players aged 18 are slightly fewer. Junior-B-aged U18 players (born in 1989) are in clear minority and only a few 16-year-old youngsters are mature enough for the league. Transferring players between the organization’s pro and junior teams or sending them on loan to other organizations knows no limitations during regular season. Because of this, many players appear in over 100 games each year.

Over 90 percent of all Finnish NHL prospects play in the league at some point, spending over a year of their careers there on average. Finland has broad enough a player base that when centralized, it can offer a relatively high level of play for hockey at the U20 level. The league’s teams could challenge their USHL counterparts in a theoretical neutral environment.

At the time of writing, the teams have played some 15 rounds over 43 days. In the report we take a look at some of the most interesting happenings and set-ups around the league, as well as the performance of each drafted NHL prospect.

IFK begin the season in North America again

Participants of the 2005 Buc Bowl, the IFK team made use of their connections again this fall and prepared for the season as guests of the Moncton Wildcats. The outlook of the Helsinki team wasn’t terribly positive for the season, as they had missed the playoffs in 2005-06 and lost the services of five youth national team players in the offseason. However, the bulk of their roster had gained valuable experience over the year, ready to push the team to better results. IFK started their tour in Maritime Canada with a 2-6 defeat to the Wildcats of the QMJHL but were victorious from that point on. In games lacking neither straightforward scoring, heavy bodychecks nor fisticuffs, IFK moved on to defeat the St. John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) 6-2 and the Woodstock Subway Slammers (the champions of the Maritime Jr A Hockey League) 6-3, returning to strike back at the Wildcats with a 6-4 victory.

Back home, IFK are trailing the top of the league at the seventh position. The same players are carrying the team in Finland as in Canada. Captain Aleksi Holmberg and Joni Haverinen lead the defense, knocking on the doors of the IFK pro team and the Finnish WJC squad. Juuso Oinonen became the first 2007 draft eligible Finn to play in the pro league, stepping in between the pipes for relief in a single game. He can expect to start more frequently in Junior A now that last season’s starter Jani Nieminen has been rented to the men’s second tier league. Oinonen needs the ice time, as he is too old to participate and impress scouts in the next U18 World Championships. So far he has allowed 2.98 goals per game and saved 90.8 % of all shots.

Max Wärn (DAL) wasn’t quite ready for professional hockey and needs to develop more in the Junior A league. So far, the two-way specialist has two goals and two assists in six games. IFK also boast forwards eligible for the 2007 NHL entry draft: Mikael Paunio, Eetu Pöysti and Lucas Labelle. Paunio currently has five goals and three assists in 13 games mostly from centering the third line. He ranks among the league’s highest-scoring U18 players. Pöysti, regarded as a very gifted forward, has had it tougher. Only two points in 12 games mark a slow start for his rookie season. Pöysti still hasn’t quite figured out what he needs to do at the U20 level in order to outplay his opponents. Things haven’t been easy for Labelle either — the Canadian has only managed a –5 rating and 70 penalty minutes, 50 of them for two fights, in six games.

The goalies race for the World Junior Championships

Finland often has a team full of junior-aged players established in the professional league, so even though a couple of players from the Junior A league make the WJC squad each year, generally the battle for roster spots isn’t raging in the U20 league. Things are more straightforward for goalies, though: Tuukka Rask (BOS) being the country’s only professional 19-year-old netminder, the backup’s spot essentially now goes to the Junior A league’s best goalie. For the sake of personal accolades, it is better to be the top guy halfway through the season than after the campaign.

The forerunner Riku Helenius (TB) visited the league for two victorious starts from backing up Rask in the Ilves men’s line-up before suffering a shoulder injury during practice. The recovery from a surgery will keep Helenius off the ice until February. Now the most promising men available are Niko Hovinen (MIN) and Antti Härmä. Hovinen isn’t laughing in front the 37 shots he faces per game behind the Jokerit defense, whereas defensive tactics have propelled Härmä’s Blues from Espoo to the top of the league. Härmä’s save percentage of .938 isn’t a lot higher than Hovinen’s .929, but the GAA’s of 1.39 and 2.62 aren’t in the same ballpark. As the league’s top goalies, the two will also be tested in a level environment in the U20 national team’s practice games.

Juha Toivonen of HPK also once vied for a ticket to the WJC, but the team is making it a very difficult fall season for him. 2.70 GAA and .910 SV% are very respectable behind the league’s worst team, yet a supportive, solid environment he hasn’t been offered. One should also keep an eye on Jarno Laitinen, 18, whose presence leaves Ilves with a logjam of young goalies.

Contrary to what was mentioned earlier, two goalies will in fact slug it out until the end of the domestic hockey season. Harri Säteri (Tappara) and Tomi Karhunen (Kärpät) are both 2008 draft eligible. They have been the 1989-born age group’s national team goalies from the beginning, and now they are both rookies in the Junior A league, wanting to be the starter in the U18 WC in April. One of them will be given the greater responsibility, and Säteri has always been one step ahead of Karhunen. The statistics coincide with this, as Säteri has a .919 SV% against Karhunen’s .913 SV%. They have both established themselves as their respective teams’ top goalie until they reach the professional league one day.

In the wrong place at the wrong time

Given that most players remain in juniors until they can attain sufficient ice time in the professional SM-liiga, some have to play against juniors for too long. This has especially been the case for the gifted Jokerit duo of Jori Lehterä and Kim Strömberg. The offensive-minded forwards were already near the top of the scoring table last year, but not quite well-rounded enough to please the Jokerit pro team’s coach. Strömberg, who first got a chance with the pros, has scored 13 points in eight games in juniors. Lehterä, who was called up later and given a chance at running the power play, has 18 points in seven games, and their point-per-game averages were even higher early on. It is for the best of everyone that these two need not play in the Junior A league again.

Defensemen face an even higher threshold than forwards to move up onto a tougher level. Mikael Kurki would be a regular on most professional teams, but the logjam in Blues had him begin the season in juniors. Six games resulting in as many points can in a way be described as tedium for him. Joonas Jalvanti, 18, is another defenseman who has been impressive in his pro games this fall, but he has played through all but one of Pelicans’ U20 games. At least this gives him a better chance at consistent focus than Kurki, and Jalvanti has had more room to play up to his ability in Junior A. He has scored 11 points in 13 games.

Ilves has two drafted prospects in their defense corps. Juho Mielonen (DET) was sent down to recover from a shoulder injury. Then he hurt the same shoulder again, which puts his entire season at risk. Mielonen tallied six points in six games, playing against juniors only because of his health. Joonas Lehtivuori (PHI) is going through a transition from junior hockey to the men’s SM-liiga; he was always considered likely to split the season between the leagues. Like the fellow finesse player Jalvanti, Lehtivuori has looked good in both leagues. On an interesting note, the country’s most lightweight defenseman prospect Lehtivuori dropped the gloves in October in a game against IFK.

Playing in the wrong league not only robs the player of opportunities to develop but can have immediate adverse effects. Preparation, motivation and focus can all suffer when a player suddenly finds himself among weaker competition. Jonas Enlund (ATL) has looked most impressive on the fourth line of the Tappara pros. Conversely, in the Junior A games dotting his schedule, he has been a clearly inferior player to what he was in 2005-06. Five assists in six games aren’t much compared to the scoring opportunities and production his teammates create. Enlund and Jesse Uronen’s careers aren’t headed in the same direction, but Uronen was as promising as to be the league’s best goal scorer already two years ago. Now in 2006-07, he basically wandered around on the ice for four games before being granted a move from Jokerit to the men’s second tier league.

Ässät Juniors follow an offensive-minded system

The Ässät organization has found solutions to put an end to two decades of decay in the field of prospect development. Even though talented players like Masi Marjamäki (NYI) were already graduating before the former Ässät player Juha Jyrkkiö stepped in as one of the coaches, Jyrkkiö has built a system which offers the young better opportunities to develop. His tactics allow players to improve whatever pucks skills they have and use them freely on the ice. The team’s games have been the highest scoring in the league so far.

Surprisingly, Ässät have had to do entirely without the services of Tuomas Huhtanen, who has been with the pros all season so far. Huhtanen could also reach the WJC, as could certain other Ässät forwards, thanks to a strong scoring pace in Junior A. Joonas Kemppainen, one of them, has kept improving quickly. He has 11 points in nine games so far and could have produced even more, despite the center position not being entirely natural for him. Sakari Salminen, 18, was absolutely lethal on the power play until his injury. It is doubtful he can pick up quite where he left, as seven goals and seven assists in six games amounted to a big point total. The diminutive winger’s future will be better determined in 2007-08, when he has his best shot at the WJC tournament.

The scoring trickles down to defensemen’s stats as well. Two blueliners of the 2007 draft play behind the first line: Miro Rahkola and Jesse Jyrkkiö. The elder of the two, Rahkola has reached the higher point totals so far, largely with the help of forwards and his good positioning. The coach Jyrkkiö’s son Jesse boasts more diverse offensive skills, he likes to carry the puck and is highly talented with the stick. His efforts have yielded three goals and five assists in 14 games.

TPS ranks feature many hopefuls

Turku’s finest team TPS can provide a view the farthest into the future with its young players. Especially the defense corps is very young, although their leader Henrik Maunula has reached the age of 19. Striving to make the pros, he was told in public by the men’s coach that accomplishments in Junior A alone won’t carry him there. Maunula must be at a loss to figure out what else to do, having scored 16 points in 14 games to lead the league’s defensemen. Playing alongside Maunula, the 6’3 Mika Luukkainen recently turned 18 and has already scored nine points this season. In principle, a defenseman like him would draw a lot of attention from scouts, but Luukkainen needs to find new ways to improve some more. So far his reach has helped him dominate. Joonas Järvinen, the captain of Finland’s U18 national team and an alternate in TPS, is a defenseman roughly of Luukkainen’s size and age. Järvinen looks to be a solid blueliner by his style of play, most often successfully. Considering that he should not set his goals lower than to be a marquee defenseman this season, the fall season has been challenging for him at times. However, Järvinen has generally done well against smaller and quicker opponents, and a winning environment is a good one for him in Turku.

The demographics of the TPS defense reach as far as the 2008 NHL draft. When not paired with Luukkainen, Maunula has mostly tutored the 1990-born Tony Vidgren by his side on even strength. The stay-at-home defenseman Vidgren is being brought in to the U20 level, he already has experience of playing against older U17 competition on international ice in 2005-06. He remains scoreless and –1 after 11 games, which is just as well, as statistical results can wait. On the other hand, Niko Kluuskeri (close to 17 years of age) hasn’t been shy about appearing on the scoresheet. Like Vidgren, he hasn’t appeared in all the games, but 10 have been enough for Kluuskeri to score six points. In the meantime, he has been a valuable player for the Finnish U18 team as well.

TPS has enough scoring power for two lines, thanks to the center Lassi Kokkala. He leads all 17-year-old players in points in the league, having kept up a strong point-per-game pace. The accomplishment is especially impressive because of the fact that Kokkala hasn’t got to play with the team’s highest-scoring, older forwards. Finally, the league’s youngest player can also be found within the TPS roster: Martin Tuominen turned 16 during preseason. Like some of the other young ones mentioned, he hasn’t played all of the games. In Tuominen’s first nine games, he provided the team with two goals and one assist. If the prodigious winger continues his current trend, he will never need to play at Junior B level again.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.