U20 World Junior Championships Preview: Team Finland

Toni Rajala of Finland will return to North America as part of Team Finland's entry in the 2011 IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, NY. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Finland may be the world's greatest nation, and they're a heck of a hockey nation, but in recent years the U20 team hasn't had a lot of success.  For four straight years they've been eliminated in the quarterfinals, ending their tournament in the bizarre concept known as the 5th place game.  Their junior program continues to churn out draft picks, and the country is famous for their goalies, but the small sample size of an U20 tournament doesn't do a small country like Finland many favours.  Compared to their bigger neighbours, Sweden and Russia, it's tough going.  I have them ranked a distant fifth in the Junior Hockey Program World Ranking (see sidebar), and while that's a solid position, it doesn't tell the whole story.

The Finnish junior program has struggled to produce quality offensive players.  The top scoring Finnish player in the NHL today is fourty years old (the ageless Teemu Selanne).  Beyond that, they're aren't a ton of options.  So up stepped Mikael Granlund, a slick playmaking centre that went higher in the entry draft than any Finn since 2002, when Kari Lehtonen and Joni Pitkanen went 2nd and 4th overall.  Granlund had been producing at about a point per game pace in Finland's SM-Liiga since making the league, but a concussion will keep him out of this year's tournament.  That's really too bad for Finland, as they boast plenty of impressive young players, including their captain, the pint sized puck moving defenseman Sami Vatanen. 

Finland produces most of their own junior players.  While a few go to North America to play major junior hockey, most stay at home.  That could partially be due to the military commitments all Finnish men must undergo between the ages of 18 and 28.  Military service is said to be part of the reason winger Toni Rajala left the WHL at age nineteen to return to Finland, for example, despite signing a NHL contract.  That gives Finland a bit of insulation in the whole Euro vs. CHL debate, although they seem to be supportive of the Swedish, Czech and Slovak federations' complaints.  So if Finland isn't producing top end talent, they've really only got themselves to blame.

I sent some questions to Finnish blogger Eetu Huisman about the team and the issues facing player development in Finland.  Huisman is a friend of SB Nation, having done similar interviews with sites like The Copper & Blue

Finland's last four World Junior results have been 5th, 7th, 6th, and 6th.  What's the pressure like on this group to play for a medal, or is it kind of expected for this trend to continue?

I don't know if there's really much pressure, but the team is certainly expected to compete for a medal, which is the case almost every year. This year they seem to have much more offensive top-end talent than in the previous years, but whether they have the depth to challenge the likes of Canada, USA and Sweden remains to be seen.

A vast majority of Finland's players are playing in the SM-Liiga and its junior leagues.  How much of a priority is it for the club teams to develop young players?  How have they managed to avoid an exodus of players to North America or even Sweden or Russia?

Because Finnish club teams can't really compete economically with their Russian, Swiss or even Swedish counterparts, they have to put emphasis on developing young talent. Some clubs are doing a better job than others, but all the clubs in the top league have respectable junior systems.

Some top prospects have tried the CHL route, but the lack of real success stories and the abundance of not-so-successful visits seem to have an effect. In Finland (and maybe in Europe in general) it is widely believed that practice is the key to development, not games.  Maybe that's one reason why the 70(+) game schedule in Canadian junior
hockey doesn't seem too interesting.

The Swedish and Russian leagues are luring older players, but at least so far junior aged prospects have been left alone. Even though Finnish hockey has been through some tougher years lately, the level of coaching and competition in SM-liiga and the U20 league is still considered to be high, so there's no real need to get away at that point. The real problems seem have more to do with developing younger players, but they are not as likely to look for foreign options.


If Mikael Granlund is not good to play, who will be the offensive catalyst for this team?

Granlund will not play, so others will have to step up. It is obvious no-one will be able to actually replace Granlund as the first line center, but the team has a lot of talented wingers. Teemu Pulkkinen is having a monster year in SM-liiga, Toni Rajala seems to be bouncing back from his somewhat disappointing year in WHL, Joonas Donskoi is solid, if unspectacular and Joel Armia is playing his way up in the draft rankings.


People in North America have yet to see Joel Armia play up close.  Can you describe what to expect from this highly touted winger?

Armia is a big, offensively gifted forward, something that Finland hasn't produced in a long time. He has some nifty moves with the puck, but has been somewhat inconsistent in SM-liiga, which is of course understandable, considering his age. He'll probably play on the second line and get some icetime on the powerplay as well.


How is the goalie situation sorting itself out?  Joni Ortio was the starter last year, but the two 1992 born goalies are also NHL draft picks (Aittokallio and Iilathi), and Samu Perhonen is the top ranked European goalie for the 2011 draft.  As far as I can tell, all four of them remain with the team.

Iilahti was already cut and Perhonen (his name, by the way, translates to "Butterfly") will most probably be the emergency option, so the goalie tandem is Ortio and Aittokallio. Ortio will be the starter again, Aittokallio will probably play one or two games.

(It is a shame that Christopher Gibson is still hurt, it would've been interesting to see him representing Finland on this level. Fortunately he's still eligible next year.)


Sami Vatanen was the breakout star of last year's team.  Who might this year's new star be?

It's hard to tell how Erik Haula has really progressed, but all the reports seem to be extremely positive. In my opinion he should've been part of the WJC squad already last year, but the coaching staff didn't really have a clue about the level of hockey played in the USHL. He's a versatile forward who could be asked to take Granlund's place as the first line center.

Team Finland

#

Player

Pos.

S/C

Ht.

Wt.

Born

Hometown

Club

30

Sami Aittokallio

G

L

6'1"

172

1992

Tampere

Ilves Tampere (SM-Liiga)

20

Joel Armia

RW

R

6'4"

192

1993

Pori

Pori (SM-Liiga)

27

Joonas Donskoi

LW

R

6'0"

183

1992

Raahe

Oulu (Sm-Liiga)

7

Jani Hakanpaa

D

R

6'5"

214

1992

Kirkkonummi

Espoo U20 (Jr A SM-Liiga)

10

Erik Haula

LW

L

5'12"

187

1991

Pori

Minnesota (WCHA)

3

Jyrki Jokipakka

D

L

6'3"

192

1991

Tampere

Ilves Tampere (SM-Liiga)

13

Julius Junttila

LW

L

5'10"

172

1991

Oulu

Oulu (SM-Liiga)

4

Tommi Kivisto

D

L

6'1"

196

1991

Vantaa

Jokerit Helsinki (SM-Liiga)

15

Olli Maatta

D

L

6'2"

196

1994

Jyvaskyla

D Team (Finland2)

5

Nico Malenius (a)

D

L

5'12"

192

1991

Vantaa

Keikko-Vantaa (Finland2)

29

Joonas Nattinen

C

R

6'2"

198

1991

Jamsa

Espoo (SM-Liiga)

31

Joni Ortio

G

L

6'1"

183

1991

Turku

Turku (SM-Liiga)

18

Iiro Pakarinen (a)

RW

R

6'1"

198

1991

Suonenjoki

Kuopio (SM-Liiga)

26

Mika Partanen

LW

L

6'2"

198

1992

Helsinki

Mississauga (OHL)

19

Samu Perhonen

G

L

6'4"

192

1993

Jamasankoski

JYP U20 (Jr. A SM-Liiga)

6

Teemu Pulkkinen

LW

R

5'11"

192

1992

Vantaa

Jokerit Helsinki (SM-Liiga)

25

Toni Rajala

LW

L

5'10"

165

1991

Parkano

Ilves Tampere (SM-Liiga)

8

Rasmus Rissanen

D

L

6'3"

205

1991

Kuopio

Everett (WHL)

11

Miikka Salomaki

LW

L

5'11"

198

1993

Raahe

Oulu (SM-Liiga)

24

Teemu Tallberg

LW

L

6'2"

190

1991

Helsinki

Kiekko-Vantaa (Finland2)

 

16

Henri Tuominen

C

L

6'4"

190

1991

Turku

Ilves Tampere (SM-Liiga)

28

Jaakko Turtiainen

RW

L

6'0"

190

1991

Helsinki

Hameenlinna (SM-Liiga)

9

Sami Vatanen (c)

D

R

5'10"

165

1991

Jyvaskyla

Jyvaskyla (SM-Liiga)

21

Valtteri Virkkunen

C

L

5'10"

174

1991

Espoo

Espoo (SM-Liiga)

23

Jesse Virtanen

D

L

5'12"

185

1991

Rauma

Hokki (Finland2)

2011 Draft Hopefuls:  RW Joel Armia, G Samu Perhonen, LW Mika Partanen, LW Miikka Salomaki.

Notable Absentee/Cut:  C Mikael Granlund (injured), G Jonathon Iilahti

NHL Draft Picks:  11:  LW Joonas Dosko (4/99 in '10, FLA), D Jani Hakanpaa (4/104 in '10, STL), G Sami Aittokallio (4/107 in '10, COL), LW Teemu Pulkkinen (4/111 in '10, DET), C Joonas Nattinen (3/65 in '09, MTL), LW Toni Rajala (4/101 in '09, EDM), D Sami Vatanen (4/106 in '09, ANA), G Joni Ortio (6/171 in '09, CAL), D Rasmus Rissanen (6/178 in '09, CAR), LW Erik Haula (7/182 in '09, MIN), D Tommi Kivisto (7/208 in '09, CAR).

Team Staff:  Timo Backman (General Manager), Lauri Marjamaki (Head Coach), Raimo Helminen and Karri Kivi (Assistant Coaches)

Finland is a very solid team, and they're definitely no pushover.  If they had their true gamebreaker in Granlund healthy, I think we'd be talking about a team with a real chance to place high.  The fourth place finish predicted by Eetu Huisman isn't out of reach, but they'll need to beat a tough team in the semis in order to do so.  It might be easier for them to beat the USA in the preliminary round and finish first.  Expect them to play a tight game based on puck possession, with a lot of forechecking.  If they can run a top level powerplay, and with Vatanen manning the point that's definitely possible, this team will finish higher than most, myself included, predict.  

Prediction:  2nd in Group A, 5th overall.  

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