BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - MAY 09: Mikael Granlund (L) of Finland smashes Vitali Atyushov (R) of Russi into the boards during the IIHF World Championship qualification match between Russia and Finland at Orange Arena on May 9, 2011 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
While the hype around Sweden this year is a bit less than usual, their arch-rival underdog neighbours have a lot more hype than usual. Yes, the time has finally arrived for Finland, they say. After years of bringing teams that were well coached but lacking in game-breaking talent, the Finns finally look to have the makings of an offensive arsenal to rival the top nations in 2012. Now the key is to actually make that happen... they can't be blowing leads like they did against Russia last year in the quarterfinals, for example.
Last year's Finnish team was actually very good despite a 6th place finish. They were the only team in the entire tournament to go without a regulation loss, losing three times in OT/SO, so even just a little bit more offence could help them a lot. What this year's team has that last year's team didn't? Well, for starter's, the world's best hockey player outside the NHL, for one.
Yes, Mikael Granlund returns to the WJC's after missing last year's tournament due to injury. The show-stopping star of the men's World Championships was in the scoring lead of Finland's SM-Liiga when he left for the WJCs, which quite simply, DOES NOT HAPPEN. Teenagers don't lead top men's leagues in scoring, it's a well known fact. He brings his gold medal experience with him, something Finnish players don't have a lot of experience with, and he also gets to bring his younger brother Markus and long time linemate Teemu Pulkkinen. Yes, things are looking up for the Finns.
So, is there suddenly pressure on this team to deliver a medal? Not really, says Strozyk:
It's actually fair to say that Finland never enters the WJC tournament under much pressure or high external expectations. There's plenty of media coverage, but it never goes overboard. The public interest is far from that of the Worlds and the WJCs are more for the hardcore fans... The most passionate hockey fans are up-to-date with the WJC, of course. It's one of the highlights of the year and the core of the young team Finland has this year can build the national interest in the next couple of years.
Of course, winning can change the attitudes of more casual fans in a hurry. We've seen Americans start to embrace the WJCs after the 2010 gold medal, although having the tournament four straight years in North America has also had a lot to do with that as well. And if Finland can continue to produce high-end skilled players, that'll increase interest in the tournament as well. So just why is this age group so special? Has Finland undergone a Sweden-style makeover of their skill development program? Not really, says Strozyk. "Finland uses a 'Nuori Suomi' (Young Finland) program (for all sports). A part of it is the kaikki pelaa (everyone plays) mentality, which means teams with players up to 11-13 years old give equal playing time to all players... the danger (is) that the most talented athletes might not get to play with other juniors of their level and the system kills its own products. Granlund and Joel Armia are two examples of kids who played thousands of hours in their own yard with friends to hone their technique." For whatever reason, the talent is emerging right now, but it doesn't sound like Finland has done much to change their program to accomplish this.
After the jump, we look at the makeup of Finland's best WJC roster in a generation:
|Miro Aaltonen||C||5'10"||168||Jun 7/93||Blues Espoo||SML||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Joel Armia||RW||6'4"||196||May 31/93||Ässät Pori||SML||Sabres (1/16, '11)||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Aleksander Barkov||C||6'2"||205||Sep 2/95||Tappara Tampere||SML||Elig. 2013||none|
|Joonas Donskoi||LW||6'0"||187||Apr 13/92||Kärpät Oulu||SML||Panthers (4/99, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Markus Granlund||C/LW||5'11"||172||Apr 16/93||HIFK Helsinki||SML||Flames (2/45, '11)||U18 (2)|
|Mikael Granlund||C||5'10"||183||Feb 26/92||HIFK Helsinki||SML||Wild (1/9, '10)||U20 (2), U18 (2)|
|Petteri Halinen||C/RW||6'4"||205||Apr 8/92||JYP-Akatemia||Fin2||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Roope Hämäläinen||C||5'10"||179||Aug 18/92||Jukurit||Fin2||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Markus Hännikäinen||LW||6'2"||183||Mar 26/93||Jokerit Helsinki||SML||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Mikael Kuronen||F||6'0"||172||Mar 14/92||Ilves Tampere||SML||Undrafted||none|
|Otto Paajanen||C||5'10"||179||Sep 13/92||HPK Hameenlinna||SML||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Teemu Pulkkinen||RW||5'10"||198||Jan 2/92||Jokerit Helsinki||SML||Red Wings (4/111, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (2)|
|Alexander Ruuttu||C/RW||6'2"||183||Dec 9/92||Jokerit Helsinki||SML||Coyotes (2/51, '11)||none|
|Miikka Salomäki||LW||5'11"||198||Mar 9/93||Kärpät Oulu||SML||Predators (2/52, '11)||U20 (1), U18 (2)|
Beyond the Granlund brothers and Pulkkinen, there's some real strong depth here for Finland. Donskoi, Salomäki and Armia return to the team and bring a lot of skill, while the team also has scoring depth onto the third line, with 16 year old phenom Aleksander Barkov and Alexander Ruuttu giving Finland more options than it might know what to do with. All of these players are regularly playing in the SM-Liiga as well, which often isn't the case when it comes to Finland, who often have to draw players that are playing in their junior leagues. Sasha Barkov is just another indication of the strong next wave of Finnish junior talent. As Strozyk notes, "This season the SM-Liiga has seen a total of seven players of the skilled 1994 and 1995 age groups make their debuts. They also represent the high potential generation of Finnish juniors after some not-so-fruitful years of the late 1980s."
It's still strange to say this even with overwhelming evidence to back it up, but Finland's strength this year is in their talented forward corps.
|Jani Hakanpää||6'5"||218||Mar 31/92||Blues Espoo||SML||Blues (4/104, '10)||U18 (1)|
|Miro Hovinen||6'4"||209||Apr 29/92||Kiekko-Vanta||Fin2||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Konsta Mäkinen||5'9"||165||Jan 19/92||LeKi||Fin2||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Olli Määttä||6'2"||198||Apr 22/94||London||OHL||Elig. 2012||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Julius Nyqvist||5'10"||181||Oct 29/92||Kiekko-Vanta||Fin2||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Ville Pokka||6'0"||194||Jun 3/94||Kärpät Oulu||SML||Elig. 2012||U18 (1)|
|Simo-Pekka Riikola||6'1"||183||Feb 3/92||KalPa Kuopio||SML||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
|Rasmus Ristolainen||6'3"||201||Oct 27/94||TPS Turku||SML||Elig. 2013||none|
This is an interesting group. Only four players play in Finland's top league right now, and it has three 1994 born players in there, and I don't expect any of those three to get cut in favour of one of the more marginal 19 year olds. Määttä is the only returning player, and he and Hakanpää should be looked to as the leaders of this group. Strozyk likes Hakanpää's "great frame, heavy shot and good all-around skill." It'll have to be a more collective team effort this time around, though, as last year's group relied heavily on Sami Vatanen to carry the group. Strozyk sees that as a positive, noting that there is no "lone star with all the pressure" as a result. However, that means an increased role for the young 17 year olds, as Strozyk sees "Määttä (as) in charge of Finland's play in their own zone, (while) Ristolainen and Pokka are all-round defencemen with good puck-moving skills." Clearly, the other teams will try and exploit this lack of defensive depth by finishing their checks quite forcefully and hoping Finland's breakouts become adventures.
|Sami Aittokallio||6'1"||181||Aug 6/92||Ilves Tampere||SML||Avalanche (4/107, '10)||U20 (1), U18 (1)|
|Chirstopher Gibson||6'1"||190||Dec 27/92||Chicoutimi||QMJHL||Kings (2/49, '11)||none|
|Richard Ullberg||6'3"||185||Jul 16/93||SaiPa Lapeen||SML||Undrafted||U18 (1)|
Goaltending is a traditional strength of Finnish teams, and while this year's team offers a duo of goalies with high potential, it only seems marginally better than average for the tournament as the whole. Aittokallio should have the starting job coming out of camp, while Christopher Gibson looks to be pencilled in for the backup role.
All that said, Finland has a solid chance at playing for a medal, even with a poor draw to contend with. They'll have to watch their backs with the Czechs in their group looking to play spoiler, but Finland finally seems to have the depth to do real damage against the likes of the Canadians and Americans. And they're doing it largely with homegrown players. As Strozyk notes, this is because of a strong national league making room for their youngsters:
Every team in (the SM-Liiga) has a spot or two for talented youngsters and if they choose to stay in Finland, their future is in their own hands. In Canada they get to play top-level junior hockey with prospects around their own age, instead of being 'the junior' of a team battling for the Finnish Championship. I don't think the SM-Liiga or its clubs have to worry about losing top juniors to Canada (in large numbers) any time soon, but for a player willing to take the risk and (is) capable of handling the big lifestyle change it could be beneficial when NHL teams finish their final shortlists for the draft (to play major junior, like Olli Määttä did).
Here is Finland's schedule:
Prediction: 3rd in Group B.