By Risto Pakarinen
THN Predicted Finish: 5th
In the early 2000s, Finland was a perennial medallist at the world juniors. The Finns won gold in Helsinki in 1998 and won a silver and four bronze medals between 2001 and 2006.
Since then, the trend has been downward and last season, when the Finns lost their crucial game to the Czechs, they ended up playing just to remain in the top division – a disappointment even if their place was never in danger.
This year, a new core and a new coach, Karri Kivi – a two-time world junior player for Finland – look to bounce back and at least challenge for a medal.
The Finnish goalie factory may not pumping out prospects like it used to, but it’s still doing well. Last year’s keepers didn’t get a callback for Malmo. Joonas Korpisalo has played most of the season in the second division and has also been injured while his backup, Janne Juvonen, is doing his military service and has only seen limited action in the Finnish league this year, spending most of his time in the second division as well.
Meanwhile, Helsinki IFK’s Ville Husso has the fifth-best save percentage (.923) and third-best goals-against average (1.94) in the Finnish League. Just ahead of him in both categories is Juuse Saros, the Nashville Predators’ fourth-round pick last June, with .925 and 1.83. He was named last year’s under-18 World Championship’s best goaltender.
But the strength of the team is, surprisingly, the offense. Even without Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov, there’s a lot of speed and skill, starting with Chicago Blackhawks first-rounder Teuvo Teravainen, pictured above. He’s second on his Jokerit team in scoring in the Finnish League with 16 points in 24 games, while averaging almost 18 minutes. Last year at the WJC, he scored 11 points in six games and finished fourth in scoring, though three of those games came in the relegation round, where Finland outscored opponents 24-5.
Teravainen will be joined by Montreal Canadiens second-rounder Artturi Lehkonen, who returns from last year’s team, and Lehkonen’s KalPa teammate Kasperi Kapanen, son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen (who co-owns the Finnish league club). Lehkonen leads KalPa in scoring with 16 points in 27 games. Kapanen, NHL draft-eligible in 2014, has five points in 22 games.
While Finland can survive without Barkov, coach Kivi could have used defensemen Olli Maatta, who’s staying with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Rasmus Ristolainen, a Sabres’ prospect currently injured.
“We’re preparing for the tournament with the assumption they won’t play for us,” Kivi told the Finnish federation’s website in November.
If that’s the case, Finland lacks an obvious workhorse on the blueline, but Ville Pokka, an Islanders second-rounder, can take on that role. He plays more than 20 minutes a game in the Finnish League, third on his team. The Finns will have to rely on solid team defense, which is nothing new to them.
It’s been seven long years without a medal for the Finns. Not even being in the hunt an eighth straight tournament would be a disaster.
Check back on the 26th for previews for Canada, the United States, Russia and Sweden.