Why Finland is producing more elite prospects than ever

Ristolainen

Admit it. You were a little misty-eyed watching Teemu Selanne at the 2014 Olympics. At 43, he had us choked up, winning the tournament MVP award and leading injury-depleted Finland to a bronze medal. It was just one more feat heaped upon a mountain of them and it was what we’ve come to expect from one of the game’s classiest veterans since he exploded onto the scene in 1992-93.

Selanne the rookie was a true revelation. He embarrassed the NHL’s freshman records, potting 76 goals, many of them spectacular, some punctuated by his trademark celebration of throwing his glove in the air and miming a rifle to blow it away. With all due respect to Jari Kurri, who had some awfully good running mates in Edmonton, Selanne was special because he was the first Finn to truly dominate the NHL as the featured star on a team.

He had broken a barrier for Finnish superstars, yet no one else followed. We’ve seen a bevy of fantastic Suomi players over the years, and the goaltending factory there needs no introduction, but no Finn has ever won the league’s scoring crown. No Finn has won the Norris as the NHL’s top defenseman nor the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Finland hasn’t produced a superstar skater since Selanne.

But the events of the past year suggest that is about to change. Seth Jones, THN’s Draft Preview cover boy, sat idle as Finland’s Aleksander Barkov went No. 2 overall in 2013. The Buffalo Sabres chose big blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen six slots later. At the 2014 world juniors, a shifty Finn named Teuvo Teravainen left the field in the dust to win the scoring race. Ristolainen sealed the gold medal for Finland with an overtime goal:

On top of that, Minnesota prospect Mikael Granlund rode shotgun as Selanne’s 2014 Olympic linemate and made the Games’ all-star team.

The new class of Finns is on the way and its members project not just as the admirable, head-down, team-first types, but also as superstars and award winners. Just ask our Future Watch scouts and NHL executives. Teravainen and Ristolainen rank third and seventh in the 2014 overall rankings, with No. 24 Sami Vatanen giving Finland three players in the top 25. Last year, Granlund was the lone Finn in the top 30. While goalies like Tuukka Rask ranked highly in recent years, Finland had no skaters in the top 50 from 2007 to 2010. It had one in 2011, two in 2012, four in 2013.

So we know Finland has begun producing prospects with higher ceilings, but why?

According to Goran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting, it started with a summit. Sweden famously had one in 2003 to improve its hockey development and Finland had one just a few years ago in Helsinki, with far less publicity. Coaches, scouts, management and all sorts of hockey minds were on hand.

“They changed the way of training, so now the Finnish players, the coaches, are trying to teach the young Finnish players more individual skills than before,” Stubb says. “And of course, that was exactly what Sweden did 10 years ago. They are delivering the most players from European countries nowadays, so it’s kind of a Swedish model that the Finns have taken.”

Stubb suggests the summit is a big reason why more Finnish prospects like Teravainen, who can take over games, are emerging. Ristolainen, hailing from the post-summit generation, confirms the commitment to individual skill in his youth training.

“When I was in high school, we had our morning practice, skills like moving and shooting, and forwards did their own stuff,” he says. “In the afternoon, we had a whole team practising together and then there was more team stuff. So I had a lot of both.”

A key selling point that made Barkov the No. 2 overall pick: he’d already spent two years playing and excelling against grown men in the Finnish League. It’s an advantage many prospects playing in Europe have over anyone playing major junior. Even if a prospect would be better served in the American League, the Canadian Hockey League’s transfer agreement prohibits a player from full-time AHL employment until he’s exhausted his major junior eligibility. To do so, you must have turned 20 by Dec. 31 of a given season or completed four years of junior service.

Finns arrive in North America already having played against men and it actually comes out of necessity, because the club teams need the young players. Stubb says the Finnish League can’t compete financially with what the NHL, Kontinental League or even the German and Swiss Leagues can offer, so many local players leave. That means the SM-liiga has no choice but to thrust youngsters into its lineups.

“Finnish clubs will often take the replacements from their own junior teams,” Stubb says. “So that’s why a player like Teravainen, who’s 19 years old, is already in his third season in the Finnish league. Kasperi Kapanen is 17, he’s now in his first and he already played some games last year. So that’s an advantage. It’s better for Finnish talent to stay in Finland and play in the Finnish League rather than go and play junior hockey in North America.”

By the time they arrive, they’re more prepared than ever for the NHL. Ristolainen, at 19, is already a 6-foot-4, 219-pound monster who butted heads against grown men for two full seasons in the Finnish League.

“It’s different when you play against adults,” he says. “There’s more thinking. I get more patient when I play with adults. When I watch some Finnish junior games, everybody is pretty much running around and throwing the puck everywhere. When I play with the men, when I get the puck, I’m not throwing it right away.”

All the influences on Finnish talent suggest the recent trend, in Future Watch and on the draft board, is not a fluke. On top of the country’s commitment to individual development and letting the kids play with the men, Finland has the advantage of passion. Whereas countries like Sweden or Germany love soccer just as much, Stubb says, in Finland “100 or 99 percent” of young athletes want to become hockey players. It’s only a matter of time before some of them pop up among the NHL scoring leaders and get their names engraved on some individual hardware.

Teemu, prepare to pass the torch.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

This feature originally appeared in the Future Watch 2014 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.