Mikko Rantanen (right) of Finland (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
The plucky squad bowed out to the archrival Swedes in the quarterfinal this year, but youngsters such as Mikko Rantanen and Jesse Puljujarvi will be front and center in Helsinki when they host in 2016.
Heading into the 2015 world juniors, Finland's top players appeared to be drafted prospects such as Julius Honka, Kasperi Kapanen and Artturi Lehkonen. But when the dust settled in what was a huge letdown for the defending gold medallists, it was the youth that kept Finland above water. And even they couldn't stop a quarterfinal loss to archrival Sweden.
“I don't want to be so critical of our top players, but we had a lot of problems," said coach Hannu Jortikka. "Before the tournament we had guys playing in the Finnish League on maybe first or second line. Of course I was waiting for them to play at a high level here.”
If there's a silver lining to Finland's collapse - at one point in the round robin it looked like they might have to play for relegation - it's that some of their best players this year were also the youngest.
Mikko Rantanen is a 2015 draft prospect with top-20 potential who ended up as Finland's leading scorer with four goals in five games. The big winger plays a power forward game, getting in first on the forecheck, throwing hits and possesses a laser shot. Then there's 2016 prospect Jesse Puljujarvi, one of the most talented Finnish youngsters in years. Though he didn't score at the world juniors, he was very active in the offensive zone and both he and Rantanen earned praise from their coach.
“Rantanen was excellent, he played very well almost every game," Jortikka said. "Puljujarvi, he's so young he can play in so many tournaments. But that's quite normal in Finland. We must take young kids because we don't have so many choices. We have maybe 30 players at almost the same level.”
While that makes picking a roster for these international outings tricky, it will help Finland next year when Helsinki plays host to the world juniors next season. Kapanen, Rantanen and Puljujarvi will all get the chance to make amends and will do so in front of the rabid Finnish fan base.
“It's a long way – one year," Rantanen said. "But me and other players from this tournament can help the rest of the team to play better. Now we know something about this tournament.”
Kapanen, a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, will definitely be counted on for more offense next year and though he was disappointed with how things shook out in Toronto, he did see some great talent coming up behind him on the depth chart.
“They were good," he said. "Despite the fact they're so young they played like real men. You gotta be proud of them. With Rantanen in his draft year and Puljujarvi coming up, everybody watching him – I know what that pressure feels like and they played well.”
Naturally, there were obvious holes in Finland's team this time out. The power play didn't score once the entire tournament and overall the offense was woeful. But Rantanen is already a load to handle and if Puljujarvi continues to ascend the way he is projected to, he'll be incredibly dangerous.
"He's a great scorer and he shoots the puck," Rantanen said. "Everybody will hear about him.”
And in a tournament where the talent level for some countries is cyclical, it looks like 2016 can't come fast enough for the Finns.