Aleksander Barkov. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
Finland's best goal-scoring hope for the 2016 World Cup may lie in its green young prospects. Which, if any, will make the team?
Time flies. Feels like the NHL just announced the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, complete with six nations and two gimmick teams, like 'em or not. But that was more than a year ago. The tournament is six-and-a-half months away, and
teams must announce at least 16 members, including two goaltenders, by March 1, with the balance of each roster finalized no later than June 1. It's thus time for a new round of projected rosters, first and foremost because it's a damn fun exercise. We'll skip with the safe 16-player reveal and project a full 25-man squad of three goaltenders, eight defensemen and 14 forwards for all eight teams. We begin with those tenacious Lions, the Finns. Hat tip to THN pal and dynamite Finnish hockey writer
Risto Pakarinen for consulting with me on this list.
Kari Lehtonen Lehtonen isn't a true starter for his own NHL team and won't contend for the No. 1 job with the Suomi unless Tuukka Rask can't answer the bell for whatever reason. While 32 isn't typically old in goalie years, is Lehtonen an old 32? He's been inconsistent the past two seasons. He's been healthy enough to shed his old injury-prone label, but perhaps his old injuries are slowing him down.
Tuukka Rask Rask started the bulk of Finland's games for Sochi at the 2014 Olympics and is the unquestioned frontrunner for the gig again. He didn't have to contend with Pekka Rinne last time, as Rinne was injured, but Rask has separated himself from the pack nonetheless.
Pekka Rinne It took a while for anyone to notice how badly the universally praised Rinne has struggled in 2015-16. But it's out there now. The Nashville Predators even started Carter Hutton in consecutive games for the first time ever. That's how off their $7-million starter has been. Rinne is still enough of a Finnish netminding institution to earn a spot on the team, but he's fallen behind Rask.
On the bubble: Joonas Korpisalo, Antti Niemi, Joni Ortio, Antti Raanta, Karri Ramo (torn ACL), Juuse Saros
Juuso Hietanen He's smallish, shoots from the right side and is known as more of an offensive threat than a defensive one. Think of Hietanen as a poor man's Sami Vatanen. Hietanen, currently toiling for Dynamo Moscow in the KHL, repped the Finns at the 2014 Olympics and has been a World Championship staple in recent years.
Jyrki Jokipakka He'd be captain if it were an all-name team. Jokipakka can settle for a berth on the roster. He's big and steady in his own end. He's progressed nicely in his second full NHL season with Dallas.
Lasse Kukkonen Kukkonen, a 34-year-old veteran, hasn't played an NHL game since 2008-09, but he's still a contender for the World Cup squad. He made the 2014 Olympic roster. Kukkonen also captains Finnish League team Karpat, which is coached by Lauri Marjamaki, who happens to be Finland's World Cup bench boss. Kukkonen is well-rounded. He doesn't excel anywhere but doesn't have many holes in his game.
Sami Lepisto He can fit in as a second-tier puck mover. Lepisto is a national team staple, whether it's the Olympics or the worlds. He's having his best offensive season ever in the KHL right now.
Esa Lindell He'll be a fun one to watch if he can crack the World Cup roster. Lindell posted eye-popping offensive numbers in the Finnish League last season and acquitted himself well at the 2015 worlds. He has been dynamic with AHL Texas, too. Lindell should at least see some second-unit power play time if he makes the starting lineup.
Olli Maatta The do-it-all Penguins blueliner has top-pair potential on this team. He can move the puck and has better size and strength than he gets credit for. Maatta will play a major role.
Rasmus Ristolainen Here's your horse. Ristolainen is a virtual lock for the No. 1 pair. The rangy right-shooting blueliner is in the middle of a breakout campaign with the Buffalo Sabres. He's realizing his vast potential. He'll be as important as any player on the Finnish roster.
Sami Vatanen Vatanen is one of the NHL's better power play specialists and will handle that gig capably for the Finns at the World Cup. He has the experience to warrant top-pair duty but could slide to the second group if Marjamaki prefers to pair righties with lefties.
On the bubble: Julius Honka, Topi Jaakola, Petteri Lindbohm, Joni Pitkanen, Ville Pokka, Ossi Vaananen
Juhamatti Aaltonen Aaltonen is an experienced producer with years of experience in the Liiga and, most recently, the KHL as a member of Jokerit. He can score but he also isn't afraid of physical play. That makes him a versatile piece to move around the lineup.
Aleksander Barkov What Ristolainen is to the D-corps, Barkov is to the forward group. He will be the team's offensive centerpiece. He may center the second line so that Mikko Koivu can match up against other teams' top units, but Barkov will undoubtedly be the guy Finland relies on to create offense more than anyone.
Joonas Donskoi Donskoi left the Liiga at 23 for his first taste of North American action, jumped right to the NHL with San Jose and didn't miss a beat. He has a deft scoring touch and would make a nice top-six forward.
Valtteri Filppula He can play the wing or center and can move anywhere in the top nine, really. That's a handy player.
Mikael Granlund Granlund is a natural center but played left wing on the top line with Barkov and Teemu Selanne before Barkov got hurt at the 2014 Games. Might the Finns try Granlund in that spot again? Hard to say.
Jussi Jokinen Jokinen just goes about his business as a second-tier offensive producer. He won't carry the team but he can help on a scoring line and the power play.
Mikko Koivu Koivu produces more like a second-line pivot offensively but, given his two-way acumen, he's a safe bet to lead all Finnish forwards in ice time and play the hybrid scoring/shutdown role. He's a virtual shoo-in to captain the team, too.
Leo Komarov The Maple Leafs' All-Star Game representative has shown this season he's far more than a checker. Komarov can score, and the Finns will need him to keep doing so in a significant role.
Petri Kontiola Kontiola's second foray into North American hockey was a disaster, which was strange since he lit it up in the AHL half a decade ago. Still, he's been a strong playmaker in the KHL, and he's cracked the Finnish roster for the every elite international tournament since 2012.
Lauri Korpikoski Korpikoski should slot in nicely as a bottom-six forward in a defensive role. Look for him to kill penalties.
Patrik Laine This was the my toughest call. Joonas Kemppainen is an NHLer, but the Finns are deep at center, and Laine gives them goal-scoring upside Kemppainen does not possess. Laine has arguably been more impressive then fellow top-three 2016 draft candidate Jesse Pujlujarvi of late, so Laine gets the nod. Keep an eye out for the young man who centered both guys on Finland's World Junior Championship squad: Sebastian Aho.
Jori Lehtera Lehtera is a tough piece to place on the Finnish depth chart. He profiles best in a scoring role but isn't a better option than Koivu or Barkov on the first two lines. Still, he's talented enough to deserve a spot somewhere.
Mikko Rantanen Rantanen is raw, but he's a tantalizing talent, and coach Marjamaki has to make sure he outfits his group with a few natural goal scorers. Maybe the World Cup becomes Rantanen's springboard to a full-time role with the Colorado Avalanche next season.
Teuvo Teravainen Has Teuvo fallen short of lofty expectations in Chicago, or has he simply not received the minutes and opportunity to produce like an elite young forward? It's debatable. Either way, he's more than talented enough to earn major ice time on this team.
On the bubble: Sebastian Aho, Joel Armia, Markus Granlund, Erik Haula, Jarkko Immonen, Kasperi Kapanen, Joonas Kemppainen, Kristian Kuusela, Iiro Pakarinen, Jesse Puljujarvi, Teemu Pulkkinen, Tuomo Ruutu, Sakeri Salminen, Miikka Salomaki
Watch for more 2016 World Cup roster projections in the coming days. Next up: Sweden.
Feb. 18 update: A couple changes to make. For one, seeing the rosters are 23 players (20 skaters, three goalies), 25 players are obviously too much. Kontiola and Lindell would be my casualties. Also, after receiving some insightful reader feedback, I'd probably sub Kemppainen back in for Laine and have Kemppainen serve as the 13th forward.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin