Last year’s tournament had one team that stood out as the disappointment of the event: Finland. This year, they are looking to restore a country’s pride and with the team that coach Jussi Ahokas has assembled, it wouldn’t surprise me if Finland is one of the teams standing on the ice come January 5, the day the medals are handed out.
The late addition of three strong players from North America has almost been overshadowed by Kristian Vesalainen declining the invitation for the tournament. Bringing Eeli Tolvanen, Urho Vaakanainen, and Henri Jokiharju onto a team that destroyed the other big three European countries in November will make Finland one of the main challengers for the championship.
And that’s without Montreal Canadiens rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who would have led the first line on a team that would rival the championship-winning team of 2016 that had Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujärvi in the lineup. Another Finnish absentee is Miro Heiskanen, another third overall pick, who remains with the Dallas Stars.
Team Finland preliminary roster
|#||Player||Position||League||Current Team (NHL)|
|1||Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen||G||OHL||Sudbury Wolves (BUF)|
|34||Ville Heinola||D||Liiga||Lukko Rauma|
|15||Henri Jokiharju||D||NHL||Chicago Blackhawks|
|2||Oskari Laaksonen||D||Liiga||Ilves (BUF)|
|7||Urho Vaakanainen||D||NHL / AHL||Boston Bruins / Providence Bruins|
|10||Aleksi Heponiemi||F||Liiga||Kärpät (FLO)|
|24||Kaapo Kakko||F||Liiga||TPS (TOP 2019)|
|19||Rasmus Kupari||F||Liiga||TPS (LAK)|
|29||Anton Lundell||F||Liiga||HIFK (2020)|
|23||Linus Nyman||F||Liiga||Lukko Rauma|
|25||Aarne Talvitie||F||NCAA||Penn State (NJD)|
|20||Eeli Tolvanen||F||NHL / AHL||Nashville Predators / Milwaukee Admirals|
|22||Santeri Virtanen||F||Liiga||SaiPa (WIN)|
|27||Jesse Ylönen||F||Liiga||Pelicans (MTL)|
The Finns continue their strong goaltending tradition with the three netminders chosen, two of them already playing on North American ice, which could be beneficial in a short tournament like the World Juniors. Lassi Lehtinen has performed quite well in the Finnish pro league and holds an .897 save percentage, with Lukko Rauma having played about half of the games for the pro team.
However, it is on defence where the big changes have happened. We have previously covered the Finnish Youth Program, and while it has been mostly forwards coming out of it, the late additions of Vaakanainen and Jokiharju to go with draft prospect Anttoni Honka makes the Finnish defence look strong.
Honka, the younger brother of Dallas’s Julius Honka, is a swift-moving defender who is offensively gifted and will most likely be a revelation. Honka doesn’t shy away from contact. He is the prone to the occasional giveaway but should benefit the Finnish team massively.
Toni Utunen has played nine games with Tappara in Liiga this season and has drawn the tough assignments on a strong team. He has played strong in the defensive zone and it will be really interesting to see what the Vancouver Canucks’ fifth-round pick can do on the international stage against players his own age.
The forward position is where Finland really shines. The fact that Eeli Tolvanen asked the Nashville Predators to go to the WJC means that he is motivated, and he will be the leader of a scary forward group. Rasmus Kupari, the Los Angeles Kings prospect who is having a banner year in Liiga so far, currently with 23 points (8G, 15A) in 28 games, will be the setup man for Tolvanen.
Add to the group the challenger for the top spot in the 2019 NHL draft, Kaapo Kakko. The big 6’1”, 181-pound winger is skilled, fast, and has a vision for the game that makes him stand out.
Montreal Canadiens prospect Jesse Ylönen will most likely feature on a third line and second power-play unit, and he has done well in the games leading up to the tournament. Ylönen has gotten more time for the Pelicans in Liiga, but the one thing that can be negative is that he seems to be taking a few bad penalties when he feels the game doesn’t go his way. He will have the chance to stand out, as his speed usually drags defenders out of position and therefore opens up lanes for his teammates.
Offence, offence, and even more offence. Looking at the Hodonin tournament in November, a tournament that is used as a dress rehearsal for the WJC, Finland went undefeated and scored 16 goals in three games against Sweden, Russia, and the Czech Republic. That should point to where the Finnish strength is. Adding Tolvanen to that group should make any other hockey nation fearful.
The defence also looks better than the November tournament. Adding some NHL experience to the squad means that Finland will most likely be safe from the disappointment that kept the team out of the medal games for two straight years.
Lassi Lehtinen plays in Liiga and is doing a lot right, and the two other goalkeepers bring in the North American experience in goal, but they make up the weakest part of the Finnish team. The position is not as strong as we have come to expect from Finland’s vast talent pool of goalkeepers.
The trauma of the last two years also weighs in on the team. Can they handle the pressure this time? Finland wants to prove to the world that it was not a regular occurrence. If things start badly, will the Finnish players be able to handle it?
It’s tempting to go with the big name of Eeli Tolvanen, but I am picking a player that is in the tournament a year ahead of time: Anton Lundell. The big forward can play both on the wing or at centre and skates well for his big frame. With that size and power, he is well suited to keeping the puck away from his opponents and setting up passes to players in a good position. His shot is good and he likes to use it — a lot. His hockey IQ is also very good.
It’s not difficult to project this team to be a success. They have been on a roll this fall, improving with every game played, and the performance in the Czech Republic in November makes this team stand out among the European challengers. Even Sweden’s coach Tomas Montén admitted to us that Finland was the pick to challenge the North American teams for gold.