For a small nation, Finland continues to produce some of hockey’s most exciting young prospects, and the defending champions will be banking on a new roster of juniors to finally win consecutive World Junior Championships. In Helsinki, the 2016 edition Team Finland juniors stormed through the competition, earning only one loss, to Russia - which was avenged in the final game. That gold medal game was a perfect example of the awesomeness that is the WJC. Back and forth scoring, a last minute goal and a thrilling overtime victory.
This year, however, Finland has last eight of its top ten scorers from the previous tournament, among the most notable are the 2016 Championship MVP, Jesse Puljujarvi, NHL rookie sensation Patrik Laine, and Sebastian Aho. Defenceman Olli Juolevi scored nine points in seven games and is the top producing player returning for the 2017 tournament.
Finland finds itself in Group A along with Sweden, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Switzerland. In an exhibition game against Canada leading up to the WJC, Finland simply did not show up in the first period and chased for the rest of the game, ultimately losing 5-0 and looking very ordinary in the process.
|Markus Ruusu||G||6'2"||2015 #163||Mestis||JYP 2|
|Olli Juolevi||D||6'3"||2016 #5||OHL||London Knights|
|Jesper Mattila||D||5'11"||2017||NCAA||Boston College|
|Vili Saarijärvi||D||5'10"||2015 #73||OHL||Mississauga Steelheads|
|Juuso Välimäki||D||6'2"||2017||WHL||Tri-City Americans|
|Kasper Björkqvist||RW/LW||6'1"||2016 #61||NCAA||Providence College|
|Henrik Borgström||C||6'3"||2016 #23||NCAA||Denver University|
|Otto Koivula||LW/RW||6'3"||2016 #120||Liiga||Ilves|
|Janne Kuokkanen||C/LW||6'1"||2016 #43||OHL||London Knights|
|Julius Mattila||C||5'11"||2017||NCAA||Boston College|
|Julius Nättinen||C||6'2"||2015 #59||OHL||Windsor Spitfires|
|Petrus Palmu||LW/RW||5'7"||2017||OHL||Owen Sound Attack|
|Aapeli Räsänen||C||6'0"||2016 #153||USHL||Sioux City Musketeers|
|Eeli Tolvanen||LW||5'10"||2017||USHL||Sioux City Musketeers|
The final roster will be announced on December 24th.
Having skilled prospects at each position is a bonus for a squad losing top tier players like Laine and Puljujarvi. Up front, Eeli Tolvanen is over a point-per-game producer in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers, and is a consensus top ten prospect heading towards the 2017 draft. Tolvanen was part of Finland’s gold medal team at the under 18 championships. Also on that team was Kristian Vesalainen, who has been an offensive spark plug for Finland’s national program. Vesalainen has yet to translate his offensive productivity to his role with Frolunda, but then it’s very common for younger players to get less ice time in the SHL, let alone on the championship team. The big bodied winger is also likely going to be selected in the first round at the upcoming draft.
On the blue line, Juolevi hopes to repeat as WJC champion. He’s heading into the tournament hot, the London Knights’ defenceman has 21 points in 26 games played this year. The Canucks draft pick is the best player on Finland’s back end, and will be counted on as a main driver of the team’s offence.
All three of these players have all won at other levels or international play, and that kind of experience is invaluable in all-or-nothing hockey. There are some players who are teammates in league competition, but the overall mix of leagues and teams represented on Team Finland will act as both a strength and a disadvantage, bringing different styles to the table but being less familiar with one another as a unit.
The obvious challenge for Finland is the changeover between last year and this year. The blue and white will ice a roster with no more than five returning faces. For a defending champion, that’s a massive blow, especially when considering the pure shooting skill of Laine and Puljujarvi. Finland has built a strong national program over the last decade and has won two World Junior Championships in the last three years. The caliber of international competition put forth by Finland has been consistently talented and difficult to play against but in a tournament with little ramp-up time and a short condensed schedule will offer no breathing room to a team looking to build chemistry.
Despite nine players on the roster who currently play in North America, the Finnish system lends itself to the larger ice surface and most players named to the squad are more familiar with European sized ice, which could become a factor in Toronto/Montreal.
After roster camps and exhibition play, Finland doesn’t necessarily look like a team poised to repeat as champions. They have many new faces and not nearly as much NHL-ready talent in the lineup. What Finland does have in its favour is strong team play, veterans to carry the load up front and on the blue line, and championship pedigree. Players who have won in the past know what it takes and are mentally better equipped to handle big pressure situations.
As boxing day rolls around, it will be important to remember that anything can happen when they drop the puck, and Finland, despite losing its key players from last year, is still strong enough to challenge most nations.