After being eliminated from the 2017 WJC tournament without even clearing the group stage, Team Finland is hungry for another gold medal.
They became the first team to miss the quarter-finals when entering the tournament as defending champions, but they survived relegation and are back to reclaim their status as one of the top hockey nations.
Last year, after the team was officially eliminated from medal contention with a final round robin game remaining, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association fired the entire coaching staff. Jussi Ahokas, who took over for their final games, is returning this year as the head coach.
With both Canada and USA to face in the group stage, Finland will be facing tougher competition early in the tournament than they did last year, when they barely escaped relegation to Division IA. Luckily, their toughest opponents are spread out, as the Finns will face Canada on Day 1, December 26, with games against Denmark and Slovakia before finishing up with USA on December 31.
Team Finland final roster
|#||Player||Position||League||Current Team (NHL)|
|#||Player||Position||League||Current Team (NHL)|
|1||Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen||G||Mestis||LeKi (BUF)|
|30||Lassi Lehtinen||G||Mestis||KeuPa HT|
|2||Miro Heiskanen||D||Liiga||HIFK (DAL)|
|4||Robin Salo||D||Liiga||Sport (NYI)|
|5||Eemeli Räsänen||D||OHL||Kingston Frontenacs (TOR)|
|6||Juuso Välimäki||D||WHL||Tri-City Americans (CGY)|
|7||Olli Juolevi||D||Liiga||TPS (VAN)|
|23||Urho Vaakanainen||D||Liiga||SaiPa (BOS)|
|28||Henri Jokiharju||D||WHL||Portland Winterhawks (CHI)|
|36||Kasper Kotkansalo||D||NCAA||Boston University (DET)|
|9||Janne Kuokkanen||F||AHL||Charlotte Checkers (CAR)|
|12||Otto Koivula||F||Liiga||Ilves (NYI)|
|13||Kristian Vesalainen||F||Liiga||HPK (WPG)|
|15||Joona Koppanen||F||Liiga||Ilves (BOS)|
|20||Eeli Tolvanen||F||KHL||Jokerit (NSH)|
|21||Markus Nurmi||F||Liiga||TPS (OTT)|
|22||Aapeli Räsänen||F||NCAA||Boston College (EDM)|
|27||Joni Ikonen||F||Liiga||KalPa (MTL)|
|32||Aleksi Heponiemi||F||WHL||Swift Current Broncos (FLA)|
|34||Rasmus Kupari||F||Mestis||Kokkolan Hermes (2018)|
Finland only has nine returning players this year, but it’s a safe bet that that will prove less of a weakness than it’s been in the past. Those returning are the likes of Olli Juolevi, Juuso Välimäki, and Miro Heiskanen, who have been strong members of past U20 and U18 teams alike.
Back at 2016’s World Junior Championship, Juolevi scored nine points in seven games to help Finland to a gold medal. In the following 18 months, he failed to make as big an impact as the Vancouver Canucks had hoped, but rather than going back to the OHL’s London Knights for the 2017-18 season, he opted for some time back home. This year, with Liiga’s TPS, he seems to have found his groove again. He is the only member of that 2016 team still on the roster, and it will be his last World Junior Championship.
In 2016, not long after Juolevi celebrated his U20 gold medal, Jusso Välimäki captained Finland’s U18 team to gold as well. Many of his teammates from that tournament are joining him on this year’s U20 roster, for which he will also wear the “C.”
Not only was 2017’s third overall pick in the NHL Draft voted the U18 WJC’s “Best Defenceman” on a Finland team that claimed the silver medal last year, he also played for Finland’s U20 WJC team. Smooth-skating Miro Heiskanen, the 18-year-old who is expected to join the Dallas Stars as soon as next season, will play a big role.
All three of Finland’s goalies are tournament rookies, but Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is no stranger to the international spotlight. He was a member of Finland’s gold- and silver-medal-winning U18 teams for the past two years and was named one of Finland’s top three players of the tournament when they won gold in 2016.
The main sore point for this Finland team (besides last year’s abysmal ninth place finish), may be the forwards who got away. Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine are both just 19, which would make them the only two members of 2016’s gold medal team eligible to return to the tournament aside from Juolevi. However, their respective NHL clubs obviously were not interested in releasing them this year any more than they were last year.
Their loss leaves the Finns without a lot of scoring power up front, which was a big part of their struggle at last year’s tournament. The 2017 squad scraped by on a goal differential of +2 — a glaring decline from their +13 in 2016.
Aapeli Räsänen was named one of Finland’s three players of the tournament last year, and he also received the honour for U18 WJC the previous year. However, as a pass-first player who excels more at setting up goals than scoring them, he will need a shooter to complement his talents in the offensive zone.
Team Finland is going to need production from the kids. Without a lot of proven scorers, it will be up to the young forwards (both new and returning) to up the ante and provide more goal support than the team could last year.
If Montreal Canadiens prospect Joni Ikonen can live up to his achievements at last year’s U18 tournament (4G, 4A in 7 GP), it will go a long way towards helping the team. However, he’s had some struggles against tougher competition, so he may be a wild card in this tournament, where the competition will definitely be tough.
Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville’s 2017 first-rounder, already has 32 points in 39 games with Jokerit in the KHL, and as a 17-year-old in last year’s tragic WJC campaign, he still managed to be a point-per-game player and one of Finland’s few bright spots on the scoring front.
Returning winger Kristian Vesalainen was also drafted in the first round this past summer, by the Winnipeg Jets. At 6’3”, Vesalainen is big and he knows it, using his size and strength to win puck battles and fight for space in front of the net. He already has an impressive 19 points with HPK this year, and he should have no problem improving on his seven points from last year’s tournament.
Group A won’t be an cakewalk, but look for Finland to battle their way back to the quarter-finals this year, and possibly even further.