Finland has had an interesting run of form at recent World Junior Championships. In four of the past eight years, the country hasn’t made it to the medal round, even coming perilously close to getting relegated from the IIHF’s Top Division comprising the world’s best 10 teams. In three of the other four years, the nation has claimed the gold medal.
The titles are a testament to how strong the program has become in the past decade, and that has been reflected in the number of Finns populating NHL rosters in recent years. The rough outings point to how small the country is, with major swings in talent level from year to year depending on the strength of the small pool of players from a particular birth year.
Even with the ups and downs, it’s fair to call them one of the elite nations, vying with Canada for dominance at the event in recent times, each with three golds in the last seven years. With another title in 2021, Finland could stake its claim as the current best development nation in the world.
Team Finland final roster
|#||Player||Position||League||Current Team (NHL)|
|#||Player||Position||League||Current Team (NHL)|
|30||Joel Blomqvist||G||Mestis||Hermes (PIT)|
|1||Kari Piiroinen||G||Mestis||TUTO Hockey|
|2||Santeri Hatakka||D||Liiga||Ilves (SJ)|
|4||Ville Heinola||D||Liiga||Lukko (WPG)|
|35||Mikko Kokkonen||D||Liiga||Jukurit (TOR)|
|7||Topi Niemelä||D||Liiga||Kärpät (TOR)|
|10||Kasper Puutio||D||Liiga||Kärpät (FLA)|
|12||Matias Rajaniemi||D||Liiga||Pelicans (NYI)|
|6||Eemil Viro||D||Liiga||TPS (DET)|
|20||Samuel Helenius||F||Liiga||JYP (2021)|
|22||Roni Hirvonen||F||Liiga||Ässät (TOR)|
|13||Roby Järventie||F||Liiga||Ilves (OTT)|
|33||Brad Lambert||F||Liiga||JYP (2022)|
|15||Anton Lundell||F||Liiga||HIFK (FLA)|
|32||Matias Mäntykivi||F||Liiga||SaiPa (BOS)|
|28||Henri Nikkanen||F||Liiga||Jukurit (WPG)|
|19||Petteri Puhakka||F||Mestis||TUTO Hockey|
|21||Mikael Pyyhtiä||F||SM-sarja||TPS U20 (CBJ)|
|27||Juuso Pärssinen||F||Liiga||TPS (NSH)|
|34||Aku Räty||F||Liiga||Kärpät (ARI)|
|29||Kasper Simontaival||F||Liiga||Tappara (LAK)|
On paper, Canada has a significant edge in that competition, with a full complement of first-round NHL draft picks. Finland doesn’t have the pedigree, but they do still boast a large number of players selected by NHL clubs.
One area in which Finland should have the upper hand is in goal. Joel Blomqvist was regarded as the second-best goaltending prospect in the 2020 NHL Draft, and those projections proved correct when the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him at 51st overall. As the only goalie of the three on the roster to play in Finland’s top tier, Liiga, this season, where he’s posted a .914 save percentage in two games, he’s likely first in line for the starting role.
Patrolling in front of the crease will be a steady group of defencemen more known for their shutdown play, interspersed with a few offensively inclined partners, notably Ville Heinola and Topi Niemelä. Those two blue-liners will need to push the tempo of the game to transition from stout defence to offence.
Despite the recent focus on skills development, defensive responsibility is still the name of the game for Finnish forwards, and those on the 2021 team are no different. The roster is full of disciplined centres, physical wingers, and relentless forecheckers.
It was that type of makeup that nearly cost them their place among the elite countries back in 2017. They allowed just eight goals through the preliminary round, but only scored six of their own before a too-close-for-comfort relegation series with Latvia. Their defensive play should be enough to pull them into the playoff round this year as they (and Canada) play in the weakest of the two groups, but Finland will have its hands full when going toe-to-toe with top teams loaded with offensive firepower.
Their championship hopes will rely on a player who excels in all facets of the game. Back at the 2019 tournament, Anton Lundell was looking like the potential first overall pick for the 2020 draft, outperforming Alexis Lafrenière at the same event. The hype dissipated somewhat when Lundell was unable to attend last year’s tournament, and Lafrenière, despite missing time with an injury, stood out among his older counterparts and took home MVP honours. Lundell’s projection turned to more of a defensive specialist, and he wound up being selected 12th by the Florida Panthers in October.
Well, the offence has returned. In 17 Liiga games this season, he has 20 points, and 12 of them are goals. It turns out that part of his game was just dormant for a bit, and it’s come back to the fore in a big way. He could now pull his country into contention with his complete game, and a bit of help from the handful of other offensive players on the numerous power plays we’ll see. He may have lost his standing to Lafrenière in his draft year, but you can probably pencil Finland’s captain onto the tournament MVP short list before things even get under way.