Since 2014 Finland has participated in five finals, winning an incredible four gold medals. Along with the silver from losing the final last year, the country also has a bronze from 2021 (and a fourth-place finish in 2020). While there was also the debacle of 2016, it is clear that Finland has emerged as a top nation for the World Junior Championships in the last eight years, and is a team to beat.
However, looking at the team this year, I am doubtful that Finland can achieve the same success as before. The two things that will help them do so would be the fact that Russia isn’t participating and Sweden has a team that might actually be worse.
While Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Oliver Kapanen has played well in Liiga this year, he isn’t the player that you want as your first-line centre going into the medal rounds. Kapanen scores in batches, he goes hot or cold, and you rarely know which offensive player will show up. Defensively Kapanen is strong, and that’s where his value is.
Niko Huuhtanen and Joakim Kemell will provide the firepower, but Brad Lambert hasn’t really shown his offensive talent on the North American side of the pond just yet, and Finland would need Lambert to show up in order to challenge for the medals once more.
Team Finland final roster
|Player||Position||League||Current Team (NHL)|
|Player||Position||League||Current Team (NHL)|
|Kokko Niklas||G||Liiga||Kärpät Oulu (SEA)|
|Koskenvuo Aku||G||NCAA||Harvard University (VAN)|
|Ervasti Kalle||D||Liiga||Lukko Rauma|
|Heimosalmi Aleksi||D||Liiga||Ässät Pori (CAR)|
|Kiviharju Aron||D||U20 SM-sarja||TPS Turku|
|Malinen Aleksi||D||Liiga||JYP Jyväskylä (NYI)|
|Ruotsalainen Ville||D||U20 SM-sarja||KalPa Kuopio|
|Salin Otto||D||Liiga||HIFK Helsinki (LAK)|
|Suomi Jimi||D||Liiga||TPS Turku|
|Vilén Topias||D||Liiga||Pelicans Lahti (NJD)|
|Huuhtanen Niko||F||Liiga||Jukurit Mikkeli (TBL)|
|Hämeenaho Lenni||F||Liiga||Ässät Pori|
|Kapanen Konsta||F||U20 SM-sarja||KalPa Kuopio|
|Kapanen Oliver||F||Liiga||KalPa Kuopio (MTL)|
|Kaskimäki Aleksanteri||F||Liiga||HIFK Helsinki (STL)|
|Kemell Joakim||F||Liiga||JYP Jyväskylä (NSH)|
|Koivunen Ville||F||Liiga||Kärpät Oulu (CAR)|
|Lambert Brad||F||AHL||Manitoba Moose (WPG)|
|Lassila Jere||F||Liiga||JYP Jyväskylä|
|Miettinen Verner||F||USHL||Fargo Force|
|Nyman Jani||F||Liiga||Ilves Tampere (SEA)|
|Päivärinta Sami||F||Liiga||Lukko Rauma|
|Rönni Topi||F||Liiga||Tappara Tampere (CGY)|
|Väisänen Kalle||F||Liiga||TPS Turku (NYR)|
Starting from the top, neither goalie stands out. It is uncertain who can be that game-stealing — or tournament-stealing — goalie that Finland can build their defensive system around. While there is no standout first goalie, the Finnish coaching team can play the hot goalie, or even play the goalie that has the best chance against certain opposition. It creates opportunities but I would argue that it mostly carries uncertainty.
The defence will probably revolve around Aleksi Heimosalmi and Otto Salin, especially since Salin has impressed on a terrible HIFK team this season. The Los Angeles Kings prospect is a more offensive-minded defender with good skills that has played well defensively this year. Heimosalmi was the more tutored prospect and continues his strong progress in Ässet.
The Finnish hockey culture predicts a solid defence where everyone knows exactly what to do in a way that everyone is a role payer. This is the strength of the defence, even with many unknowns in it. It’s backed up with quite a few defensively aware centres in the forward group.
Kapanen will be the forward most Canadiens fans will have their eyes on, for obvious reasons. His season started well and he has led rookies/U20 players in scoring at different times this fall. The problem is that there is a lack of consistency in Kapanen’s offensive game, due to being a bit sheltered in KalPa.
Other notable players among the forward group are Lambert, Kemell and Lenni Hämeenaho, a 2023 NHL draft prospect who is a point behind Kapanen in scoring in Liiga. While early projections have him in the middle of the second round, a strong WJC could have him break into the first round.
The system is Finland's strength. Everyone knows what to do and when to do it. It becomes especially true when they enter the competition with a bit of an underwhelming team, at least on paper. Thanks to playing a game where the sum of the parts is better than the individual parts by themselves, Finland has gone from a team that other teams looked to swipe aside at the quarterfinal level, to try and avoid until a potential final.
Tomi Lämsä comes highly qualified for the U20 job. He has coached Salavat Yulaev for the last five seasons in the KHL, an achievement in itself as he is only 43 years old. It will be his first year coaching an international team but I expect his coaching to be up to a high standard.
The team is a bit anonymous. The lack of calibre players such as Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, and Jesse Puljujärvi is absent from this team. The star power comes in Lambert and Kemell and behind them there are a lot of role players. Finland will need at least one of them to step out of the shadows and show that the scoring can come from different players.
One could also argue that the goalies are a weakness but with the system that Finland plays, I can see the goalies being solid. As long as the defence doesn’t try to get too creative. However, it begs the question of how it will work if Finland needs to chase a game and have to rely on goalies when they push forward. This might be why “smaller” nations look at the Finland game as a game of opportunity.
I think Finland will end up playing in the medal rounds, most likely facing Sweden in a bronze medal game. At that point, it will be who wants it more as both teams will be disappointed to not have the chance to play for gold.
However, it isn’t as strong a Finnish team as in previous years so I wouldn’t be surprised if Slovakia manages to steal a point in the group stage.