Teemu Forever & The Dearth of Finnish Superstars

Back in May, the Anaheim Ducks were aggressive and re-signed their second line center Saku Koivu. The 16-year veteran signed his third pact in four seasons with the Ducks mainly because they wanted him. A former captain of the historic Montreal Canadiens, Koivu certainly boasts loyalty as one of his finer characteristics. The Ducks have been good to him, and he in turn returned the favor.

One can’t help but think that Koivu’s signing was added motivation to further recruit longtime friend and linemate Teemu Selanne back to Southern California. Anaheim still carries a very talented core with the ‘Big Three’ of Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf, supplemented by veterans like Koivu and up-and-comers like Devante Smith-Pelly, Kyle Palmieri, and Nick Bonino. Enticing Selanne to return should be easy, as long as he still wants to play hockey.

Should Selanne decide to lace them up for his 20th NHL season, it would be something special. Not only is he a first ballot Hall of Famer, but he’s also an icon in the industry. But more than that, he represents a rarity in his homeland: a superstar.

Selanne was a first round pick back in 1998 and certainly did not disappoint the Winnipeg Jets when they took such a risk. As a 22-year-old he shattered rookie records by scoring 76 tallies– a record that should be safe for decades. Through good times and bad he managed to uphold his status as an icon.

Koivu, similarly, followed a parallel trajectory. No, he didn’t break any records, but he followed Selanne as a first round selection in 1993 despite no other Finnish-born player taking those honors for five years. He fought through cancer and kept his career alive to this day, handling his spotlit NHL tenure with aplomb.

Together, these two friends became two of the most prominent and special players to ever represent blue and white. They sit first and fourth, respectively, in scoring among countrymen, but moreover they remain a rare breed. Since being drafted hundreds of other Finns have been given a chance at the NHL but very few make the cut, and even fewer achieve superstar status. Are these Finnish icons the last of their archetype?

By s.yume (originally posted to Flickr as Finland vs. Germany) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Volatile Drafting and the International Scene

The NHL Draft is a crap-shoot, but the Finnish portion of it seems particularly volatile.

Selanne wasn’t the first Finnish superstar, that title belongs to the immortal Jari Kurri. But he was, arguably, the first can’t-miss Finnish prospect to pan out in the big leagues. With names like Kurri, Selanne, and Tomas Sandstrom in the back of general managers’ minds, they felt more comfortable taking risks on such an unknown commodity. And even then, since 1998 only 21 of 250 Finnish draftees were taken in the first round.

The below table outlines the variation in Finnish draft years.

Certain years — particularly the more recent ones — have been relatively weak, while the early Noughties saw a boom in both overall players drafted and top selections.

Generally speaking, as is the case with most countries, prospects come in crops. During the 1999 and 2000 IIHF World U18 Championship, Finland took the gold, which led to an uptick around that time as more players became draft eligible. The same can be said for the 2004 NHL Draft, which didn’t quite see an increase in players drafted, but rather an increase in first round picks. An unstoppable troika of Lauri Korpikoski, Lauri Tukonen, and Petteri Nokelainen simply dominated the competition during that year’s U20 Championship, leading to all three going in the top 20 picks. This trend can be used for most countries, but for Finland in particular it showed the eagerness to jump on the next Selanne, Kurri, or Koivu.

As far as international success is concerned, Team Finland has plenty. They’ve won a medal in four of the last five Olympic games and hold five medals since 1988. By that same token, their record in the World Championships is equally impressive as they took the gold in 2011 and placed third or better in 11 of the last 21 years.

In short, Finland breeds winners. But are they still capable of having one player such as a Selanne stand out and carry his team?

By Keith Allison (originally posted to Flickr as 00090755) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Agitators, Pests, and the Ultimate Role Player

One big reason for Finland’s success on the international stage is their team game. All 18 skaters play a cohesive game that emphasizes both responsibility and physical play. They are tough to play against, and with the help of their more skilled teammates, they can find the timely goal. Their system in itself is a fantastic recipe for success — one that successful teams like the New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes, in essence, emulated this past season.

However, being tough to play against doesn’t necessarily promote skill. Of the 26 Finnish players to skate in the NHL last season, only 14 were forwards. And of those 14, only eight — Ville Leino, Selanne, Koivu, Mikko Koivu, Olli Jokinen, Jussi Jokinen, Valtteri Filppula, and Tuomo Ruutu — contributed in a primary or secondary scoring role. The remaining six toiled between the third and fourth lines, filling in if needed on a scoring line. Players like Niklas Hagman, or Jarrko Ruutu filled prominent roles as agitators before the salary cap but now they are either plugs in the NHL or, in Ruutu’s case, former NHLers.

The days of Esa Tikkanen, Ville Nieminen or one of the Ruutus getting under the sweater of opponents while chirping in some unknown language are very much in the past. Successful teams no longer need that role filled, and if they do, they use their kids.

Who can really afford to pay a 10-goal scorer an excess of $2 million in a salary-strapped era?

One could argue that championship teams need said ‘glue’ guys, but having team grit appears to be the way to go. Take the Los Angeles Kings as an example. Their third line consisted of two-way center Jarret Stoll, former first round pick Trevor Lewis, and a strong rookie in Dwight King. All three of those players can play with a higher ceiling than their role, but they still managed to carry out their assignments perfectly.

So, in essence, the salary cap limited the need for two-way pests in general. The Ruutus, Tikkanens, and Nieminens no longer apply in this new era not only because of their price, but because other players can play the same game with potential for more.

Mikko Koivu Wild Captain

(Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE)

The Next Wave

The closest thing to a new superstar has to be Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu, who is capable of making the most of out of his linemates. But outside of the younger Koivu brother, we have inconsistent scorers like Filppula or Olli Jokinen or consistent second liners like Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu, and Ville Leino.

This dearth may be due to the KHL’s role in Finland’s hockey operations. It also could be do to the sheer lack of non-North American impact players. The ice is smaller, the game more physical, and there really isn’t much of a chance for a player without pedigree or success overseas to jump the pond over the the NHL. And to top that off, rumors persist that teams from the SM-liiga may eventually join Europe’s highest league, which would further complicate Finns making the transition.

In spite of the odds against grooming the next Selanne, there remains a hope. Joel Armia and Mikael Granlund were both top 15 picks in the last two drafts while 17-year-old Teuvo Teravainen may creep into the top five this season. But what is stopping any of these kids from becoming the next rendition of Tukonen or Jesse Niinimaki?

There is only one Teemu. Teemu forever.

3 Comments

  1. Ahem… Pekka Rinne?

  2. Teemu was first round pick in 1988 not 1998 :)

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