Can Team Finland be the first team in over 10 years to win back-to-back gold medals at the IIHF World Junior Championships? This roster definitely has the talent. They are in Pool A where their biggest, and arguably their only, competition is Team Sweden. It’s very possible, and the team will be expecting nothing less.
With the roster set, Team Finland is ready to go and hit the ice. They’ll be without one of their top players in this age group in Anton Lundell, who’s out with an injury. They’ll need others to step up, starting from their stud in the net, out to the projected 2021 number-one draft pick – one of the youngest players in the tournament.
Ahead of another exciting World Juniors tournament, The Hockey Writers takes a look at the reigning champions 23-man roster.
Justus Annunen, Jasper Patrikainen, Kari Piiroinen
Surprising to no one, goaltender Justus Annunen is set to be the starter for Finland. The Colorado Avalanche prospect has been dominating the Liiga in his rookie season with Kärpät, repping a 1.26 goals against average (GAA) and a .947 save percentage (SV%). He even had a stretch of four straight shutouts in October – 303 minutes and five seconds without letting a puck in. Despite being injured recently, the Finnish squad has faith in the young netminder. As long as he’s healthy, he should be one of the best goalies in the tournament.
Annunen’s backup is between Jasper Patrikainen and Kari Piiroinen. Patrikainen will likely get the edge here as he’s a more experienced goaltender, backing up Annunen at the 2018 World Under-18 Hockey Championship where Finland won a gold medal. Patrikainen isn’t having the greatest season, with a 3.65 GAA and a .892 SV% in 16 games in the Mestis with the Peliitat, and a 3.20 GAA and .875 SV% in his lone game with the Liiga’s Pelicans.
Piiroinen will be the third netminder, but I’d peg him as the better goalie of the two backups. Playing in 18 games so far with the Windsor Spitfires, the netminder has a 3.40 GAA and .882 SV%. He also played for Finland in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August, backstopping the team for two games with a 2.98 GAA and .906 SV%.
I wouldn’t expect Patrikainen or Piiroinen to get many starts unless Annunen goes down with an injury. It will be his net as long as he can be in it.
Santeri Hatakka, Ville Heinola, Anttoni Honka, Mikko Kokkonen, Kim Nousiainen, Peetro Seppälä, Lassi Thomson, Toni Utunen
The team’s number one defenseman is Winnipeg Jets’ prospect Ville Heinola. He’ll be on the top power-play unit, he’ll see some penalty kill minutes, and you can bet that he’ll be on this ice when the game is on the line. As a returning player to the World Juniors, he’ll be a leader on this team. At that previous event, he had a goal and an assist in five games – along with a gold medal. He knows what it takes to win, and you can bet he’ll be showing the team what he knows.
This Finnish group should have one of the most offensive defence units in the tournament, with Ottawa Senators’ Lassi Thomson, Los Angeles Kings’ Kim Nousiainen, and Carolina Hurricanes’ Anttoni Honka. All three are offensively minded. Thomson has a wicked shot that should compliment Heinola on the top line and on the power play, and Nousiainen and Honka could both see time there are well.
Vancouver Canucks’ Toni Utunen is arguably the best defensive-minded player of the group, who can chip in offensively at times. He’s a very smart player that should have a big impact in this event. Another defensive player on the backend will be Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mikko Kokkonen. He’s a bit more of a two-way defender who will likely be on the bottom pairing.
The defensive unit is rounded out by Peetro Seppälä and Santeri Hatakka. Seppälä is a more defensive-minded player but is a good passer with some solid skating. Likely a depth player on this defensive unit, he should see some time on the penalty kill as well.
Hatakka is an interesting one and could surprise many in the tournament. The San Jose Sharks prospect is a great skater and is solid at both ends of the ice. He was recently named the top defenseman in the U20 Four Nations Tournament and should show why at the World Juniors. He loves to jump into the rush and while not exactly an offensive catalyst, he can contribute in clutch moments.
Thomson will be the captain of this squad, with Utunen receiving an “A.”
Eemil Erholtz, Lenni Killinen, Rasmus Kupari, Matias Maccelli, Joonas Oden, Mikko Petman, Patrik Puistla, Sampo Ranta, Aatu Räty, Aku Räty, Sampo Ranta, Kristian Tanus
As mentioned, the loss of Lundell is a big blow to this team. But there’s still plenty of talent on this roster, and Lundell will get another chance to compete in this tournament next year. Along with Lundell, the team cut Roni Hirvonen and Samuel Salonen for players that I thought would make the team.
The lone returning forward from this group is Rasmus Kupari, who is actually participating in his third World Juniors. The Kings’ prospect has a goal and four assists through 12 games in his two years in the tournament, a total that should rise with him on the top line. He already has a gold medal from last year’s event, he’d love to add another. He’ll be the second alternate captain for this group.
On the left of Kupari, expect to see offensive weapon Arizona Coyotes’ Matias Maccelli, who has dominated the USHL is recent years and has turned his focus on the Liiga this year – where he has 10 goals, 15 assists and 25 points in 26 games. The right side might be up for grabs, but it through the preliminary games, it looks like Hurricanes prospect Lenni Killinen has it for now.
One of the focuses of this team should be on Aatu Räty, the centreman who is the projected first-overall pick in 2021. Räty is one of the youngest players in this tournament, but should still be able to impress. He’ll likely be paired with his brother, Aku Räty, a Coyotes’ prospect. The two have shown great chemistry before and should again in this tournament.
Despite Hurricanes’ prospect Patrik Puistola coming into camp with an injury, it looks like he’s healed up and ready to go. The last thing this team needed was another top player held out of the event with an injury. Puistola should be a top-six winger, bringing his offense to the group. I wouldn’t count him out for the top line either.
Chicago Blackhawks’ Antti Saarela and the Colorado Avalanche’s Sampo Ranta round out the NHL-affiliated prospects, with Saarela having a chance to be in the top-six. Undrafted Kristian Tanus and Joonas Oden are two more top-six possibilities, while Ville Petman and Eemil Erholtz will fill in the bottom two lines.
The Bottom Line
This is a dangerous team. They have offense written all over them and you should expect nothing less in the tournament. They’ll have to get through Sweden, but this team should be destined to find themselves in the championship game once again.
From Kupari, Maccelli, Puistola up front to Heinola, Thomson, and Honka in the back, this is not a team you want to give up chances to. On top of having one of the best goalies in the event, this is a team to watch.