Finland has never won an Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey. Ever. Considering that ice hockey was first introduced to the Olympics at the 1920 Antwerp Games, that is a very long time to go without ever reaching the top of the platform. The Finnish men have however medaled in the past three competitions, taking two bronzes (’10 Vancouver, ’14 Sochi) and one silver (’06 Torino). That bodes well for the ’18 PyeongChang Games. Will the Finns finally capture that elusive gold?
Without the NHL players, there is certainly a more level playing field among the men’s teams. The problem is that the Finns still may not be the best team at this year’s Games. That being said, they have more than a handful of players who have had substantial NHL playing experience and/or are currently playing in the KHL. This is especially the case with Finland’s blueline.
The other desirable approach that the Finns are bringing to South Korea is a nice influx of youth to their roster. Two of the Finnish players are fresh from competing at the 2018 World Junior Championships in Buffalo. Now they are teenage Olympians. Both of them could prove to be difference makers for their country now just over a month later. THW takes a look at Finland’s 25-player roster for the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang:
Mikko Koskinen (SKA St. Petersburg), Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk), Karri Rämö (Jokerit Helsinki).
Mikko Koskinen is an absolute giant in net. The 29-year-old netminder stands at 6-foot-7 and over 200 pounds. He is a rather intimidating presence to see in the crease, and obviously his tremendous size leaves little room to put a puck through. The New York Islanders selected Koskinen with the 31st pick of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. However, his four career NHL games cannot be considered great success. Koskinen posted a winning record of 2-1, but his numbers beyond that were really rough with a 4.33 goals against average and a paltry .873 save percentage. Where Koskinen has had an abundance of success is in the KHL. Playing for SKA St. Petersburg, he has backstopped the team to two Gagarin Cups in 2014-15 and 2016-17. For the ’15 Cup-run, Koskinen came to St. Petersburg via Novosibirsk, and was simply brilliant in the KHL playoffs. In 22 games he had a 1.61 GAA and a .936 SV%.
#Karjalaturnaus parhaat pelaajat: maalivahti Mikko Koskinen, puolustaja Jakub Nakladal (CZE), hyökkääjä Mikhail Grikorenko, RUS. Turnauksen kokonaisyleisömäärä hieno 46 110. Tilastot ja tulokset: https://t.co/4yw3i6hpc3 #Leijonat pic.twitter.com/S7FWX0yH8y
— Leijonat (@leijonat) November 12, 2017
The Finnish goaltender with the most NHL experience is Karri Rämö. He played in the league during two separate stints from 2006-07 through 2015-16, but that would include four years in the KHL. In total, Rämö has 159 games of NHL experience under his belt while having suited up for the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames. Ultimately his NHL record ended up being 60-63-18, with five shutouts, a 2.85 GAA and a .906 SV%. Rämö currently plays in his homeland but with the KHL’s Jokerit. It would not be a bad idea to have him be the starter in PyeongChang, but we shall see.
Juha Metsola is our third option for Finland’s goalmouth. He is really not a sizable goaltender at all – just 5-foot-10 and a little over 150 pounds. However, Metsola is known for his very quick movements and catlike reflexes. While never drafted by an NHL team, the 28-year-old has done very well in the KHL and in Finland’s SM-liiga. Currently playing for Amur Khabarovsk, Metsola has 2.26 GAA and a .923 SV% in 50 games this current 2017-18 KHL season.
Miro Heiskanen (IFK Helsinki), Juuso Hietanen (Dynamo Moscow), Tommi Kivistö (Jokerit Helsinki), Miika Koivisto (Kärpät Oulu), Lasse Kukkonen (Kärpät Oulu), Mikko Lehtonen (Tappara Tampere), Sami Lepistö (Jokerit Helsinki), Atte Ohtamaa (Ak Bars Kazan).
Miro Heiskanen is one of the two youngsters who competed in Buffalo for the World Juniors. An incredible skater, the Dallas Stars made him the third overall selection of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Even though Heiskanen is a modest 6-foot and 170 pounds, he does not shy away from throwing his weight around. Playing in SM-liiga for HIFK, he has generated 11 goals and eight assists for 19 points in 25 games this season. At the World Juniors he played solidly too, contributing a pair of assists in five games in a sixth place finish for Finland. He is a very fluid skater and controls the puck better than most. Heiskanen will benefit greatly in PyeongChang by having so many veteran D-men to work with.
One of those vets is 36-year-old Lasse Kukkonen. While never completely catching on in the NHL, this defensive minded blueliner has had a very long, successful hockey career. Believe it or not, Kukkonen will be playing in his fourth Winter Olympics. He has served as Kärpät’s captain for a number of years now. Kukkonen has long been one of the most underrated players for Finland. His defensive play has been a key ingredient for the Finns gaining a medal in each Olympics that he has played in. There has to be some hope that Kukkonen can make it four for four. In 159 NHL games for the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers Kukkonen scored six goals and 16 assists, and ended his NHL career as a plus-three. He can be counted on to control the back portion of the ice and keep things calm for Finland. No surprise either that Kukkonen is team captain.
Miten olympialaiset eroavat MM-kisoista? Entä valmistautuminen kisoihin? Miten tärkeää on voittaa oma alkulohko, kun ottelutahti on tiukka? Kolmen olympiamitalin Lasse Kukkonen erikoishaastattelussa: https://t.co/ifSxF2gPEN #Leijonat #olympiakausi #OlympicTeamFI pic.twitter.com/NaV7n8txEI
— Leijonat (@leijonat) January 22, 2018
Atte Ohtamaa is 30 years old and brings the physical presence to Finland’s defense corps. At 6-foot-3 and over 220 pounds, Ohtamaa is a workhouse and enjoys throwing his weight around. He has played in the KHL since the 2014-15 season, first for Jokerit and now currently for Ak Bars Kazan. This 2017-18 season in Kazan, Ohtamaa has three goals and three assists in 45 games. During his many years in SM-liiga prior to the KHL, he won three Finnish championships for Kärpät – in 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2013-14.
Marko Anttila (Jokerit Helsinki), Jonas Enlund (Sibir Novosibirsk), Teemu Hartikainen (Salavat Yulayev Ufa), Joonas Kemppainen (Salavat Yulayev Ufa), Petri Kontiola (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl), Jarno Koskiranta (SKA St. Petersburg), Julius Junttila (Kärpät Oulu), Jani Lajunen (HC Lugano), Sakari Manninen (Örebro HK), Oskar Osala (Metallurg Magnitogorsk), Jukka Peltola (Tappara Tampere), Mika Pyörälä (SC Bern), Veli-Matti Savinainen (Yugra Khanty-Mansisk), Eeli Tolvanen (Jokerit Helsinki).
Veli-Matti Savinainen can play either wing for Finland, and will be counted on to be more of a defensive-specialist. He excels at both ends of the ice, and because of this he will likely be Finland’s most utilized penalty-killer. Even though Savinainen is primarily focused with defense, he came out of nowhere last year in SM-liiga for Tappara when he scored 30 goals and 26 assists in 55 games. Those were by far career highs for him in all three categories. This year in the KHL with Yugra Khanty-Mansisk he has had numbers more like himself – nine goals and eight assists for 17 points in 48 games. Hockey games though are more often than not decided by special teams, and Finland will need Savinainen at the top of his game for any penalties they accumulate.
Sakari Manninen is a rather diminutive forward for the Finns, but he is also very quick and surefooted. At only 5-foot-7 and shy of 160 pounds, he utilizes his skating to get to openings and get the puck through. This year is Manninen’s first where he is playing outside of Finland. Suiting up for Örebro HK in the Swedish Elite League, he has put forth 10 goals and 15 assists in 42 games. An added benefit to having Manninen in the lineup is that he can play either center or wing. Having a few players on this roster with the same capability is a nice option for Finland to have.
The 30th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators, Eeli Tolvanen, played a good tournament in Buffalo at the ’18 World Juniors. While he likely would have hoped for a better one, the 18-year-old winger was still better than a point per game player. Finishing tied for first in points for Finland, Tolvanen would score a goal and five assists in five tournament games. The PyeongChang Games will be an opportunity of redemption for him, as Tolvanen could easily become one of the top performers at the Olympics. This is a chance for him to demonstrate what he can do, and to generate some offense for the Finns. If Tolvanen is putting the puck in the net a bit more than he did in Buffalo, Finland’s likelihood of obtaining a medal is increased exponentially. With Jokerit this season he has 17 goals and 17 assists in 47 games. You can believe that the Nashville Predators will be hoping for a big showing from this young man as well.
The Bottom Line
You have to like this team no matter what. While they may not be favored to win it all, Finland will certainly be a fun one to watch. There is certainly something to momentum, especially in a shorter series like the Winter Olympics. Think back to when the Finns narrowly lost to Sweden in the championship game by a score of 3-2 at the ’06 Torino Games (Lasse Kukkonen certainly remembers). They had the gold medal within their grasp, only to come up slightly short and take silver instead. The point is that they came that close because of momentum. No one expected them to even medal in a field that ended up seeing USA, Canada and Russia all fall from grace. The Finns were like a snowball rolling down a hill in Torino, and only archrival Sweden was able to stop them. Times like that are when momentum has merit.
Exciting future stars like Tolvanen and Heiskanen could be ones to get that momentum started. One of the best things about not having NHL players in PyeongChang is that there is more opportunity for young prospects like these two who will be in the NHL very soon. They will be entirely showcased in this year’s Olympics and given every opportunity to knock everyone’s socks off – that includes NHL general managers, scouts, coaches fans and future teammates back in North America. Tolvanen especially should be an exciting player at these Games.
Goaltending is interesting too for Finland. It seems unlikely that they will go with Metsola. Most would say stick with Rämö because of his proven and somewhat vast NHL experience. But in this THW writer’s eyes, the leading candidate would be Koskinen. He has played too well in the KHL to not give him the reigns, and his size alone puts forth the notion of being impenetrable.
While the Finns probably will not win gold, they should at least come away with some sort of medal. There are too many positives on this team to go back home empty handed. For Tolvanen, the World Juniors can be considered preseason now. PyeongChang is the real deal, and another opportunity to do his thing.