Last year’s World Junior Championship was one to forget for Finland. They had only one win in the entire tournament as they lost against the Slovaks and later in the quarterfinal against Sweden to exit the tournament without a medal. They have struggled to score goals, tallied only five in four group stage games. For their home tournament this year they made sure they have enough fire power on the roster and the addition of Mikko Rantanen and Kasperi Kapanen could really make the difference the Finns are seeking for.
They should be right in the mix for a medal and have an impressive group of forwards this year. Next to the above mentioned “veterans” they are playing with 2016-Draft standouts Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine, both potential top five picks. The hype around Laine/Puljujarvi in Finland is comparable to Seguin/Hall and the country expects big things from the two.
Finland should also have the slightly better defenceman group compared to last year, but indications are there that the goaltending position could be an issue this time. U18 All-Star goaltender Veini Vehvilainen surprisingly remained undrafted this year and will face another tough test in this tournament. Watch him climb the draft rankings if he should have another strong junior championship.
juolevi, saarijarvi, aho, hintz, laine, lammikko, nattinen, puljujarvi, rantanen, kapanen, saarela.
— Maxwell Marko (@maxwellmarko) December 20, 2015
One of the questions marks remains how the Finns deal with the pressure of the home crowd. Additionally, Laine, Puljujarvi and Juolevi are some of the team’s core players and are all three only draft eligible this year.
3 Lesser Known Players to Watch:
Olli Juolevi (D, London Knights, Top prospect 2016)
While everyone talks about hyped Laine and Puljujarvi, we should not forget about London Knights defender Olli Juolevi. The Helsinki-native is also considered a lock for the first round, some pre-draft rankings see him even as high as sixth overall.
You never know, but I have my eyes locked on defense (again) couple guys I like are Olli Juolevi, and Jake Bean https://t.co/EsTh77R6C6
— Kyle M. (@KyleWIIM) December 4, 2015
Juolevi is in his first season with the London Knights and leads the team in defencemen points. With his playing style he draws some comparison to former Knight defenceman Olli Maatta. “That (a Maatta facsimile) is exactly what we’re hoping for,” London GM Basil McRae said. “He’s a highly-rated kid (in the first round of the 2016 NHL draft), so we’ll see.” The big sized defender will probably see a lot of ice time against the opponent team’s top line.
Sebastian Aho (LW, Karpat, 35th Carolina Hurricanes)
Forward Sebastian Aho from Finnish top team Karpat was selected 35th overall this year by the Carolina Hurricanes. His stock was steadily rising since then and Aho could surprise everyone in the shadow of Laine, Puljujarvi, Rantanen and Co. He plays dominant this year in the Finnish Liiga and scored already 21 points in 26 games. Aho has a high compete level and is an outstanding puckhandler and skater. I do look forward to see him play in Helsinki, he could be a nice addition on one of Finland’s top line and is currently one of few future hopes for Hurricane fans.
Aleksi Saarela (C/LW, Assat, 89th New York Rangers)
Rangers prospect and 89th overall selection from this year Aleksi Saarela is another Finnish player who is already excelling in the highest professional Finnish League. He has combined for 15 points this season with Assat and played already in 93 league games for that club. Earlier this year at the U18 Worlds in Switzerland, Saarela was the third most productive Finn and had some offensively dominant games.
He plays with a high energy level and literally flies over the ice and produces a lot of offence. Saarela was called a bonafide hockey prodigy by fellow THW draft guru Ross Bonander. But as described in his article, Saarela’s stock stopped rising lately. Still, the Helsinki-native has a lot of skill and adds depth to the Finnish roster.
Kasperi Kapanen (RW/LW, Toronto Marlies, 22th Pittsburgh Penguins)
The son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins at 22nd overall last year but was part of the Phil Kessel deal that sent him to Toronto. He is still waiting to make his NHL debut and has 10 points for the Toronto Marlies in 17 games. Kapanen is a late addition for Finland, which should give them additional fire power up front and experience.
Finland to open camp Dec.13 without Kasperi Kapanen, but Marlies forward will join team later. #TMLTalk
— Kevin McGran (@kevin_mcgran) December 7, 2015
In last year’s U20 Worlds, Kapanen scored one goal in five games. He has still a lot to prove and is currently in the shadow of other prospects in the Leafs organization. He needs to deliver for the hosts and it will be interesting to see how he deals with the pressure of playing in front of the home crowd, which expects a medal from their Finnish “Lions”.
Vili Saarijarvi’s Coming out Party?
If the Detroit Red Wings are convinced of a prospect they are going to draft them, nevertheless what the odds are against the kid. They did it once more with undersized defenceman Vili Saarijarvi, who was selected in the third round this year. Saarijarvi is playing for the Flint Firebirds and is the team’s most productive defenceman.
Vili Saarijarvi: Started red-hot this year in the OHL but has cooled off. Tiny, but a sublime puck-mover. Wings gambled a 3rd rounder on him
— Derek Neumeier (@Derek_N_NHL) December 15, 2015
He had an impressive U18 and was the best Finnish defender in that tournament. His puckmoving and skating skills are outstanding and he is a dangerous weapon on the powerplay. It’s going to be interesting to see how he is doing against bigger and older opponents. If he passes the test, the Red Wings could have selected another interesting prospect outside of the first two rounds.
The pressure is on Finland as they have some of the best young players in the line-up the country has produced in a while. The additions of Rantanen and Kapanen might be just the one thing this team needed and surely takes away some pressure from the shoulders of Laine/Puljujarvi. They have a lot of firepower and I have them listed as one of the bronze medal favourites. They have to finish their group on first place though to get out of the way of a strong team in quaterfinals.
Related Team Previews:
Independent Scout covering European Hockey and Prospects for TheHockeyWriters. Located in Switzerland and blogging on www.scouting-factory.blogspot.com. Opinions on blog are my own