As hockey has grown as a global sport, an increase in non-North American players in the NHL has occurred simultaneously. Although the best and largest number of players still come from North America, other nations have had an increase in representation in the NHL in recent seasons. It is one thing for a country to have a growth in the number of players in the league, but it is something different for that nation to produce successful NHL players. One country that has been experiencing a hockey rebirth is Finland.
The history of Finns in the NHL dates back to the 1926-27 season when Albert Pudas made his debut with the Toronto St. Pats. His career was short-lived, consisting of four games. Pudas, while born in Finland, was raised in Canada after he moved with his family to North America at the age of one. The first Finnish-born and trained player was Matti Hagman, who made his debut with the Boston Bruins during the 1976-77 season. Hagman also played with the Quebec Nordiques of the WHA and the Edmonton Oilers where he helped mentor Jari Kurri early in his career.
With a 41-year history, Finnish-born and trained players have made a significant impact on the NHL with names like Teemu Selanne and the aforementioned Kurri. Still, despite these players, current Finns in the NHL have accomplished something their fellow countrymen never accomplished. This season, there have been seven Finns with at least 50 points this season, the highest number in a single season in league history.
Growth of Finland in the NHL
There are 39 Finnish-born players in the NHL this season, the same amount as each of the last three seasons. This is the highest total since the 2008-09 season when 43 were in the league. With its 39 players, Finland is the fourth-most represented country in the NHL, its highest rank in the past 10 seasons. Their players equal 4.2 percent of NHL rosters this season, the highest rate since the 2008-09 season when they represented 4.4 percent of rosters.
Beyond simply being on a roster, Finns have performed this season with 821 points among the 27 skaters who have a point. That total is Finland’s highest of the past 10 seasons and already 49 more points than last season’s total with just under three weeks remaining in the regular season. Among the 17 nations represented in the NHL this season, Finland’s 821 points are the fifth-most, behind Canada, the United States, Sweden, and Russia. Finns have also accounted for 4.7 percent of all points scored this season, the nation’s highest of the past 10 seasons.
Finns Flying Higher Than Ever Before
As mentioned above, the seven Finns with at least 50 points are the nation’s most in league history. The seven who have reached that mark are Mikko Rantanen (77), Aleksander Barkov (70), Patrik Laine (68), Mikael Granlund (58), Teuvo Teravainen (58), Sebastian Aho (57), and Erik Haula (51). Rantanen’s 77 points with the Colorado Avalanche are the most for a Finnish-born player since the 2010-11 season, when Selanne scored 80 at the age of 40.
Rantanen, Barkov, and Laine, all with at least 60 points, are Finland’s most since the 2011-12 season when Valtteri Filppula, Olli Jokinen, and Selanne did it. If Granlund, Teravainen, and Aho reach 60 points, the six Finns would be the most since the 1987-88 season. That season, Hall-of-Fame member Jarri Kurri reached that mark. If Haula gets to the 60-point mark, the seven Finns would be the most in league history.
The two 70-point scorers, Rantanen and Barkov, are Finland’s most since the 2006-07 season when three scored that many points—Saku Koivu, Jokinen, and Selanne. If Laine has two more points, the three 70-point scorers will tie for the most since the 1987-88 season when four Finns reached the mark.
Success Away From the Spotlight
Of the seven Finns with at least 50 points, only Barkov and Teravainen are first on their teams in scoring. Rantanen is second on the Avalanche to Nathan MacKinnon, Laine is second on the Winnipeg Jets to Blake Wheeler, Granlund is behind Eric Staal on the Minnesota Wild, and Aho is second to Teravainen on the Carolina Hurricanes. The remaining player, Haula, is fifth on the Vegas Golden Knights but second on the team in goals.
Rantanen and Barkov are the only players inside the top 20 in league scoring this season. Laine is tied for 25th, Granlund and Teravainen are tied for 45th, Aho for 50th, and Haula for 72nd in the league. Additionally, only Barkov and Laine are tasked with playing leading roles on their teams. The Avalanche have MacKinnon, the Wild have Staal, the Hurricanes have Jeff Skinner, and the Golden Knights have their top line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault.
If all seven players appear in their teams’ remaining games, six will reach the 60-point mark based on current scoring rates. Rantanen will finish with 87 points and Barkov with 83, the highest total for a Finn since the 2006-07 season when Selanne had 94 points and Olli Jokinen 91. Additionally, Laine will finish with 77 points, Granlund with 67, Teravainen with 66, Aho with 65, and Haula with 58 points. If they achieve these results, they will tie the record with six 60-point producers.
Future Bright for Finland
For Finns and fans of Finnish hockey, the best news is that the majority of those in the NHL are young. Only four Finnish skaters, Jori Lehtera, Juusi Jokinen, Mikko Koivu, and Valtteri Filppula, are 30 or older. Of the group with at least 50 points, Haula is the oldest at 26 and Rantanen, Laine, and Aho are all 21 or younger.
While Finland will never overtake Canada, the United States, or Sweden in participation numbers or scoring rates, they have already overtaken Russia. There are already more Finns than Russians in the NHL and surpassing their neighbor to the east as a hockey nation is a future reality for Finland.
Finland’s current arsenal of NHL players doesn’t include those already drafted and in farm systems nor those projected to be selected in the 2018 Entry Draft. At last year’s draft, there were six Finns taken in the first round, including defenseman Miro Heiskanen, taken third overall by the Dallas Stars. Another interesting prospect is Nashville Predators draftee, Eeli Tolvanen drafted 30th overall and expected to be in the NHL this season.
At the upcoming draft, there are four Finnish skaters who scouts have reviewed favorably. Center Rasmus Kupari ranks as the sixth-best European skater by NHL Central Scouting and the 17th overall prospect by Jeff Marek of Sportsnet. Another center, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, ranks ninth among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting and 18th overall by Marek. Finally, right wingers Niklas Nordgren and Jesse Ylonen rank 19th and 28th, respectively, among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting and are unranked by Marek.
With the current crop of Finns in the NHL already breaking the country’s records and players like Tolvanen on the way, it is only a matter of time before other season records fall. Although this group from Finland likely won’t have the career upsides of Kurri or Selanne, those currently in the NHL and those on the way could be the best group to play in the league together in the country’s history.
*All stats came from Hockey-Reference and Elite Prospects
My name is Kyle, and although I’m from Pennsylvania and grew up a Penguins fan, I cover the Predators here at The Hockey Writers. And while I would consider myself a Predators fan, I really enjoy watching all hockey and try to always take an objective approach to things. In addition to covering the Preds, I write hockey history and some statistical analysis pieces as well as book reviews.