Finland is a hockey nation that does not have a ton of star power, yet they always play extremely well as a team in international tournaments. Today the “Hockey Nations Series” will continue and feature Finland. The series preview can be seen here. Also my top player rankings for Slovakia, Switzerland, Czech Republic and the United States. Finland has captured bronze in the two Winter Olympics of this decade. Finland won the bronze medal in Vancouver 2010 by defeating Slovakia 5-3. In Sochi 2014 Finland avenged a 6-1 2010 semifinals loss to the United States by defeating the USA in the bronze medal game by a score of 5-0. Finland has also had success at the World Championships and World Juniors. Finland won the gold at the 2011 Worlds in Slovakia by defeating rival Sweden in the final. On the World Junior stage, it was Finland that captured the gold medal over the host Sweden. To me that was an upset at the time, however the team already has two players making an impact at the NHL level. The two players are Rasmus Ristolainen of the Buffalo Sabres and the rookie playoff sensation of the Chicago Blackhawks, Teuvo Teravainen. Finland also has a young defenseman Olli Maatta that had an excellent rookie season on the Pens blueline in 2013-2014. In October 2014 Maatta had a cancerous tumor removed from his thyroid gland and luckily it was detected early. Maatta returned to the Pens lineup before shoulder surgery ended his season. If Olli Maatta returns to form next year, he could be on this list in the near future. As for Finland, with their very good system they play as a team, and their exceptional world-class goaltending depth, they are dark horse contenders at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Here are my top ranked Finnish Hockey Players in the NHL today.
10) Jori Lehtera
Lehtera had a solid rookie season for the St. Louis Blues. The 27-year-old had previously been playing in the KHL for the past four seasons before arriving this fall in St. Louis. Lehtera also represented Finland at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, scoring one goal and three assists in six games played. The 6’2, 190 pound center from Halsinki, Finland became a big center for the Blues this past year. Lehtera scored 14 goals, added 30 assists, and was a plus 21 in 75 games this year for the Blues. He is an important piece for St. Louis and gives them very good depth at the center position.
9) Antti Niemi
Niemi won a Stanley Cup Championship in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks during his first full season in the league. In 39 games played in the 2010 regular season, Niemi went 26-7-4 with a 2.25 GAA and .910 save %. He followed that up by going 16-6 in the playoffs with a 2.63 GAA and .910 save %. Niemi then signed a contract to be the clear number one goalie in San Jose. While he has not been back to a Conference Final since then, he does have 4 seasons of 30 wins or more. He has been a workhorse in the regular season for the Sharks. He has had two solid playoffs and two rough ones. Niemi is not a top 10 goalie in hockey, but I believe over the course of 82 games in a full season, he is consistent enough to get the job done for most teams. Niemi was not the reason the Sharks missed the playoffs this past season. In 61 starts he was 31-23-7 with a 2.59 GAA and 9.14 save %. Sure those numbers are not close to elite, but they are right around the NHL average. Niemi will likely battle young goalie Alex Stalock for the number one job in San Jose next year.
8) Jussi Jokinen
Jokinen has been in the league for a decade and has played for several teams: Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins and currently the Florida Panthers. He is a skilled winger that has great hands, is good with the puck, and one of the best in the game at the shootout. Jokinen has been at his best recently when he has been representing his country. At his last two World Championships combined (2012 and 2015) he has 8 goals and 12 assists in 18 games played. At his last Olympic’s he had 5 points in 6 games and was a plus 4. Jokinen had a good season in 2013-2014 for the Pens with 21 goals, 36 assists, and 57 points in 81 games. This past year his goal scoring was down on Florida, and he finished with only 8. Jokinen still tallied a respectable 36 assists and finished with 44 points. His best goal scoring year was in 2009-2010 when he scored 30 with Carolina. Jokinen, if playing with the right linemates, has 50-70 point abilities. Look for him to help lead the upstart Florida Panthers back to the playoff picture.
7) Aleksander Barkov
Barkov has potential to be a dominant center in the game. He has the size, skill, and ability to dominate the center of the ice for years to come. The 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft is poised for a big year in his 3rd NHL season. Barkov is 6’3 and 210 lbs and will turn 20 years of age in September right before preseason hockey begins next fall. He played in 54 games as an 18-year-old rookie and tallied eight goals and 16 assists. In his sophomore season he played in 71 games and scored 16 goals, 20 assists, 36 points and averaged just over 17 minutes of ice time per game. A very big role on the team for a teenager in his second season. Barkov played 85 games in the professional league in Finland before arriving in the NHL.. He also has international experience as well. Having represented Finland in the 2012 and 2013 World Juniors, 2014 Olympics, and 2015 World Championships. Barkov centered the Panthers top line at the end of the season with Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau.
6) Mikael Granlund
Granlund is 23-years-old and has a ton of speed as well as good hands. He also possesses a good wrist shot. Granlund spent time centering the top line in Minnesota at the end of the season and developed chemistry with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville. He finished his second full season in the NHL with 39 points in 68 games and was a plus 17. Granlund needs to be more consistent in his game and get stronger in order to reach his full potential. One thing he has that you can not teach is the ability to be clutch and raise his game. Granlund has had two solid playoffs for the Wild. In his first playoff action in 2013-2014 he scored 4 goals and 3 assists in 13 games. This past season in 10 games he tallied 2 goals, 4 assists, and 6 points. Look for Granlund to take the next step in 2015-2016.
5) Valtteri Filppula
The playmaking center is a 2008 Stanley Cup Champion with the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit is where Filppula grew up as a hockey player, learning from some of the best in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Filppula is currently looking for his 2nd Stanley Cup, and this time as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Filppula is a very creative player with the puck on his stick and has the ability to create his own space as a result. He is currently centering Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn on Tampa Bay’s top line. In his first season with the Lightning in 2013-2014 he was very good, scoring 25 goals (career-high) and adding 33 assists while playing almost 20 minutes a game. The 31-year-old from Vantaa, Findland signed a 5-year-deal with the Lightning in the summer of 2013 after spending his first seven seasons in Detroit. Filppula had his best season in 2011-2012, scoring 23 goals, assisting on 43 others and was a plus 18. He has 12 points in 22 playoff games during the Lightning’s run to the Cup Final.
4) Mikko Koivu
The second Minnesota Wild center on this list is Mikko Koivu, the captain of the team. Koivu is a very good two-way center and leader. His goal scoring has been down, but he is still setting his teammates up and making those around him better. Koivu had his best season in 2009-2010 when he scored 22 goals, 49 assists and 71 points. This past year he put up 14 goals, 34 assists and 48 points. He has been a player that scores 40-60 points the past several seasons. He is still a valuable member of the Minnesota Wild and plays with a very high hockey IQ.
3) Sami Vatanen
Vatanen has a ton of potential and was a standout blueliner on the Anaheim Ducks this past season. Vatanen is an excellent puck-moving offensive defenseman. He is only 24-years-old and just enjoyed a breakout season in 2014-2015. It was his first full season in the NHL and Vatanen scored 12 goals, 25 assists, 37 points, 7 power play goals and was a plus 5. Vatanen elevated his game in the playoffs and added 11 points in 16 games played from the backend. The acquisition of Ryan Kesler and the emergence of Sami Vatanen improved the Anaheim Ducks tremendously this past season. The Ducks will be back next season and make another strong run to get back to the Stanley Cup Final.
2) Tuukka Rask
The 2011 Stanley Cup Champion is one of the best goalies in the world. Rask won the Vezina Trophy in the 2013-2014 season as the best goaltender in the NHL. In 58 games Rask was 36-15-6 with a 2.04 GAA and .930 save %. Rask is a big athletic goaltender that has become elite in the NHL. This past season Rask simply was overworked. Rask’s previous career-high in games played was 58 and this season he appeared in 70 games, which ranked 3rd among NHL goalies. Look for Rask to have a big season next year for the Bruins and return to top form.
1) Pekka Rinne
Rinne plays a similar athletic style to Rask, however he plays a little deeper in his crease. Rinne is almost unbeatable down low and possesses a very active and great glove hand. Rinne in my opinion was the best goalie this past season by far in the Western Conference. The big goalie is 6’5 and from Kempele, Finland. After missing most of the 2013-2014 season due to a hip injury, Rinne returned to elite status in 2014-2015 helping the Nashville Predators return to the playoffs. In 2014-2015 Rinne went 41-17-6 with a 2.18 GAA and .923 save %. Rinne and the Preds will be back next season and look to advance further in the playoffs.
I am a 2015 graduate of Montclair State University in New Jersey. I have coached ice hockey at the high school level for two seasons here in NJ. I will be covering the Toronto Maple Leafs moving forward for The Hockey Writers.