By Steven Ellis – Eurohockey.com
Finland will be without their best players from the 2016 gold medal championship-winning World Junior team, but they still look poised for another good run in Montreal this year.
Goalies: When you look at the reasons as to why Finland won the 2016 World Juniors, it’s unlikely anyone would point to Veini Vehvilainen as a reason why. Kaapo Kähkönen was their guy when it mattered most, eventually giving Finland the 4-3 overtime victory over Russia. Now, it’s Vehvilainen’s turn to take back the reigns and win another medal, this time as the starter. Vehviläinen was named to the Finnish U18 World Junior team, and with USA, Russia, Czech Republic and Canada all bringing fairly strong rosters, it was going to be tough for the Finns to find themselves in the finals.
As the cards were dealt, Finland indeed found themselves playing for a gold medal, large in part due to the play of Vehviläinen. One of the better goaltenders in the entire tournament, Vehviläinen made sure to save the best performance for last. Easily the best performer in the game, Vehviläinen made 60 saves in the final game against the Americans (including this magnificent grab near the end of the contest), a game which was as one-sided in the puck control department as it can get. Unfortunately, Finland would end up dropping a 2-1 decision in overtime, but regardless, it was easily one of the best goaltending performances by any draft prospect in 2015.
A member of JYP in the Finnish league, Vehvilainen could be one of the best goalies at the World Juniors this year, but he just needs to step up his play this time around. If not, fellow 19-year-old netminder Karolus Kaarlehto could steal the crease away from him, but with almost no international experience, they’ll likely stick with Vehvilainen instead.
Defencemen: Finland has built a strong defensive base with the young defencemen that have gone through the ranks through the years, and now they’ve got potentially one of the best pairs in the entire tournament. Leading the way is 19-year-old Vili Saarijärvi, a Detroit Red Wings prospect with over a point-per-game with the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads. Named Top Defenseman at the 2015 U18 World Championships, Saarijärvi has a key member of Finland’s gold medal-winning effort in 2016. He also has some pro hockey experience to his credit, recording four points in five games with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye.
Saarijärvi has the offensive tools to dominate, while Vancouver Canucks draft pick Olli Juolevi has the complete game covered. Juolevi, who has been tremendous with the London Knights this year, also was a member of Finland’s championship squad from the last tournament, putting up an incredible nine assists as a big, minute-crunching defenseman despite being younger than most of the competition. Compared to most of Finland’s roster, Juolevi knows the smaller NHL ice very well and his speed, skill and strength will be valuable in Montreal.
2017 NHL Draft prospect Robin Salo will be another name to look out for. Salo, a threat to land in the first round this year, has adjusted well to life with Sport in the men’s Liiga. He also had a strong effort with Finland at the most recent Ivan Hlinka tournament, scoring twice for a weak Finnish roster. Joining him in the underaged bracket is Miro Heiskanen, a potential top ten pick this coming June. Heiskanen has played very strong with HIFK in Liiga this year, and has proven himself to be more than just another youngster in a men’s league. Juuso Valimaki, who plays for Tri-City in the Western Hockey League, should also be a strong top four option on a team riddled with talented youngsters. There’s no question that the Finns will have some good defencemen to work with, but it will definitely feature a lot more youth than some of the other contenders for gold.
Forwards: Without the big three prospects, Sebastian Aho, Jesse Puljujärvi and Patrik Laine, on the roster, you’d think it would be really tough to score when the team suits up in Montreal this year. Nine 2017 NHL Draft eligible prospects were named to the forward core for Finland, so it’s clear that they aren’t done churning out tremendous talent at the junior level.
Two of those Finnish stars include Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen, names that will surely get called early in June. Tolvanen, a star with Sioux City of the United States Hockey League, had 14 goals and 24 points in 21 games at the time of getting announced to the selection roster, which put him third in the entire USHL. Tolvanen’s quick legs and smart decisions with the puck, especially on the power-play, has worked out very well for him on the smaller NHL ice, so he’ll have a distinct advantage over many European players in Montreal. Vesalainen, meanwhile, is a very strong choice to land in the top ten of the NHL Draft and could play in a scoring role for his country. A big power-forward with skill to kill, Vesalainen performed well in the summer camp tournament run by the United States and should be a used effectively by the Finns.
But what about the veterans? If it wasn’t for his 5’7 frame, Petrus Palmu would be one of the hottest prospects on the scene. Currently in his third OHL season with the Owen Sound Attack, Palmu has been a scoring master so far this season, putting up 23 goals and 44 points in 32 games before joining Finland. Julius Nättinen, the brother of former World Junior forward Joonas, is primed for a strong sophomore experience at the tournament. An Anaheim Ducks prospect, Nättinen put up three points in seven games for the eventual champs last year. He hasn’t been up to the dominant offensive pace that saw him record 71 points in 52 games last year, but with just under a point-per-game average in 2016-2017, he’s definitely not disappointing. New York Islanders prospect Otto Koivula and Carolina Hurricanes draft pick Janne Kuokkanen should provide extra offense while future Edmonton Oiler Aapeli Rasanen puts his hat in the ring as one of the team’s best centremen.
Projection: With 19 players from the 2017 draft selected to the initial training camp roster, the defending champions are coming in with a lot of young prospects looking to prove themselves. That can create some healthy competition that only makes the team better out of the gate. This tournament is very wide open and repeating a gold medal is not going to be a simple task, but whenever Finland is written off, they seem to come back and win everything. We’re in a golden age for Finnish prospects, and fans of the junior team will be pleased with what they see from them this year.