Recent history suggests Finland may have some trouble at this year’s world juniors. After all, the program has been very boom-bust, winning gold medals one year and then bombing out the next. But defenseman Ville Heinola was optimistic about this year’s team at summer camp in Michigan. “We have more skilled D-men,” he said. “It’s good because in our system we want to play with the puck.”
Heinola will be a crucial part of that equation. Through a combination of bad injuries to others and his own steady play, the 18-year-old began the season in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets, who took him in the first round of the 2019 draft. The teenager played eight games, tallying five points and logging more than 20 minutes of ice time on three occasions – quite impressive given his youth.
With Winnipeg’s blueliners on the mend by November, Heinola was sent back to Lukko in Finland’s Liiga, where he was getting plenty of ice time on the mid-table team. Heinola, who has been described as a Miro Heiskanen-type of D-man (though not on the same level as the Dallas Stars standout just yet), won gold with Finland last year but didn’t play after the quarterfinal due to an injury.
Still, his experience on a pairing with now-Buffalo Sabres D-man Henri Jokiharju was invaluable – as was the championship itself. “It was the first time I won something big,” Heinola said. “It was new to me. I played with Jokiharju, and I learned very much from him. He’s really focused both on and off the ice. And a guy like (Nashville prospect) Eeli Tolvanen, I had looked up to him for years.”
Now the newbies on Team Suomi can look up to Heinola, as nearly all of the 2019 roster will be turned over for 2020 (especially with Anton Lundell hurt and Kaapo Kakko in the NHL). That means more responsibility for Heinola and possibly Carolina pick Anttoni Honka, who played with Heinola at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Michigan. “We both like to play with the puck and play offensive,” Heinola said. “I like it because we’re both skilled players.”
If Finland is to avoid another gold-medal hangover, the team will have to be strong at all positions and experience will be at a premium. Heinola has already won gold and taken on NHL competition with Winnipeg, making him a great candidate to lead the Finnish charge.
The reigning WJC champions will look very different this time around. And if recent history is any indication, a repeat isn’t in the cards. Finland still has a nice array of talent, but barring a shock move by the New York Rangers to let Kaapo Kakko play, this group figures to be more modest in its aspirations.
Up front, the main cogs include Los Angeles prospect Rasmus Kupari, Carolina pick Patrik Puistola and Colorado prospect Sampo Ranta. Kupari played a major role for last year’s gold-medal squad, so expect even more from the big, talented center this time. Puistola tends to excel against his own age group, while Ranta brings a diverse and worldly game thanks to his time in the USHL and NCAA. Another fun name to watch is undrafted and undersized Kristian Tanus – he can pile up points and should feast on weaker opponents in the round robin.
Defense will be a strength for the Finns, particularly since Winnipeg loaned Ville Heinola back to Lukko in the Liiga. Heinola has shown great chemistry with Carolina’s Anttoni Honka, while Vancouver pick Toni Utunen was clutch in last year’s tourney. Ottawa first-rounder Lassi Thomson is another gem who can blast it from the point.
Should the Finns make another run through the playoff round, goaltender Justus Annunen will likely be a big reason why. Simply put, the Colorado pick has been the best netminder in the Liiga this year, even breaking the league’s shutout streak at one point early on. Annunen has the size and talent to steal games for the Finns.
Coaching has also been a big factor in Finland’s yo-yo WJC history, and it will be interesting to see how Raimo Helminen fares as Jussi Ahokas’ replacement. Helminen has guided the team in the past as both head and associate coach, but he has never won a medal.
THN’s ODDS FOR GOLD: 10-1