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On top of the world again, Finland thrives as the overlooked World Junior Championship threat

Skating the fine line between underdog and dynasty, the high-flying Finns capture third WJC in six years.

A quick riddle to wrap your head around: can an underdog be a dynasty? With three championships in the past six years, Finland is as close as you can get to a dynasty at the modern world juniors, where there are legitimately five interchangeable programs at the top of the pile (Canada, Sweden, Russia and the U.S. being the others).

At the same time, Finland is a nation of just 5.5 million people, and the team is just a couple years removed from playing in the relegation round of the tournament, where a loss would have sent it spiralling down to Division 1-A.

And while coach Jussi Ahokas did his best Darryl Sutter impression before Finland’s upset of Canada in the quarterfinal this year (“All the pressure is on Canada,” he said. “They have all the pressure in the world. We go there, have fun and play good hockey as a team.”), the Finns didn’t consider themselves underdogs as the medal round progressed.

So how did they pull it off again? As Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Henri Jokiharju bluntly noted, “Win the right games, it’s as simple as that. The trust never fell with our team. The group games weren’t that good, but who cares? We won the right games, first Canada, then Switzerland, now USA. We’re the best in the world.”

But the Finns did some other things right, too. Goaltending has to be clutch at the world juniors, and Finland got a great performance from Buffalo Sabres prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. There was also a lot of speed and high-end youth mixed into the winning recipe.

Starting with the speed, Finland was able to keep up with its opponents, even if many of them had more NHL draft picks in their lineup. “Playing U.S. and Canada, those North American teams play so fast,” Jokiharju said. “You have to match the pace and be even faster.”

One of the leading lights in that category for the Finns was first-line center Rasmus Kupari. The Los Angeles Kings’ first-rounder was basically a spare forward on the 2018 team, but he was very effective in 2019, using his masterful skating to push the play in the right direction, even when goals were hard to come by for the whole team during the tournament.

Given how cement-footed the current Kings are, the young Finn’s skill set seems to be relevant for his future. “Yeah, I think so,” Kupari said. “Speed is my biggest strength, and that’s key for my play. That fits for the Kings, and maybe I’ll get a chance soon.”

Kupari attended development camp in Los Angeles during the summer, where he took in the city and met with the coaches and other prospects for four days. He found a friendly environment in L.A., not to mention some nice sand at Manhattan Beach.

Back home, Kupari has been playing with Karpat Oulu in the Liiga on the squad that has also produced Carolina’s Sebastian Aho and Edmonton’s Jesse Puljujarvi. Kupari has put up solid numbers for the team, and the role he’s getting there has been great for his development. “Our team is doing well, and that gives more confidence for me,” Kupari said. “That’s always been a very good place to grow up and grow my game.”

At the world juniors, Kupari played on an effective top line with captain Aarne Talvitie (New Jersey) and Aleksi Heponiemi (Florida), but it was the second line that ended up clinching gold for the Finns.

Interestingly enough, that trio featured two of the team’s youngest players: right winger Kaapo Kakko (2019 draft) and center Anton Lundell (2020 draft, due to his October 2001 birthday). Kakko got the golden goal against Team USA thanks to some quick and dogged work at the side of the net, while Lundell assisted on the tally.

Kakko’s performance in Vancouver raised eyebrows when it came to the 2019 draft race, where Team USA’s Jack Hughes has led the consensus so far. Hughes was hampered by an upper-body injury in the tournament, though he still played well when he was in the U.S. lineup. Kakko was one of the team’s top scorers, and his usage became a weapon for the Finns. “We let him play,” Ahokas said. “He had the confidence, we gave him the role, and that was the biggest thing. He’s a future superstar.”

Contrast that with Canada’s approach with 2020 draft star Alexis Lafreniere, who was benched and called out by coach Tim Hunter early in the tournament and played sparingly after that.

It’s even a little more remarkable that Lundell was centering the line with Kakko and Nashville prospect Eeli Tolvanen, whose tournament didn’t really kick into gear until he jumped on a line with the kids. After all, playing center is the toughest forward spot in the lineup and Kakko, who has dabbled down the middle back in Finland with TPS Turku, even admitted he was happier on the wing during the tournament because he got more offensive chances there.

Lundell, whose favorite NHLer is Aleksander Barkov, looked quite good in his role, and the youngster finished among the top 10 faceoff aces in the tournament, winning nearly 59 percent of his draws.

While Kakko could very well go straight to the NHL and miss next year’s tournament, Lundell’s late birthday means he’s guaranteed to be available for the 2020 WJC in the Czech Republic. Lundell remembers watching the previous two Finnish gold-medal teams as a kid. This year, he got to tap the minds of his older teammates while they all made their own run. “I talked a lot to everyone,” he said. “They said small things, it’s a fast tournament, so prepare to win every game.”

For Ahokas, the key to trusting Lundell came down to the kid’s mind. “It’s the hockey sense, the smarts in how he plays,” Ahokas said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

Of course, Lundell has a ways to go before he becomes an NHLer, but his WJC debut was impressive, and all the tools are there. For now, he’s going to work on the physical side of his development. “I could get more power to my legs and arms so I’m stronger on the ice and a little bit faster,” he said. “Those are the biggest things.”

And once that becomes a reality, Lundell could be the next big thing out of Finland. Well, the next next big thing – his linemate and fellow gold medallist Kakko will get the first crack, at the 2019 draft, also in Vancouver. It’s almost like they know what they’re doing over there in Finland.

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