Times have been tough for the Finns since they won gold back in 2016. The country became the first nation in tournament history to go from the top of the podium down to the relegation series in one year, and 2018 wasn’t much better: Finland crumbled against the underdog Czechs in the quarterfinal. For some critics, the Finns are playing too much like the teams of yesteryear, trying to grind things out, even though the squad now has more talent.
Headlining the forwards is returnee Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville), who will want to make amends for last year’s subpar performances. The Finns didn’t fare very well at the World Junior Summer Showcase, but offense from Aarne Talvitie (New Jersey) and Rasmus Kupari (Los Angeles) was encouraging. Meanwhile, undrafted Linus Nyman looked excellent at November’s Four Nations tune-up in the Czech Republic. There will be two major holes to fill. At center, with Jesperi Kotkaniemi entrenched in Montreal. Perhaps his former international linemate Kaapo Kakko (2019 draft) can pitch in there. Meanwhile, Kristian Vesalainen (Winnipeg) has decided to skip the tournament.
On defense, the Finns will feel the loss of Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen, while Boston’s Urho Vaakanainen could miss the tournament due to injuries on the Bruins’ blueline. Luckily, Chicago's Henri Jokiharju will be loaned out to the Finns, but the thin blueline could make for a very dodgy situation and put a lot of pressure on Oskari Laaksonen (Buffalo), who has been solid this season back home with Ilves.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (Buffalo) will get the chance to carry the load in net. He didn’t have a great tournament last year but has been lights-out with his new team, the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves. He has the tools to be a game-changer.
The Hockey News' Gold Odds: 8/1