Finland took home gold at the 2019 World Junior Championship, so if history has taught us anything, it'll just narrowly avoid the relegation round in the Czech Republic.
We kid, of course, as the Finns look like favorites for the title once again after proving themselves to be a top club at the World Junior Summer Showcase, which didn't crown an actual champion. It shouldn't come as a surprise given the team's results in international play over the past few years. The stars of the 2018 U-18 World Championship team will take center stage this year, while a couple of future first-round picks are set to make their presence felt.
Finland doesn't have a superstar skater this year, but like at most levels, the team has enough talent dispersed throughout the lineup to make up for it. The nation's top two U-20 forwards – Kaapo Kakko and Jesperi Kotkaniemi – will be in the NHL and thus not at world juniors, but nearly the entire Finnish roster will still be made up of NHL prospects.
Patrik Puistola - Rasmus Kupari - Joonas Oden
Otto Kivenmaki - Anton Lundell - Niklas Nordgren
Kasper Simontaival - Kristian Tanus - Aku Raty
Antti Saarela - Henri Nikkanen - Sampo Ranta
Kupari will enter the tournament for the third year in a row, assuming the AHL's Ontario Reign let him go and he doesn't end up making the Los Angeles Kings out of training camp, and he'll lead a line that features Oden, one of Finland's best in U-20 play, and Puistola, a sharpshooter with six goals and eight points in six U-20 contests.
The Finns would have loved to have Nordgren last year, but an injury felled the Chicago Blackhawks prospect. At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, he's not a big kid, but he possesses tremendous puck-handling ability and has a nose for the net, evidenced by his eight-goal, 10-point performance at the 2018 U-18 World Championship. On the other wing, Kivenmaki was one the best players who failed to make Finland's squad last year. The Detroit Red Wings prospect will have his first shot at an IIHF tournament and perhaps the undersized forward can put on a show with his speedy linemates.
Two of the most intriguing names are 2020 draft prospects Lundell and Simontaival. Lundell, a late-2001 center, has all the makings of a future Selke Trophy winner. So smart defensively, Lundell sacrifices speed for all-out creativity and his wrist shot doesn't miss the target often. He played key minutes in the 2019 edition of the tournament and will do so again as a top-six forward. Simontaival has lightning-quick hands. You're going to hear a lot about him next June, and the world junior tournament will be his biggest test yet.
Finland's depth means some key players will miss the team, including Aleks Haatanen, Samuel Salonen and Matias Maccelli, as well as 2020 draft prospect Roni Hirvonen and projected 2021 top prospect Aatu Raty. But just look at the fourth line: all three are NHL draft picks capable of playing significant minutes at this tournament. Some tough cuts will have to be made.
Kim Nousiainen - Lassi Thomson
Ville Heinola - Anttoni Honka
Toni Utunen - Santeri Salmela
Finland's strength on the blueline is its cadre of speedy, puck-moving rearguards. While there's no Henri Jokiharju or Miro Heiskanen this year, the depth is solid. Nousiainen is a perfect example of that: just 5-foot-9, the undersized defender is a wizard with the puck and plays with pace. Thomson is similar, as well. He's not big, but he's confident with the puck and he's hard to chase down when he's at top speed.
The second pairing features two defensemen with pro experience. Heinola, in particular, is a smart defender who rarely makes poor decisions when distributing the puck and can run the team's second power-play unit. Honka will play a larger role despite a rough outing in British Columbia last summer. He's worked on some of his defensive deficiencies and his skating and stickhandling is top-notch for a defender his age.
The lone NHL prospect in net, Annunen, all 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds of him, is the clear favorite to command the crease. While his stats at the showcase left a lot to be desired, he stood on his head against USA White at the start of the tournament and generally kept his team in games. He may not have the star power that Ukko-Pekka Luukonen brought last year, but Annunen has paid his dues throughout the Finnish junior ranks and will get his chance to shine.
Patrikainen and Blomqvist are his likely backups. Patrikainen impressed with the U-20 team in exhibition events last year but his 6-foot frame has hurt him. He struggles at times with cross-ice passes and top-corner chances. Blomqvist, meanwhile, is a 2002-born netminder who is the frontrunner to assume the starting role in 2021 and 2022. This year's tournament presents a good opportunity for him to experience the bigger stage.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.