Despite losing the gold medal game at the World Championship in Russia, Finland’s national team is destined for more hardware in the next decade. Because the youngest stars are leading the way.
Call him The Narrative Slayer.
When Connor McDavid charged the net for what turned out to be the game-winning goal in Canada’s 2-0 golden performance at the World Championship in Russia, the young Oilers star punctured a pretty good storyline in the making. That being, of course, that a Finland victory would have given Suomi all three major IIHF men’s titles this year.
But while Finland may have lost at the worlds, the country’s gold medals at the world juniors and world under-18s were reason enough to believe that Finland is entering a golden era of hockey.
And hey; getting shut down by Canada in the gold-medal game isn’t exactly a letdown. Finland had been flawless up until the Red and White Machine did a Sochi redux by playing fast, smothering defense on a European foe.
But look at who led Finland to silver: tournament MVP Patrik Laine, the sniper supreme and near-lock to go No. 2 at the draft this summer. Aleksander Barkov and Mikael Granlund, young NHLers still on the ascent. Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen and Esa Lindell, who will surely begin fruitful full-time NHL careers next season. And there’s more coming.
Jesse Puljujarvi, basically pencilled in as the No. 3 pick in this summer’s draft, was the MVP at the world juniors and smashed the scoreboard en route to gold at the world under-18s. The latter triumph happened despite the fact he was hampered by a lower-body injury that recently required surgery – not that you could tell when he was buzzing up and down the ice in North Dakota.
And Rasmus Ristolainen wasn’t at the worlds (the restricted free agent needs a new contract), but will be at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto this summer. A world junior hero himself in 2014, Ristolainen has already become Buffalo’s most important defenseman and he has really just begun making his mark in the NHL.
This is just a sampling of Finland’s best assets. Of course there is still Pekka Rinne in net and Mikko Koivu at center – two veterans who will be important at the World Cup – and other talents such as Sami Vatanen and Teuvo Teravainen. But I really get the feeling that Finland’s international heroics will happen more often with this younger crop.
At the World Championship, Finland has two gold medals in the past 21 years (2011 and 1995) and nine other medals in that span. Not bad for a small nation, but look ahead to next year and the squad is probably just as intimidating, if not more so. Laine, Puljujarvi, Aho, Rantanen, Barkov and Ristolainen will be in the NHL, but not on teams expected to make long playoff runs (barring big off-season changes). Same goes for Toronto’s Leo Komarov, who also had a great tourney this year.
The world juniors will be interesting as well. Sure, Laine and Puljujarvi will be eligible, but I gather they’ll be too busy in Winnipeg and Columbus. But even without the twin terrors, Finland can rely on 2017 prospects Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen, both of whom I currently rank as top-10 picks. Toss in returning defenseman Olli Juolevi (a likely top-10 pick in 2016) and you’ve got a pretty nice base to work off.
Vesalainen will still be eligible for the next world under-18s too – a scary thought given how the big kid played in North Dakota. Whether he plays, or is too busy making an impact with Sweden’s Frolunda squad remains to be seen, but that in itself is evidence of how high the caliber of prospect Finland is churning out right now.
So while Triple Gold would have been an amazing accomplishment for Finland in 2016, there are a lot more medals to be won in the next decade – and the talent is there to clean up.
Just, you know – look out for Canada at the men’s level. They’re getting pretty good at this thing.