The Finns have elite goaltending and budding stars, but their winning formula depends mostly on the lunch-bucket crew.
THN is rolling out team previews, twice a day, for each of the eight teams taking part in the World Cup.
- Sunday, Sept. 18 vs. North America
- Tuesday, Sept. 20 vs. Sweden
- Thursday, Sept. 22 vs. Russia
IIHF World Ranking: 3rd
THN’s Prediction: 3rd
Like the geeky kid in public school who grows to be a captain of industry, Finland is building towards sustained excellence. In fact, it’s probably already there. Following its silver-medal performance at the 2016 World Championship, the country of close to 5.5-million people now sits third on the International Ice Hockey Federation’s ranking of nations.
What makes the Finns’ success at the 2016 worlds more impressive is 14 of that side’s players have been swapped out for more established NHLers. In other words, this new team is rife with upgrades. That starts in goal, where Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne unseat KHL standout Mikko Koskinen, the man who shone for Finland at the worlds. Both of the NHL stars are capable of stealing games, and doing it consistently.
While the Finns don’t boast much high-end offensive talent – their top NHL scorer last season is Jussi Jokinen who finished 43rd overall with 60 points – they have a balanced attack.
And it would be foolish to overlook their young studs. Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine may be imminent NHL rookies, but both are expected to challenge for the Calder Trophy in 2016-17. They’ll have experienced pivots to feed, nurture and help them grow as the tournament progresses. Don’t be surprised if they make some of the world’s top goaltenders and defenders ill-at-ease.
Finland’s calling card, though, is hard-nosed, two-way play that grinds out wins. From reliable centers such as Mikko Koivu, to savvy penalty killers such as Erik Haula, they possess underrated role players who can make a difference. And if games become physical, the Finns fit right in; they won’t be intimidated.
Having defense-minded forwards is important, too, because Finland’s stable of blueliners isn’t as star-studded or as experienced as the other top medal contenders. The average age of their defensemen is 24, and the longest-tenured NHL blueliners are Rasmus Ristolainen and Sami Vatanen. Both have played 194 games in the NHL. On average, the club’s defensemen have played 120 games in the world’s top league. By comparison, Canada’s blueliners average 641 games played.
How Finland’s coaching factors into their performance in Toronto will be interesting to watch. Lauri Marjamaki is the 39-year-old “phenom” in charge, the man who helped cultivate San Jose’s Joonas Donskoi into a high-impact player. He’s considered something of a rising star, and that could be the deciding factor for a national team program that leans on work ethic, goaltending and total team buy-in to elevate it to championship heights.
With the retirements of legends Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, Finland is seeking a new star to be the face of their international club. Most of the hype surrounds Patrik Laine, but ALEKSANDER BARKOV is making a case for himself. Barkov, runner-up to Anze Kopitar for the 2016 Lady Byng Award, has the highest points per game among Finnish players over the past two seasons (0.69). That puts him ahead of Mikko Koivu (0.64) and Jussi Jokinen (0.64).
Finland is able to roll four lines and it could be their vastly underrated bottom-six that makes the difference. Opponents will have to expend much of their energy slowing down a top-six that includes Aleksander Barkov and rookies Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine. Jori Lehtera, Teuvo Teravainen and Mikko Koivu are serious scoring threats down the lineup, and they’ll get favorable match-ups against bottom defense pairings.