By Panu Markkanen Both are 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, born less than a month apart, and they won’t turn 18 until next spring. They’re good friends off the ice and roommates on the national junior team, and they’re without a doubt the two Finnish stars expected to shine brightest in Helsinki. With the World Junior Championship returning to Finland’s capital for the first time since 2004, the domestic spotlight is shining squarely on two players: top prospects Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine, who have been in the Finnish headlines all season and are expected to go top-five in the NHL draft next summer. These kids in men’s frames have been key players for their respective teams in the Liiga, the nation’s top league – Puljujarvi with ruling back-to-back champions Karpat and Laine with back-to-back runners-up Tappara.
“This is a totally exceptional situation in Finnish hockey,” said Karpat coach Lauri Marjamaki. “We’ve never had two goal scorers of this caliber at the same time.” Finland introduced Puljujarvi to the North American audience last winter in Montreal and Toronto, where the team bowed out meekly to Sweden in the quarterfinal. Although he failed to score his first WJC goal, Puljujarvi’s 26 shots confirm it wasn’t for lack of trying. “Our line created chances, but we just couldn’t get the pucks in,” he said. “I felt bad about it for a week after the tournament, but now it’s all behind me.” Puljujarvi (pronounced pool-you-YAR-vee) has been a regular for Karpat and has seen ample power play time. Though still only 17, he has also been entrusted with playing in the late minutes with the goalie pulled. “I have learned to play the men’s game, so to speak,” he said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to play in the Liiga this much.” Laine (pronounced LIE-nay), meanwhile, is returning to form after dealing with an upper-body injury. Tappara captain Jukka Peltola mentioned before the season that Laine could be the top scorer in the Liiga. For Laine, getting comfortable early was key. “My start to the season was good,” he said. “I played well and got some points. The first games after my injury were a bit difficult, but now I’ve been able to get back into the rhythm. My target was to get a place on the team. I got the chance, and I’ve been able to fulfill the expectations, which is nice.”
This isn’t the first time teenagers have caught the public’s eye in Finland in recent years. There was also Aleksander Barkov (Florida) and Sami Vatanen (Anaheim), as well as Mikael Granlund (Minnesota), who was the biggest celebrity in the country in 2011 for a while, when Finland won the World Championship and Granlund scored his famous airhook goal against Russia in the semifinal. So what’s the buzz about now? Why does Finland have its own Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel?
[World Juniors: Schedule | Rosters | News ] Goals. Lots of goals. Laine, for example, had eight in seven games at the world under-18s last spring. “I have worked with my shot a lot,” he said. “I’ve been shooting so much during summers in my backyard. Even nowadays, during team practices, when there’s a break I stay out there and shoot.” Puljujarvi has also dominated the scoresheets. His speed and skating are phenomenal, and he has even been compared to Evgeni Malkin. “He likes to shoot a lot,” Marjamaki said. “He’s got an excellent wrist shot, and he wants to score always.” Still, hockey is not only about shooting and scoring. Puljujarvi knows the highlight reels are just the tip of the iceberg. “What Jesse has is an enormous talent to train,” Marjamaki said. “He trains hard, and his power and endurance levels are exceptional. He can be very good night in, night out. His performances have been getting better and better in general.” Puljujarvi pleads guilty to this. “I always want to do things properly and spot-on,” he said. “I don’t want there to ever be anything left to explain. I have taken steps toward being a more complete player this season. Also, my strength on 1-on-1s has grown. I’ve enjoyed playing in the Liiga. I’ve been trying to give my best and lead with my performance on the ice. I am not one of the loudest ones in the room yet, but I definitely want to be a leader, both on and off the ice in the future.” Laine follows the same path. Like Puljujarvi, he is not just about talent. The desire to win is also there. “What we are doing now is teaching these kids to become complete players, who can help their teams to win,” said Tappara coach Jussi Tapola. “The strength of European hockey is in playing as a team, and we can develop this side of the players. We do that very well here in Finland.” Puljujarvi and Laine had their share of publicity recently, and they will get more attention over the holidays. Anticipation toward the tournament is growing in Finland as the hosts aim to return to the medal round after winning the gold in archrival Sweden’s backyard two years ago. “We have to play well anyway at the world juniors,” Laine said. “There’s still a long way to the draft, and the season continues on also after the tournament…I want to go for gold.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the January 4 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.