The WJC is still fresh in our minds but now it’s time to start focusing on the other world tournament which is actually even more interesting for people who scout draft-eligible players: the 2019 U18 World Championship tournament which is played in northern Sweden in the cities of Örnsköldsvik and Umeå.
The tournament starts on April 18th which is just about three months away, so I figured I’d take an early look at what Team Finland might look like once we get that far of the season. Finland is coming into the tournament as the reigning champions after winning gold last year in Russia. Can they win gold again? As a Finn, I sure hope so. I will also provide draft projections for the prospects in my lineup.
This lineup is done assuming everyone is healthy and available, and obviously a lot can still change before the actual tournament starts. Because it’s the 2019 U18 Worlds, anyone born in 2001 or after that is eligible to participate in the tournament. Most of the players will be born in 2001 but some 2002-born players have a chance to play there as well.
Leevi Aaltonen – Anton Lundell – Kaapo Kakko
Patrik Puistola – Henri Nikkanen – Kasper Simontaival
Marcus Kallionkieli – Antti Saarela – Veeti Miettinen
Aku Räty – Juuso Pärssinen – Tuukka Tieksola
At the ripe old age of 17, both Kaapo Kakko (2019) and Anton Lundell (2020) are already two-time World Champions. They played a big role at the U18 Worlds in Russia a year ago, and they played a big role at the WJC in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. And now, they have an opportunity to win their third World Championship in a span of one year.
They’re obviously locks for the top line, and some of the best players in the entire tournament – if they’re available. The Liiga finals are usually played around the same time with this tournament, so if TPS or HIFK is playing there, they won’t be releasing important players from their roster for a junior tournament. Kakko is ranked second overall by Cam Robinson, and Lundell is ranked fourth overall in my November ranking for the 2020 draft.
You could put almost anyone with these two but my choice here is Leevi Aaltonen (2019) who is an undersized winger with lots of skill and speed. He’s an offensive player but a capable penalty-killer as well. He’s likely a second-rounder next summer but could slide to the third round because of his size. He’s also a returning player from last year’s team but didn’t play a significant role back then.
Behind Kakko, Henri Nikkanen (2019) and Patrik Puistola (2019) are the two most interesting forwards for next summer. I think both have second-line upside and will likely be drafted in the second round. Nikkanen hasn’t had a great season but he’s been bouncing between different leagues. His tools are great, though. He’s a six-foot-two center with great offensive talent and speed. Don’t be fooled by his counting stats.
Puistola has been bouncing between three leagues as well but he’s had way more success regardless of it. He’s a very talented offensive winger and a capable penalty-killer as well. Puistola and Kasper Simontaival (2020) are both coming from the Tappara system and they’ve played together a bunch of times, so it’s an easy choice to put them together. Simontaival is the only 2002-born forward on my final lineup, and he’s a potential top ten pick in 2020. I had him at number eight in my November ranking.
Marcus Kallionkieli (2019) is another player I seriously considered for the top line. He’s the only forward coming outside of Finland because he plays in the USHL, and he’s having a great season there. I think he’s a lock for a top-nine role, and will likely be drafted in the second or third round.
Antti Saarela (2019), the younger brother of Carolina prospect Aleksi, is centering the third line in my projection but I see him becoming a winger at the pro level. He’s likely a third or fourth round pick next summer. Veeti Miettinen (2020) is a very talented yet undersized winger, and if he was born five days earlier, he would be eligible for the 2019 draft. He’s looking like a second-rounder for the 2020 draft.
My fourth-line players Aku Räty (2019), Juuso Pärssinen (2019) and Tuukka Tieksola (2019) are all capable of moving up in the lineup if needed but Tieksola would be my first choice. Tieksola is a talented playmaker whereas Räty is a good goal-scorer. They’re both good offensive players but they can also play a solid defensive game which allows them to play a fourth-line role on this team. For fantasy hockey purposes, they’re both more interesting than Pärssinen. The only problem is that they’re both right-handed shots and like to play on the right side but I think they can adjust. They both look like third or fourth round picks.
Pärssinen is a natural center and great at that position. He plays a very strong two-way game and has good size as well. It’s not difficult to see him becoming a good third-line center in the NHL. He’ll likely get drafted somewhere in the fourth or fifth round. There’s not a lot of offensive upside but he has a future in the NHL.
Aarne Intonen (2019) is my choice for the 13th forward because he’s very versatile and defensively responsible but there are a bunch of players I considered for that role. Mikko Petman (2019), Matias Mäntykivi (2019), Wiljami Myllylä (2019), Roni Hirvonen (2020) and Aatu Räty (2021) are players who could easily be there. Intonen, Petman, Mäntykivi and Myllylä are players who should draw interest at the 2019 draft but likely not in the first few rounds.
The younger Räty is a player I would want on my team if I needed someone who can create offense but there just wasn’t any room for him in the top nine. Although it’s very early, he’s a potential first overall guy for the 2021 draft. He’s a high-end talent, and if chosen, he would be by far the youngest player on this team. He’ll likely be Finland’s number one center at the 2020 U18 Worlds.
Ville Heinola – Antti Tuomisto
Mikko Kokkonen – Kalle Loponen
Santeri Hatakka – Iivari Räsänen
Ville Heinola (2019) played for gold medal winning Team Finland at the WJC, and Mikko Kokkonen (2019) should have been there as well but was cut from the final camp which still doesn’t make any sense to anyone. But Kokkonen is a World Champion as well because he played on the U18 team a year ago. Heinola was injured at the World Juniors but he’s expected to return in late February, so he should be fully healthy for the U18 Worlds.
Both Heinola (ranked 26th overall by Cam Robinson) and Kokkonen (ranked 27th) are likely to be drafted in the first round. I still haven’t been able to figure out which one I like more. They’re both 5-foot-11 and shoot from the left side. Both have been full-time Liiga players this season. They can move the puck but don’t have high-end offensive upside. Kokkonen is very mature and reliable but I like Heinola’s skating more. Either way, both should be top guys in this tournament.
On the right side, I have Antti Tuomisto (2019) on the top pair. Tuomisto has a great frame at six-foot-three. He’s also a great skater and a good offensive player with a great shot. There’s room for improvement in his defensive game but it’s not a major weakness either. With his size, skating, offensive skill and right-handed shot, he reminds me of Phil Myers, and I believe he’ll be a second round pick next summer.
The other right-handed shot on defense is Kalle Loponen (2019). At 5-foot-11, he’s much smaller than Tuomisto but he’s another solid two-way guy with a great shot. He isn’t a flashy player but he’s reliable and already has pro experience. He looks like a third round pick to me, and he has decent offensive upside as well.
My third pair could be labelled as a shutdown pair. Both Santeri Hatakka (2019) and Iivari Räsänen (2019) are good defensive defensemen who are capable of making simple plays but don’t take too many risks. Even though Räsänen has a lot of points this season, I like the upside of Tuomisto and Loponen more. But Räsänen is a very mature and well-rounded player who could carry the ‘C’ on this team. I think he’ll get drafted somewhere in the third or fourth round whereas Hatakka could draw some interest in the final rounds.
Atso Lehtinen (2019) is my number seven defenseman right now but that could easily change. His odds of getting drafted aren’t all that great. If the team wants a third right-handed shot on the roster, they might consider a 2002-born defender like Kasper Puutio (2020) or Topi Niemelä (2020) for that role.
Starter: Roope Taponen (2019)
Backups: Eetu Randelin (2020) and Joel Blomqvist (2020)
The backup job is between Randelin and Blomqvist, and I’m not quite sure which one ends up getting it. Blomqvist is the one who interests me more as a prospect. He’s a bit younger and bigger than Randelin, and he’s been great in the viewings I’ve had of him.
But Taponen should have the starting job which is all that matters for now. He’s average-sized but he’s had a good season in the Finnish junior league and could draw some interest late in the draft. Finland has often had great goaltending in international junior tournaments but it remains to be seen if Taponen is able to provide that.
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Feel free to add comments below. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Main picture courtesy of IIHF.com