The 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship tournament will be played in Czech Republic. It starts on December 26th, 2019 and the gold medals will be handed to the champions on January 5th, 2020.
Here is my early projection of what Team Finland – the reigning champions – could look like in that tournament. This first projection has been done with the assumption that Kaapo Kakko will be staying with the Rangers but the Jets will release Ville Heinola for the tournament and the Kings will release Rasmus Kupari from the AHL. I will also have another projection without Heinola and Kupari just in case.
2020 roster with Heinola and Kupari
Kupari and Anton Lundell (2020) are the only returning forwards from last year’s gold medal winning team, so it’s only natural to have them both on the top line. Kupari is a natural center but this team has a lot of them, so might as well create a deadly unit that can play against any line in the tournament. The third wheel for that line is Matias Maccelli (ARZ) who didn’t get to play at the World Junior Summer Showcase – despite a strong showing in the friendly tournament that was played before that – but Maccelli has been one of the best teenagers in the Liiga this season, so he felt like a natural choice to play with the team’s top forwards.
The second line is built around the Räty brothers. Aatu Räty (2021) is the currently projected first overall pick for the 2021 NHL Draft, and at age 16, he has already played very well in the Liiga. His older brother Aku Räty (ARZ) doesn’t have the same kind of high-end skill but Aku is the type of player who can play any role, and the brothers have shown excellent chemistry. NCAA player Sampo Ranta (COL) is my choice for the third wheel on this line because I think he deserves a spot on the team and this seemed to be the only spot I had available for him. He has a big body and he works hard on the ice and doesn’t lack skill either, so I think he could be a good complementary player for the Räty brothers.
Lenni Killinen (CAR), Otto Kivenmäki (DET) and Roni Hirvonen (2020) all play for Ässät in the Liiga, and even though they don’t play together as a line there, I think it helps with chemistry when you have that kind of familiarity. All three deserve a spot on the team based on how well they’ve played but I also think it’s a big advantage early in the tournament to have this kind of line from one team.
The fourth line is built around Patrik Puistola (CAR) and Kristian Tanus, two players who are magical together. They play on different teams this season but have a lot of history from the past years both with club teams and internationally as well. The third wheel here is Joonas Oden who is a speedy goal-scoring winger. Tanus is an excellent playmaker, so this line could do some real damage in the offensive end with two very good goal-scorers on his wings.
Antti Saarela (CHI) is my choice for the 13th forward role because he can play all three forward positions and can be used up and down the lineup. Finland usually has eight defensemen on their team in all international tournaments, so that is why they can only have 13 forwards.
Assuming Heinola is available, he will be the number one defenseman on the team and play in all situations. I paired him with Lassi Thomson (OTT) who has been very good in his rookie season in the Liiga. These two could also handle most of the power play responsibilities.
Another returning player on defense is Anttoni Honka (CAR), although he played a very limited role last year. Honka should get a bigger role this time around and he should be used on the power play as well. I paired him with Kim Nousiainen (LAK), another offensive defenseman. Nousiainen has been improving his defensive game a lot which is why he has been playing a top-four role in the Liiga this season.
Usually it’s impossible to crack the Finnish WJC team if you’re playing in junior (players are usually chosen from Liiga and NCAA) but I think Antti Tuomisto (DET) will be an exception to that rule. The only reason he is still playing in junior is because he has to in order to keep his NCAA eligibility for next season. Tuomisto has been by far the best defenseman in the league this season and deserves a spot on this team. Tuomisto is another option for the power play if needed but may not get there because of Thomson and Honka ahead of him. I paired Tuomisto with Peetro Seppälä who is more of a defensive player and has been playing a top-four role in the Liiga this season.
Toni Utunen (VAN) is another returning player on this team but that is assuming he gets healthy by that time. He’s been battling with an injury since the WJSS and hasn’t played a game since then. I paired him with Topi Niemelä (2020) who is eligible for the upcoming draft. The 17-year-old surprised a lot of people by cracking the Kärpät’s Liiga roster, one of the deepest in the league.
Justus Annunen (COL) is the undisputed number one goalie for the Finns. He has had a great start to the season with Kärpät in the Liiga, and he backstopped the Finns to a gold medal at the U18 level two years ago. Jasper Patrikainen is also playing at the men’s level this season but mostly in Mestis. 17-year-old Joel Blomqvist (2020) has been the best goalie in the junior league this season and could really benefit from the experience of being part of the team.
2020 roster without Heinola and Kupari
If Kupari isn’t available for the tournament (the Kings would have to release him from the AHL but they could promote him on paper to block that), I would move Oden higher in the lineup because I would like to keep the Räty brothers together and also the Ässät line together as well. Another option would be to move Ranta to the top line and Oden to the second line.
I would also add Patrik Siikanen (EDM) to the roster in that case. Similar to Saarela, Siikanen can play at center or wing and can be used up and down the lineup, so that is exactly the kind of flexibility you’d want from your 13th forward.
On defense, if the Jets decide to keep Heinola with them, I would just move everyone on the left side up one spot and add Mikko Kokkonen (TOR) to the team. This way, there would still be that perfect balance in handedness – four right-shot guys and four left-shot guys all playing on their natural side. Kokkonen has struggled a bit this season and has been playing many games in the junior league despite playing almost an entire season in the Liiga already last season. But if Heinola is unavailable or there’s an injury, Kokkonen is an easy player to add to the roster.
Just for fun, I also tried to project what Finland’s roster could look like over a year from now in the 2021 WJC. For this, I assumed Kakko and Heinola to be unavailable but I also expect Lundell to be playing in the NHL at that point, so I left him off the team as well. Most of the 2020 team is ineligible for the 2021 tournament, so there will be lots of new names here.
At forward, Puistola, Hirvonen, Saarela and the Räty brothers would be returning players and expected to play a significant role because of that. Some might wonder why I’d move Aku Räty down in the lineup from 2020 to 2021 but that is purely because I expect Tuukka Tieksola (CAR) and Kasper Simontaival (2020) to take a huge step forward in their development, and I think both of them will be better suited for a top-six role at that point.
Another player who I’m expecting to take a huge step forward over the next year is Brad Lambert (2022) who will be a top three pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. Like Lundell and Räty before him, Lambert should be ready for a big role at the WJC a year and a half before his draft.
Drafted prospects Henri Nikkanen (WPG), Leevi Aaltonen (NYR), Juuso Pärssinen (NSH), Matias Mäntykivi (BOS) and Marcus Kallionkieli (VGK) would fill the lineup. If one of the previously mentioned three new names don’t take that huge step I expect from them, these five are definitely capable of playing a bigger role as well.
On defense, Tuomisto, Niemelä and possibly Kokkonen would be returning players from the 2020 team. Santeri Hatakka (SJS) would also play a big role on the left side but after him, it would be three right-handed shots in Kalle Loponen (TOR), Kasper Puutio (2020) and Ruben Rafkin (2020) fighting for ice time on the third pair. Eemil Viro (2020) would be my choice for the eighth spot to add a third left-handed shot to the group.
At the 2019 U18 Worlds, Blomqvist was the third goalie behind Roope Taponen and Kari Piiroinen. But Blomqvist is a year younger than those two, and I expect his development to be much more rapid. If Blomqvist gets to experience the tournament in 2020 as the number three option like I think he will, that would help him be better prepared for the number one job in 2021.
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