This past weekend, Helsinki hosted a U20 Four Nations tournament. Since it’s only a four-hour trip for me, I decided to hop on a train and spend my weekend there. Well, at least most of it. I watched the Friday games on video and then watched the Saturday and Sunday games live.
This was the final major U20 tournament before the World Juniors, so for the most part, the participating countries – Finland, Sweden, Russia and Czech Republic – brought the best players that were available from Europe; those who play in North America never participate in these tournaments. Some of Russia’s best available players were playing at the CHL Canada/Russia Series at the same time, so those were the only real non-injury related omissions.
There were lots of NHL affiliated prospects playing in the tournament but also some very interesting first-time draft-eligible prospects and some interesting draft overagers as well. You could see the importance of this tournament because there were approximately 100 NHL scouts watching each game. That’s right, on average, about three scouts from each NHL team.
Because there were so many interesting prospects playing in this tournament, I decided to split this article into two parts. In this first part, I’ll go through all the interesting players from Team Finland and Team Russia. I’ll give my thoughts on their performance in the tournament and their chances of being on the final WJC rosters. The next part, covering Team Sweden and Team Czech Republic, will be released tomorrow.
Team Finland scored just a total of three goals in three games – they lost all games 1-2 – so naturally none of their players had impressive point totals. But that’s mostly irrelevant because the process is more important than the results in a short tournament like this.
Anton Lundell, C, 2020 NHL Draft – Lundell was one of the youngest players on the team but he’s the only returning forward from last year’s gold medal winning WJC team. Finland had a different captain in each game, and Lundell was one of them. He also wore the ‘A’ in the other two games. He plays a major role on the team and has good leadership abilities but obviously having that experience from last year didn’t hurt either.
Lundell didn’t get any points but that doesn’t mean he played poorly. As the top line center, he was always playing against the best opposing players, yet he was constantly making a positive impact on the game and giving great support for his teammates. The wingers around him were changed in each game, so that could be part of the reason he couldn’t get to the score sheet. He ran the top power play unit in game two but was used more in front or behind the net in the other two games. He didn’t play on the penalty kill because Finland was using their bottom-six forwards for that. Lundell is a lock for the final roster, and he’s expected to play a similar role at the World Juniors.
Matias Maccelli, W, Arizona Coyotes – Maccelli wasn’t part of the team at the World Junior Summer Showcase but his excellent start to the season in the Liiga has forced the team to not only add him to the roster but give him a major role as well. He played on the top line in games one and three but for whatever reason, didn’t suit up for game two. No points for Maccelli either but his impact on the game was very noticeable – he was one of the few players on to team to constantly create offense. He tried to be too fancy at times but all in all, he left a very positive image based on this tournament. If I was in charge of player selections for the World Juniors, Maccelli would be a lock for a top-six role. But because he didn’t play at the WJSS and missed one game here, I’m not exactly sure what the coaching staff is thinking about him. I hope he gets included because Team Finland desperately needs a creative offensive forward like Maccelli.
Patrik Puistola, W, Carolina Hurricanes – Puistola played on the second line in games one and three but had a chance to play on the top line in game two when Maccelli wasn’t playing. He also got to play on the top power play unit in that game, whereas he played on the second unit in the other two games. Game two was by far his best, and I thought he was the best player on the entire team in that game. His other two games were good but not great. Puistola seemed to play very well with Lundell, and they played together at the U18 Worlds last spring as well, so maybe that’s a pair worth considering. In my books, Puistola should be a lock for the World Juniors because he was one of the best forwards on the team in this tournament. His long-time running mate Kristian Tanus didn’t play in any of the games – he was probably sick or injured, not sure which – but Puistola can find chemistry with pretty much anyone who thinks the game at a high level.
Roni Hirvonen, F, 2020 NHL Draft – Hirvonen is a natural center but has been playing at wing this season in the Liiga, and that’s where he was used in this tournament as well. He played on the fourth line in each game and was a regular on the penalty kill. Despite not getting any power play time and only playing limited minutes at even strength, Hirvonen led the team in points. He had a goal and two primary assists, so he was directly involved in all three goals the team scored in this tournament. He also had another great chance where he hit the crossbar. Hirvonen’s effort level was excellent in each game, and the offensive contributions were definitely more than what was expected given his role. He took a couple of bad penalties but hopefully he can clean up that side of things. Hirvonen was a bubble player for the World Juniors but may have solidified his spot on the final roster with his performance in this tournament.
Aatu Räty, C, 2021 NHL Draft – Räty was the youngest player in the entire tournament. He turns 17 in a few days but he’s already played some games in the Liiga, so it was no surprise he got a chance to play at the U20 level here. Räty centered the fourth line in each game and was a regular on the penalty kill. That’s not really the kind of role you’d expect him to play but he seemed to thrive in that role as well. He scored one of Finland’s three goals, so he made a positive impact in that way as well. Räty is also a bubble player for the final WJC roster but he outplayed some of the centers who played ahead of him in this tournament, so I think he deserves a spot there. He showed he’s capable of playing on the fourth line but a third-line center role might be better for him at the World Juniors.
Aku Räty, W, Arizona Coyotes – The older Räty brother was the third forward on the fourth line, and he was also a regular on the penalty kill. Aku had officially three assists but one of them was a ghost assist where he didn’t even touch the puck. One of the assists was a secondary kind with nothing to it but one assist was worth mentioning because he had a great shot that hit the post and then Hirvonen put in the rebound from it. Räty tried to be too fancy at times, trying to do dangles that he just couldn’t pull. But all in all, he played very well and showed he’s capable of playing a bottom-six role at the World Juniors. His spot on the final roster is not set in stone but seems to me like it’s very likely to happen.
Otto Kivenmäki, C, Detroit Red Wings – Kivenmäki centered the second line and played on the second power play unit in each game, so his usage was very good. But he didn’t really impress with his play in this tournament. He made a couple of fancy moves that looked great but his overall impact on the game wasn’t very good. He made some risky plays that weren’t really needed and wasn’t really able to generate as much offense as was expected. Kivenmäki has a good chance to be on the final WJC roster but his play in this tournament didn’t really move the needle in the right direction.
Antti Saarela, F, Chicago Blackhawks – Although he’s also capable of playing down the middle, Saarela played at wing on the third line in this tournament and was also a regular on the penalty kill. He’s not big but he did a good job delivering hits and generating energy for his team in that way. He also flashed his great speed at times and forced the opposing defenseman to take a penalty because of it once. Saarela showed he can make a positive impact on the game as an energy player in the bottom-six, and I think he will play that type of role at the World Juniors.
Aleks Haatanen, W, undrafted – I thought Haatanen deserved to be drafted in the 2019 draft but all the teams will have another chance to get him next summer. Haatanen had a great tournament and he was one of the best forwards on the team all games considered. He did a lot of good things offensively but also showed a surprising amount of defensive awareness and effort. Despite his small frame, he isn’t afraid to get to the dirty areas of the game and battle against bigger players there. He’s a feisty little kid with good offensive skills, and I think he played himself onto the final WJC roster with his performance in this tournament.
Joonas Oden, W, undrafted – Oden got to play two games on the top line but couldn’t really bring much of anything to that line. He was scratched for the third game, and in his case, I think it was performance-based. He may have played himself out of contention for the final WJC roster with his play in this tournament.
Kim Nousiainen, D, Los Angeles Kings – Nousiainen played on the top pair and top power play in every game but he didn’t really manage to generate offense the way he was expected to. He showed great confidence with the puck and started many breakouts but he didn’t impress in the offensive zone the way he’s capable of. I believe Nousiainen is a lock for the WJC roster but he’ll likely play a second pair, second power play unit type role after Ville Heinola (WPG) and Lassi Thomson (OTT) are added to this roster.
Topi Niemelä, D, 2020 NHL Draft – Niemelä didn’t play in the first game but then played on the top pair in games two and three. He didn’t play on the power play but saw some shifts on the penalty kill. At even strength, Niemelä was perhaps the best and most reliable defenseman on the team in the two games he played, so I think he played himself onto the final WJC roster right here – despite being just 17 years old. He could play a top-four role with limited usage on special teams – and they already have plenty of other options to use on both special teams. Niemelä can be paired with an offensive or a defensive partner, and he can adjust his game perfectly to either scenario. The other options have more experience than him but lack of experience doesn’t seem to be enough to hold him back.
Anttoni Honka, D, Carolina Hurricanes – Honka played on the second pair and second power play unit, and even though he did a very good job running that power play unit, I was a bit disappointed with his overall game. At times, he was back to his old habits of not caring about the defensive side of things too much. On top of that, he didn’t manage to generate much offense either. I’m not saying he played poorly but more is expected from him. Either way, his spot on the final WJC roster seems pretty safe, the only question is how high in the lineup he plays.
Miska Kukkonen, D, Buffalo Sabres – Kukkonen played on the third pair and was a regular on the penalty kill. He is not a well-known prospect but he made a positive impact with his physical play and strong defensive game. He made a couple of big mistakes, though. He’s not a difference-maker on this team by any means but if the team wants a right-handed shot team that can play a physical game against the North American teams who are always playing that style more than the European teams, Kukkonen could definitely get a spot on the final WJC roster.
Mikko Kokkonen, D, Toronto Maple Leafs – Kokkonen was the third goal-scorer for Finland, and his goal was a rather nice looking as well. He played on the fourth pair (Finland used eight defensemen in all games) and was a regular on the penalty kill. He didn’t stand out more than a couple of times but that is a positive thing because of the role he played – he didn’t make any big mistakes. Kokkonen has a good chance to play at the World Juniors but there’s a lot of competition for those final couple of spots, so he needs to play well in the Liiga to do that.
Toni Utunen, D, Vancouver Canucks – Utunen was not on the original roster but he was added because of Thomson’s injury. Utunen played games one and two and then skipped the third game. He was one of three captains Finland used and had an ‘A’ in the other game – this is no surprise because he’s always been given leadership roles in international events. He played on the third and fourth pairs and was a regular on the penalty kill. But that’s pretty much the only thing I can say about him because he was completely invisible on the ice. Again, that is not a bad thing considering his role. As a returning player, Utunen is very likely to be on the final roster. But in all honesty, you could replace him with one of the other options and probably not even notice it.
Justus Annunen, G, Colorado Avalanche – Annunen still seems to be flying under the radar a bit but that will change at the World Juniors if not before that. He’s had an incredible start to his rookie season in the Liiga, and he’s the undisputed number one goalie for Finland at the U20 level. He played two games, facing the Swedes and Russians, and he stopped 49 of the 53 shots fired at him (.925 save percentage). He made a lot of great saves that would have been goals for most goalies. His communication with his defensemen was good. He made a couple of mistakes but that is understandable given his age. If Annunen is playing like this at the World Juniors, goaltending will not be a problem for the Finns.
Russia won their games against Finland and Czechia but had a devastating loss against Sweden. They scored a total of eight goals, so their top players got a bit more points than the Finnish ones did.
Grigori Denisenko, W, Florida Panthers – Denisenko was wearing the ‘C’ in this tournament, an honor he’s had in the past as well. He played on the top line and was responsible for running the top power play unit. He was also a regular on the penalty kill. Denisenko was expected to lead this team, and he rose up to the challenge. I thought he was the best forward on the team, and he was constantly dangerous in all situations. He showed his excellent creativity in addition to his other skills. His effort level was excellent and he was always trying to steal the puck from the opposing team. He scored two goals – one of them on the penalty kill, and the other one was this great wrister.
Pavel Dorofeyev, W, Vegas Golden Knights – Dorofeyev got the same exact usage as Denisenko (top line, top power play & penalty kill), and even though he played very well, he was a bit overshadowed by Denisenko. Dorofeyev had just one goal, and even on that one, it was Denisenko’s forechecking effort that stood out more (and he didn’t even get an assist for that). Nonetheless, Dorofeyev was one of the best forwards on the team and he’s a virtual lock on the final WJC roster – even though Russia didn’t have all of their best players here because many of them were playing against Canadian junior teams at the same time. Dorofeyev has looked better in past tournaments, and I’m expecting to see better things from him at the World Juniors.