2020 WJC Preview: Team Finland

by Jokke Nevalainen on December 12, 2019

 

Earlier today, Team Finland released their roster for their final training camp before the World Juniors. That roster includes 14 forwards, eight defensemen, and three goalies. The final roster can have 20 skaters and three goalies, so they will need to cut two more skaters at some point. At least one of those cuts will be a forward and the other one can be either a forward or a defenseman, depending on if they want to go with eight defensemen or 13 forwards.

 

Finnish teams have frequently used eight defensemen whenever possible but then they have no replacement available if one of their forwards gets injured during the tournament, so it’s not an easy choice to make. Because of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if they started the tournament with 12 forwards and seven defensemen, and then after a few games decide if they want to add the 13th forward or the eighth defenseman. With that in mind, here is my current lineup projection for Team Finland.

 

 

Forwards

 

At this point, we know that projected top ten pick Anton Lundell (2020) will miss the tournament because of the injury he suffered about three weeks ago. There was a slight possibility of him getting back quickly enough for the tournament but it didn’t happen. He should return to Liiga action around the time the World Juniors are over but he won’t be able to help Finland in their quest for back-to-back gold medals.

 

Without Lundell, the only returning forward from last year’s team is Rasmus Kupari (LAK). This will be his third WJC tournament; he was Finland’s 13th forward two years ago, and then their number one center a year ago. This year, there’s no question about his role as he will be the number one center once again and one of the top players on the team.

 

Winger Matias Maccelli (ARZ) is the leading U20 scorer in the Liiga by a wide margin, and he is one of the most talented offensive players on this team. He is expected to create a lot of offense at even strength and run the top power play unit from the half-wall. Maccelli could very easily be Finland’s leading scorer in the tournament. He may not be a household name at this point but he will be after the World Juniors.

 

There’s no obvious third guy to put on the top line but there are a lot of pretty good options. I chose undrafted winger Aleks Haatanen who has mostly played in Mestis this season but has been one of the best forwards for Finland in their U20 tournaments this season. He has a lot of offensive talent but I’ve also noticed improvements in his defensive play and on-ice effort this season, so I would give him the first chance next to Kupari and Maccelli.

 

Winger Patrik Puistola (CAR) was badly injured just nine days ago but because he’s listed on the camp roster, I have to assume that there’s a good chance he’s able to play at the World Juniors. Puistola is another player I considered for top line right wing position but I wanted to re-unite him with undrafted center Kristian Tanus because those two have always had great chemistry – they have a lot of history together. I put them with undrafted winger Joonas Oden who has a lot of speed and a good nose for the net.

 

The third line is built around the Räty brothers. Center Aatu Räty (2021) is the youngest player on the team by a wide margin but he is also the projected first overall pick for the 2021 NHL Draft, and that doesn’t happen by accident. No one on this team has the same amount of long-term potential as he does but at the same time, he is just barely 17 years old, so you can’t expect him to carry this team just yet. He is definitely capable of playing at this level and being successful but you can’t put the weight of the entire team on his shoulders. If you want to read more about him, check out this article: https://dobberprospects.com/2021-nhl-draft-ranking-finnish-prospects-december-2019/

 

Winger Aku Räty (ARZ) is a good two-way player and he has great chemistry with his younger brother, so it makes sense to keep the two of them together. He can play up and down the lineup and can be used in different roles. For the other wing, I chose Otto Kivenmäki (DET) who is an undersized player with a lot of offensive skill. The Räty brothers are capable of battling by the boards against bigger players, so that allows a smaller guy like Kivenmäki to focus on his strengths and try to create offense for his linemates. Both Räty brothers can finish, so having a playmaker like Kivenmäki on their line could work well.

 

The fourth line is a two-way line that is expected to bring energy to the team with strong effort, physical play, and reliable defensive game. Antti Saarela (CHI) is better at wing but because there’s a surplus of wingers already, I put him at center which is actually where he likes to play. Wingers Sampo Ranta (COL) and Lenni Killinen (CAR) have good size which can be beneficial, especially against the two North American teams. But they also have a good amount of skill, and they play well defensively.

 

If Finland decides to use 13 forwards, the two remaining options for that 13th spot are both undrafted 19-year-olds. Ville Petman is a reliable defensive center who could be a good option for fourth line role but not much else. Eemil Erholtz is an offensive winger who is better suited for an offensive role and doesn’t really have the on-ice effort or two-way game to play a fourth line role. If Erholtz makes the team, it would likely happen at the expense of an offensive guy like Oden or Kivenmäki. Or perhaps if Puistola is unable to play because of his injury. If Petman makes the team, then he’s probably replacing a guy like Saarela, Ranta or Killinen.

 

Finland’s cuts before the final camp were Lundell, Roni Hirvonen (2020), Niklas Nordgren (CHI), Leevi Aaltonen (NYR), Henri Nikkanen (WPG), Samuel Salonen, Patrik Siikanen (EDM), and Mikko Petman. Hirvonen was the biggest shocker – he can play all three forward positions, he can play up and down the lineup, and he was one of Finland’s best players in the Helsinki tournament a month ago. I can’t figure out why he was cut. Nordgren just recently returned after missing nine months because of surgery, so he just didn’t have enough time to get back to full speed after that. Undrafted 19-year-old Salonen is a player I thought would play a fourth line role on this team but the coaching staff decided to go with Killinen instead.

 

Defensemen

 

There is no doubt about the role of Ville Heinola (WPG) on this team. He will be their number one defenseman who also plays on the top power play and is probably used on the penalty kill as well. He is one of three returning defensemen from last year’s team where he already played a big role, and he’s taken huge steps in his game since then. Heinola could be one of the top players in the tournament, all positions considered.

 

Heinola is likely to be paired with Lassi Thomson (OTT) who was drafted one spot ahead of him. Thomson will also likely join Heinola on the top power play where his great one-timer will be utilized frequently because Finland doesn’t have a lot of great shooters up front.

 

Kim Nousiainen (LAK) and Anttoni Honka (CAR) are both offensive defensemen but I believe they’ve matured enough this season to be able to play together without this pair being a liability defensively. Honka will definitely get power play time as well but I believe Nousiainen will also be used there, even though it’s unusual to have four defensemen on the power play these days. But Finland’s forwards aren’t all that great offensively whereas these four defensemen definitely are.

 

The third pair is a pure shutdown pair. Toni Utunen (VAN) and undrafted 19-year-old Peetro Seppälä are both potential Captains for this team, and both actually carried the ‘C’ for one game in the Helsinki tournament a month ago. They are not expected to deliver much offensively but if they can play a reliable defensive game against tough competition while also helping on the penalty kill, then they’ve done their part.

 

Mikko Kokkonen (TOR) is my choice for seventh defenseman but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t play. Finland has frequently used a seven man rotation on defense, so that’s nothing new to them. They might start the tournament with seven and then possibly add Santeri Hatakka (SJS) during the tournament if they decide to go with only 12 forwards.

 

Finland’s cuts before the final camp were Topi Niemelä (2020), Miska Kukkonen (BUF), and undrafted 19-year-old Axel Rindell. Rindell is the leading U20 scorer in the Liiga among defensemen, and he’s actually second on that list among all players. But I guess his all-around game wasn’t good enough. Niemelä has been great at even strength both in the Liiga and in two games in the Helsinki tournament as well but I guess he was just too young. And Kukkonen could have provided a healthy dose of physical play which is something the selected group of defensemen lacks but I guess it wasn’t needed.

 

Goalies

 

Justus Annunen (COL) has been injured for the last couple of weeks but apparently it won’t prevent him from playing at the World Juniors. Annunen is without a doubt Finland’s number one goalie, and he should be one of the top goalies in the tournament. A lot of people outside of Finland haven’t really seen him before but everyone will know his name after the World Juniors.

 

The backup job is between two undrafted goalies. Jasper Patrikainen is a 19-year-old who has been playing against men in Mestis this season. Kari Piiroinen is a year younger, and he plays in the OHL. I think Patrikainen gets the job because of his experience but Annunen is expected to play all the important games, so the backup is unlikely to see a lot of action anyways.

 

Power play

 

Here are my projected power play units.

 

My projection has Maccelli and Tanus with the responsibility of running their units – I believe those two are the best options for that role. Maccelli is an obvious choice but Tanus isn’t as much, and because of that, I wouldn’t be shocked if Kivenmäki or Aatu Räty replaces him at times. But for now, I’m sticking with Tanus because he’s an excellent passer, has a good shot, and he can make creative plays. Maccelli can also do all that but he’s even better at it.

 

Thomson and Honka are used as dedicated one-time shooters from the Ovechkin spot. They both have a good shot, and they’ve been used in that position in earlier tournaments this season. Kupari and Oden are also right-handed shots, so at times they could also be open for one-timers in the middle.

 

Haatanen and Puistola are good in small spaces because of their quick hands and brain. They can screen goalies, battle for position, tip shots, and score from rebounds. Heinola and Nousiainen are great passers but they can also occasionally find a shooting lane from the blue line. They are also great skaters which can be helpful against potential shorthanded breakaways.

 

Tournament projection

 

Finland is the reigning champion but it is very unlikely for them to have back-to-back gold medals with this team. Finland’s team is pretty small and soft, and they also don’t have a lot of high-end skill. There are only a few individuals who can consistently create offense at this level, so I think the best opposing teams will be able to shut them down. If Finland manages to get to the bronze medal game, I would consider that a successful tournament. Of course I’m hoping for them to win, and a hot goalie could change all that. But realistically speaking, I can’t really see them getting to the final.

 

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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 Leijonat.fi