Nevalainen: Finland’s WJC Depth Chart

Jokke Nevalainen

2020-08-31

Photo courtesy of Leijonat.fi

 

Finland has now held two under-20 training camps – one in July in Vierumäki and the other one in August in Imatra. They played two games during each camp, and I was fortunate enough to attend all four games live. They played intrasquad games in Vierumäki but they played against Mestis team Ketterä in Imatra.

 

Based on everything I know about these players and everything I saw during these four games, here’s how I see Finland’s depth chart towards the World Juniors right now. Things can still change once the seasons get started, and there’s still hope that there will be a Five Nations tournament in November which would be the final showcase before the World Juniors – but there are some dark clouds over that event already, so Finland may end up holding another training camp instead.

 

There’s also a realistic scenario where the World Juniors get postponed or maybe even cancelled altogether if Hockey Canada decides playing the tournament in a bubble isn’t feasible. Nonetheless, I’m going to ignore that for now and share my thoughts on what Finland’s WJC roster might look like if the selections were made right now.

 

 

Forwards

 

Locks: C Anton Lundell (2020), W Patrik Puistola (CAR), W Aku Räty (ARZ), C Aatu Räty (2021)

 

Lundell is the only returning forward from the 2019 gold medal winning team. He missed the 2020 World Juniors because of an injury but now, he will be Finland’s number one center and almost certainly their captain as well. He captained the team in the Imatra camp, and he was recently named an alternate captain for Liiga team HIFK as well. He’s mature beyond his years. Lundell was unfit to play at the Vierumäki camp but was one of the top players in the Imatra camp. This will be Lundell’s team from start to finish. His skating looked much smoother compared to last season, so it looks like he’s had a great summer of training. I’m expecting a big season out of him.

 

Puistola is a returning player and he was one of the top players on the team at the last World Juniors. He participated on both training camps, and even though his performance was inconsistent, he didn’t do anything to lose his spot on the team. He’s expected to play a big role as a top-six winger and a power play weapon. He had some nice chemistry with Lundell at the U18 Worlds in 2019, so I’m hoping to see those two reunited once again.

 

The Räty brothers played on the fourth line last time but they’ll get a much bigger role this time around. They have a long history of playing together but they were split up late in the Imatra camp where they didn’t quite manage to make the impact that was expected from them. They were both unfit to play at the Vierumäki camp but there’s no reason to think their spots would be in jeopardy. Both of them will play a top nine role, probably even a top six role. Aku played better out of the two in Imatra but Aatu has much more potential. When these two get really going, they’re difficult to stop.

 

Near-locks: C Juuso Pärssinen (NSH), W Kasper Simontaival (2020), C/W Roni Hirvonen (2020), C/W Antti Saarela (CHI)

 

Pärssinen is pretty much a lock to be on the roster, and he could even overtake the younger Räty as the number two center on the team. He was unfit to play in Vierumäki but played well in Imatra as the number three center behind Lundell and Räty. He also saw time on the top power play unit as the net-front guy. He is a strong two-way player who will get a big role on this team. He is clearly outpacing his draft position already. Don’t sleep on him.

 

Simontaival was arguably a top three forward in both training camps. If there was one player who raised his stock in the four games they played, it was Simontaival. He’s capable of playing anywhere in the top nine but seemed to play well with Lundell, so perhaps that’s something they’ll utilize at the World Juniors. His play without the puck is still inconsistent but he’s excellent with the puck and knows how to finish. He’s short but he knows how to protect the puck, especially on the rush. It would be nice if he was used more prominently on the power play, though. He’s excellent at the left half-wall but doesn’t get to play there on the national team.

 

Hirvonen played very well at the Vierumäki camp where they used him at center. But as we’ve seen previously, when he was moved to the wing for the Imatra camp, he wasn’t nearly as effective. Unless there’s an injury or two, Hirvonen will end up being a winger on this team which means his impact will likely be a bit limited. But he can play any forward position on any line, and that versatility makes him a valuable player. He also carried an ‘A’ in the Imatra camp.

 

Saarela didn’t participate in either training camp but he’s a returning player from last year’s team, so it’s difficult to see him being dropped out. Like Hirvonen, Saarela can play all three forward positions but will most likely end up being a winger on this team. He’s more of an energy player who can be used on the penalty kill but he can also chip in offensively at times.

 

Likely: W Mikko Petman (2020/re-entry), C/W Matias Mäntykivi (BOS), C Samuel Helenius (2021)

 

Petman is a player who can play up and down the lineup. He can be a complementary offensive player with two forwards who are more skilled than him or he can be a physical energy player on the bottom-six. He’s a strong player who can create space for himself and his linemates. More likely a bottom-six player on this team but the coach might like his style enough to move him up the lineup.

 

Mäntykivi is also a strong two-way player who can play up and down the lineup which is why he’s on this list. He was used at center in the Vierumäki camp but was moved to the wing in Imatra. He played well in both positions. I wasn’t sure he’d be on the team before the training camps but I really liked what I saw from him. Like Petman, Mäntykivi has a lot of experience against men which helps his chances. Mäntykivi is more skilled offensively but doesn’t have similar physical presence as Petman.

 

The one name that is perhaps unexpected here is Helenius. At 6-foot-6, he’s a massive player at the junior level. He likes to throw his weight around, and he has a great motor. He’s also a very good defensive player who uses his reach very effectively, especially on the penalty kill where he blocks passing lanes with his long stick. He’s an ideal number four center; a role player who understands his role well and executes night after night without any issues.

 

Wildcards: C/W Mikael Pyyhtiä (2020), W Tuukka Tieksola (CAR), C/W Brad Lambert (2022), W Roby Järventie (2020), C Henri Nikkanen (WPG), W Leevi Aaltonen (NYR), W Veeti Miettinen (2020)

 

So far, I’ve listed 11 forwards which means there’s room for another two out of this group of wildcards.

 

Pyyhtiä played very well in both training camps. He was used at wing which seems to be the better position for him. He produced offensively in the Vierumäki camp, and he showed he can be a good energy player in Imatra. A versatile player who might be the ideal 13th forward on the team.

 

Tieksola was unfit to play on either training camp but he’s nearing a return to the ice. He’s one of the most skilled offensive players in this entire age group in Finland, so I believe he’ll get chosen to the team – but I could be completely wrong about that. He’s in a tough spot trying to earn a regular role with Kärpät’s Liiga team because they are stacked year after year. If he can’t do that, his WJC chances might go out the window as well.

 

Many (me included) expected Lambert to be part of the under-20 age group this season but for whatever reason, he wasn’t invited to either training camp. Instead, he was invited to the under-18 training camps which were held at the same time. At this point, I have to assume he’s not part of their plans but things can change if he has a strong first half of the season.

 

Järventie and Aaltonen were both disappointing in the Vierumäki camp. Järventie didn’t even get invited to the Imatra camp, and Aaltonen played just one game there. I think both are on the outside looking in at this point but things could still change.

 

Nikkanen and Miettinen didn’t participate on either training camp. I have to assume they’re not part of WJC plans at this point of time. I’m not sure why that is, though. They’re both good players.

 

Other options: C/W Petteri Puhakka (2020/re-entry), W Oliver Suni (2020), W Eetu Liukas (2021), W Marcus Kallionkieli (VGK), C Juuso Mäenpää (2020), W Joona Kiviniemi (2020), C/W Elis Hede (2020/re-entry), C/W Aarne Intonen (2020/re-entry), W Benjamin Korhonen (2020/re-entry)

 

These players participated on one or both training camps but I just think there are better options available for any role right now. At best, I think these players might be considered for fourth line roles. One name I’d bring up as a potential dark horse from here is Puhakka. He played well in a defensive role in Imatra which raises his chances to make the team. He’s also a pretty skilled guy on top of that.

 

Suni and Kallionkieli are hurt by the fact they play in North America. But they also didn’t do themselves any favors with lackluster performances at the Vierumäki camp. Neither one was invited to the Imatra camp which makes me think they’re not high on the depth chart.

 

Defensemen

 

Locks: Ville Heinola (WPG), Mikko Kokkonen (TOR)

 

Heinola is the only player available who has played in two World Juniors already, and he’s also the only player who has played NHL games already. With all that experience under his belt, don’t be surprised if he’s part of the team’s leadership group. He’s expected to be Finland’s number one defenseman at even strength and on the power play. He had a very good performance in the Vierumäki camp and didn’t play in Imatra which was likely because they wanted to give others a chance to earn their spot on the team.

 

Kokkonen is also a returning player. He will likely play more of a number four or five role but he’ll be an important part of the team nonetheless, especially on the penalty kill. He carried an ‘A’ in the Imatra camp and will be carrying an ‘A’ for Liiga team Jukurit this upcoming season, so he’s expected to be part of the leadership group at the World Juniors as well. That says something about his maturity level. He’s not big or flashy but he’s pretty good at everything he does.

 

Near-locks: Topi Niemelä (2020), Antti Tuomisto (DET), Eemil Viro (2020), Santeri Hatakka (SJS)

 

I thought Niemelä should have been on the team already last time but this time he’s pretty much a lock to be there. At even strength, I could see Niemelä being the number two defenseman behind Heinola – those two played well together in Vierumäki. Niemelä was unfit to play in Imatra but he’s shown enough that his spot should be safe. Assuming the team only uses two defensemen on the power play, Niemelä is unlikely to get any time there. But if they need a third guy at some point, I think he’s the first in line for a promotion to that role.

 

Tuomisto played well in Vierumäki but didn’t get invited to Imatra. My belief is that they just wanted to give other players a chance to play a bigger role there. Tuomisto should be a lock on the team, and I’m expecting him to be the lone defenseman on the second power play unit. The one concern with him is that apparently he’s going to Denver to study even if there’s no hockey to be played. If he doesn’t play any hockey games in the fall semester, that could really hurt his WJC chances – or at least force him to start the tournament lower in the lineup. UPDATE: Apparently Tuomisto missed the Imatra camp because he was already in Denver.

 

Viro and Hatakka will also be in the hunt for a top-four spot on the team. Kokkonen and Hatakka are returning players but it’s been Viro who has out-performed both of them in training camps. Hatakka didn’t play in Imatra but considering how good Viro was there, I have no doubts that Viro would have out-performed him there as well. I also thought Viro was better than Hatakka throughout last season. Viro is so good at moving the puck up the ice from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. He doesn’t do it with too much flash but he’s very effective at it.

 

Hatakka is a pretty decent puck-mover himself as well but on this team, he will play a more defensive role. I could definitely see him being paired with Kokkonen to form the team’s shutdown pair – despite the fact they’re both left-handed shots. I usually prefer LHD-RHD pairs but in this case, I think four of the top six defensemen on this team are left-handed shots, so one of them has to move over to the right side.

 

Other options: Kasper Puutio (2020), Rami Määttä (2020), Joni Jurmo (2020), Ruben Rafkin (2020), Kalle Loponen (TOR), Matias Rajaniemi (2020), Mico Luoto (2020/re-entry), Iivari Räsänen (2020/re-entry)

 

The seventh defenseman is likely to come out of this group. My choice right now would be Puutio who played a big role in both training camps and performed well. He played well with the puck but also defended well enough. He made some mistakes but wasn’t afraid to use his strengths. He didn’t do enough to surpass any of the top six guys mentioned earlier but perhaps enough to earn a spot on the final roster because there is no obvious option who’d jump out among this group. Being a right-handed shot doesn’t hurt his chances either.

 

Luoto might be the most offensively skilled player in this group but he’s a liability defensively. The team already has enough offensive defensemen, so I doubt they’ll add a player like him. Jurmo is sort of a similar story – a great puck-rusher but makes too many bad decisions with the puck and is not good enough defensively to play the type of role that would be available for him. But if an offensive role opens up, these two could get a long look. Neither one performed well in training camps, though.

 

Määttä performed very well in both training camps, and if they wanted a more reliable defensive player, then Määttä might be the answer here. There’s also familiarity between him and Tuomisto after the two played together most of last season but for whatever reason, they haven’t played together on the national team. Määttä is not big but he’s such a smart complementary player who can be paired with anyone.

 

Rafkin might be considered if they wanted a more physical player who can compete against North American teams. Like Puutio, Rafkin is also a right-handed shot which might play a role in final decisions. Rajaniemi might be considered if they wanted someone with size and penalty killing ability. Finland’s defense group will not be big or physical, so a player like Rafkin or Rajaniemi could be a nice complementary piece to that group. It really comes down to what type of a player the coaching staff wants to fill that seventh spot with.

 

Goalies

 

Options: Joel Blomqvist (2020), Roope Taponen (2020/re-entry), Kari Piiroinen (2020/re-entry)

 

Blomqvist is by far the most talented goalie available here. He’s a projected second round pick whereas the other two will likely go undrafted once again. But that doesn’t mean he’s automatically the number one goalie at the World Juniors.

 

Blomqvist had a bad performance in Vierumäki but played well in Imatra. But it’s impossible to judge a goalie based on just two games. Taponen was arguably better than Blomqvist and he has more experience playing against men. Taponen was also Finland’s number one goalie at the U18 Worlds in 2019, with Piiroinen as his backup and Blomqvist as the number three option. How much have things changed since then? That remains to be seen.

 

Blomqvist is a year younger than his two counterparts, so that could play a role in the final decision as well. They may want to go with the older and more experienced option. Either way, these three are likely going to be on the final roster, and the number one goalie could be decided during the tournament.

 

***

 

All that being said, here’s what I think the final roster would look like.

 

 

*

 

And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.

 

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