Prospect Ramblings: Projecting Team Finland for the WJC

by Jokke Nevalainen on November 26, 2018

 

Article has been updated on December 3rd after the release of the final camp roster.

 

The World Junior Championship tournament is a month away, so it’s time to start projecting which players are likely to be playing there and what kind of usage they might get. Since I’m from Finland, I decided to start with the Young Lions, and then continue with other European teams in the following weeks.

 

This lineup is created with the assumption that full-time NHL players Miro Heiskanen, Henri Jokiharju and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are not available for the tournament. Anything is possible but right now it’s looking very unlikely Finland would get any of those three to their team. I am also assuming Urho Vaakanainen and Eemeli Räsänen are unable to play because of injuries.

 

Forwards

 

First line: Linus NymanRasmus KupariAleksi Heponiemi

 

Kupari and Heponiemi have played together this entire season in the Finnish Liiga, so that pair is a lock for the tournament as well. They’ve been trending upwards this season, and they’re near the league lead in points already. Nyman was planted on their side at the most-recent U20 tournament in Czech Republic, and it seemed to be working because that line was one of the best in the tournament. Nyman has been passed over in the draft twice but he’s a very skilled player, and he’s playing pro hockey in the Liiga this season.

 

Second line: Kristian VesalainenKaapo KakkoEeli Tolvanen

 

This line is definitely good enough to be the top line for Finland but it’s always a mystery if and when chemistry develops, so it’s better to let them start as the second line and see how things develop – but Tolvanen and Vesalainen did play together at the World Juniors a year ago, so they could have chemistry quickly. Most people think of Kakko as a winger but he has a history of playing center, and Team Finland used him as their number two center at the most-recent U20 tournament. Kakko is a great playmaker which could work very well when he has two great shooters on his wings. Vesalainen and Tolvanen were missing from the final camp roster but I believe they’ll play at the tournament.

 

Third line: Aarne Talvitie – Anton Lundell – Niklas Nordgren

 

Lundell and Nordgren play for the same team in the Liiga, and both have been very good pro players this season. Lundell isn’t eligible for the draft until 2020 but he’s a lock for the team. Talvitie is a versatile player who can play both center and wing. He’s also a natural leader who’ll likely wear a letter in the tournament – maybe even the ‘C’. He’s having a great season at NCAA with 14 points in 13 games so far.

 

Fourth line: Sampo Ranta – Santeri Virtanen – Teemu Engberg

 

This is a defense-minded fourth line that’s not expected to produce offense. They’re expected to be a reliable line you can throw out there in any situation without hurting your own team.

 

13th forward: Jesse Ylönen

 

Ylönen is ready to jump into a top-nine role if someone struggles or gets injured. He can play both wings which helps his case. He hasn’t had a great season in the Liiga, though.

 

Close, but no cigar: I would love to have Kristian Tanus on the roster but I just can’t find a spot for him. He can play any forward position, and he can play up and down the lineup. He was one of the best players on the gold-winning team at the U18 Worlds last spring, and he’s having a great season in the Mestis. But he played on the “challenger” team recently which means his odds of cracking the roster are very slim. Otto Kivenmäki has been used in an offensive role at the U20 tournaments this season but he hasn’t been doing much with that opportunity. Lenni Killinen was another forward I was considering but no dice. However, all three are 2000-born players which means they’re eligible to play a year from now.

 

Defensemen

 

First pair: Ville Heinola – Oskari Laaksonen

 

Laaksonen has been the most impressive U20 defenseman in Finland this season. He’s a top-pair guy for his Liiga team, so playing big minutes is nothing new for him. I would also give him time on the top power play. His biggest threat for that top power play role is Heinola who is playing big minutes in the Liiga, including time on the top power play. He was also given that role on the U20 team at the recent tournament in Czech Republic. Laaksonen played on the second unit there.

 

Second pair: Mikko Kokkonen – Lassi Thomson

 

Both Kokkonen and Thomson are draft-eligible next summer. Kokkonen plays good, regular minutes in the Liiga. He’s a reliable two-way guy capable of moving the puck. Thomson is having a great season in the WHL. He’s a great transitional defender who should also play a two-way role on this team.

 

Third pair: Toni Utunen – Anttoni Honka

 

Utunen has had a difficult season because he hasn’t received much ice time in the games he’s played. But he’s been a regular on the national team and a leader as well, so I think they’ll have him on the roster. Honka was recently demoted from the Liiga to Mestis and his season has been difficult as well. His spot is not guaranteed but it’s not like they have any better options either.

 

Seventh defenseman: Otto Latvala

 

Big six-foot-five defenseman with a right-handed shot. Plays second-tier pro hockey in the Mestis.

 

Goaltenders

 

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen – Lassi Lehtinen – Filip Lindberg

 

Luukkonen is expected to be the number one goalie for Finland, and he’s having a great season in the OHL. It’s definitely a benefit for him that he’s getting used to the smaller rink size already. Lehtinen has been a full-time player in the Liiga this season, so he should have the number two spot without questions. He could even challenge Luukkonen for the number one spot.

 

Full lineup

 

Linus NymanRasmus KupariAleksi Heponiemi

Kristian VesalainenKaapo KakkoEeli Tolvanen

Aarne Talvitie – Anton Lundell – Niklas Nordgren

Sampo Ranta – Santeri Virtanen – Teemu Engberg

Jesse Ylönen

 

Ville Heinola – Oskari Laaksonen

Mikko Kokkonen – Lassi Thomson

Toni Utunen – Anttoni Honka

Otto Latvala

 

Finland has a lot of scoring depth at forward. They have some of the best goal-scorers in the tournament, and their middle-lane is very strong as well. 11 of the 13 forwards are full-time pro players. Talvitie and Ranta are the only exceptions, and they’re playing NCAA hockey which is no easy task either. Some full-time Liiga players don’t even fit on this 13-forward roster, so they definitely have some options.

 

Their defense is not as strong, though. Obviously it’s less than ideal to have four first-time draft-eligible defenders on the roster. But luckily for them, six of the seven defenders are playing pro hockey. Thomson is the only exception here, and he’s playing in the WHL which is one of the best junior leagues in the world. Having all their best players would have helped tremendously but Heiskanen and Jokiharju are too good for this tournament, and an injury removed Vaakanainen from the roster, so others just need to step up.

 

What if?

 

The biggest question mark at forward is Tolvanen. If the Predators don’t release him, I think Team Finland will move Kakko to wing, promote Lundell to second line, move Talvitie to center and then promote Ylönen to the third line. Here are my projected forward lines without Tolvanen:

 

Linus NymanRasmus KupariAleksi Heponiemi

Kristian Vesalainen – Anton Lundell – Kaapo Kakko

Niklas NordgrenAarne TalvitieJesse Ylönen

Sampo Ranta – Santeri Virtanen – Teemu Engberg

Samuli Vainionpää

 

 

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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.

 

Kristian Vesalainen’s picture courtesy of Jatkoaika.com