Article has been updated on December 3rd after the release of the final camp roster, and again on December 15th after confirmation that Kristian Vesalainen has declined invitation to join the team.
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, Eemeli Räsänen and Niklas Nordgren are unable to play because of injuries.
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.
Tolvanen will be one of the biggest stars in the tournament if the Predators allow him to go. Both Kakko and Lundell are just 17 years old but they are important players on their Liiga teams already now. Kakko has been on the top line for TPS this entire season whereas Lundell has been playing mostly on the second and third line for HIFK. Lundell isn’t eligible until the 2020 NHL Draft because of his late birthday but he is expected to play a major role on this team already now. Both Kakko and Lundell are capable of playing center and wing, so it’s also possible they switch spots depending on how they play.
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 16 points in 17 games so far. Ranta’s season at NCAA hasn’t been as successful with seven points in 15 games but he’s a reliable two-way forward. Ylönen had a slow start to his rookie season in the Liiga but he’s been getting better lately. His right-handed shot is a strength on this forward group mostly filled with left-handed shots.
Fourth line: Teemu Engberg – Samuli Vainionpää – Santeri Virtanen
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. The Jets drafted Virtanen in the fourth round in 2017. Engberg and Vainionpää are undrafted 19-year-olds.
13th forward: Aleksi Klemetti
Klemetti is a small and talented winger ready to step into any role. He’s had a good rookie season in the Liiga with 11 points in 30 games. He’s another undrafted 19-year-old.
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.
Laaksonen, Sabres’ third-rounder from 2017, 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. Heinola is draft-eligible next summer, and a potential first-rounder there.
Second pair: Mikko Kokkonen – Lassi Thomson
Both Kokkonen and Thomson are draft-eligible next summer, and both are potential first-rounders. 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, Canucks’ fifth-rounder from last summer, 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. He’s draft-eligible next summer, and a potential first-rounder.
Seventh defenseman: Otto Latvala
Big six-foot-five defenseman with a right-handed shot. Undrafted 19-year-old who plays second-tier pro hockey in the Mestis.
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.
Teemu Engberg – Samuli Vainionpää – Santeri Virtanen
Mikko Kokkonen – Lassi Thomson
Toni Utunen – Anttoni Honka
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.
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Feel free to add comments below. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Eeli Tolvanen’s picture courtesy of Yle.fi
- Prospect Ramblings: Kakko, Kaski, Heponiemi, Ylönen, Texier, Vesalainen & More (March 11)
- Prospect Deep Dive: Ville Heinola
- NCAA Report - Ryan Poehling (March 2019)
- WHL Report - March 2019
- USHL Report - March 2019
- Liiga Report - Kakko, Heinola, Honka & More (March 2019)
- SHL Report - March 2019
- DPR Episode 52: Junior Scoring Leaders, Shane Wright, and NCAA Free Agents