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  1. Finland: Inching closer to the top

    1 Comments by *censored* Published on 09-01-2016 09:28 AM
    Finland: Inching closer to the top
    By Andiijá Hárribárdni Bealdunjárga Laiti, aka Antero Peltoperä, aka Drew Pelto, aka *censored*

    Quick, name the top three countries in medals won in major international hockey tournaments involving professional players since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

    Time's up! Canada is the obvious guess, and their seventeen medals prove you to be correct. USA? Not even close: sixth. Russia? Fifth behind the fourth-place Czechs. Sweden? Well done, number one with eighteen (plus a semifinal appearance in the 1996 World Cup, where there is no Bronze Medal Game).

    That third nation—in their country’s stereotypically quiet way—is Finland, tied with Canada’s seventeen. Among those seventeen though have been only two Gold Medals, coming in the World Championships in 2011 and 1995. Add in nine Silver and six Bronze and you see a country that is always in the running but just not quite able to get over the hump at the highest levels.

    On the positive side, maybe things are changing for the Leijonat as their youth development appears to be growing stronger. Their Under-20 squads have taken two of the last three World Junior Championships, and their Under-18 teams have taken Gold and Silver respectively in the past two U18 Worlds. Their top scorer from two of those teams, Patrik Laine, is one of the team’s headliners leading into the 2016 World Cup, along with the 2014 tournament-leading scorer Teuvo Teräväinen.

    2016 World Championship MVP, Runner-Up, and top scorer on team; 2016 SM-Liiga Rookie of the Year, Playoff MVP,
    and Champion; 2016 U20 WJC All-Star and Champion; 2015 U18 WJC All-Star, Runner-Up, and top scorer on team;
    Second overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Patsyuk!

    Joining these two among the team’s forwards is an excellent mix of both veterans and young stars, including a couple names many North American fans may not be familiar with. Sebastian Aho is a veteran of international play, having played with Laine on those medalling World Junior teams. He is expected to make his NHL debut this fall with Carolina.

    Other youngsters in the blue and white include Florida’s Aleksander Barkov, San Jose’s Joonas Donskoi, and a pair from the Minnesota Wild in Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula. Barkov is already viewed as one of the NHL’s best prospects, while Donskoi is coming off a successful rookie season that saw him in the Stanley Cup Final with San Jose.

    Joining the aforementioned Wild pair is forward Mikko Koivu. He is the captain of both the Wild and the Finns and leader of a veteran crew that includes Barkov’s fellow Floridians Jussi Jokinen of the Panthers and Valtteri Filppula of the Lightning. Rounding out the men up front are Lauri Korpikoski, Jori Lehterä, and Leo Komarov. Komarov is the first Estonian-born NHL player, holding dual citizenship between Finland and Russia as an Ingrian Finn. Expect a lot of speed from this team, though they do carry the possibility of getting out-done physically by the North American teams.

    Finland has become known for great goaltending over the past decade. In the last twelve years, two-thirds of the NHL’s teams have had a Finnish goalie play for them. Names like Miikka Kiprusoff, Kari Lehtonen, Niklas Bäckström, Antero Niittymäki, and Christopher Gibson (he’s Finnish, look it up) have graced NHL teams between the pipes. The Finns have their usual strong netminders again this year as NHL veterans Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask will get the nod, alongside a giant of the KHL, Mikko Koskinen. A member of SKA St. Petersburg, the 6’7” former Islanders prospect has been among the Russian league’s top playoff performers in the past two seasons and was named Best Goaltender at the 2016 World Championships.

    He's kinda big...

    Finland’s lone potential weak spots are twofold: defense and coaching.

    Sami Lepistö leads a talented but very young group of blueliners for the Finns. At 31, he is the only one over the age of 25 and entering his fifth season away from the NHL, plying his trade for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL. While he led the Russian league’s playoffs in points by a defenseman, it is still a step down from the level of the NHL.

    The Suomalainen defensive youth movement is led by recent Stanley Cup winner Olli Määttä of the Penguins, along with Sami Vatanen , Jyrki Jokipakka, and Rasmus Ristolainen as the only players on the back end with NHL experience. Dallas Stars prospect Esa Lindell and Chicago Blackhawks’ farmhand Ville Pokka round out the group of blueliners. This defensive corps should move the puck well, but how will their inexperience play into their efforts in their own zone?

    Head Coach Lauri Marjamäki, positively giddy following Kärpät's SM-Liiga championship

    Lauri Marjamäki makes his international head-coaching debut for the Finns, named as successor to Kari Jalonen a year ago. Marjamäki has led Kärpät Oulu to two SM-Liiga championships in 2013 and 2014, a Bronze Medal in 2015, and a Silver Medal in 2016. He has served as an assistant coach for Leijonat in previous years including the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, as well as the 2014 Olympics. This inexperience could be a potential bust for the Finns, or it could be the dawning of a new era as the newcomer pushes the country finally over the hump. On the plus side, assisting Marjamäki will be longtime assistant for Jokereit and Switzerland’s EV Zug, Waltteri Immonen, along with Teppo Numminen and Kalle Kaskinen. The team is also getting support from general manager Jere Lehtinen, assistant GM Jarmo Kekäläinen, and a couple of well-known consultants in Saku Koivu and Teemu Selänne.

    Don’t sleep on this team. Although they are a country that repeatedly finds itself close but not quite there, they are in a position to surprise: if not now, then very soon. They’ve got talent, they’ve got sisu, they just need to get experience. I predict a semifinal, perhaps even a second-place finish for the Finnish in the 2016 World Cup.

    About the author: Drew Pelto is half-Finnish and enjoys the joke about the American, Frenchman, and Finn who see an elephant (ask him sometime). He is a writer when not reading InkTank (the Finnish equivalent of BuzzFeed), at times an unrealistic homer about his family’s home country’s teams, and currently lives in Texas with a big Finnish flag in his living room. He does not play pesäpallo or participate in eukonkanto. Hyvä Leijonat!
    Last edited by *censored*; 09-01-2016 at 01:10 PM.

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