Team Finland Hockey Preview
UPDATE : This article was written over a year ago, as a preview of the Olympic Hockey Tournament. Please check out our updated Olympic Hockey Primer, and our full Podcast Preview of the Olympic Hockey Tournament.
Updating our 2010 Winter Olympic Ice Hockey Preview, today we examine Finland. Medalists in three of the last four Olympics, including a silver in Torino, Finland remains a strong international hockey country despite a lack of big name NHL stars. In fact, they played so well last at the Olympics that starting goaltender Antero Niittymäki was named the MVP of the tournament and Teemu Selänne was named the best forward. Unfortunately, despite the accolades they fell one goal short of the ultimate prize.
Vancouver offers another shot at the Olympic gold, an achievement Finland has never reached in its history. A victory in 2010 would be especially sweet for the hockey rich nation. Currently ranked 4th in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation, Finland is medal contender, but the odds suggest they aren’t going to get gold this time around either. We’ll have to see if Finland can prove the odds wrong.
Jukka Jalonen succeeded Doug Shedden as the head coach after last season.
Teemu Selänne, Anaheim Ducks
Olli Jokinen, Phoenix Coyotes
Saku Koivu, Montreal Canadiens
Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild
Jere Lehtinen, Dallas Stars
Tuomo Ruutu, Carolina Hurricanes
Niklas Hagman, Toronto Maple Leafs
Valtteri Filppula, Detroit Red Wings
Jussi Jokinen, Tampa Bay Lightning
Antti Miettinen, Minnesota Wild
Jarkko Ruutu, Ottawa Senators
Antti Pihlström, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Niko Kapanen, Aq Bars Kazan (KHL)
Selänne, or the Finnish Flash as he is otherwise known, has been Finland’s best player for about a decade and a half. He’s the country’s one true offensive superstar and irreplaceable player. The next best players are the steady Olli Jokinen and fast rising Mikko Koivu. Mikko is joined by his brother Saku, and the pair are two of the team’s top scorers. After those four, the offensive talent starts to thin out. The next level features guys like Jere Lehtinen, Tuomo Ruutu, and Niklas Hagman. They will all be asked to fill scoring roles for Team Finland despite only moderate offensive success in the NHL. Lehtinen’s the most recognizable name of the group, but has made his mark more as a defensive forward. Injuries have derailed Ruutu’s once promising career.
The balance of the roster is filled with solid forwards who bring a defensive presence and can grind it out with the other team’s better lines. Examples include the other half of the Ruutu brothers, Jarkko, Antti Miettinen, and Jussi Jokinen (no relation to Ollie). Pihlström should make the squad after leading Finland in scoring at the last World Championship. His combination of potential offense and young legs should be a welcome addition. Other players that might be in consideration for a roster spot include: Ville Peltonen of the Florida Panthers, Ville Leino a Red Wings prospect playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL), Lauri Korpikoski of the New York Rangers, and Sean Bergenheim of the New York Islanders.
Kimmo Timonen, Philadelphia Flyers
Sami Salo, Vancouver Canucks
Teppo Numminen, Buffalo Sabres
Joni Pitkänen, Carolina Hurricane
Ossi Väänänen, Philadelphia Flyers
Toni Lydman, Buffalo Sabres
Lasse Kukkonen, Philadelphia Flyers
Timonen and Salo remain strong two-way defensemen and anchor the blue line, even if Salo is as fragile as glass. They are joined by offensive wizard and power play specialist Joni Pitkänen, plus a slew of veteran defensive-minded defensemen. Finland’s at its best when playing a defensive game and this veteran group plays right into that concept.
I’ve given the final defensive spot to Kukkonen over Ville Koistinen of the Nashville Predators due to recent play. The margin of error is very thin for either player, however, making the last selection potentially wide open. Other options to keep in mind are veteran national team fixture Petteri Nummelin or rising offensive rearguard Sami Lepistö of the Washington Capitals.
Niklas Bäckström, Minnesota Wild
Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames
Kari Lehtonen, Atlanta Thrashers
Kiprusoff is a little more than two years removed from winning a Vezina trophy, but has seen his play slip each of the last few seasons. That combined with the fact he skipped the 2006 Olympics lead many to believe Kiprusoff won’t be wearing a Finnish jersey in Vancouver next winter. I’m not prepared to write him off just yet, but with Bäckström’s strong play of late the starting job and label of best national goalie is up for grabs. I’m putting my money on Bäckström for now, but the race is hardly decided.
The final spot on the roster is more interesting as Finland has been phenomenal at developing goalies of late. If only they had that depth at other positions. For example, you’ll notice the absence of Antero Niittymäki on this roster and he was the MVP of the Torino games. That’s because there are simply better goaltenders out there. Lehtonen would be the ideal choice as he’s both young and talented. What he hasn’t been is healthy. If he’s injured of ineffective, the door opens for all sorts of players. Vesa Toskalaof the Toronto Maple Leafs would probably be the first choice, but Niittymäki and young prospects like Tuukka Rask of the Providence Bruins (AHL) or Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators are also viable options.
Outlook: Finland’s not a sexy team. For them to succeed, they’ll have to grind out wins playing a defensive style. Their 2006 performance is the perfect blueprint to success. Get outstanding goaltending, limit scoring, and rely on their one true superstar in Selänne to take care of the offense. While anything is possible, I don’t see a repeat of past Olympic successes. Keep in mind that I mentioned Finland has never won Olympic gold. The silver in ’06 was a very strong performance for Finland, and there’s likely to be some regression to mean so to speak with their result this time around. Particularly on the smaller ice, Finland seems destined for a finish out of the medals.