BUFFALO - - In 2009 the Finnish Ice Hockey Association noticed it was falling behind Canada, Sweden, Russia and the United States in producing elite hockey talent.
The federation held a summit at the Sports Institute in Vierumaki, Finland inviting agents, scouts, national team coaches and club team coaches to devise a plan to solve the issue.
As a result of the meeting, the federation hired four full-time national team coaches to work with the nation’s top players.
Since 2009, Finland has won a gold, silver and bronze medals at the IIHF U18 World Championship. At the Under-20 tournament, the Finns have taken home a gold medal twice in the last three years, and at the senior level Finland has won a gold and two silvers in the past six tournaments. The Finns have also taken home a bronze medal in each of the last two Olympics.
Later this month, at the NHL Draft, three Finns are expected to be selected within the top 15 picks, including two in the top five.
“I think now we have good coaches on our junior teams and junior national teams of course,” said Patrik Laine. “I think those guys have maybe more focus on teaching every player more than a couple years ago. I think that's important and we have good confidence as a country in those tournaments. We know we can beat anybody.”
Laine, a left-winger, leads the Finnish contingent in the rankings. ISS Hockey has the 18-year-old as the second overall pick behind only Auston Matthews.
The six-foot-three, 200-pound forward, who played professionally for his hometown Tappara this season, has been doing his best to close the gap between himself and Matthews. At the worlds last month, Laine led the Finns in scoring with seven goals and five assists in 10 games – three more points than his American counterpart.
“I think I have the best ability to someday become the best player in the NHL,” Laine said following testing at the NHL Scouting Combine. “Maybe other top guys are good at everything and they don't have that kind of one thing that they're very good at and I think I have that.”
In comparing himself to Matthews, Laine admitted it’s a pretty close race.
“I think we're quite even and he's better than me in some stuff and I'm better than him some of the things,” Laine said. “I think we're quite even and Toronto will have a tough decision to make. I think I have a better shot and ability to score goals and I think I'm more physical than him.”
Laine is also seven months younger than Matthews, a time period he feels he can further improve on the Scottsdale, Arizona native.
“(It’s) a long time and I think if he's better than me in some things I would catch him during those (seven) months,” Laine said. “I don't know if that gives (me) some advantage. I think his ability to create chances with his line mates and he can score also obviously, and he has good hands and he's good at protecting the puck. I think he's quite good at every zone on the ice.”
When asked which current NHLers he’d compare Matthews and himself to, Laine was bold.
“I think I would be (Alex) Ovechkin and he would (Jonathan) Toews,” he said.
Behind Laine, is right-winger Jesse Puljujarvi. The 18-year-old spent the past two seasons playing professionally in Finland with Karpat. This past season he scored 12 goals and 15 assists in 50 games. Puljujarvi is ranked third by ISS Hockey for the upcoming draft.
The six-foot-three, 198-pound forward had five goals and 12 assists in seven games at the world junior hockey championships this year helping Finland win gold. He added five goals and two assists at the Under-18 tournament as the Finns defeated Sweden to win gold for the first time in 16 years at the tournament.
Olli Juolevi, the third ranked defenceman in the draft, is ranked 11th overall in ISS Hockey’s final rankings.
Juolevi is a smooth skating, two-way defenceman who brings size to the blue line at six-foot-two and 179-pounds. The 18-year-old spent this past season with London of the Ontario Hockey League leading all Knights blueliners with 42 points in 57 games.
He added three goals and 11 assists in 18 playoff games as the Knights captured the franchise’s second Memorial Cup.
When asked who he tries to model his game after, Juolevi pointed to a pair of Swedes currently in the NHL.
“Hampus Lindholm is one of those guys, and of course, one of the top guys who I like to watch is (Oliver) Ekman-Larsson,” said Juolevi. “Just those guys who are like offensive guys and still they have a two-way game. I'm a team player. I don't want to be like just an offensive guy. I want to be a guy they can also use on the penalty kill and those types of things.”
Juolevi understands the impact this year’s draft will have on the future of hockey in his native Finland.
“Of course it's special with Laine and (Jesse) Puljujarvi going (too) so it's pretty rare for Finland to have three such high picks, but of course it's great,” he said. “I hope some young Finnish guys are going to watch (the draft) and say 'I want to be there one day' because that was my thing when Mikael Granlund went to Minnesota. I was like, 'Yeah, I want to be there one day'.”
According to ISS Hockey Scouting Director, Dennis MacInnis, the biggest difference he’s seen out of the Finnish Ice Hockey Association is the size of the players the nation is developing.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed over the last maybe 5-6 years, the Finns always developed hard-working, hard-nosed players that compete,” MacInnis said. “Now you’re starting to see they’re not just average-sized guys anymore – now these guys are coming in over six-foot-two, six-foot-three, six-foot-four and they’ve got that same built in compete level and hockey sense.
“They’re just bigger and stronger than they were.”
Finland has never had a player go first overall at the NHL Draft. Kari Lehtonen (2002) and Aleksander Barkov (2013) were both second overall selections.
It’s unlikely that Laine has done enough to persuade the Maple Leafs to select him over Matthews, but changes made six years ago by the Finnish Ice Hockey Association are finally paying off.