GROUP A: FINLAND
Last year’s finish: Fourth
Last year’s round-robin record: 3-0-0-1
Rejuvenated Team Finland travels to Ufa, Russia on a mission. The Finns aim to end their six-year medal drought and win the world junior championship title, which would be their first since 1998.
Young Lions, as Team Finland's nickname goes, came up short in last year'
s tournament in Calgary, Alta, where Finland lost a grueling semifinal thriller to Sweden in a shootout. In the bronze game, the Finns lost to host Canada.
"We have a great group of guys and the whole team is confident that we can win against any team in Russia," said Buffalo's 2011 first-rounder (16th overall) and Ässät Pori winger Joel Armia.
Finland has nine returnees from last year's encouraging
campaign. Among that group is London Knights defenceman Olli Määttä.
"I'm really looking forward the tournament. Our team seems very competitive and we have a good chance to be successful in Ufa," said Määttä, whose tournament ended last
year in the opening game against Canada due to a concussion.
For Armia the upcoming WJC will be his third and last.
"I've enjoyed playing in these games. Last year I played pretty good and it definitely gives me confidence to do well (in Ufa) also," said Armia, who was Finland's third best point scorer in Alberta.
Up front the top-line spots are filled with regular Finnish SM-liiga point producers. In addition to Armia, the likes of 2013 draft-eligibles Aleksander Barkov and Artturi Lehkonen, Chicago Blackhawks first-rounder Teuvo Teräväinen, Calgary Flames second-rounder Markus Granlund and Nashville Predators second-rounder Miikka Salomäki ensure that Finland will be loaded offensively.
"This year we have a deep roster and we have a lot of high-end skill. Usually Finland plays well as a team, but this year we can add a lot of high-end skill to the mix as well," said Määttä, a Pittsburgh Penguins first-round pick (22nd overall) in June.
Salomäki, a two-time WJC player, represents versatility at its best in Team Finland's offence. The Kärpät forward brings a ton of leadership and grit to the lineup and his strong two-way game will be a valuable asset on the big ice.
"I think this is the best team we've had in the past three years I've been here," Määttä said.
On defence, Määttä will be the go-to-guy. Playing in his third WJC tournament, the Jyväskylä native knows the nature of the tournament.
"Even though I haven't played a lot in previous tournaments, I know what it takes to play in this level," said Määttä. "Now I need to lead by example and play my best game to help the team."
Besides Määttä, Finland has a solid core of 1994-born defencemen including 2013 draft-eligible Rasmus Ristolainen, NY Islanders 2012 second-rounder Ville Pokka and Nashville 2012 fourth-rounder Mikko Vainonen.
"Our defence is big and mobile. We also have plenty of puck-moving skill, which you need to have on big ice," said Määttä.
The biggest question mark lies in goal. All the three goalies in selection camp, Columbus Blue Jackets third-round pick Joonas Korpisalo, Swift Current's Eetu Laurikainen and Pelicans Lahti's Janne Juvonen, are all world junior rookies. The two exhibition games before the tournament will likely to decide who will be the starter in their opening game against Latvia.
Behind the bench, Finland will have its third new coaching staff in three years. In Ufa the head coach is Harri Rindell, who coached the Finnish U20 team previously in 1995 and 1996. Rindell's right-hand man will be assistant coach Tomek Valtonen, a gold medallist with Finland at the 1998 tournament, who was known as a gritty and hard-working player. Now an important part of the Young Lions coaching staff, Valtonen demands same kind of passion and commitment from his players.
"Tomek runs the drills and he is more vocal. Harri is the organizer, who runs all our meetings and stuff," Määttä said.
For Määttä the leadership role in Team Finland's roster is familiar from his club team, the OHL's London Knights this season. In London Määttä received the "A" on his sweater to start the season.
"That was a big deal for me," said Määttä. "My role has increased and now my job is to play againts the opponents' best players. Also I'm one of the older guys in the team, so I need to be a role model for the younger players."
In the upcoming WJC tournament Määttä could go head-to-head against his teammate Scott Harrington, Knights captain and Team Canada's alternate captain, who has been a mentor for Määttä in London.
"I try to learn as much as I can from him. We talk a lot about hockey and he's been a big help for me, especially last season," said Määttä. "Even though we are teammates (in London), in Ufa we are enemies."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Aleksander Barkov (Tappara Tampere, SM-liiga)
One of the top prospects for the upcoming NHL draft and the most watched player on Team Finland. The 17-year-old playmaker has been dynamic this season in the Finnish SM-liiga and is expected to centre one of Finland's top lines. Big role, big expectations and big ice has been a good combo when it comes to Barkov.
Olli Määttä (London Knights)
The workhorse of Team Finland's defence will log huge minutes in every situation. Looking for redemption in Ufa after last year's disappointing tournament, which ended in the first game thanks to a thunderous hit from Canada's Boone Jenner.
Joel Armia (Ässät Pori, SM-liiga)
Finland's number one sniper and potential tournament star in Ufa. Last year's tournament in Calgary and Edmonton Armia already scored many important goals for Finland and really stepped up to the plate (5G, 2A in 7GP). Earlier this season Armia suffered from a concussions, but is now fit and ready to be a clutch player in Ufa.
Teuvo Teräväinen (Jokerit Helsinki, SM-liiga)
Chicago's first draft pick (18th overall) in June will play his first WJC tournament. The skilled winger/centre started the season slowly in Jokerit, but has been revived in recent weeks and since then he has been flashy and effective in Jokerit's top line. His great hands and vision comes handy especially on PP.
MUST WIN GAME:
New Year's Eve final preliminary round game against arch rival Sweden could be decisive in Group A. If both teams take care of their businesses in the first three games, the winner of this game will likely advance straight to semifinals.
"Sweden is our biggest rival in hockey," Määttä says. "There's always extra motivation when we play against Sweden. Especially now, after last year's bitter semi-final loss."
Sami Hoffrén is a freelance sports journalist based in Finland.