GROUP B: Finland
2013 finish: Seventh place
2013 round-robin record: 1-1-0-2, 15 GF/ 15 GA
Yahoo! Canada Sports has asked North American-based players, some of whom are playing in the world junior championship, to break down their national teams.
While the Finnish men's team contends regularly at the senior levels, the junior program is a step behind the "Big Four" of Canada, United States, Sweden and Russia, especially at the World Juniors. Finland has not medalled since 2006 in Vancouver, when Tuukka Rask took home top goaltender honours and led his team to a bronze medal finish. Finland has not won gold at this tournament since 1998, and last made a final in 2001.
Already, the Finns begin the tournament at a disadvantage. They're not only playing in the competitive Group B against Russia, Sweden and Switzerland, but they'll also be the only European nation to have two junior-aged players in the National Hockey League during the tournament, Florida forward Aleksander Barkov and Pittsburgh defenceman Olli Maatta. It's already a tough task for a team that rarely makes semifinals, made tougher by the absentees. Top prospect Kasperi Kapanen will miss the tournament with a shoulder injury.
Name-recognition is already an issue on this roster. Canadian junior hockey fans will recognize names of just two of the players. Defenceman Julius Honka and forward Henrik Ikonen play in the CHL with Swift Current (WHL) and Kingston (OHL) respectively. Otherwise there are two former first round picks to discuss, starting with Buffalo Sabres 8th overall selection Rasmus Ristolainen, currently playing with the Sabres' AHL affiliate.
Ikonen (who is not related to teammate Juuso Ikonen), talking with Yahoo! Canada, is well-aware of the lack of star power on the team and the disadvantage the team has coming into the tournament. "As a Finnish team, we're never going to win as individuals. We have to play as a team."
At both junior and senior levels, Finland depends on its goaltending. No other country has been as successful at pumping goaltenders into the NHL over the last decade. The bulk of the responsibility is likely to fall on 18-year-old Juuse Saros, a Nashville Predators 4th round pick from 2013. Saros started for Finland at the U-18 5-Nations Cup this past February and stopped 91 of 98 pucks for a .927 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average. At the U-18 World Championships in April, he was second to Canadian netminder Philippe Desrosiers in save percentage with a .946 in six games, facing an unenviable 34 shots a game and leading his team to a bronze medal finish.
"We have good goalies," said Ikonen. "That's our biggest strength in world championships. We have two goalies playing in the Finnish elite league. I think that's going to get us far."
While Finland may not have a lot of star power up front, they do boast at least one recognizable name. 2012 Chicago first rounder Teuvo Teravainen is a potential tournament all-star. He scored 11 points in six games last year as an 18-year-old, and returns a year older and as the third highest-scorer on his Jokerit Helsinki SM-liiga team, with 17 points in 29 games and the only teenage forward on the team.
The new tournament format should help out the Finns. With four teams, rather than three like in previous years, making the medal rounds, the game between Finland and Switzerland probably won't determine which team gets sent to the relegation round. Despite some top talent, Finland's goals are modest, but they could include winning a game against rival Sweden on their own soil. As usual, defence and goaltending will be the key.
"It's a big rivalry, like Canada versus the States. That's the biggest game for us," said Ikonen. "There are many guys we have played against in U-17, U-18, so we know them and of course, want to beat them."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Forward Teuvo Teravainen (Jokerit Helsinki, SM-Liiga): We didn't spend enough time talking up Teravainen above. There's some real potential for him to the be the breakout international star of the tournament. "He's a great player," said Ikonen. "First-rounder of Chicago and so creative, awesome skills, will play NHL for sure in a couple years. He's a big addition to us."
Defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen (Rochester Americans, AHL): Ristolainen is a rare World Junior player with NHL experience. He got 19 games with the Sabres before being sent down after a coaching swap, and injuries have kept him to limit AHL action. He's expected to be healthy for the tournament opener. "He's got NHL experience this season and has experience playing a North American game against men," says Ikonen. "He would be our most important D."
Defenceman Julius Honka (Swift Current Broncos, WHL): Honka has 36 points in 35 games as a WHL rookie. He has a late 1995 birthday, so will be a first-time eligible prospect for selection in the 2014 NHL draft.
MUST WIN GAME: Norway (Dec. 27)
Just like the Swiss, Finland will need a win over Norway to essentially clinch their way to the medal round. The game against the Swiss will probably be to determine Pool B's 3rd and 4th seeds, unless either pulls up an upset against Russia or Sweden. Stranger things have happened at this tournament.