So after profiling the two teams that aren’t actual countries, we move on to the first of a two-part series for Finland. Finland’s men’s team is always a fun one to watch because even though they don’t always have a ton of superstar players to choose from, they always find a way to pull through and record a solid result. Take their bronze medal title from the past World Cup back in 2004, or even their similar result at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. They may not have Sidney Crosby, but they do have a ton of heart.
For years, Finland’s been known for their strong defensive game, especially between the pipes. It’s something that really can be astounding, as they have as many as five goalies who can go steal the show in any given game. Let’s take a look at who could grace both the blue line and the goal line for Finland at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, an event that the team will surely be a major contender at.
Pekka Rinne – Tuukka Rask – Kari Lehtonen
It’s pretty much a toss-up as to who’ll start for the Finns at the World Cup. They’re a goalie factory, churning out impressive puck-stoppers left, right and centre. Regardless, I’m still going to have to give Pekka Rinne the advantage here. A runner-up to Carey Price for the Vezina Trophy this past season, the Nashville Predators goaltender put up one of the best World Championship performances you’ll ever see for the offensively weak Finnish squad this year. The MVP of the tournament in 2014 and the Top Goaltender in 2015, Rinne would set the modern day World Championship shutout record this past season after keeping pucks out of his own net for 237:05. Yes, he’s proven to be inconsistent at times and injuries have slowed his pace down, but when he’s at the top of his game, there are very few better options in net.
Of course, Rask is also in the elite goaltending category. In fact, he’d probably be the starting goalie on pretty much every other team, besides maybe Canada or Sweden. The 2014 Vezina Trophy winner with a Stanley Cup to his credit, Rask is a safe bet to finish as one of the NHL’s best goaltenders every single season. Even during Boston’s collapse this past season, Rask participated in 70 games while looking sharp in many appearances. I think it’s safe to say that Rask and Rinne will end up sharing the starting role, with something as simple as a single goal potentially deciding their end fate for a team that will be relying on the men in the biggest equipment.
If, for whatever reason, the previous two goaltenders can’t participate, Kari Lehtonen is a solid third option between the pipes. Probably a little too inconsistent to really fight for a top spot, Lehtonen has been forced to play behind some rather poor defense during his time with both Atlanta and Dallas. However, he seems to change his pace as soon as he suits up for his country internationally. Lehtonen has been named the Top Goaltender at U18 and U20 World Junior events, as well as at the 2007 World Championship. In short periods of time, he can be good, but with the likes of Juuse Saros and Antti Niemi breathing down his neck, he better be watching out.
Olli Määttä – Sami Lepisto
Finland’s roster wont feature a ton of high profile talent, and in fact, the only NHLer’s on the roster are still in the early stages of their careers. Perhaps the next rising Finnish defensive star is Olli Määttä,a 21-year old blue liner from Jyväskylä, FIN. Drafted by Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Määttä has shown ability to play a smart game in all three zones on the ice and is capable of logging lots of ice time. Plagued with health problems this past season, Määttä is expected to get a solid role with the Penguins for his third NHL season in 2015-2016, kind of similar to his top pairing role with the Finns during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
For Lepisto, the former NHLer has created quite the name for himself in the KHL in recent years and is always a huge threat at the World Championships. A solid two-way defenseman with Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL, Lepisto brings experience to a young back end that could use a bit of help facing some of the older, stronger, faster countries like Canada and Russia. Paired with Määttä, Finland would look have a strong, shutdown duo with the ability to put pucks in the net from the blue line, something that should be expected from both defenders.
Esa Lindell – Jyrki Jokipakka
The Dallas Stars seem to have a thing for young Finnish defensemen, and these two choices are no exception. Esa Lindell will make the transition to North America this season after spending the past few years in the top Finnish division, Liiga. Lindell is a big, hulking blue liner with good skill to boot, and if you pair him with Jokipakka, who’ll probably line up beside him in the future with the Stars, you’ll get a good second line with a lot of potential.
Speaking of Jokipakka, the former seventh round draft pick is expected to spend most of the 2015-2016 campaign up with the big squad in Dallas. Known more for his stay-at-home style, Jokipakka completes this strong pair following his NHL rookie season with the Stars, putting up ten assists in 51 games. There’s a chance he may be one of just five Finnish defenders in the NHL this year, so maybe keep an eye on him before the tournament takes place in a year from now.
Sami Vatanen – Rasmus Ristolainen
To continue on with the trend of young, budding blue liners, Sami Vatanen heads into the upcoming NHL season with 123 career games played. That experience at just 24 should make him a solid candidate to make the Finnish team to, of course, go along with his tremendous offensive abilities from the point. Small, yet skilled, Vatanen was a key component of the Finnish Olympic team back in 2014, putting up five points in six games as a play-making defenseman. Every team can use a Sami Vatanen, and with a ton of national team experience so far in his career, the Finns will be glad to have him.
And then there’s Rasmus Ristolainen, a potential star within the Buffalo Sabres organization. After a 34 game stint with the squad in 2013-2014, Ristolainen made his full-season debut with the Sabres last year, recording 20 points in 78 games for a very, very poor Buffalo team. While he hasn’t played for the Finns at the World Championships in the past, he has seen close to 100 games at the junior level with his country, impressing at every step along the way.
Lindbohm is somewhat of an under-the-radar type defenseman, but with the chance of him cracking the St. Louis Blues roster full-time this season, it’s only a matter of time until he really rises up the ranks. A big, hulking blue liner who doesn’t do a whole lot of scoring, Lindbohm does have a natural defensive ability that makes him a fun guy to watch down the line.
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