Goalies: In terms of top end Finnish goalie prospects, Veini Vehviläinen is easily one of the best. Just 18, Vehviläinen was a relatively unknown prospect to many people during his draft year last season, but that all changed this past Spring. Vehviläinen was named to the Finnish U18 World Junior team, and with USA, Russia, Czech Republic and Canada all bringing fairly strong rosters, it was going to be tough for the Finns to find themselves in the finals. As the cards were dealt, Finland indeed found themselves playing for a gold medal, large in part due to the play of Vehviläinen. One of the better goaltenders in the entire tournament, Vehviläinen made sure to save the best performance for last. Easily the best performer in the game, Vehviläinen made 60 saves in the final game against the Americans (including this magnificent grab near the end of the contest), a game which was as one-sided in the puck control department as it can get. Unfortunately, Finland would end up dropping a 2-1 decision in overtime, but regardless, it was easily one of the best goaltending performances by any draft prospect last year. Joining him to make one of the best goalie duos in the tournament is Minnesota Wild prospect Kaapo Kahkonen, who has the unique distinction of scoring a goal in the Mestis league last season. His previous international performances have been filled with so-so moments, but there was a reason he won top goaltender in league action last year. He’s looked fantastic with the Liiga’s Blues this year, so with two goaltenders capable of winning games (which seems to always be the story at this event), Finland will most likely not have to worry about failures in the crease.
Defensemen: If you’re a Finnish hockey fan, you’ll love the potential of success with this back end. The top pairing should include Olli Juolevi and Vili Saarijärvi, two star defensemen who have taken the OHL by storm in their rookie seasons. Juolevi, a potential top ten NHL draft pick heading into the upcoming June selection, has made a name for himself while skating with the London Knights this year. A great passer, Juolevi has meshed well with the high-flying London offense this year, playing in the top four while feeding the likes of Mitch Marner and Matt Tkachuk. Saarijärvi is also having a strong season with a weak Flint Firebirds team, getting a lot of ice time while contributing to a good portion of his team’s offense. A star with nine points in just seven games at the 2015 World Under-18 tournament, Saarijärvi has been effective in every event he’s ever skated in for his country, so his first crack at the World Juniors should be no different. Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Joni Tuulola will be instrumental in his first World Junior performance after missing the team last year. A blue liner with HPK Hameenlinna in the Finnish Liiga, Tuulola is currently in his second full season of men’s pro hockey, meaning while many of his counterparts are playing against kids, he’s mixing it up with men. St. Louis Blues prospect Niko Mikkola and future Winnipeg Jets blueliner Sami Niku should help give the team some extra depth in a position that they typically tend to excel at. Don’t forget about Urho Vaakanainen, who, at 16, is considered to be one of the top prospects heading into the 2017 NHL Draft. He may not play much, but he’ll definitely be worth following along.
Forwards: Wow, Finland is going to have quite the tournament, aren’t they? Let’s start with Sebastian Aho, the Finnish hockey star that is not to be confused with the Swedish defenseman with the same name. After going out and getting the game-winning goal for Liiga club Kärpät to win the title last spring, Aho went and helped his country grab the silver medal at the World Under-18 Hockey Championships after setting up a goal under ten seconds into the first period. If they can get Aho to be a buzzsaw and contribute everywhere on the ice, there’s a very good chance he’ll get a much bigger role than his bottom six position last year and maybe even compete as one of the top scorers in the tournament. Then there’s Aleksi Saarela, making his World Junior debut after a memorable U18 tournament in April. The New York Rangers prospect has already blown away his point production from his Liiga rookie season with Ässät and will continue to climb the ranks as the speedy goal-scorer continues to make a name for himself. And then, of course, there’s Jesse Puljujarvi, one of the top prospects heading into the NHL Draft. After a very limited role with the Finns last year, Puljujarvi should almost certainly be a reliable top-six player that could contribute close to a point-per-game. With the tournament on home ice, a lot of focus will be on the projected top three pick in June, and he’s very capable of performing at a very high level. Patrik Laine is in a very similar situation, as the fellow potential top ten pick is nothing spectacular and if he can translate his agile two-way game into success for Finland, he’ll be a star at this tournament. If you’ve made it this far and are wondering where Mikko Rantanen comes in, trust me, this team is strong enough as it is. So adding the Colorado Avalanche prospect to the fold makes things even better, especially after a great start to the year with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. He and fellow AHL rookie Kasperi Kapanen give the team some top-end talent with experience already in the tournament while bringing some extra speed to a squad with no shortage of it. Roope Hintz, Julius Nattinen and Sebastian Repo should all be decent contributors up front, making one of the strongest top-nine forward groups in the entire tournament.
Projection: Finland is going into this tournament with one thing on their mind: gold. That’s typically a good goal, but with the tournament on home ice, there’s no question there’s extra pressure this time around. On paper, this looks like a better team than the group that won it all in 2014, and with tremendous skill at every position, it’s hard to argue this team failing to grab a medal at all. Finland’s going to be a fun team to watch, so look for them to be competitive all the way until the very end. Anything worse than a top three position is a failure.
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