Finland enters the tournament with three gold medals in the last ten years, tied for the most of that period alongside Canada and the United States. The first of those medals came in 2014, making the eight-year period between then and now a strikingly impressive stretch of hockey for a country with a population several times smaller than Canada’s. Finland achieves their success through effective tactics and deep rosters that combine young talent with older players that often have several years of professional experience by their final year of eligibility. Two 2022 draft eligibles appear on Finland’s squad this year, both of whom could play key roles for the team. Joakim Kemell should be most involved; he’s been one of the best forwards on JYP’s men’s squad so far this year and has seen his draft stock skyrocket over the first half of the season. He enters the tournament as a possible top three pick in the 2022 draft and could be one of Finland’s top scoring forwards. Brad Lambert is the bigger question mark: he entered the season as a probable top three pick but has struggled vastly in Finland’s professional circuit and at one point looked to be in question of making Finland’s tournament roster at all– despite impressing in last year’s World Juniors.
A comeback win over the United States in pre-tournament action should have Finland feeling good about their team this year. Finland outplayed the USA for most of the game but found themselves trailing 3-1 entering the final minutes of the game. However, an elbow to head of Joakim Kemell gave Finland a powerplay and a golden opportunity to storm back and they did exactly that, scoring twice in regulation and once in overtime for the 4-3 victory. The team will need to shore up their defensive mistakes– Roni Hirvonen’s fanned pass that caused the first United States goal being the most egregious– but the squad should be satisfied with their breakout and offensive play, especially their powerplay.
Finland will be without Islanders draft pick Aatu Raty, whose Finnish league team was quarantined shortly before the tournament. Raty has been excellent over the last few weeks since being loaned to Jukurit, having totalled 13 points in 11 games. Raty fell to the 52nd pick in 2021 after struggling to carve out a role with Karpat, but it appears that a change of scenery might have been all that he needed. Finland is left without a player who was expected to be a key centre for their club. With his absence, 5’7” Jusso Mäenpää centred the top line in the pre-tournament. It’s possible that we see Maple Leafs prospect Roni Hirvonen centre a line as well, but he played the left wing against the United States and was strong in that appearance. Based upon their outing on Thursday, there seems to be little reason for the coaching staff to switch up the top line of Hirvonen, Mäenpää, and Kasper Simontaival at all.
Finland will open their tournament against Germany on Boxing Day. They play Austria on the 27th, Czechia on the 29th, then finish up the group stage with their premier matchup against Canada on the 31st. If Finland meets expectations, they should manage to at least lock up a second-place position in their pool at the conclusion of group play, which would prime them to play the third place team in the opposite pool in their quarterfinal.
Players To Watch:
Niemelä should assume a massive role for Finland after excelling at last year’s tournament, quarterbacking the top powerplay unit and looking to build upon his eight points in 2021. His accurate shot and quick passing make him a valuable powerplay asset, while his skating and puck skills should make him a dependable option on the breakout. Niemelä is undersized and can struggle along the boards in his own zone, so Finland may be wise to pair him with a defensively-sound partner like Eemil Viro or Ruben Rafkin. Niemelä has three seasons of professional experience under his belt now and has been one of the most impactful defenders in all of Finnish pro hockey with 24 points in 31 Liiga games. It won’t be easy to challenge defencemen like Jake Sanderson, Owen Power, or Simon Edvinsson, but Heinola could be a dark horse to snag one of the two tournament All-Star spots available for defencemen if he plays to his capabilities and Finland does well.
Joakim Kemell, RW
Kemell has been the Liiga’s most impressive rookie, immediately becoming one of JYP’s top offensive contributors in his first games of professional hockey. The 2021 draft eligible will look to continue his draft year success at the WJC, where he should adopt a crucial scoring role for Finland. Kemell is a versatile scorer with a great shot. The Finn is most dangerous on the powerplay, but his ability to find open ice in the offensive zone should make him a threat at any game state. A storyline that scouts and draft observers will be tracking throughout the tournament is Kemell’s performance in comparison to fellow 2021 eligible and JYP teammate Brad Lambert, also on Team Finland. Lambert had a clear edge in draft stock entering this season, but Kemell has stormed past him with such a terrific start to his Liiga career.
Ville Koivunen, W/C
Koivunen will be one of Finland’s most skilled forwards, using his excellent intelligence to utilize a toolbox of above-average skating, puck skills, and playmaking ability. He could be a candidate to get involved on the powerplay with his playmaking and intelligence and could present a problem to defend off the rush for opposing teams. He has 19 points in 30 games for Karpat in the Liiga, an impressive rookie season for the 2021 second round selection. Koivunen was a top player at the World U18s last year, tallying 10 points in seven games for a fourth-place Finnish team. Alongside fellow Finn Aleksi Heimosalmi, Koivunen is one of ten (!) Carolina Hurricanes prospects to represent his country at this year’s tournament, the most of any NHL team.
Simontaival quickly asserted himself as one of Finland’s most skilled forwards in the pre-tournament game, using his puck skills and skating to slice his way to the net on numerous occasions. Finland’s top line is small– Simontaival and Roni Hirvonen are 5’9”, while centre Jusso Mäenpää is 5’7” -- but extremely skilled and they were very effective as a unit against the United States. Simontaival scored Finland’s first goal and recorded a secondary assist on their second. The forward is dangerous as both a scorer and playmaker, eager to use his puck skills to drive his way to the slot and then choosing between his heavy shot or intelligent passing to create opportunities. He had seven points in seven games in last year’s tournament and looks to be ready for a similarly excellent performance this go around. Simontaival will be leaned upon heavily by Finland for offensive contributions.
Roby Järventie, LW
Järventie is a big, skilled winger with a breadth of professional experience under his belt– having played in both Finland’s tier one and two professional leagues as well as the American Hockey League, Järventie has played against men in three different contexts. Järventie brings a lot of elements to Finland’s team– he’s 6’3”, skates well, can really shoot the puck, and has good hands. He’s sure to be valuable on the powerplay, where his frame and scoring instincts could make him a netfront option or Finland could use his shooting ability from further out. Järventie had a tough tournament last year but will look to bounce back in what should be an increased role this time around. He’s the type of player that needs some help from his teammates but can complement a line very well with his scoring instincts– ideally, Järventie will get the chance to play alongside some skilled forwards in Finland’s top-six. Järventie did not play in Finland’s pre-tournament game for what seems to be injury/illness reasons and could possibly be in danger of missing the tournament.
A 2020 second round pick of the Leafs, Hirvonen’s steadfast two-way game and excellent playmaking abilities make him a candidate to centre Finland’s top line throughout the tournament. That’s a significant role– being relied upon to counter the stacked top lines of teams like Canada, USA, and Sweden is not at all easy– but it’s tough to find a player more suited for such a job than Hirvonen. Hirvonen plays a highly responsible defensive game: he is always in position to support his defencemen, he excels at anticipating and disrupting passes, and he is surprisingly effective along the boards considering his 5’9” frame. Hirvonen has been named captain of the Finnish squad but will be leaned upon in much more than just a leadership role over the course of the tournament. He manned the left wing rather than centre in Finland’s pre-tournament game but was still an important two-way anchor for the unit. An unfortunate turnover on his part prompted USA’s first goal, but Hirvonen compensated with an assist and the game-winning goal in overtime.
Heimosalmi nearly had his tournament robbed from him by COVID-19 like Aatu Raty and Rami Maata did, but a previous infection allowed him to join Finland’s squad despite the rest of his Liiga team being in quarantine. Heimosalmi is the only 2003-born defenceman on the Finnish roster, a statement to his talent and maturity. He plays a full-time role on Assat’s blueline at 18-years old, albeit in a fairly limited role for the time being. Heimosalmi is a mobile, well-rounded defenceman who could prove dependable in a variety of fashions for Finland. His excellent skating makes him a threat to push the puck through the neutral zone and the defenceman loves to walk the line in the offensive zone, a skill that could become useful on the powerplay if Heimosalmi can earn that opportunity. The Finn doesn’t sacrifice much in the offensive zone; he’s small and can be pushed around a little, but compensates with an active stick, consistent positioning, and smothering rush defence.
Eemil Viro, D
Viro was initially paired with Ruben Rafkin to form what could be Finland’s shutdown defensive line for the tournament. Both players are physical and defensively sound, but Viro projects to be the more offensive of the two. Viro is a mobile, versatile defender who could be Finland’s next-best option to anchor a pairing behind Niemelä. The Red Wings prospect is in the midst of his third Liiga season, having asserted himself as a stifling defender who is unafraid of playing physical despite being disadvantaged to most opponents in age, experience, and size. He has never been much of a point producer but can push shots through from the point and can be expected to be more offensively active than usual against junior competition. In transition, Viro is a steady presence who will use his mobility and poise to safely transport the puck forwards. He was all over the ice in Finland’s pre-tournament game, being named Finland’s player of the game for his efforts.
Ruben Rafkin, D
Rafkin is Finland’s most physical player, a stocky 6’0” defenceman who plays tough, aggressive defence. It didn’t take long for Rafkin to assert his physicality, receiving a five minute major and game misconduct in the first period of Finland’s pre-tournament game. The defenceman aggressively stepped up on USA’s Brett Berard near the United States’ blueline, ultimately clipping Berard as the winger jumped out of the way of the check. It did not seem to be a malicious check by any means and Rafkin is expected to be available once again for Finland for their first game of the tournament. In addition to his physical play, Rafkin is an effective outlet passer who makes quick, simple passes to exit the zone and keep the puck out of trouble. Expect to see a lot of Rafkin in situations where Finland is killing a penalty or protecting a lead, provided he manages to keep his nose clean for the remainder of the tournament.
Leevi Merilainen got the start in the pre-tournament match, but Blomqvist entered the game early in the third period as Finland split the game between their goaltenders. Merilainen does have a better save percentage than Blomqvist for Finland’s U20 squad so far this year, but Blomqvist’s league record is far superior. Blomqvist rocks a stellar .964 save percentage in eight games in the Liiga, whereas Merilainen stands below a .900 SV% for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. Blomqvist’s game is built around excellent technical skills. He tracks the puck very well and is rarely caught out of position, making him a difficult goaltender to beat even with fluid puck movement before the shot. Blomqvist is the type of goaltender that can keep a team in a game with sound, stellar play and he could be a major stabilizing force in Finland’s net. Blomqvist may not play every game early in the tournament but expect Finland to look to him against Canada in their final round robin matchup and throughout the playoffs.
Sleeper To Watch – Brad Lambert, C/RW
There is hope that Brad Lambert can use this opportunity against junior competition to shake off the troubles that he has experienced in the Liiga this year, but expectations cannot be particularly high for the Finn as he comes off a very disappointing first half of his draft season. Lambert is an excellent skater and puckhandler who will be most visible in the neutral zone, where he excels at advancing the puck into the offensive zone with control. Team Finland seems happy to take advantage of that skill, frequently using Lambert on entries and putting him out on the ice as Finland looked to tie their pre-tournament game on the powerplay in the final minutes. Lambert’s success in this tournament will depend on his ability to get off the wall and into the slot in the offensive zone. If he can get to dangerous areas, Lambert is skilled enough to be Finland’s most impactful forward. But he’s struggled to do so over the last two years and continued to have issues there against the USA in pre-tournament action.