Finland finished fourth in 2012, but the result doesn’t do justice to how close they came to a spot in the gold medal game. Between a bad clearance gone wrong and a Mikael Granlund shootout attempt that just didn’t work for him, the Fins came painstakingly close to playing the Russians in the gold medal game and could very well make an appearance in the final match one year later.
Their roster may not have the same name recognition as the big four do, but Finland’s teams — as part of a larger Scandinavian resurgence — have been getting gradually stronger at this tournament after a down stretch.
The Fins put seven goaltenders on their selection camp list, but the decision over who starts will boil down to three players: Joonas Korpisalo (Columbus), Pelicans’ Janne Juvonen (2013) and Swift Current Bronco Eetu Laurikainen (2013). The edge will likely go to Korpisalo as the elder statesman but Laurikainen has put together a solid season in the WHL and could push Korpisalo to the brink. Regardless of who ends up putting on the pads, a quick scan around NHL rosters should make it clear that goaltending isn’t really an issue for this team.
Defensively may be Finland’s greatest strength. A good mix of size and skill on the blueline should serve to frustrate whatever offensive units they come up against. Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh) will be the lockdown defenseman Finland was hoping he could have been last year — he suffered a concussion in their first game — and will likely team with Ville Pokka (Islanders) on the team’s top pairing. Other names to keep an eye out for will be Esa Lindell (Dallas), Mikko Vainonen (Nashville) and 6-foot-4, 207 pound Rasmus Ristolainen who is eligible for the 2013 draft.
While the forward corps stands to be quite a bit smaller than the blueline, Finland will have plenty of skill to test their opponents. Markus Granlund (Calgary) — the younger of the Grandlund brothers — returns to the fold and will be counted on to be a force up front alongside first rounders Joel Armia (Buffalo) and Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago). Miikka Salomaki (Nashville) is a gritty two-way player typical of the Predators system who will feature in many situations either defensively or in a power forward role.
Keep an eye on Aleksandar Barkov who is the odds-on bet to be the first European selected in the 2013 draft. He had four points in seven games last year despite being in a limited role. Expect more of a showcase for his talents this time around.
Finland’s history at the WJHC is perhaps best characterized as ‘Alright.’ They have captured 12 medals — two of which are gold — and are currently in the midst of a medal drought that has lasted the past six tournaments. The problem with Finland has essentially been that lack of impact talent and depth. They are your classic fourth place squad — always in the discussion, but consistently falling just short of where they want to.
As I mentioned above, the Fins — much like the Swedes — have been getting consistently stronger over the last couple of years. But, unlike their rivals, they have still found a way to leave empty handed.
This may be the best chance for Finland to capture a medal since the drought began. They will be in a friendly group in terms of their competition — only Sweden poses a real threat — and they shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the Russians or a North American squad as they have been in the past.
If Finland can leave their group with a bye into the semifinals, they will place themselves in a favorable position to clinch a medal for the first time since 2006, be it in the gold medal game, or by snatching the bronze medal and relegating another team to their all-too-familiar fourth place.
Finland will be one of the more interesting teams to watch at this tournament. They are at a very exciting convergence of young talent and NHL-ready players. Between the likes of Granlund, Teravainen and Maatta and a phenom-type which they have in Barkov, they will be more than capable of playing with the very best in 2013.
Obviously the goal for this team has to be earning a medal and firmly disposing of the monkey on their back. Ufa is not terribly far from Finland — roughly the distance from Toronto to Regina — and as such they should travel relatively well, particularly in comparison to some of their North American opponents.
Unlike many of their opponents at this tournament, it would be difficult to forecast some sort of dynasty if they win gold. It would, however, be a big boost to the development program who will finally have some sort of success to hang their hats on.