Finland has won gold again – get used to it.
Led by superstar 2016 draft prospect Jesse Puljujarvi, the Finns dusted off archrival Sweden in the final of the World Under-18 Championship in North Dakota on Sunday. Puljujarvi scored a hat trick in the 6-1 demolition, while the home-side Americans earned bronze with a 10-3 walloping of a disorganized Canadian squad.
Quite simply, it’s an all-around effort. Coaching has been strong, there is depth in goaltending and the caliber of high-end players has risen considerably.
Thanks to Puljujarvi and fellow right winger Patrik Laine (who is still competing in the Finnish League championship final with Tappara), the small nation will enjoy its best NHL draft ever in 2016. There is a great likelihood that the two big scorers will go directly after consensus No. 1 pick Auston Matthews, while defenseman Olli Juolevi of OHL London is also slated to go in the top-10. Finland has never produced three top-10 picks in the same draft and only one – Florida’s Aleksander Barkov – has ever gone second overall.
The best news for Finland? This does not seem like a blip. While Barkov and other youngsters such as Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen already have their NHL careers underway, there’s more to come. Carolina has a roster spot open for world junior standout Sebastian Aho next year, while the 2017 NHL draft promises more talent from the nation.
Left winger Eeli Tolvanen, for example, led the under-18 squad with seven goals and nine points in seven games. He had a fantastic season with USHL Sioux City and is expected to be highly coveted when the CHL Import Draft comes along this summer. Tolvanen’s linemate at the under-18s, Kristian Vesalainen, is also a potential top-10 pick next year. He had six points in North Dakota and boasts excellent size. Then there’s defenseman Juuso Valimaki, who captained the team to gold and already has one strong season with WHL Tri-City behind him.
And while the Finns may not have the breadth of Canada or the U.S., they also don’t seem to need it. Finland produces an incredible number of hockey talents for a population of 5.5 million and while the overall pool may not be the large, it’s big enough to fill out a roster that can thrive at the junior levels.
If anything, the challenge helps the teams out. While Canada and Russia have often gone with “veteran” lineups at the world juniors, Finland is forced to bring younger players. Far from just filling out the roster, some of these youngsters end up being game-changers. Puljujarvi, Laine and Juolevi were all world junior all-stars this year, for example, with Puljujarvi the MVP of the whole tournament. Next year, players such as Vesalainen could be going for a second under-18 gold in a row.
The big international question now is whether Laine and Puljujarvi will be available for next year’s world juniors in Montreal. They might be too busy playing in the NHL at the time, but if Finland gets their services, you’re looking at the favorites right there. It’s time to greet your new Finnish overlords, folks.