International Ice Hockey Federation

Finns strong ahead

Finns strong ahead

Many potential first-round candidates

Published 19.12.2015 13:35 GMT+2 | Author Jeremy Darke
Finns strong ahead
Finnish forward Patrik Laine tries to beat Swiss goaltender Joren van Pottelberghe at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. Photo: Francois Laplante / HHOF-IIHF Images
The future of hockey in Finland is bright. In recent years the country has produced some of the best young talent.

Among the players beginning to break through at the NHL level are Teuvo Teravainen and Rasmus Ristolainen. But the quality talent doesn’t look like ending there with Finland set to dominate the first round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, from a European perspective, with four players in the top-30 of the International Scouting Services’ December report.

The list of Finns is led by Karpat Oulu’s Jesse Puljujarvi, who ranks in at number 4 according to the ISS report. Puljujarvi’s big presence on the ice and powerful skating is what has caught the eye of all the scouts around the world. His 190 cm, 89 kg frame is very perceptive for the 17-year-old, who also attains skating skills that see him glide around defenders in Finland’s top men’s competition Liiga.

Puljujarvi has had no problem making the jump from junior competition in Finland to the men’s level, even making his debut for Karpat last season at the age of 16. His start to the 2015/16 season has been solid, scoring 5 goals and 7 assists in the first 29 games of the year.

With a similar stature as Puljujarvi, at 194 cm and 95 kg, Patrik Laine has also utilized his man-like body to his advantage while making the move up into Liiga for Tappara Tampere. Although, Laine does not possess the most graceful skating style, he brings with him a shot and goal scoring knack that can beat any goaltender he has gone up against.

Despite an early season shoulder injury, Laine has put up good numbers in his first full year in Liiga, scoring 8 goals and 5 assists in 22 games, which has helped him move up to ninth in the ISS draft rankings.

Puljujarvi and Laine have created a significant hype within Liiga, with the country following their every move throughout the season on the league’s official website with the segment Puljujarvi vs. Laine, which is updated on a regular basis. Although the head-to-head format between the two could be daunting for the 17-year-olds, they do not see it that way, using it as a form of motivation instead.

“It feels good when people are following what you are doing, but behind all that there has been so many days of hard work, so this is kind of a reward,” explains Patrik Laine. “It’s good to have a player that you can like ‘race’ with, so it helps you to get a better result in everything.”

Making the brave move over the Atlantic to the Ontario Hockey League, defenceman, Olli Juolevi has taken a different path to his fellow top prospects, moving to the smaller North American ice to play junior hockey for the London Knights rather than trying to get into senior hockey at home.

Juolevi, ranked sixteenth on the ISS report, leads OHL rookie defencemen in scoring, with 4 goals and 19 assists in 27 games. It is his poise in defence and his vision and ability to move the puck offensively that makes him one of the top defencemen heading into the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. The move from Finland to the OHL is not an easy transition, but for a hard-working and focused Juolevi, it has certainly paid dividends during his draft year.

“I'm really happy how things are going right now. The biggest difference is that the rink is smaller and game is faster and players have a higher skill level,” Olli Juolevi compared with the Finnish junior league where he played for Jokerit Helsinki last season.

“I just try to work hard and listen to the tips which the coaches are telling to me. Of course, it helps that we have great players in our team and everyone tries to help each other.”

Taking a similar road to Juolevi is Markus Niemelainen, who also moved to the OHL this season to play for the Saginaw Spirit. Niemelainen’s move to Canada has also been a success, with the defenceman scoring one goal and 18 assists in his first year in the OHL, even though he is not generally known for his offensive prowess. It is Niemelainen’s ability to make his opposition work for any offensive ice that makes him a first round pick in the 2016 Draft.

If Puljujarvi, Laine, Juolevi and Niemelainen all get drafted in their current ranked positions, it will be the most Finns drafted in the first round since 2002, where five players from Finland were taken. The quality of players born in 1998 is a demonstration of the strong development and junior programs that are happening in Finland, which teaches a strict, systematic hockey from a young age.

“We just have all the things from juniors to Liiga so well done,” says Patrik Laine. “Every team does those things and has been such a good place to develop your game.”

With all four young men playing with each other on Finland’s national team over the past couple of years, it has come as no surprise to Olli Juolevi that they are all so well-ranked heading into the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

“I'm not so surprised, because I have known of those other Finnish guys for a long time and I know that we have good guys in this draft. “

“All those guys are big guys and they skate well. They're also hard workers and all of them want to be NHL players one day. They are really nice guys also off-ice and it's so much fun to spend time with them,” says Juolevi.

With the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki just around the corner, it will give Puljujarvi, Laine and Juolevi, who made the Finnish squad, the chance to boost their stake for the draft, as they will go up against many of the players who will join them in the draft-class of 2016. The junior tournament is the only place where most of the top prospects will play against each other before the draft, which draws much attention from the NHL scouts.

It is an important tournament for all draftees to show their worth, but for the Finns, winning gold at home is the top priority.

“I just have to work hard and show the best of my game. And of course I want to win gold, especially in my hometown. We just have to believe that we can do it,” says a passionate Olli Juolevi.


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