Inside the NHL
Finland coming mere inches from a stunning upset at the just completed IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton, Alberta, is yet another sign of its emergence as a global power in the sport.
It took a desperation overtime save by Team Canada forward Mason McTavish — an Anaheim Ducks prospect who batted the puck out of midair with his stick as it headed toward an empty net — to prolong Saturday’s championship game and eventually secure a gold medal for the host nation. Canada went undefeated in the Under-20 tournament, but the Finns overcame a two-goal deficit late and appeared to have the title game won before McTavish’s iconic defensive play and the ensuing overtime winner seconds later by Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Kent Johnson, a former college linemate of Kraken center Matty Beniers.
Still, for Finland, a nation of only 5.5 million people, the latest medal at the world’s premier NHL prospects event signals its continued ascension among the sport’s finest. If not for McTavish’s heroics, it would have been a fourth gold medal for Finland since 2014 — tying Canada for the most by any nation that stretch. As things stand, the five medals won by Finland since 2014 ties outputs by Canada and the United States, surpassed only by the six accumulated by Russia.
It’s been quite the hockey year for Finland, which defeated Canada in overtime in May to win the IIHF Men’s World Hockey Championships. That came only a few months after Finland’s first Winter Olympics gold medal triumph in Beijing, beating Russia in the clinching game.
Kraken fans will be pleased to know the team has kept an eye on the blossoming Finnish market, selecting three players from the Nordic region in its first two entry draft efforts — defenseman Ville Ottavainen in last year’s fourth round and winger Jani Nyman and goaltender Niklas Kokko with second-round selections last month.
Though Finland has produced a handful of star NHL players — starting with Jari Kurri in the 1980s, Teemu Selanne in the 1990s and Saku Koivu in the 2000s — it was known more for solid national-team play than individual standouts. It certainly took a back seat to Sweden within Scandinavia and the Nordic region in terms of NHL and global hockey respect.
But an overhauling of its youth programs starting with a 2009 national hockey summit in Finland changed that. Finnish officials shifted focus toward the development of individual skills, hiring full-time coaches for all national boys teams as opposed to just the senior men’s squad.
Those coaches met year-round with national-team members to go over their work, even as they played for their club teams. If they were playing for teams outside Finland, the coaches stayed updated through video calls.
The program took off after Finland played host to the 2012 World Championships, when a tournament net profit of $10.5 million was used primarily to hire two dozen skills coaches to work with players ages 10-14.
Within two years Finland had its third gold medal at the world juniors and first since 1998. It also notched gold at the world Under-18 championships in 2016 and 2018, silver in 2015 and 2017, and bronze in 2013 and this year.
All those young players are hitting the NHL, with Aleksander Barkov, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Rasmus Ristolainen, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Artturi Lehkonen and Kasperi Kapanen becoming household names.
The Kraken have a heavy European scouting presence and a willingness to use it at the professional and amateur levels. Beyond the three draft picks, the team already has Finnish native Joonas Donskoi on its NHL club and this past spring signed forward Ville Pettman, 22, from Finland’s top pro league to possibly play for its AHL affiliate.
The Kraken tapping Finland for prospects comes amid mounting uncertainty about the future of Russian players in the NHL. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February caused public-relations nightmares for even superstar players such as Alex Ovechkin who’ve supported the Vladimir Putin regime.
Minnesota Wild star forward Kirill Kaprizov also struggled to return to the United States from his native Russia this summer, finally doing so this month after reports his military exemption there had expired. Russian authorities have been cracking down on hockey players accused of dodging compulsory military service, most notably detaining Philadelphia Flyers goaltending prospect Ivan Fedotov on July 1 and later shipping him off to a remote location to begin his training.
Incidentally, Russia was banned due to its invasion from participating in this year’s world junior event — a redo of the COVID-canceled tournament from last December. Russia was also stripped from hosting the regularly scheduled 2023 world juniors this December and blocked again from taking part.
The Kraken don’t have any Russians at the NHL or professional level.
Their lone Russian prospect is netminder Semyon Vyazovoy, 19, drafted in the sixth round last year. He posted a 2.06 goals-against average and .937 save percentage last season in that country’s junior ranks.
Vyazovoy is scheduled to play another junior season in Russia starting in two weeks, though nobody knows what will happen after that. The Kraken can monitor his progress through Russian-based scout Aleksandr Plyushchev and video, but having Vyazovoy join the North American pro ranks is a different story amid diplomatic tensions.
“The bigger challenge is going to be once he gets to the point where we want to sign him and get him out,” Kraken general manager Ron Francis said before last month’s draft. “It’s been harder and harder to get Russian visas, but they’re still finding ways to do that.”
And though NHL teams didn’t quite shun Russian players in last month’s draft — taking three in the first round and 23 overall compared with one first-rounder and 29 total draftees last year — the full effects the invasion will have on player development there have yet to play out. Certainly, Russia’s exclusion from some of the planet’s premier hockey tournaments won’t help.
Finland, meanwhile, at just 4% of Russia’s population of 144 million, appears primed to fill any void. Located a ferry hop across the Baltic Sea from Russia, Finland has averaged 18 players per year drafted into the NHL since 2016, compared with half that amount the six years prior.
And with the cloud hanging over its geographical neighbor, it will be interesting to see whether Finland’s NHL draftee numbers start climbing anew alongside its international medal count.