Finland got tantalizingly close to their first Olympic gold medal in Torino, blowing a tie game in the third period of the finals to archrival Sweden. While 2006 didn’t have the fairytale ending that Finns were almost beginning to believe in, it was still a magical run: going undefeated in a group containing Canada and the Czech Republic while shutting out 4 of 5 opponents, besting the United States in the quarterfinals and shutting out mighty Russia in the semifinals. Now, their aging core, including forwards Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen and Ville Peltonen––the latter three of the legendary “Huey, Dewey and Louie Line” that was instrumental in Finland’s only World Championship win in 1995–comes back for one last ride into the sunset, a long, long shot to win gold. If the script holds, the underdog Finns will overachieve just enough to make their eventual exit that much more painful for their countrymen. While they remain a strong candidate to medal in Vancouver, it’s clear that Finland is not in the upper echelon of Olympic teams in raw talent. Puck Prospectus’ rankings have Finland in a virtual dead heat with Slovakia as the longest shots among the true contenders – we’ll give the Slovaks the slightest of edges and rank the Finns 7th overall.
Appearances (Including 2010):
Total Appearances: 15
OGVT: Offensive GVT
GGVT: Goaltending GVT
DGVT: Defensive GVT
GVT: Total GVT
Name Pos Age Team OGVT DGVT GGVT GVT
Mikko Koivu F 26 MIN 8.6 5.6 -- 14.2
Kimmo Timonen D 34 PHI 5.2 6.5 -- 11.6
Joni Pitkanen D 26 CAR 4.6 5.2 -- 9.8
Jarkko Immonen F 27 KHL* 7.3 2.1 -- 9.4
Teemu Selanne F 39 ANA 8.1 0.8 -- 8.9
Niklas Hagman F 30 CGY 6.5 2.0 -- 8.6
Saku Koivu F 35 ANA 5.7 2.5 -- 8.2
Olli Jokinen F 31 NYR 5.9 2.2 -- 8.2
Sami Salo D 35 VAN 3.1 4.6 -- 7.7
Tuomo Ruutu F 26 CAR 5.3 2.2 -- 7.4
Antti Miettinen F 29 MIN 3.7 3.6 -- 7.3
Niklas Backstrom G 31 MIN - - 7.3 7.3
Sami Lepisto D 25 PHX 2.9 3.6 -- 6.5
Valtteri Filppula F 25 DET 3.8 2.2 -- 6.0
Miikka Kiprusoff G 33 CGY - - 5.9 5.9
Antero Niittymaki G 29 TBL - - 5.2 5.2
Toni Lydman D 32 BUF 1.3 3.2 -- 4.5
Janne Niskala D 28 SEL* 2.8 1.6 -- 4.4
Niko Kapanen F 31 KHL* 2.6 1.1 -- 3.7
Jarkko Ruutu F 34 OTT -0.2 2.7 -- 2.5
Ville Peltonen F 36 KHL* 1.1 1.3 -- 2.4
Jere Lehtinen F 36 DAL 0.5 1.6 -- 2.1
Lasse Kukkonen D 28 KHL* 0.3 0.7 -- 1.0
Total 30.7 79.1 55.3 18.5 152.8
*League, if not NHL
Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) is normalized for last 3 seasons
If Finland were an NHL team, at nearly 31 years of age, they’d be the oldest. As far as expected performance, they’d be in the class of the second tier Stanley Cup contenders, akin to the New Jersey Devils or Vancouver Canucks.
As far as individual players, the fate of Team Finland rests upon…the shoulders of Mikko Koivu? Finland’s best player would not be among the top three players––according to our normalized Total GVT rating (above)––for Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic or Slovakia. But it’s true that “the Lions” will rely heavily on their best young forward, a strong two-way player in the tradition of Jere Lehtinen and older brother Saku; Mikko will be asked to neutralize his opposition in even strength play. If Koivu and company can play level with the first lines of Canada, Russia, Sweden and others, all of a sudden Finland will be on relatively even terms with those teams. Of course, this responsibility isn’t solely on the young Minnesota captain, but the play of the first unit starts with the play of the team’s best overall and best two-way player. Carrying that line of thinking forward, captain Saku Koivu––like little brother Mikko––will be called to anchor the two-way play of the second line, most critical against the handful of ultra-deep squads where Finland will need to nullify what is another advantage on paper. Third and fourth line play will feed off of the energy and tenacity of another pair of brothers, Tuomo and Jarkko Ruutu, who will also bring that mindset to the penalty kill.
With even strength hopefully taken care of by veteran two-way talents and a team-first mentality, Finland can then lean on key veterans for the power play, such as future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne. Still a surprisingly effective player at the advanced age of 39, Finland will once again rely on Selanne’s superb finishing skills. With 75 Power Play Goals versus 70 Even Strength Goals since the lockout, the Finnish Flash may have lost a step at even strength but remains world class on the man advantage.
Among the other forwards, look for Niklas Hagman and Olli Jokinen to provide some secondary scoring, both on the power play and at even strength, and for Valtteri Filppula to provide intelligent, two-way play on the third line. Past those forwards, though, Finland’s depth will be tested. The Minnesota Wild’s Antti Miettinen is a decent enough player, but perhaps was not the strongest choice for the team if it meant leaving Jussi Jokinen––who’s having a breakout season with Carolina––off the squad. A mediocre but improved even strength player, Jokinen could have enhanced the second power play unit. And in the remote case of a shootout, Jokinen is just about the best there is – though Finland has several other excellent options, including the Koivus, Ruutus and Selanne, all above 40% career shooters. The elite level of play will sorely test the skill level of European leaguers Niko Kapanen and Jarkko Immonen––also debatable choices––in whatever ice time they see.
Finland’s number one defensive unit will likely be diminutive shutdown defenseman Kimmo Timonen and offensive-minded Joni Pitkanen, their two strongest blueliners overall. Finland’s defense corps is further bolstered by veterans Sami Salo and Toni Lydman, and young Sami Lepisto, all strong stay-at-home defensemen. While former NHLer Lasse Kukkonen will add a penchant for shot blocking to marginally fill out a third defensive pairing, the addition of Swedish leaguer Janne Niskala is considered a puzzling choice by many pundits.
Finland easily has the deepest set goaltenders––Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom and Antero Niittymaki––in the Olympics; any one of them could provide a representative performance if called upon. Consider that the young talents of Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and Antti Niemi did not make the team; certainly, the former two at least must be considered front runners to make the 2014 team. Of their three strong choices, Kiprusoff is expected to take the role of number one, a legitimate choice given the renaissance season he’s had for Calgary (.924, his best save percentage since 2003-4). If it were based on last season, Backstrom would have been the stronger choice (.923 in 2008-09, .901 in 2009-10), but that was then and this is now, as they say. Finally, an argument could even be made for going with the less heralded Niittymaki (16-9-2, .922): not only is he a red hot 8-1-1 with 1 shutout over his last ten games with Tampa Bay, but he’s the goaltender that Finland rode to the 2006 Olympic finals (5-1-0, .951, 3 shutouts).
On paper, there’s no way that Finland looked like a finalist in 2006. Even longer in the tooth in 2010, you’d knock their chances down even further from there. But don’t be surprised to see Finland on the medal stand once again. The winner of the Finland-Sweden rematch on February 21 will almost certainly receive a secondary round bye and a winnable quarterfinal matchup (Even the loser stands a solid chance at receiving a bye). From there on, every game is played with house money. More than any other contender, Finland needs to execute perfectly while giving a superior effort, to overcome the talent gap between them and the other contenders. Exceptional team defense and top notch goaltending are musts for Finland to advance deep into the tournament.
Schedule: Belarus, February 17 at 12:00; Germany, February 19 at 21:00; Sweden, February 21 at 21:00. Secondary round (except for byes) for all teams on February 23.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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