Normally, one should never count out the Finnish National Team, no matter the tournament or the roster in which they field. The main allure about “Leijonat” for the past two decades has been their consistent ability to overachieve. They are not usually the fastest, the most skilled, or overly disciplined. What they do have, though, is a little bit of everything and it is practically built into the blood of Finnish hockey players to battle out their opponent to frustrating levels. We all know that hockey is the die-hard sport of Canada but it is for Finland as well. Anyone who disputes it should be shown the video footage that came out of the country after their World Junior Championships gold medal in 2014.
Unfortunately in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Team Finland was expected to struggle and for the first time in a long time, even this team could not overcome the predictions. They struggled for much of the tournament and all three of their round-robin games were snoozefests — not just the energy of the games themselves, but their offense looked to be in hibernation. Finland scored just one total goal in the entire tournament before being eliminated.
Retirements of top Finnish stars like Teemu Selänne, Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, Kimmo Timonen, Ville Peltonen, Olli Jokinen, Sami Salo, Toni Lydman, and Miikka Kiprusoff over the past few years brought a large transition which timed very poorly for the World Cup. In fact, only ten members of the 23-man roster represented their nation just two years ago at the last Winter Olympics. Mainstays such as Jussi Jokinen, Mikko Koivu, and Mikael Granlund were still in the fold this year. However, much of the roster was comprised of greenhorns that made the U23 North American team look like grizzled veterans. Their new nucleus included Patrik Laine, Sasha Barkov, Sami Vatanen, Teuvo Teräväinen, and San Jose Sharks forward Joonas Donskoi. The problem was not that the Finns were not a talented team — just that they were not ready to handle the level of competition in this tournament.
Laine looked lost for most of the World Cup, despite leading the team in shots. He often fell to the perimeter, instead of using his 6′ 5″ frame to charge towards the net. ESPN analyst Brett Hull was rather cruel in his own assessment of the 2nd overall selection in this year’s draft, questioning why Laine was shooting for the sake of shooting, rather than making smart decisions. It is important to remember, though, that this is a player who is only 18 years old and trying to compete against grown men who are the best players in the world. Sadly, a lot of Finland’s hope fell onto the shoulders of Laine, who never looked comfortable.
Another forward who surprisingly struggled was Granlund. While he has not reached the game-breaking profile expected of him when he entered the NHL four years ago, Granlund had been a force for Finland in international competitions of all levels. It was noticeable how unnoticeable he was in the World Cup and even in the preliminary games. One difference may have been that his brother, Markus, was not on his line (or the roster). However, with Finland seeking new leadership, Granlund’s pedigree should have penned him to be the perfect player in line to take the reins. He was a complete no-show.
It felt awkward to see the uncharacteristic breakdowns in structure that Finland suffered in all zones, due to their inexperience. They were rarely a threat in the offensive zone, even though they were in control of the puck often in their games. The type of turnovers they made in the defensive zone was close to abominable. So much that forward Mikko Koivu spent much of his time deep in his own zone, almost like a third defenseman, trying to help out whichever two were stumbling on the back end. Much was muttered about goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask not being sharp, but they both also could have benefitted from adequate play in front of them. Even the Finnish power play could not pull it together, going 0-for-6.
The individual youngsters who gained experience in the World Cup should be better for it in the years to come, even if the experience was a bad one. In terms of the overall scheme, this tournament was very forgettable for Suomi. Luckily, if people can forget that Team Finland was the runner-up in the 2004 World Cup, people will certainly can forget their last-place finish in this year’s.