HELSINKI – There is only one Teemu Selänne, regardless of how many new Teemus the fans and the media want to see coming up. And they have been looking for one. But even if Eero Somervuori is still a good hockey player - currently tied for lead in team scoring with Brynäs in the Swedish Elitserien - Finland is still waiting for the second coming of the original Finnish Flash.
Meanwhile, Finland has cranked out NHL-calibre goalies like no other nation in the last ten years. There’s Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff, William M. Jennings Trophy winner Niklas Bäckström, Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi, Olympic silver medalist Antero Niittymäki, and other NHL starters like Pekka Rinne, Kari Lehtonen, Pasi Nurminen, and Tuukka Rask.
Defence first attitude, built on solid goaltending, has worked well for the nation that has also produced Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, Ville Peltonen, Tuomo Ruutu, Niklas Hagman, and Olli Jokinen. While all are good players, their production in the last five years has been somewhat mediocre.
Olli Jokinen went from 90 points in 2006 to last season’s 50, Hagman has never cracked 50 points in the NHL, Tuomo Ruutu had 35 points last season, Saku Koivu 52, Jussi Jokinen 65, and the leading Finnish scorer last season, Mikko Koivu, scored 71 points. Jere Lehtinen is expected to announce his retirement shortly, and while Teemu Selänne is on a point-a-game pace this season, he is 40 years old.
But whether it’s a sheer coincidence or an effect of those good Finnish goaltenders pushing the forwards, the Finnish SM-liiga now has several young forwards making all kinds of noise game in, game out.
Teemu Pulkkinen, Mikael Granlund, and Toni Rajala tore up the World U18 Championship in 2009 as Finland’s top line. Rajala won the tournament scoring title with ten goals and 19 points in six games, breaking the old tournament record, held by Alexander Ovechkin. Pulkkinen got 7 goals and 13 points, and the set-up guy, Granlund collected 11 assists and 13 points en route to bronze medals.
Last season, Rajala played in the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings, scoring 63 points in 60 games, but now he’s back in the SM-liiga. The 19-year-old is planning to also do his military service while in Finland, while taking a step to the next level in a men’s league. He’s got 2 goals and 6 points in eight games this season.
“To be honest, I think his development took a step backward in North America. He was close to cracking the Team Finland roster before he left, but in North America hockey is pretty simple and there’s a lot of dump and chase,” Ilves head coach Juha Pajuoja told Finnish media recently.
“He’s got a lot of work to do now, but of course, he’s got a lot of potential, too, and he’s ready to work hard. Let’s wait until New Year’s and see what he can do,” he added.
Rajala’s linemates, Pulkkinen and Granlund, are doing well. Pulkkinen, 18, who missed three months of action last season due to a hand injury now has 12 points in 11 games, tied for eighth in the league, and most for league rookies.
Granlund, last season’s Rookie of the Year, also 18, has 11 points in 12 games centering the top line in a top team. Granlund’s HIFK is currently second in the standings.
Ilves Tampere has seven forwards born in 1990 or after on its roster, Kärpät Oulu five. Ilves’s Joonas Rask, 20, is third in team scoring with six goals and eight points in 13 games. Kärpät’s two Joonases, Donskoi and Komulainen, take a regular shift in the Finnish powerhouse, averaging around 15 minutes a game.
Mikael Granlund’s brother, Markus, has scored 14 points in 11 games in the Finnish junior SM-liiga, and was called up to the big club for a game against Kärpät on Tuesday. The 17-year-old centre will take his brother’s place between Ville Peltonen and Lennart Petrell. Mikael is injured, but listed day-to-day.
But the hottest young forward in Finland right now is 17-year-old Joel Armia, who has scored six goals in his six last games with Ässät Pori. The big forward - listed at 192 centimetres and 85 kilos - is fearless on the ice, reminiscent of a former NHL star: Not Selänne, but another big forward the Finns know all too well: Mats Sundin.
“I need to get stronger, and work on my skating and defensive play,” Armia told the local paper.
The current coring leader in the SM-liiga is Perttu Lindgren, 23, back from his second North American stint in the Dallas Stars’ organization. Lindgren has seven goals and 20 points in13 games with Rauma Lukko.
Maybe he’s finally arrived.
On the other hand, maybe it’s a sign that the league isn’t as tough as it used to be. But, it may be that the future isn’t as bleak as the Finnish fans think.
Is it time for the Finns to start worrying about the defence?
First, of course, the young guns would have to reach the potential they seem to have.
- KalPa Kuopio signed Pavel Brendl to a short-term contract a few weeks ago. The notorious goal scorer has scored three goals and five points in eight games with the Kuopio team, all in his last four games.
- TPS Turku signed defenceman Tomas Kudelka to a contract that covers the remainder of the season. Espoo Blues signed former NHLer, forward Stéphane Veilleux.
- Ilves Tampere made SM-liiga history when it rallied back from 2-0 deficit in a game against HPK Hämeenlinna to win the game 6-4. Ilves scored all six goals in the third period, a new record for goals by a team in a third period (while being scoreless in the first two).
- Kärpät signed Martin St. Pierre to a contract that covers the remainder of the season. With the addition of Tenkrat and St. Pierre, and Pavel Rosa who also joins the team now, as planned, Kärpät has six imports on their roster. St. Pierre started the season with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in the KHL.