World Junior hockey 2013: Can Finland end six-year medal drought?

Richard Wolowicz

It's been a six-year long medal drought for Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championships, but they remain the best hope outside of junior hockey's elite four nations to take home a medal in 2013.

Finland came close in 2012 to taking home their first medal since 2006, but a shootout loss in the semifinal and then a shutout loss in the bronze medal game meant that the Mikael Granlund WJC era for Finland came up empty handed.

Fortunately for Joel Armia, Mikka Salomaki, and Olli Maatta, there is one more chance to gain a medal in their third consecutive World Junior Championship. That kind of experience at this level is part of what Finland will need to rely on in order to break that drought. And fortunately for them, they've got a talented supporting cast.

Depth Chart - Forwards
Left Wing Centre Right Wing
Miikka Salomaki** Alexander Barkov* Joel Armia**
Teuvo Teravainen Markus Granlund* Arturri Lehkonen
Markus Hannikainen* Miro Aaltonen* Henrik Haapala
Thomas Nykopp Robert Leino Ville Jarvelainen
Henri Ikonen Saku Salminen Matti Lamberg

Finland seems to be planning to run three main forward lines in the tournament, heavily relying on their strong group of top scoring forwards that are all ranging from 0.5 points per game to Barkov's 0.88 points per game in Finland's top professional league, the SM-Liiga.

For a Finnish U20 team, this is an exceptional bounty of riches offensively, allowing the team to spread out the offense throughout the lineup to make more effective line combinations. That being said, the offense is going to run through three players in particular: 17-year-old Tappara centre Alexander Barkov, Buffalo Sabres prospect Armia, and Chicago Blackhawks top prospect Teuvo Teravainen. These are three top talents that would be playing scoring roles on any of the top teams in the tournament.

Key Player: Alexander Barkov is one of six top 2013 NHL Draft prospects who will be featured in the tournament, and arguably none of them will have a more important role than Barkov. He performed quite well for a 16-year-old player a year ago, and is now a first line centre in a top professional league.

If Barkov can use his size and immense skill to the advantage he has shown with his club, then he could have the capacity to carry this team on his back into the medal games and potentially cause some upsets when there.

Finland has two forwards left to cut from their camp.

Depth Chart - Defense
Left Defense Right Defense
Olli Maatta** Rasmus Ristolainen*
Petteri Lindbohm Ville Pokka*
Juuso Riikola Juuso Vainio
Henri Auvinen Esa Lindell

Finland hasn't been known to be producing a lot of top defenders in recent years, but the 1994 born group is a real boon for the country. Olli Maatta, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Ville Pokka are as good as defenders that have emerged from the country in a long time, and will be joined by Blues prospect (and apparent team captain) Petteri Lindbohm to form a very strong top four.

More importantly, the three most talented defenders on the team were also around in last year's tournament, and while Maatta is a top defender in the OHL, Ristolainen and Pokka have a lot of experience playing professional hockey in Finland over the past two years. The rest of the defensive crew is a bit unspectacular, although Stars prospect Esa Lindell has a good amount of raw skill.

Key Player: Olli Maatta has been groomed for this role for a couple of years now. An injury in his first game last year (courtesy of Canada's Boone Jenner) kept him from being involved in the team's run to the semifinals last year. Now healthy, Maatta, who is better known for his defense, should be able to provide a strong two-way presence while being used to shut down top lines.

Finland has one more cut to make at defense.

Goaltenders
Joonas Korpisalo
Eetu Laurikainen
Janne Juvonen

While Korpisalo is the probable Finnish starter, it isn't quite a guarantee. Eetu Laurikainen will get a long look in camp to determine whether he's more ready for this tournament, as he's had a nice breakout year with Swift Current in the WHL.

He's a year older than Korpisalo, which might play a factor in the decision as well. Janne Juvonen, meanwhile, gives the Finns a nice stable of goaltenders to choose from. There may be no star in this group, but there is nice depth.

Tournament Outlook

Really, any result from 1st to 6th is possible for Finland, with 5th or 6th a more likely result than 1st or 2nd. While a lifting of the NHL lockout would be a tremendous boost to Finland's chances, they are definitely in the mix for a medal this year despite the presence of some top players on Canada, Russia and USA that might not normally be there.

It's hard to see Finland as lacking on the roster in comparison to rivals Sweden, for example. This is a very strong Finnish team and their recent preliminary victory over Canada with several top starters sitting out should only boost their confidence heading into the tournament. It's not unreasonable to picture Finland with a medal at the end of this tournament, though they'll need some dominant performances from their top players to achieve that.

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