It's that time of year again, and Bugg Bytes kicks off its World Juniors coverage with six days of roster reports. That's right- half the time of that annoying song, quadtriple the amount of useful information! First up: the peksy Finns, who are woefully underrated entering the tournament.
Mikael Granlund, LW/C
5'10, 172 lbs 2/26/1992
23 GP, 14-23-37, 39 PIM (JrA)
It's time to call Mikael Granlund the best young player in the country. While the 1992-born forward has been lumped with several other challengers- included his younger brother, Markus- 2008-09 has been the Mikael Granlund Show. Not eligible until 2010, Granlund is doing things not many Finns do in their draft year. Leading U20 league scorer: check. PPG total in Tier-II men's league: check. WJC spot: check. All that's left is a promotion to the SM-Liiga, and we could see that before the year is over.
Teemu Hartikainen, LW
6'1, 201 lbs 5/3/1990
31 GP, 8-2-10, 12 PIM (FEL)
One of the most-forgotten members of the Oilers pipeline, grinding winger Teemu Hartikainen has flown under the radar for most of the year with KalPa of the Finnish Elite League. A big, strong forward whose calling card is playing a faultless physical game, Hartikainen has been finding the net more as of late thanks to renewed confidence in front of the net. Already a leader on his team, the sixth round pick is starting to look a bit like Red Wing wunderscout Hakan Andersson's very first draft choice- Tomas Holmstrom. He could have an eye-opening tournament- especially in the eyes of goalies.
Niclas Lucenius, C
6'0, 194 lbs 5/3/1989
28 GP, 1-4-5, 12 PIM (FEL)
While he doesn't resemble any current Red Wing, Atlanta fourth-rounder is looking like a former great to wear the wheel: Igor Larionov. An intensely cerebral centerman, the 19 year-old is not a new-comer to the national team, racking up 2-4-6 last year the WJC. However, playmakers- no matter how good- are largely ineffective if the majority of their linemates are checkers and grinders, as has been the case for Finland in prior tournaments. The 2009 WJC will see Lucenius get to center at least one dynamic talent, and it could be a potent duo. Lucenius could challenge for the tournament lead in assists.
Joonas Rask, C/RW
5'10, 163 lbs 3/24/1990
19 GP, 6-8-14, 6 PIM (JrA)
One of the most most intriguing things about the 2008 NHL Entry Draft was who wasn't picked. Joonas Rask is in the top two or three on one such list. Another high-end playmaker, Rask has been having the type of season most teams probably would've wanted him to had they taken him. Although pointless in the first ten SM-liiga games of his year, Rask has been a PPG player in the Mestis. Oddly enough, though, he's been well under a point per game in Junior. While Rask can easily be classified as a playmaker, that would be like calling Ales Hemsky just a playmaker. A dazzling player when on, Rask has more than enough talent to carry an offense despite being only 5'10 and 170 lbs soaking wet.
6'0, 183 lbs 7/18/1990
17 GP, 5-6-11, 79 PIM (JrA)
Undrafted and unrelated to NHL star Joni Pitkanen, you'll probably hear the name during TSN's coverage of the WJC anyway. Ilmari Pitkanen is certain to be one of Pierre McGuire's Monsters, or at least a fan favorite due to his pro-quality two-way game. A wicked fighter and even better body checker, Pitkanen has also shown flashes of a decent offensive game. The 6'0, 190 lbs winger's physical game is a much-needed addition to Team Finland, and will allow the players around him to play their game.
Joonas Nattinen, C
6'2, 181 lbs 1/3/1991
20 GP, 4-17-21, 4 PIM (JrA)
Finland has just three players from the World Junior squad entering the draft for the first time this summer, and while Joonas Nattinen isn't the most skilled of the bunch, he stands a good chance to be taken first. Unlike fellow countryman Toni Rajala (see below) Nattinen has the size to withstand a pounding (6'2 compared to 5'9) and a good amount of skill. With 17 assists in 21 Junior A games and sublime vision, Nattinen will be one of the big pieces up front for Finland. With visions of Olli Jokinen dancing in their heads, scouts and teams would write Nattinen into the first round in pen with a great performance.
Toni Rajala, C/RW
5'9, 161 lbs 3/29/1991
21 GP, 13-11-24, (JrA)
When it comes to goal-scoring, Team Finland has exactly two players who have hit the double-digits in any league this year: the aforementioned Granlund, and 2009-eligible Toni Rajala. An explosive skater and stickhandler on Pat Kane's level, Rajala struggled early in the 2009 campaign thanks to injury, but has since turned it around after fully recovering. A promotion to the FEL- where he got his butt kicked by older competition- hasn't hurt either, and Rajala has scored at a 1.5 PPG pace since. A lethal finisher, Rajala's draft stock is hovering in the late 30s right now. While getting top-five status back is likely impossible, he could still prove worthy a choice in the first twenty or so.
6'0, 181 lbs 6/29/1989
17 GP, 0-0-0, 8 PIM (FEL)
If you've heard of Jesse Jyrkkio, it's because you bought the DobberHockey Prospect Report a couple of years ago. Mentioned in the 2007 Draft mock as a Tomas Kaberle-esque project, Jyrkkio has developed as expected since we first wrote about him. Way too good for Junior- 21 points in 15 games too good- Jyrkkio was a near-PPG in the Mestis before earning a well-deserved promotion to the FEL. Oh yea, and did we mention he's 6'0 now, instead of 5'10 or thereabouts? Pointless and a -7 in league play, Jyrkkio's challenge now is figuring out how to turn his dominant junior offensive game into one that will work against men. The WJC will be one last hurrah against players his age, so look for a huge performance.
6'1, 198 lbs 6/7/1991
36 GP, 0-16-16, 28 PIM (WHL)
One of just three players on Team Finland to be playing overseas, Red Deer Rebels rearguard Tommi Kivisto has enjoyed an easy if unspectacular transition to the WHL in 2008-09. A big, mobile kid playing regular top-three minutes, Kivisto has been an excellent find for the Rebels. Already a first-round talent, a dominant showing as Finland's #1 defender is really the only thing that could significantly raise his stock right now.
6'0, 203 lbs 12/29/1989
16 GP, 2.07 GAA, 0.931 Sv% (FEL)
There are two certainties in the hockey world: Finland producing a great goalie in any given year, and the Sharks selecting a great goalie. The two have come together in a big way in the form of Harri Sateri. While Jacob Markstrom has earned plenty of press- and rightly so- for his standout performance in the SEL as a rookie, Sateri has quietly had a season just as good for Tappara for the SM-Liiga. In 16 games, the 6'0 goalie has amassed a 2.07 GAA and 0.931 Sv%- including a three-game streak where he has allowed just three goals. While this isn't Sateri's first stint at the World Juniors, most fans won't remember last year; in three contests, Sateri was shelled, allowing 4 GPG.
The Finns look much different than any previous entry. They're bigger, more skilled and have NHL talents at key positions. But what will make the most difference is their willingness to inject youth. The passion of Granlund and Rajala will make this a fun team- and fun teams tend to win when facing serious, high-strung teams. Look for a 4th place finish, with a couple of spoiler wins along the way.