Friday, 19 February 2010

Vancouver 2010: State of Finland's ice hockey and it's future

This blog post goes off the normal beat of this blog and will look at the state of Finnish hockey at the moment. Where normal posts would focus on my own development, this post will actually pose opinion and attempt at being a hockey pundit:

As I watched Finland square off against Belarus the other night, I was both happy and a little bit frustrated. Perhaps most of the frustration came with dealing with a broadband connection that provides .5Mbps connection and makes watching live sports nearly impossible. However, the main part of the frustration was due to the state of Finland’s hockey in general.

The team we are fielding in Vancouver 2010, is by all accounts one of the strongest we could muster together. I see the Finnish team as an old battle ship, trust worthy, but it has seen its brightest days. Our key players everyone talks about and knows in the wider hockey community are Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Jere Lehtinen. Though I have to say that there are youngish players there as well, mainly in Mikko Koivu, Tuomo Ruutu and Valtteri Filppula.

Additionally, Finland displayed a dismal performance in the U-20 Championships during Christmas. Coming 5th in the tournament behind Swizerland is not something to be proud of. I mean the Swiss, c’mon.

The state of the team is such, that compared with many teams, mainly US and Canada, we have no young talent what so ever. We have no players under 25 on our roster, where both US, Canada and even Russia have such players. We have no exciting stars. The old guard of Selanne and co. have seen their glory days and where Filppula and younger Koivu are great players, they will never be classed as NHL super stars. And it pains me to say that, as I am a huge fan of Mikko Koivu.

The problem however is not with these players, but I see it as a deep rooted problem of Finnish athleticism. Our systems are hopelessly out of date and our junior development is aimed at developing players who do their work in the corners and have no Alex Ovechkin like skills.

The other problem I can see in the current Finnish hockey is the policy of ‘everyone plays’, which has ultimately hampered development of truly great players. Now we struggle with scoring and we are always thinking pass first, rather than shoot. Thankfully, the new head coach Jukka Jalonen has a different take on this and is actually encouraging people to take more shots. I can’t fault Jalonen at all. He coached my hometown team, HPK, into the Finnish championships for the first time and is to all intents and purposes a great coach and brings a fresh style of thinking to the national team.

After that pseudo intelligent look into the problems, let’s focus on the team that we have out there.

There was a lot of talk about why Jussi Jokinen was left out of the team, but I can sort of see why. He has only started to play after the decisions were made and probably it was the right one to make, as the decision to leave him out has saved him from an abysmal season.

Upfront the Finnish team looks strong, well maybe not for Ville Peltonen and Jarkko Immonen. With all due respect to Peltonen, who has had a stellar career, I think we could’ve substituted him for a younger player, perhaps some one like Jokinen or even a wild card of Mikael Granlund (projected first round pick in the 2010 draft) from the Finnish league. I’m not a fan of Jarkko Immonen at all. He dominated the SM-Liiga last year and this year in the tougher KHL he has done nothing spectacular.

Our defence is questionable. We have super defensive players in Kimmo Timonen, Toni Lydman and Sami Salo (providing he is healthy), but after that who do we have. Joni Pitkanen? Well yes he is a great player and logs big minutes for Carolina, but he tends to play only when he is interested in playing after him, I’m struggling to think who the rest of the D players are. Washed up NHL players who couldn’t hack it there and now play the KHL. Oh we’ve got Janne Niskala from the Swedish leagues there too as a power play specialist. Doubtful, that with that defence we will pull off a similar surprise as in Turin.

In net we are strong, perhaps the strongest in the whole tournament right behind Canada. Kiprusoff, Backstrom and Niittymaki are all elite goalies in the NHL. This is the most puzzling thing about Finnish hockey. I can name a load of goalies from the Finnish leagues who are great and are working toward a brilliant professional career in the NHL, but I can’t for the life of me think of any prospects from the outfield players.

Despite all of this, I think Finland will stand a chance. Our team is not super-star studded like those of Canada and Russia and I think our coaching staff has a good grasp of the addressing the problems that have traditionally plagued Finnish hockey. Jukka Jalonen coached HPK to Finnish Championships in 2006, Risto Dufva coached JYP Jyvaskyla to Finnish Champioship in 2009 and Timo Lehkonen was Jalonen’s number two in HPK’s run to the championship.

However good of a job the coaching staff and players are able to pull off, Finnish Ice Hockey Association needs to address the junior development of hockey players. The leadership from the coaches to the captains will surely be one of Finland’s strengths and who knows, maybe we will capture a medal, I just don’t think we will be able to make the Turin 2006 silver any brighter this year. After these Olympics, I am not holding my breath that Finland will produce brilliant results in the World Championship competitions, or Olympics for that matter, for a number of years

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