While I was over in Finland, I had the chance to watch some of the U-20’s hockey games, as well as catch a live SM-liiga game. There were a few things that stuck out for me on the state of Finnish hockey.
Firstly the U-20’s:
If you haven’t kept tabs on Finnish hockey there has been an ongoing debate of the quality of players the Finnish junior system has been churning out. Surely enough Finland went without a first round draft pick for a number of years until Mikael Granlund got picked 9th overall in 2010. Where the U-20 roster had players who had been drafted (2nd to 4th rounders), I must admit, the teams that drafted guys like Pulkkinen, Vatanen, Rajala et al got a real bargain.
It was great watching the guys play. One thing that was evident from the playing style was the love for the game, which is something I think that has been missing the last few years. However, where I still think that there is much work to be done on the overall junior system and player development side of things, Finnish hockey is definitely on the right track.
Where the team failed to reach the medal rounds after a monumental breakdown in the final 5-minutes against Russia, I would grade the teams’ efforts as B+, just because the guys worked their backsides off and showed incredible amounts of skill and talent, which past rosters have not showed to such a great degree.
I think it has been great to see SM-Liiga teams let younger guys play big minutes, but more importantly, play important minutes at the critical stages of the game. Take a look at guys like Sami Vatanen from JYP. When I saw him play, I thought of P.K Subban. Both great defencemen, both really confident on and off the puck, both have a great shot and are absolutely thrilling to watch. Vatanen has already played in the World Championships last year, which is undoubtedly a sign of the quality player that he is (and what a quality player he will one day be).
The other that I would like to call out is Joel Armia. Armia is a 17 year-old who has shone in the SM-Liiga this year, playing in the first offensive unit with Assat. Armia is somewhat of an untraditional Finnish U-20 hockey player. He is tall (190+cm), but yet his skating, coordination are top notch and he has really, really soft hands and laser of a shot. Sure he didn’t show his full offensive prowess in the U-20s but he is still a quality player and one to watch in this years’ draft. Armia is a good player, though still an unfinished product. Once he reaches his 20s he may well be the carrying force of Finnish hockey and the prototype of a player that the Finnish system strives to develop. Trouble is, Finns aren’t that tall as a nation/race so it is tough to find players who the NHL wouldn’t deem too small, a fact that has worked against players like Toni Rajala. But size isn’t always an issue as demonstrated by Theo Fleury and Saku Koivu to mention but a few.
To make sure that the system keeps developing good talented youngsters, the SM-Liiga teams need to bring up their junior players to the top flight and let them play. In the past youngsters were called up and all they got to see was how to ride the pine, which doesn’t farther their development as a player and I dread to think how many generations of potential we lost when guys were stuck in a grinding line or didn’t get to see much ice at the top level. It is only now that we see guys like Niclas Lucenius or Perttu Lindgren flourish because they are allowed to play.
The past few winters in Finland have been cold enough and it was great to see the number of kids playing shinny and literally just having fun with the game. It’s on the outdoor rinks where the creativity and skills can be practiced, combined with quality coaching at a club level, it should start paying dividends soon.
Good to catch a game, as always and good to see my home team (HPK) win a game. Every game I’ve been to during my time abroad the team has lost, so it was good to see them break the habit.
What surprised me of the game was that it was sluggish (OK it was the first game back after Christmas) and the lack of contact or hitting. Again it might be that it was the first game back after a longish break, but still. Here are a few things that really bugged me:
Scuffles: Whenever there was a scuffle of any kind the referees were there in a split second to separate players. There were ingredients for a fight and a few punches thrown, but yet the referees were there to separate the players. If the guys want to fight and its not a staged thing, let them go at it. It gets the crowd in the game as well so please refs, just let the guys have a tussle if they want to go. I know fights do happen, but it just seemed like the refs went out of their way to prevent them, or any contact for that matter.
Hits: There were a few, but quite often players would rather turn away and give the opposing player a spray of snow. I know my coach would have me by the balls if I turned away from every hit like that. I’m not saying that you should go and destroy the players, but just give them a nudge. I’d paid (or my dad had) for a hockey game, not a demonstration of tick tack toe passing bouncing all over the place. Again, I must iterate that it was the first game back and not every game is like the ones I saw (news coverage and Televised games included). In the HPK-Assat game that I saw there were a few really big bombs and that, but still I felt there could’ve been more.
Despite these few things I thoroughly enjoyed it, the games seemed fast paced and that the guys were really going at it.
Do I think the SM-Liiga can still offer good entertainment: Yes I do, if few things are rectified. I think the league still deserves to be known as one of the best leagues outside the NHL.