Sunday, January 3, 2010

Disappointing Finn-ish: Country Fine with Players in CHL


Finland had high hopes of earning a medal at the World Junior Championship after facing relegation and finishing 7th at last year's tournament but those hopes were dashed by the United States Saturday night. Finland will now face Russia for 5th place on Monday.

Finland had 7 returning players on this year's squad including their top line of Teemu Hartikainen (Edm 2008), Toni Rajala (Edm 2009) and Mikael Granlund (eligible 2010). However the trio, along with the entire Finnish offence was underwhelming.

Through the quarter-finals Finland leads the tournament in shots with 229 - USA is second with 210 - but they've scored just 17 goals, ranking them last in shooting percentage at 7.42%.

Last year Hartikainen led the Fins in scoring with 9 points, while Rajala and Granlund (as a 16 year old) chipped in with 3 each. This time around Hartikainen has 3 goals and an assist in 5 games, Rajala has just 3 points and Granlund leads the team with 5 points. The line is also a combined -6 through 5 games.

Finland head coach Hannu Jortikka was asked after Saturday night's loss about Hartikainen's play. "He's one of our most important players because he is a big guy and a strong guy, but he was with 2 young guys who were not at the level we thought (they would be) before the tournament."

Big things were expected from Granlund this tournament, as he should be a top ten pick in this year's draft, and while 5 points in 5 games is pretty good, it could have been better. At almost a point per game pace in the Finish Elite league, Granlund was out for 5 weeks with an undisclosed injury prior to the tournament.

"He was not at the level of what he has been all season in Finland" Jortikka said. "And Rajala was a big disappointment, he was one of the best players at the Under 18 World Championship, but he was very, very tired and his skating was not what it was last year's junior World Championship."

Teemu Hartikainen felt his club was too nervous before the game and despite outshooting the States 44-25 they could only muster 2 goals.

"That was biggest problem in our games, if you do not score you cannot win. Maybe many guys were nervous before the game, and they were so nervous that when we had the chance for goals they lost it."

For Oiler fans hoping to see Hartikainen next year at training camp, there's a good chance, but whether or not he stays in North America is up in the air.

"I must work on my skating, and let's see how I do the rest of the season. Let's see what Edmonton says, and what I need" explained the 6.01, 200 lb winger.

Jortikka thinks Hartikainen could use at least one more year in the Finnish League, and Hartikainen who has 16 points in 28 games with KalPa Koupio is looking forward to playing the game without the added pressure of his military commitment which is now over. During the first 20 games of the season, he would train with the military during the day, and play hockey at night which was fairly taxing on his body.

"It's so much easier to play now, I can relax and get a couple of goals, and I think my career this year can go up."

Oiler fans might also be intrigued to know that Hartikainen and Rajala have played together quite a bit growing up in Finland. They showed glimpses of that chemistry in the tournament, but as the big forward pointed out, not enough.

As for Rajala (photo: Matt Manor, HHOF-IIHF Images), a knee injury may be the reason his skating is not what it was last year according to Jortikka, and not the fact that he's playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL. Finland, unlike countries like Russia and Sweden didn't snub CHL players, selecting 4 who are playing in the CHL. The head coach says his country doesn't blackball players who leave their homeland to play junior in North America.

"They want to go, we want to take them. If they are becoming good players in the future we need them for Olympics, or Canada Cup or whatever."

Having said that, Jortikka says the Finnish league is appealing to young players right now. "Our league is a little bit down right now, and that mean the young guys get more playing time. 10 years ago we don't have that many junior players playing, but now almost every skilled young guy is playing."

The most intriguing player on Finland's roster is Granlund (photo: Matt Manor HHOF-IIHF Images). The 5.08, 180 pound centreman was ranked 8th for the 2010 draft by ISS in their December edition. With HIFK Helsinki this year he's notched 5 goals and 14 assists in 20 games. Jortikka says the 17 year old is strong on the puck and smart with his passes, but doesn't expect him to make the jump to the NHL next season.

"I think his place is in Finnish league and play maybe 1 or 2 more years, but he is coming (to the NHL)"

Granlund himself says he wasn't thinking about all the scouts in the stands and how it might affect his draft status, but he isn't happy about his play so far.

"I played very bad, I didn't play like a number one centre should have."

It will be interesting to see if NHL scouts agree with Granlund. We won't get the answer to that until June.

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