Finland The 2018 Favorite If NHL Skips Olympics
Sweden, Russia, and the United States are also designated hockey leaders, but annual underdog Team Finland never fails to surprise.
Should the NHL refuse to allow players to participate at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next year -- and it's looking that way -- Team Finland will finally be the team to beat.
Finland's RiseIn five tournaments since NHL players first joined the Olympics in 1998, Finland leads all countries with four medals: a silver medal and three bronze medals. While those numbers can be misinterpreted as Finland being better with NHL players, that's not the case.
The fact is that hockey has come a long way in Finland over the past 20 years. While retired players such as Teemu Selanne, Jari Kurri and Teppo Numminen are household names, Finland has had an influx of NHL-caliber players in recent years.
Finland has produced Stanley Cup-winning goalies Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi as well as veterans Kari Lehtonen and Pekka Rinne, the latter of which shares the crease with yet another Finnish goalie, 21-year-old rookie Juuse Saros.
Last year the country saw breakout NHL campaigns from Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.
This season has taken the Nordic country a step further. In June, impending Calder Trophy nominee Patrik Laine was picked second overall in the NHL draft and Jesse Puljujarvi was selected fourth.
Then there's the sudden rise of Minnesota Wild forward Mikael Granlund, who is 12th in scoring this season, and the strong play of other rookies Sebastian Aho and Mikko Rantanen, who sit seventh and ninth in rookie scoring, respectively.
Pyeongchang 2018Of course, the aforementioned players are in the NHL and therefore wouldn't be playing for Finland in the upcoming Olympics in the scenario the fans fear.
But this established talent demonstrates that Finland is developing its game as an entirety and hints that even more is on its way. Finland, of course, isn't growing by itself; Sweden, Russia, America, Canada, and others will continue to offer some of the best players for years to come.
But the difference is before Finland began pumping out players like Barkov, Laine, and Ristolainen, it was that annual dark-horse candidate each tournament.
Getting closer on par with other hockey nations, Finland appears to have been stocking up for the international stage and could be on the verge of joining the elite.
Finland's FutureThis coming June's NHL draft is sure to be one of the most exciting in recent years. While it isn't believed to boast the generational talent of previous drafts, the expansion variable should create active environment for trades and changes.
The non-generational factor means even more of the majority of first-round picks will start their careers in a league other than the NHL.
That's good news for Finland, as it will have its choosing of first-round Finns to use in the Olympics. And there's expected to be plenty.
Adam Kimelman of NHL.com created a mock draft that features six Finnish-born players being selected in the first-round (Jusso Valimaki, Eeli Tolvanen, Kristian Vesalainen, Henri Jokiharju, Miro Heiskanen, and of course a Finnish goalie, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen).
Mike G. Morreale, also of NHL.com, has six Finns going in the first round as well, excluding Heiskanen for Vaakanainen.
The other advantage for Finland is that its players grow up in competing in fewer leagues and levels than other countries. In nations such as the U.S. and Canada, there is a large volume of leagues and teams across each country. When American and Canadian players enter the same draft, many may have never even heard of each other let alone previously played together.
The talented young players of Finland grow up close, often playing together for years, and develop a team rapport early on in their careers. When the Olympics come around next year, Finland's massive amount of high-end prospects and youth will have the advantage of chemistry over every other nation.