Finland The 2018 Favorite If NHL Skips Olympics

© Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports Hockey: World Cup of Hockey-Team Finland vs Team N

No matter which international tournament is at stake, everyone knows Canada is the country to beat.

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 Rise

In 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 2018

Of 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 Future

This 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.

'If You Ain't First, You're Last': Erie Otters Take Step Back In OHL

Erie Otters Erie Otters Training.jpg

By Jacob Messing

A historic Erie Otters season ended suddenly in late May when host Windsor defeated the regular season champions 4-3 for the Memorial Cup, given to the winner of a four-team tournament played

Knights Have ‘Golden’ NHL Debut

© Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports NHL: Preseason-Vegas Golden Knights at Vancouver Canucks

By Jacob Messing

The past few months have been full of firsts for the Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL’s 31st franchise.

In March they signed Brandon Wheat Kings center Reid Duke, in June they sifted through opposing rosters during the expansion draft and selected one player from each team, and later in the summer they unveiled their home jerseys.

10 NCAA Players To Watch In 2017-18

ncaa.jpg

By Jacob Messing

The wait is almost over for hockey fans.

Social media is teeming with #IsItOctoberYet, NHL training camps have started, and teams are beginning to take shape. But mid-September doesn’t just mean a new professional season; the puck is set to drop October 1 for college hockey.

Who Will Replace Nashville's Ryan Ellis?

© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators

By Jacob Messing

Last week, the Nashville Predators announced they would be without rising defenseman Ryan Ellis until the turn of the calendar year. The 26-year-old Canadian is recovering from offseason knee surgery and has not begun skating yet.

Intersection Of NHL Trading Trends And Matt Duchene Deal

© Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports NHL: Ottawa Senators at Colorado Avalanche

By Jacob Messing

Is Nugent-Hopkins A Fit As Penguins Third Line Center?

© Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports NCAA Hockey: Frozen Four-Boston University vs North Dakota

By Jacob Messing

A New Test For Griffins’ Sadowy

© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators

By Jacob Messing

The last three years have been complicated for Dylan Sadowy.

He’s played in the OHL, AHL, and ECHL, been drafted into the NHL by one team, and traded to another -- although he’s yet to play a game in the world’s best league.

5 Best NHL Players On Each Side Of 30

© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Edmonton Oilers

By Jacob Messing

Earlier this month, Sidney Crosby turned 30 years old, and even at that benchmark age the Pittsburgh Penguins captain still remains at the forefront of any argument about who is the best player in the world.

However, that’s not to say a new generation of budding stars won’t be entering the conversation soon.

The NHL is becoming increasingly younger, and 20-year-old phenom Connor McDavid highlights the future of the game. So, rather than compare them -- given that Crosby has 10 years on the Edmonton Oilers’ young captain -- we decided to break down the best players by age groups, those above 30 and those below.

AHL Sophomores To Watch In 2017-18

© Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

By Jacob Messing

Late summer is typically when hockey fans ask, “Is it October yet?”

While the start of the season is still a long way off, camps begin in a month -- a time for high-end prospects and AHL players to get good, long looks from their coaches as teams push for roster spots and players seek to fulfill their NHL dreams.

Why Danis Zaripov Won’t Find An NHL Home

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports OLYMPICS: Mens Hockey-Russia vs Czech Republic

By Jacob Messing

KHL star Danis Zaripov is reportedly eyeing to play his hockey stateside after a two-year ban from the International Ice Hockey Federation for a failed drug test. Both organizations follow the policies of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), resulting in Russian side AK Bars Kazan voiding Zaripov’s recently signed two-year deal.