By Samuel Dummer

“Good Heavens!”

Finnish hockey announcer Anterio Mertaranta let the words leave his mouth in a game between Finland and Russia just over 10 years ago, during an IIHF World Jr tournament, also in Slovakia.

At that time, it was young up-and-comer Michael Granlund on the receiving end of the praise. Granlund had just scored a beautiful “lacrosse-style” goal. It’s beginning to be seen more regularly across Hockey today but at the time, it was a rare move to see in a high-level game.

The Finnish group of the 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup was hoping to get the same sort of praise this past August. But with a fourth-place finish, it didn’t quite happen the way they would have liked.

While the first game ended as a 5-2 loss to Russia, the team can be proud to know that it was Russia’s lowest-scoring game. The Finnish defensive system was able to keep the Russian forwards at bay and limit their clean looks at the net. While the Finnish goaltender, Niklas Kokko, made a strong effort to keep the snipers off the board, he was not able to keep the net out of their scopes long enough.

Players like Joakim Kemell, Jani Nyman, and Kasper Kulonummi came to play but it just wasn’t enough to overpower the Russian juggernaut or the Slovakian surprise. They fought a fair fight with Sweden in the bronze medal game but were unable to put it away as Sweden scored two goals in the third period to take the game 4-3. The Fins had a strong showing and there should be a few Finnish names forging a path for a bright future ahead.

Joakim Kemell, tied for first on the team with 6pts in 5 games. He was a force to be reckoned with. Standing at 5’11 and weighing in at only 176lbs, you didn’t see his number 13 bashing and crashing in the corners too often. You did, however, see Kemell carrying the puck whenever he was on the ice.

The puck seemed to follow him around the offensive zone, and he carried it like it was a Yo-Yo on a string. Whether it was the Finnish game plan or his extremely high offensive hockey IQ, Kemell seemed to be in the driver’s seat for the young Fins. He regularly found himself as the go-to quarterback on the powerplay and could consistently be seen tapping his stick to the ice in search of a pass from a linemate. When the passes found themselves to the tape of his stick, he oftentimes drove a shot towards the net.

“Kemell is an early candidate for the best pure goal scorer in 2022. The puck slingshots off his stick with precise accuracy. A consistent threat on the powerplay from the faceoff circle. Excellent deception and quick head and shoulder fakes to cut his way into middle ice.” Says Jared Brown, DraftPro Head Scout.

Kemell loves to shoot the puck, he loves to have the puck on his stick, and loves to be in control of the play. His hands are smooth as butter and while he doesn’t have the largest frame, he is certainly not afraid to carry the puck up the ice. It’s hard to say if it is his ability or a lack of focus, but it appeared that his skating could use some improvement. In no way does it seriously hinder his play. This can be seen by his stat-lines. But, there were times when he would slowly loop around instead of doing a hard stop-and-go as you would tend to expect at such a high level. Working on his edges could be a benefit to this young player and should be something to focus on. Kemell is a good hockey player, and he knows it.

There are times that he needs to remember that he is in a competitive game and not late-night shinny at the local rink. Confidence can be a strong benefit to have in the NHL, overconfidence can be a player’s biggest undoing.

As one of Finland’s top young offensive threats, Kemell should find himself playing for an NHL team one day if he can continue to progress. He would do well to ensure that his confidence does not spill too far into the over-confident side of the scale. Without knowing the player personally or being in the room, it is difficult to know if it is his own desire for the puck, or a designed plan from the coaching staff that leads to his constant stick tapping in hopes for the pass. It can be a fine line to walk and many an NHLer has perished to the guaranteed self-glory of narcissism.

Jani Nyman, the other half of Finland’s 6pt team-leading tie. His 3 goals and 3 assists showed that he could shoot and pass with the best of them. He wasn’t a big name on our list entering the tournament, but he sure left with a circle in the notebook.

His smooth stride and quick hands make him an offensive threat around the ice. He is 6’3,” 214lbs. His build makes him a physical threat and someone to look out for on the ice. At 17, Nyman is growing into the body of a professional hockey player. There is no question that his accurate shot and elite passing abilities will make him a promising prospect in the upcoming draft. Generally, younger players need to focus on diets and workouts to put on the appropriate weight for the league; Nyman doesn’t seem to have this concern.

When chatting at the digital cooler, video scout Alex Taxman says “Finland’s Jani Nyman is lethal offensively. 6’3″ and can gallop up the ice. Sick hands. Can toe drag his way out of pretty much anything. Awesome along the boards. Absolutely lethal shot whether it’s his wrister or one-timer. On the younger side of the 2022 Draft also so I’m all aboard the hype train.”

Nyman will play somewhere. Whether he plays in the NHL or another professional European league is up to Nyman’s work ethic and the 32 NHL team brass calling names and putting them on the board. If he continues to develop both his skills and his body, he will no doubt be penciled into somebody’s draft list.

Kasper Kulonummi, born in Helsinki, is 6’0 and 180lbs. Kulonummi is a mid-sized defenceman quickly making a name for himself throughout the scouting world. A very strong skater, Kulonummi can stop on a dime and leave the opposition blowing tires. He has no fear in making a hard stop behind the net or using his edges to move opposing players to make a play. He is an offensive defenseman with strong offensive instincts. His ability to read the ice and start a breakout from his own end was apparent throughout the tournament. He usually made the smart plays with quick short passes but was able to stretch it out when the space was given to him.

Adding a little more aggression and physicality to his game would give Kulonummi the well-rounded skills that NHL teams are looking for in the defencemen of today. His quick thinking and offensive touch will most certainly keep him on the watchlists of the league and is a name to keep an ear out for at the 2022 NHL draft.

Niklas Kokko, the goaltender for the Finnish guardians of the ice. While a fourth-place finish was likely not what the netminder was striving for at the start of the tournament, his strong play against every team not named Slovakia was an impressive run. While he couldn’t batten down the hatches and close the fort against Sweden in the Bronze medal game, Kokko was well worth the watch in the games he played.

“He’s a hybrid style goaltender with ideal NHL size. His movements are light and quick, and he shows great quickness”

At 6’3 and 185lbs, Kokko is a tall lean goalie. The kind of body type you would generally expect to see for the position. Long limbs that can reach post-to-post and the height to cover the top of the net when down in a butterfly. He plays the position well, stays to the top of the crease when the puck is away from the net and seems to track his rebounds well. His butterflies are usually tight and well maintained and his legs proved to be strong against jamming sticks. Even though the fast-paced Slovakians were able to put some away on him, Kokko had an impressive showing and he should continue to work on his game and improve every day.

“(Kokko) Covers the lower portions of the net well in his butterfly. Keeps his arms low and close to his body to eliminate holes. Has a tendency to compact his stance and look smaller than he is in the crease. Something he’ll need to work on but the athleticism he shows already is a bright sign for his future” continues Brown.

Kokko’s size and technicals should get him picked up. It is no secret that goalie scouting can be seen as a kind of voodoo. Goalies can always be a tough call, as some jr. all-stars can’t handle the pressure of the bright lights and yet some nobodies appear to step up and shine.

Overall, Finland played a strong game throughout the tournament. They were able to hold Russia to their lowest goal totals, maintained their place against the other teams in the tournament, and put on a show against the third-place Swedish team. The Finn’s demanded the Swedes to battle for their victory.

They were not about to roll over and hand it to them.

Photos: Jan Beneš