Goaltending is undoubtedly the most important position in hockey. Sure, offensive stars like Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos get all the attention because scoring a goal is more sexy than preventing one, but really most of the time the success of your team rests on the play of your goaltender.
Take the 2013 Leafs for example. Phil Kessel had a great year, putting up 20 goals and 52 points in 48 regular season games. But if it wasn’t for the strong play of goaltender James Reimer, I don’t think the Leafs would have been in any position to make the playoffs. When taking into account the recent history of Leafs’ goaltending failures (Jonas Gustavsson, Vesa Toskala, Andrew Raycroft et al), the biggest reason why the Leafs were finally able to make the playoffs was they were finally able to get a full year of competent goaltending.
But not only is the goaltender the most important position on the ice, it’s also the toughest position to predict future success in. Who would have thought that after putting up a .921 save percentage in 2010-11 with the Phoenix Coyotes, Ilya Bryzgalov would be out of an NHL job three years later? These things are hard to predict, especially when dealing with small sample sizes like the Stanley Cup playoffs or the Olympics. So while the goaltending potential of a team like Canada will be debated ad nauseum by hockey analysts and experts from now until February, very few words will be spent questioning that particular position on Team Finland, because they are loaded.
Back in March, I compiled three years worth of even strength save percentage data to try and figure out who were the most consistent goaltenders (minimum 3000 even strength shots against) over that span. Out of the 17 goaltenders who qualified, Antti Niemi (2nd), Pekka Rinne (3rd), Niklas Backstrom (7th) and Kari Lehtonen (8th) were all in the top eight. What do these goaltenders have in common? Yes, they all hail from the Land of Finns. And that list doesn’t even include Tuukka Rask, who’s put up save percentages of .929, .924 and .929 over the past three seasons but didn’t qualify because only this year did he become the starter for the Boston Bruins. I know a lot of people have been talking about Finland’s uncannily strong goaltending for a long time, but still, I don’t think you can overemphasize just how good this group is.
Now that we’ve gotten the goaltending love-fest out of the way (for now), let’s talk about the skaters. The group can be characterized as solid, but unspectacular, led by longtime NHL veterans (aka Really Old Dudes) Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo. Finland had a pretty weird tournament in 2010. They started off by beating up bottom-feeders Belarus and Germany by scores of 6-1 and 5-0 respectively. Then they were blanked by archrival Sweden 3-0 despite a strong, 29-save performance from Miikka Kiprusoff. Then they shut out the Czechs in the quarterfinals 2-0 (behind another huge performance from Kiprusoff) before getting lambasted by the Americans 6-1 in the semis.
The common theme for Finland from that tournament is (surprise, surprise) strong goaltending. Kiprusoff gave the Finns outstanding performances until that disaster against Team USA. But the team’s inability to score against their two toughest opponents (Sweden and USA) stands out as a big reason why they weren’t able to make the final. Is that going to change in 2014?
- This was a very difficult group of forwards to put together. I ended up shuffling Filppula to the wing to give more scoring punch to the top six. We haven’t seen Barkov play in the NHL yet, but if the Florida Panthers‘ first round, second overall pick from last June’s draft lives up to the enormous expectations he’s been burdened with, he should be a significant part of this team. I haven’t seen much of Granlund’s play, but again, based on hype and buzz surrounding his skillset, the 21-year-old should be on this team as well. It pained me to leave Leo Komarov off the team because he would be a really fun guy to watch getting under the skin of opponents every game, but does he make it over Nik Hagman? Maybe?
- The defense is pretty self-explanatory. Timonen and Salo are both as old as time itself, but they’re also still chugging along at a pretty good pace. Vananen gets the nod on the final pairing because he’s scored at a pretty good pace in both the AHL (as a 22-year-old) and SM-Liiga, and could be in line to win a spot on the Anaheim Ducks’ blue line this year. Laakso makes the cut on account of him sharing a first name with Selanne.
- Yup, those are the three goaltenders. Pretty neat, huh?