Puljujarvi, Juolevi among young players shaping Finland’s rise

Vancouver Canucks prospect Olli Juolevi talked to Gene Principe about winning the Memorial Cup and playing at the Young Stars tournament for his new NHL team.

PENTICTON, B.C. – They’re touted as Finland’s ‘golden generation’ — a group of young players that might be talented enough to lift a small Scandinavian nation from perpetual bronze medal contenders to the apex of men’s hockey.

Even though Patrik Laine is busy throwing highlight reel hits while representing ‘Suomi’ at the World Cup of Hockey, the Young Stars tournament still featured some of the best young hockey talent Finland has to offer.

Man-child and two-way winger Jesse Puljujarvi put in one of the most dominant individual performances in the tournament’s short history, while Olli Juolevi turned heads with a polished and sophisticated game from the blue line. Even a less highly regarded prospect like Markus Niemelainen, a third-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers at the 2016 NHL Draft, flashed high-end potential.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Juolevi said of the steady outflow of Finnish talent in recent years. “I hope some young guys in Finland can watch us and see that it’s possible and be here one day. It’s awesome for a small country like Finland.”

Finland’s status as an ascendant hockey nation might not manifest itself at the World Cup of Hockey, but the future is bright.

Laine (Winnipeg No. 2), Puljujärvi (Edmonton No. 4) and Juolevi (Vancouver No. 5) were three of the top-five picks at the most recent NHL draft and helped lead Finland to gold at the 2014 and 2016 world junior hockey championships.

In terms of population, Finland is smaller than the Greater Toronto Area. For a generation, though, Finland has punched well above its weight in best-on-best international competition.

Multiple bronze medals and a silver medal at the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino is impressive considering Finland’s size relative to hockey’s other major powers. What comes next – as Finnish players like Puljujarvi, Laine and Juolevi develop along with other hotshot young NHLers like Aleksander Barkov – could be even greater.

Puljujarvi, for example, is listed at six foot three and 203 pounds while only turning 18-years-old in May. He powered through prospect defencemen easily in Pentincton, flashing a gorgeous quick wrist shot and dissected opposing penalty kills with pinpoint cross-seam passes. He has the skill level of a crafty centreman, in the body of an imposing power winger.

As good as Puljujarvi’s offensive game was in Penticton, it was his uncanny defensive awareness that stood out to scouts in attendance. His defensive positioning on the ice and the unusual depth to which he supported Oilers defenders suggested a level of two-way wisdom well beyond his years.

“I think I’m a good up and down player,” Puljujarvi told Sportsnet on Monday. “I work hard.”

Part of what Puljujarvi is working hard on lately is his English. It’s still a work in progress, but he’s eager to learn.

“He’s improved a lot,” Juolevi said of his training partner. “He was pretty bad, but it’s coming along a little bit which is good for him.”

At Oilers development camp this past summer, Niemeläinen would speak on Puljujärvi’s behalf. Puljujärvi has insisted of late on working through English-language interviews himself.

“When I don’t know what I say, he helps me,” Puljujärvi said of Niemeläinen’s help.

“I listen and I speak and I think it’s getting better. After three months, I’m speaking good.”

Puljujärvi was easily able to translate high praise for Juolevi, pegging him as a special player because of his good vision and awareness.

Vancouver’s AHL head coach Travis Green, who was coaching the Canucks’ Young Stars entry this weekend, described Juolevi as having “premium hockey sense.”

“His game is going to be a lot more suited for an NHL game where everybody’s timing is on and it’s not as scrambly,” Green said. “He’s going to be a hell of a defenceman.”