Laine leads unprecedented generation of fantastic Finns
More than two decades after the ''Finnish Flash'' took the NHL by storm, a generation of Finns is building on Teemu Selanne's unforgettable legacy.
Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets leads the NHL in goals at age 18 and is at the forefront of Finland's infusion of young talent. Between the Carolina Hurricanes' Sebastian Aho, Florida Panthers' Aleksander Barkov, Edmonton Oilers' Jesse Puljujarvi and San Jose Sharks' Joonas Donskoi, this is arguably the strongest wave of Finnish forwards the league has seen.
Finland has a proud hockey program that produced Selanne, brothers Saku and Mikko Koivu and plenty of star defensemen and elite goaltenders. Now the Scandinavian country of 5.5 million people is churning out some of the fastest and most skilled young players around.
''There was a time, a couple of age groups, that we really didn't have any superstars,'' Finnish goaltender Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins said. ''We really didn't have any goal scorers or superstars coming. Now, it's totally opposite. We have many of them coming up.''
Finland currently has as many NHL players (33) as it does indoor rinks. By comparison, Canada has 3,250 rinks and the United States has 1,800.
''A country that big, you look at their sheer population and the numbers, it's amazing the players they're pumping out,'' Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. ''Developmentally, they're doing something right over there that's leading to the success because it's amazing based on the sheer numbers what they're doing.''
Some of Finland's best are 21 and under, and three of the top five picks in the 2016 draft were Finns: Laine at No. 2, Puljujarvi at No. 4 and defenseman Olli Juolevi to the Vancouver Canucks at No. 5.
That's a long way from a weak 2009 draft that led the Finnish Ice Hockey Association to hold a summit, the result of which was a greater focus on individual skill development. Couple that with the influx of arenas to grow the game that followed Finland's win at the 1995 world championship, and Finland has made a national commitment to growing faster, more skilled players to stack up against the world's best.
''I'm really proud,'' Donskoi said. ''It's great to see that, I think, Finnish hockey's going the right direction.''
With 11 goals in his first 17 games, Laine is the poster boy for Finland's incredible strides. He has drawn comparisons to Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, a three-time MVP who said Laine could score 50 or 60 goals if he continues to improve.
While Donskoi looked up to Selanne and the Koivu brothers, Laine considered Ovechkin his idol. Now he wants to be even better.
''I love the way he scores goals and he wants to score, but I don't want to be exactly like him,'' Laine said. ''Yeah, of course, he has an amazing shot and (he's) an amazing player, but I want to be myself. I have a lot to learn about everybody and take something from him, especially his shot. I think I have to grow that if I want to get to his level.''
Teammates think Laine has limitless potential, just like executives believe Barkov could be as good of a two-way player as three-time Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. Barkov is just 21.
Hurricanes coach Bill Peters has raved about how NHL-ready Aho is at 19 – well-rounded and committed to defense while also being able to pile up the points. Barkov credits coaches in Finland for developing smart players who don't just look to score.
''They do everything that you'll grow up as a good player and a good sportsman,'' said Barkov, who had 59 points in 66 games last season. ''They help you a lot, especially in the junior national team. Have a lot of meetings – tell us what to do and how to prepare for the games.''
Players from Finland's biggest rival, Sweden, can't help but notice the increase of top-end talent. Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom called this ''a special generation'' of Finns, and Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog believes it's a good thing for the NHL and international hockey.
''They've always had such a good team, with the Koivus and Selannes and these guys,'' said Landeskog, whose Finnish teammate Mikko Rantanen was the 10th pick in 2015. ''They've always had a knack for putting out good goalies and now a lot of young guys coming up, too. I think it's exciting.''
Despite being smaller in size and budget than Canada, the U.S., Russia and Sweden, Finland has medaled at four of five Olympics with NHL players and six of the past 11 world championships. Given Laine and Co., the future is even brighter.
''It's a really good generation we have coming out now,'' Rantanen said. ''We haven't seen this kind of wave from Finland in a while.''
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed
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