The Finnish Foursome
Mar 15, 2012
By Jason Karnosky
Over the past 30 years Finnish players have made a major impact on the North American game, especially at the National Hockey League level. Players like Jari Kurri, Teemu Selanne, Kimmo Timonen and Miikka Kiprusoff have come across the Atlantic to star with their respective clubs.
However, that Finnish influence has yet to trickle down to the majority of teams at the NHL’s top developmental level. To date the American Hockey League remains a stocked with primarily North American born players. In fact 23 of the league’s 30 teams don’t even carry a single Finnish-born player, while six others teams only feature one on their current rosters.
Only one squad has no interest in following the trend: Milwaukee.
The 2011-2012 Admirals carry a unique Finnish-flavor on their roster, which is stocked with four Finnish-born players, defenseman Teemu Laakso, forwards Juuso Puustinen and Jani Lajunen and goaltender Atte Engren, all who have been vital to the team’s success this season.
“It definitely a good thing that we have four Finnish guys playing here in Milwaukee,” Laakso said. “It’s a lot different than previous years, when I was the only one. This year we’re a having a lot of fun both on the ice and off of it.”
At 24-years-old Laakso is the elder statesman of the group. He is also is the only Finnish Admiral with National Hockey League experience, having skated in a total of 17 games with Nashville to date, including a career high nine this season.
“It’s definitely a different game playing up there in the NHL,” Laakso said. “It’s not really all that much faster, but guys are so much stronger and smarter. So that’s what I am trying to improve on with Milwaukee, outthinking guys and making smart plays with the puck.”
Originally an eight-round pick of the Predators in the 2004 entry draft, Laakso first joined the Nashville organization for 2008-2009 season, the same year that his country man and friend Pekka Rinne earned a fulltime starting goaltending job with Nashville. Rinne has since gone on to stardom as one of the NHL’s best talents.
“I believe Laakso can play in the National Hockey League, but it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Nashville assistant general manager Paul Fenton said. “He has to believe himself as a player, play well for us and give us an opportunity to succeed.”
With Milwaukee Laakso steadily improved in each of his first two North American seasons, before breaking out in 2010-2011. Playing as part of the Admirals’ top tandem, the Tuusula, Finland native scored a career high eight goals and 30 points, helping Milwaukee post the best record in the Western Conference.
During the 2011 playoffs, Laakso was instrumental in the Admirals dismantling of Texas in the first round, posting two points and rating of plus six.
“Teemu is an experienced defenseman, who is hard to play against at this level,” Herbers said. “He has the strength to be physical in the defensive zone battles and (the smarts) to eliminate players and plays from forming. But he also has a good one-timer and a canon for shot, which we take advantage of on our second power play unit.”
This season Milwaukee’s most pleasant surprise has been forward Juuso Puustinen. Prior to a season-ending injury suffered last weekend against Rockford, the Kuopio, Finland native ranked amongst his team’s leaders in goals (16) and points (32) while dressing for 55 games.
“Juuso’s an offensive guy with a great release on his shot,” Fenton said. “I wish he would use it more off the rush, but his game is to produce offense and he just has that scorers look to him.”
Not bad for a former 2006 fifth-round draft pick of the Calgary Flames, who is playing in just his first season in North America.
“I’ve been really happy here and enjoying my time in Milwaukee,” Puustinen said. “It’s a huge thing for us in this organization that we have other Finns here.”
Some of Puustinen’s success can be attributed to his comfort level with frequent Admirals linemate Jani Lajunen. The former teammates with the Blues (Espoo) of the Finnish league SM-Liiga found instant chemistry when they arrived at training camp in Wisconsin.
“We really were improving the last 10 games when I playing on the same line as Jani (prior to my injury),” Puustinen said. “But our goal is always to help our team win in whatever way we can, (whether it be) offensively or in the defensive end.”
At the beginning of the season it took time for Lajunen to adjust to the North American style of game. After not scoring his first goal until December 11th, the Helsinki, Finland native found his offensive stride in the month of February, posting three goals and three assists in 13 games.
But where Lajunen, like many of his fellow countrymen, really excels is in his two-way efforts. Nashville’s seventh-round pick in 2008 rates a plus six so far in his rookie season.
“Jani might have had a slower start offensively, but these last two months he’s been a man amongst boys at times on the ice especially in the defensive zone,” Herbers said. “When a key defensive situation arises during a game, he’s my first choice to put out on the ice.”
The final component of the Admirals Finnish quartet is goaltender Atte Engren. Playing in his first full season in North America, the Rauma, Finland native struggled in the early going, posting just three wins prior to New Years.
But like Lajunen, Engren heated up in February, doubling his win total in seven starts during the month, while posting a solid 2.08 goals against average and a .923 save percentage.
“Atte and I are really a one-two punch (who) get along great and wish success upon each other,” Milwaukee goaltender Jeremy Smith said. “It doesn’t matter who is in the net. If he’s in I wish the best for him, and I sure when I am in goal he thinks the same way.”
As the Admirals teeter on the brink of the playoffs, Milwaukee’s Finns will be relied on even more in the team’s stretch run prior to the postseason.
“Good defense leads to offense for our team and all four of those guys are in that mold of playing a hard two-way game every night,” Herbers said. “They compete, they battle and those are the type of guys you want on your team and in your organization.”