When the Winnipeg Jets play host to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night, the meeting will be more than a showcase of the Central Division leader against the league’s top-scoring line. It will be a glimpse of a decade-long transformation of Finnish hockey.
Patrik Laine of Winnipeg, 20, and Mikko Rantanen of Colorado, 22, have spent much of their young N.H.L. careers among the league leaders in scoring, gaining a spotlight for a golden generation from Finland, one of the smallest, and most successful, hockey-playing nations.
“That age group in Finland, there must be something in the water or they’re feeding them the right things up there,” said the Winnipeg captain, Blake Wheeler.
Seven players from Finland, a country of 5.5 million, have been top 10 draft picks since 2013, and nearly all of them are playing significant roles on their N.H.L. teams.
Laine, the No. 2 pick in 2016, almost immediately became the most recognizable face in Finnish hockey since Teemu Selanne. Despite some lean scoring stretches this season, Laine has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past three seasons. In November, he scored five goals on five shots in a game against the St. Louis Blues and he became the fourth-youngest player to reach 100 career goals.
The highlight of that month for Laine was the N.H.L’s return to Finland, where he notched a hat trick and then another goal in a pair of games in Helsinki against a fellow Finn, Aleksander Barkov, and the rest of the Florida Panthers.
“His shooting is a work of art,” said Sami Salo, a former N.H.L. defenseman who now coaches in Finland. “It doesn’t matter if the puck comes at a bad angle, he always seem to get a perfect shot any time.”
Rantanen, the No. 10 pick in 2015, has transformed himself into one of the league’s savviest and most imaginative playmakers. With 75 points, Rantanen is fourth in the N.H.L. in scoring and has combined with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog to compile 206 points, tied with Calgary’s top line for the most of any trio.
“He can find the passing lane even though there’s five sticks in the way,” Laine said of Rantanen, with whom he has trained for the past three summers. “He’s going to find a way. He’s also one of the strongest players that age that I’ve ever seen.”
Two Finnish players, Selanne and Jari Kurri, have led the N.H.L. in goals during a regular season, and both are in the Hall of Fame. But behind Selanne and Kurri in career points per game by Finnish players are four active members of the N.H.L., all of them under 25. They are Laine, Rantanen, Barkov and Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Young Finnish defensemen are also making a mark. Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen, the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft, dominated in Finland as a teenager and was an All-Star last month in his first
N.H.L. season. He has followed a path similar to that of Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, selected eighth in 2013.
Finland’s rise is evident in international play, too. In January, the Finns earned the gold medal at the world junior championship for the third time in six years, after winning it only twice in the 40 years before this run.
“If you win three times in six years, that tells you something,” said Rantanen, who played on the 2016 junior champions with Laine, Aho and Toronto Maple Leafs winger Kasperi Kapanen. “It’s not only luck or just one good tournament. In Finnish coaching, the level is going higher and higher. There are a lot of good, young coaches coming, and I think the biggest thing is that the coaches are trying to concentrate on individuals more than five or 10 years ago.”
Neither the national team’s success nor its players’ prolific totals in the N.H.L. are coincidental. Beginning in 2009, Finnish officials made considerable investments and sweeping changes that gave greater continuity to player development. In 2014, after a disastrous under-18 world championship tournament that included a 10-0 loss to its archrival Sweden, the Finnish federation held a wide-ranging summit that emphasized individual skills like skating, puck-handling, shooting, balance and strength training.
“They teach us a lot about playing together, but when we’re playing together, we need all players to have good individual skills, especially skating,” said Barkov, 23, an elite two-way player who averages a point per game. “Hockey is getting a lot faster and more skilled.”
Kurri, a former general manager of the national program, described the old model for success.
“If we didn’t have the most skilled players, we had to be a good as a team,” he said. “That’s how we could have success, for many many years. That and good goaltending, we always had a good goalie behind us.”
Finland did produce a generation of outstanding goalies, including winners of the Stanley Cup and the Vezina Trophy like Miikka Kiprusoff, Antti Niemi and Tuukka Rask. But now netminders have taken a back seat to skaters.
Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, 36, said that the emphasis on individual skills and the provocation of players’ imaginations through exposure to the N.H.L. has produced the most abundant and diverse crop of Finns ever to emerge in pro hockey.
“The Finnish player type used to be the very reliable, solid, two-way player who had a very successful career, maybe on lower lines,” said Rinne, who won the Vezina Trophy last season. “Now we have these individuals coming up with amazing skill, and I feel like there’s something to that exposure and kids being able to see, copy and try on their own.”
The mind-set is changing for defensemen, too, as Heiskanen and Ristolainen have not only logged big minutes but have also played with flair.
“Defensemen were kind of the players nobody wanted to be because you had to defend,” Salo said. “You can’t score really, you have to stay back. I see a big change in the mind of youngsters who are coming up. They are fearless with the puck; they want to score all the time.”
Jere Lehtinen, a former Dallas Stars right wing and the general manager of Finland’s national team, said that each win, each medal and each successful Finnish N.H.L. player reinforces belief and raises expectations for successive generations. His generation, which won medals at the Olympics and world championships, instilled confidence that games were winnable regardless of opponent, circumstance or score.
“Nowadays these guys, these kids coming in, they just come and they know they can win,” Lehtinen said. “They don’t hesitate at all, they’re not scared of losing.”
The Finnish pipeline shows no signs of drying up. Right wing Kaapo Kakko is expected to be a top 5 pick in the coming draft in June.
“It has taken a long, long time until the next wave of really good Finnish players,” Rinne said. “Now we are there, and I feel like every year there are new guys popping up. I’m very excited to watch those guys.”