Penguins system braces for Finnish invasion
When defenseman Olli Maatta was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this month, the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room was almost completely cleared out of Finns.
It won’t stay that way for long.
The next crop of Finnish players is on the verge of arriving, and it’s practically a tidal wave.
Six of the 41 players on the ice at the team’s annual development camp this week hail from Finland.
That doesn’t include winger Kasper Bjorkqvist, one of the organization’s top prospects who isn’t skating due to injury, recently signed free agent center Oula Palve or second-year defenseman Juuso Riikola.
The influx of Finns is no coincidence.
The reigning champions of both the World Championships and World Junior Championships, Finland is in the middle of an unprecedented run of success.
Penguins goalie development coach Andy Chiodo played parts of five seasons professionally in Finland. He said the country’s recent accolades are the result of a perfect balance between structure and creativity.
“If you look at the school system in Finland, it’s actually one of the best in the world, and that translates into their coaches,” Chiodo said. “The coaching is strong. The culture is strong. The work ethic is strong. Now, they always have a real stranglehold on their players, in a sense, where they managed them in the offseason. They all trained together. As of late, they’ve allowed them to flourish a little bit and be more open with their skill development.”
Among the crop of Finns skating at development camp this week, goalie Emil Larmi is probably the closest to the NHL.
The 22-year-old signed with the Penguins last month after leading his team, HPK, to the championship of Finland’s top pro league. He figures to start the season at No. 3 on the organization’s depth chart, but his potential for growth is strong.
“Everything I knew about this organization and what I can see now, this is the right place for me,” said Larmi, who added that he looks up to Finnish goalies Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators.
Larmi is short by modern goalie standards, checking in a 6-foot even, but he’s quick and competitive and fills the net like a much larger player.
“I eat enough. Maybe that’s why,” Larmi joked.
The Penguins have four Finnish defensemen in development camp – 2016 fifth-rounder Niclas Almari, 2017 sixth-rounder Antti Palojarvi, 2018 seventh-rounder Santeri Airola and 20-year-old tryout Roni Allen.
Almari, 21, is the furthest along in his development. He was Larmi’s championship teammate with HPK last season, emerging as a dependable option on the blue line. He’s not an offensive juggernaut, but he’s a rangy 6-1, poised with the puck and maturing physically at a rapid rate.
“I think I weighed like 165 pounds when I came here. Now, I weigh 190 or so. It’s coming along,” Almari said. “Every summer, my priority is getting more power and maybe some weight.”
Almari is a veteran of development camp, so he’s helping his fellow Finns with some tips for getting around a strange new land.
“Hold my hand and get to the plane and sit down,” Larmi joked when asked how Almari helped him fit in. “He knows how things work here. Just that there is somebody that I know, it helps.”
The lone Finnish forward at development camp is 5-9 winger Valtteri Puustinen, a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft.
Also a member of HPK’s championship squad, Puustinen’s shoot-first mentality has earned him an interesting nickname among his teammates.
“He reminds me a lot of Phil Kessel. A lot of guys call him Phil or Kessel. That’s pretty funny,” Almari said. “I don’t know about his personality. I don’t know Phil. But (Puustinen) has a good shot, quick legs and hands, hockey IQ. He’s a pretty good player.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .