PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- Six months before the start of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, Finland is feeling confident.
"It's going to be a great tournament for us in Buffalo because we have a really good team this year," defenseman Urho Vaakanainen said. "I think we have a great chance to win the whole tournament, so it's pretty exciting."
With the potential to have five NHL first-round draft picks among its top six defensemen, there's a reason for that confidence.
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Vaakanainen (No. 18, Boston Bruins) is one of three players picked in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft playing for Finland this week at the World Junior Summer Showcase, along with Juuso Valimaki (No. 16, Calgary Flames) and Henri Jokiharju (No. 29, Chicago Blackhawks).
Finland also could have Miro Heiskanen (Dallas Stars), the third pick of the 2017 draft, and Olli Juolevi (Vancouver Canucks), the No. 5 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, for the 2018 WJC. Neither is taking part in the Summer Showcase.
"It's not normal for Finnish hockey to have that many first rounders," Valimaki said. "Really good for Finnish hockey."
There's a lot of work to do after the 2017 WJC. Finland went 1-3 in the preliminary round and had to defeat Latvia in the best-of-3 relegation round to remain at the top tier of the World Junior Championship. Finland also changed coaches after losing its first three preliminary-round games, with Jussi Ahokas replacing Jukka Rautakorpi.
Ahokas coached most of the players at the Summer Showcase at under-16, under-17 and under-18 international tournaments, including a gold medal victory at the 2016 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. That team included Vaakanainen, Jokiharju, Valimaki and Heiskanen.
"Everyone knows him well and everyone likes him," Vaakanainen said. "He brings good energy to the team. The style we play is pretty much different from last year. We play fast hockey, end-to-end aggressive playing style. … We have a good feeling in our team. Everyone's enjoying the hockey right now. Everyone likes to be in this team and they're more relaxed."
Ahokas said the disappointment of the 2017 World Juniors hasn't been a topic during the Summer Showcase. His focus is on finding things that could work for the 2018 tournament.
One step in that process could be Valimaki and Vaakanainen as a pair, which they were Saturday in a 4-2 loss to USA White on Sunday.
"I think we're both smart players," Valimaki said. "We can read if the other guy is going, the other guy is staying back. I think it'll work out good."
They were split up against USA Blue on Sunday, with Vaakanainen scratched so the coaching staff could see other players. Valimaki started the game with Jokiharju but finished with Robin Salo (New York Islanders) after Jokiharju sustained an injury during the first period.
Ahokas said through the early part of the Summer Showcase the defense position has emerged as an area of strength.
"I think our defense is going to be good and it's going to get developed and there's still Juolevi and Heiskanen also who are not here right now," Ahokas said. "But that's a good thing for us, that we have that kind of defense."
There are a number of other players that were selected outside the first round that will be competing for roster spots, among them Salo, Kasper Kotkansalo (Detroit Red Wings), Markus Niemelainen (Edmonton Oilers) and Eemeli Rasanen (Toronto Maple Leafs). So many highly skilled players will make roster spots tough to come by, but the players are ready for the challenge.
"Good to have some healthy competition," Valimaki said. "[Defense] is obviously a big strength for our team. We'll try to build on that."