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Finnish champs look to prove 2009 was no fluke

by Bill Meltzer
For much of its 32-year history, JYP Jyväskylä has been an also-ran in Finland’s SM-Liiga. Like most small-market teams in Finland, the team traditionally relied on inexpensive talent with an emphasis on homegrown players that rose through the ranks of its youth and junior development chain.

While the league's dynastic champions such as Tappara Tampere (1980s), TPS Turku (1990s, early 2000s) Jokerit Helsinki (1990s) and Kärpät Oulu (2000s) entered each season with expectations of capturing the Kanada-Malja (Canada Cup) championship trophy, clubs such as JYP and KalPa Kuopio had to be set more modest ambitions because they had little realistic shot of competing with the top clubs.

Located 170 miles north of Helsinki clubs HIFK and Jokerit and 90 miles northeast of Tampere teams Tappara and Ilves, the team from Jyväskylä typically found itself on the short end of the stick after earning a promotion to the top league in 1985.

JYP put an end to its anonymity last season when the team stormed to a first-place finish during the regular season and then proceeded to cap an outstanding playoff run with a four-game sweep of defending titlist Kärpät in the finals. Now the club faces the even tougher task of repeating as champions.

Assembled by General Manager Jukka Seppänen and coached by Risto Dufva, everything went right for JYP last year. By the end of the 58-game regular season, the club piled up an extremely impressive 106 points. In the quarterfinals, JYP dispatched a feisty TPS Turku team in six games and then proceeded to knock off sixth-place KalPa in the semis before taming Kärpät.

Goaltending and strong team defense were JYP’s biggest assets all season. The tandem of veteran keeper Sinuhe Wallinheimo (1.63 goals-against average, .940 save percentage) and 25-year-old Pekka Tuokkola (1.96 GAA, .927 save percentage) was one of the league’s big success stories of 2008-09. Both players will return this season.

Offensively, the team relied heavily on its top line to carry the load. Only four players reached double-digit goals. Twenty-six year-old center Jarkko Immonen (23 goals, 64 points, plus-21) led the JYP offensive attack all season, but managed just a single goal and 10 assists during the playoffs. The former New York Rangers forward and current Finnish national team regular has scored 49 regular-season goals over the last two seasons. JYP will face a tall order in replacing him after he signed with KHL club AK Bars Kazan during the offseason.

Apart from Immonen, the JYP scoring load last season was carried by former New Jersey Devils left winger Tuomas Pihlman (24 goals, 56 points in the regular season, 6 postseason goals with 5 assists) and 31-year-old veteran Antti Virtanen (22 goals, 53 points in the regular season, 6 goals and 11 points in the playoffs).  Both players will be back in the JYP fold this season, as will 32-year-old blue-line leader Jyrki Välivaara (6 goals, 22 points, plus-20 rating in the regular season, 2 postseason goals with 6 assists).

The JYP defense corps suffered a big loss during the offseason when 24-year-old former Anaheim Ducks draftee Ville Mäntymaa (7 goals, 24 points, plus-21 during the 2008-09 regular season, 3 playoff points) signed with the Frölunda Indians of Sweden's Elitserien. The void will have to be filled by the likes of former Colorado Avalanche prospect Mikko Viitanen (3 postseason goals after coming over from Lukko Rauma), ancient stalwart Kalle Koskinen, and big, aggressive Olli Malmivaara.

Adhering to the need to maintain a tight budget (an absolute necessity for most Finnish teams), the team was not able to make any big name additions to replace Immonen and Mäntymaa. But the organization has high hopes for 21-year-old defenseman Antti Jaatinen, a graduate of the team's junior development system.

Up front, the team is hoping that players such as center Juha-Pekka Hytönen (17 goals, 32 points), Ossi Louhivaara (5 playoff goals) and 28-year-old Jari Jääskeläinen (four playoff goals after scoring just four for the entire regular season) can step up to provide some scoring balance in the lineup.

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