So what, exactly, can the Pittsburgh Penguins expect when they travel to Helsinki to play legendary Finnish club Jokerit? Nobody seems to know, including new Jokerit coach Glen Hanlon, who took over the club this summer.
"Our team is a big question mark," Hanlon told NHL.com. "We have nine guys over 30-years-old this year on the roster. We have a real good goalie in Juuso Riksman, who played in the St. Louis system, and we also have a few guys that haven't played in a year because of injury. It'll be interesting to see what happens."
The club did not fare well in the Nordic Trophy, a preseason competition pitting the top five Finnish and top five Swedish clubs against one another in a round-robin competition. Jokerit went 2-6-1, but allowed just five more goals than it scored.
Jokerit has opened its Finnish league regular season with two wins in its first three games, scoring eight goals in the three contests.
These results suggest that with some minor adjustments and good fortune, Jokerit could be a team that challenges for the SM Liiga title. Mike Bishai, a Canadian who played 14 NHL games with the Edmonton Oilers, believes that to be the case. That's why he left another Finnish club, Ilves, to move to Helsinki and throw his lot in with the capital city's club.
"Obviously I played in the league last year and know it pretty well," said Bishai, who picked up a pair of assists in the season's first three games. "And they are a contender, so it's a chance for me to win a championship."
Like many teams, Jokerit is filled with connections to North America and the NHL.
Hanlon coached the Washington Capitals for three seasons before being dismissed last November. Joey Tenute, from Hamilton, Ontario, is the likely first-line center as he makes his first foray into Europe. Tenute, who spent the past three seasons playing in the American Hockey League, already has a goal and an assist for Jokerit.
There are several Finnish players on Jokerit's roster with NHL ties. Riksman, the goalie, was signed by St. Louis, but left the team after just one AHL game. He has been named first star in each of Jokerit's last two games.
Defensemen Mikko Jokela (New Jersey), Mikko Kuparinen (Tampa Bay), Mikko Kalteva (Colorado), Marko Kauppinen (Philadelphia), Sami Helenius (Calgary) and Tom Koivisto (St. Louis), and forwards Petri Varis (San Jose), Jani Rita (Edmonton), Jan-Mikael Juutilainen (Chicago) and Tomi Maki (Calgary) all were drafted by NHL clubs.
Forward Janne Lahti signed with Montreal but returned to Finland this season after a middling run in the AHL last season.
Tenute, who has been around NHL-caliber players throughout his pro career – which includes a one-game NHL call-up in 2005-06 – has been impressed with the skill level of his new teammates. Clearly, many of them have skill sets that are attractive to NHL scouts, as evidenced by the number of Jokerit players that have been drafted by NHL clubs. But he also believes the Finnish game is suited to the things the Finns do well.
"The first game I felt like I was lost out there," Tenute said. "Everybody moves the puck so well and everyone in this league can skate and take advantage of the larger ice surface."
Tenute suggests that if the Penguins are expecting to find the dump-and-chase game that has become the default process for most NHL teams in Finland, they have another thing coming.
"There's not a lot of dumping the puck here," he said. "And even when there are dumps, the guys know what they are doing and where they are trying to put the puck. The hockey here is all about puck possession."
As far as the atmosphere, the Penguins can expect a scene reminiscent of last spring's Stanley Cup Final. According to everyone involved, Helsinki is counting the days until the Penguins arrive for the Oct. 2 exhibition.
"They tell me the arena was sold out in the first half-hour," Tenute said. "The excitement is obvious and the fans will be ready for the game. Our arena (Globe Arena) is gorgeous. When the Penguins come over, they will be treated top-notch by everybody. It'll be a real treat to play against these guys and it'll hopefully be a game that a lot of people will take notice of."