BUFFALO -- Finland not only dominated the international hockey scene this season but also scored big at the 2016 NHL Draft at First Niagara Center on Friday.
For the first time in the history of the draft, three Finns were selected among the top five. Right wing Patrik Laine of Tappara in Liiga went No. 2 to the Winnipeg Jets, right wing Jesse Puljujarvi of Karpat in Liiga went No. 4 to the Edmonton Oilers, and defenseman Olli Juolevi of London in the Ontario Hockey League went No. 5 to the Vancouver Canucks.
"It's huge," Laine said. "To have three Finnish players in the top five tells something about our country and our players. It was great to see us all go early like that."
Prior to Friday, a total of five Finns had been picked in the top five: Goalie Kari Lehtonen was taken No. 2 by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2002; forward Aleksander Barkov was selected No. 2 by the Florida Panthers in 2013; the Los Angeles Kings picked defenseman Aki Berg No. 3 in 1995 and forward Olli Jokinen No. 3 in 1997; and the Philadelphia Flyers chose defenseman Joni Pitkanen No. 4 in 2002.
Video: Jets draft F Patrik Laine No. 2
Finland's feat at the draft capped a season in which it won the gold medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in January and the 2016 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in April. It also won silver at the 2016 IIHF World Championship in May.
Finland native Teemu Selanne spent four seasons with the original Jets after they selected him in the first round (No. 10) of the 1988 draft. The impact Selanne had on Winnipeg certainly isn't lost on Laine.
"Of course Teemu was a big player in Finland when I was a kid, and he still is," Laine said. "I think everyone loved him in Winnipeg and now I want to follow in his footsteps."
Goran Stubb, the NHL Director of European Scouting, was happy to see Finland represented at the top of the draft.
"Hockey people in Finland have worked very hard for the last 50 years in order to improve their players and make the sport bigger," Stubb said. "As late as 1976, there were only 12 indoor rinks in Finland and now there are approximately 260. Ice hockey today in Finland is by far the most popular sport and every young boy or girl wants to be a hockey player. Guys like Jari Kurri, Selanne and Mikko Koivu are their idols."
Center Henrik Borgstrom was the fourth and final Finn selected in the first round; the Florida Panthers took him at No. 23.
Video: Oilers draft F Jesse Puljujarvi No. 4
Many expected Puljujarvi to be chosen third by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who instead selected Pierre-Luc Dubois of Cape Breton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The pick didn't surprise Puljujarvi, who led all players at the World Junior Championship with 12 assists and 17 points in seven games to win most valuable player.
"It was just very nice to be drafted; Edmonton is a nice place and they play good hockey," Puljujarvi said. "I wasn't too surprised because I knew they liked me. Now it's back to training in the summer. I need to get more power and be ready to play."
Puljujarvi and Juolevi likely will see plenty of each other in the coming NHL seasons after each was drafted by a Pacific Division team.
"It was crazy. Patrik was already gone because he went second, and then I saw Jesse and congratulated him," Juolevi said. "Good to see those Finnish guys go. I was celebrating that Jesse went fourth overall and saying that was great and how he'll be able to play with McDavid, and then I hear my name. I knew I had to get off the phone and go up there myself."
Juolevi had been saying for the past month that he felt he was the best defenseman in the draft.
"I haven't proved it yet because this is just the draft," Juolevi said. "You never know who makes the best career. I want to be that guy. I know that [Mikhail] Sergachev and [Jakob] Chychrun are great guys and all teams are going to have great Ds when they get those guys. I'm also happy for those guys. We all boosted each other through the year."
Video: Canucks draft D Olli Juolevi No. 5
Stubb said a change in the Finnish coaching philosophy when developing players ages 15 to 20 has been integral in Finland's success on the international stage and in terms of the NHL Draft.
"One reason Finland is producing so many top players and always competing for a medal at various IIHF events is because [in 2009] the hockey people had a big meeting where they decided to work more on individual skills," Stubb said. "In the meeting, they had managers, coaches, players and NHL scouts."
Laine, Puljujarvi and Juolevi each agreed.
"I think the coaches are focusing more on every player, and there are more skills," Laine said. "I have to be proud of the players from my country. They are very good guys and players, and they deserve to be selected in the top five. It's a huge thing for our country. It was an amazing moment."