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JYP bedevils SM-Liiga

by Bill Meltzer
Coming into the 2008-09 season, few SM-Liiga followers paid much heed to JYP Jyväskyla. After all, the team has never won a Finnish championship in its 31-year history, and its fifth-place finish last season was the club's best finish in a decade.

But so far this season, JYP has been the best team in the league. After 19 games played, JYP is running away with first place, sitting 11 points ahead of the second place Espoo Blues.

A typical tiny market Finnish team, JYP relies heavily on inexpensive, homegrown talent with a sprinkling of outside recruits and a minimum of import players. This is the model that HPK Hämeenlinna used to win the championship in 2005-06. Over the last decade, however, Finnish hockey has tended be dominated by championship dynasties - Jokerit Helsinki and TPS Turku were the preeminent clubs of the mid 1990s to early 2000s and Kärpät Oulu has been the team to beat for the last 6 years. 

JYP has rarely been in the mix. They play in a small (4,180 capacity), 26-year-old arena. With a population of 85,300, Jyväskyla (pronounced YOO-vaes-koo-la) is only the ninth-largest municipality in Finland. The centrally located city is better known for its educational and science centers than for its sports teams.

Arguably, the most famous locally born hockey product is Raimo Summanen, a former NHL left winger (Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks) and two-time SM-Liiga scoring champion who went on to help win Finland's only IIHF World Championship gold medal (1995). Later, he had a controversial tenure as the head coach of the Finnish national team. But Summanen never played a game with JYP beyond the junior level.

The current JYP team is coached by Risto Dufva. The squad has hardly any household names (even in the average Finnish household), and no players in the league's top five in scoring. Instead, it boasts a solid and balanced core of forwards, stingy defense and excellent veteran goaltending. Importantly, many of the players are either products of the JYP junior system and/or have played for the SM-Liiga club for multiple years. They know the system and are comfortable with one another.

Defensively, the club has allowed just 27 goals in 19 games. Offensively, it has had 17 different players light the lamp at least once (7 of who have tallied 4 or more goals) and 5 players with double-digit goals. In goal, 36-year-old veteran Sinuhe Wallinheimo and 25-year-old Pekka Tuokkola have split time and each held opposing teams to less than 1.50 goals per game.

Wallinheimo spent 5 years in North America, the veteran never played in the NHL and is virtual unknown to all but devotees of the University of Denver, the American Hockey League or the ECHL. In European hockey circles, however, he has been considered a top goalie for years. 

A Jyväskyla native and JYP junior product, Wallinheimo's career path brought him back full circle. He's spent most of the last five seasons with his hometown club. Midseason last year, however, JYP sold Wallinheimo's contract (for a record-setting fee) to Dynamo Moscow. This season, he's back in the JYP fold.  In 11 starts, he has a 1.49 goals against average and .946 save percentage. In JYP's most recent game, Wallinheimo shut out Jokerit on the road, 1-0, stopping all 36 shots fired his way.

The emergence of Tuokkola last season (2.21 GAA, .927 save percentage) enabled JYP to pump cash into its coffers through the sale of Wallinheimo to Dynamo. So far this year, he's gotten almost half of the starts and posted a sparkling 1.32 GAA, .954 save percentage and a pair of shutouts.

JYP has 4 players with previous NHL experience, none of whom were standouts in North America. There are 3 former New Jersey Devils in left winger Tuomas Pihlman, defenseman Olli Malmivaara and Slovakian winger Jiri Bicek (the lone foreign import on an otherwise all-Finnish team). There's also former New York Rangers center Jarkko Immonen.

All perform key roles in the JYP lineup. Homegrown talent Pilhman (5 goals, 16 points) and fifth-season forward Immonen (13 assists, 16 points) share the team point-scoring lead, while the hulking Malmivaara has played 20:37 per game, racked up 45 penalty minutes and contributed a pair of goals and 9 points. Bicek has 5 goals, 3 of which have come in the club's last 6 games.

Other key players in the JYP attack include veteran homegrown center Juha-Pekka Hytönen (9 goals, 15 points, plus-13) and 31-year-old right wing Antti Virtanen (8 goals, 13 points). The former has spent all 8 of his pro seasons with JYP, the latter has been with JYP since 2000, apart from 1-season sojourn in Sweden and Austria.

The JYP blue line is anchored by the quartet of Malmivaara, former Anaheim Ducks prospect Ville Mäntymaa (5 points, plus-10), veteran Jyrki Välivaara (9 points, plus-seven) and homegrown Kalle Kaijomaa (2 goals, 7 points, plus-10). All play well over 20 minutes per game with Mäntymaa's average 26:21 leading the team and ranking among the top players in the league. Last season, the 24-year-old Kaijoma (who has never been drafted or signed by an NHL team), was considered on the league's sleepers, with 10 goals and a plus-17 rating before a rough playoff. 

JYP returns to action today with a road game against HPK Hämeenlinna, followed by a home game against the Lahti Pelicans.  The league goes on a break next week for the annual Karjala Cup Tournament. Immonen, Hytönen, Malmivaara, Välivaara will all represent Team Finland.

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