While Finnish hockey fans got caught up in the excitement of seeing native sons Ville Koistinen
and Antti Niemi
take turns starring for their teams at the 2009 NHL Compuware Premiere Helsinki series, the teams in Finland's SM-Liiga are already nearly a month into the 2009-10 regular season.
So far, things in the standings look far different than what is normally the case.
Lukko Rauma, typically a fair to middling team, has been dominant through its first eight games. Coming off a season in which the club missed the playoffs by a scant two points, Lukko has been dominant through its first nine games. The club has won eight times and sits five points ahead of second-place TPS Turku.
TPS, a perennial contender and frequent champion of 1990s to early 2000s, had fallen on hard times in recent years. KalPa Kuopio, often one of the league's weak sisters, experienced a resurgence last year when its majority owner, Sami Kapanen
, retired from the NHL to play for the team. The upswing has continued so far this season, with the club in third place through 10 games. TPS and KalPa each have 10 points but the team from Turku has a game in hand.
Meanwhile, long-time league powerhouse Karpat Oulu has been depleted and seemingly demoralized. The team has won just one of its first eight games in regulation and is mired in last place of the 14-team circuit. Defending champion JYP Jyvaskyla is in 12th place, while frequent contender Espoo Blues are in 13th place.
Teams throughout the Finnish league have been downsizing their rosters, in terms of the number of high-priced import players. Not surprisingly, this is for economic reasons. Most teams in SM-Liiga now feature rosters dominated by native players and supplemented by lower-priced import talent.
Many established Finnish players who've recently returned to Europe from the NHL have opted to play in Russia's KHL or Switzerland's National League because the salaries are higher than SM-Liiga.
The play of Lukko has been SM-Liiga's most pleasant surprise so far this season. Founded in 1936, the team's lone championship came 46 years ago during the 1962-63 season. But the crowds at its 39-year-old home building, DNA Arena (known for most of its history as Aijansuo Arena), have had plenty to cheer about so far this season.
It all starts with the goaltending and team leadership.
Goalie Petri Vehanen has been virtually unbeatable in the early going, partially of his own doing and partially because head coach Rauli Urama's team has been committed to defense. Vehanen, soon to be 32, has taken care of the rest, posting a sterling 1.36 goals-against average and .949 save percentage with a pair of shutouts. Only the KalPa Kuopio duo of former New Jersey Devils
first-round pick Ari Ahonen
(1.42 GAA, .939 save percentage in seven starts) and Mika Jarvinen (0.96 GAA, .963 save percentage, one shutout in three starts) have done better.
The acknowledged leader of the Lukko locker room is former NHL player Antti Laaksonen
. The 36-year-old left winger now has more than 1,000 games worth of combined professional and international experience. Coming off a 17-goal, 40-point campaign in his first year with Lukko, he's the player most likely to take charge. Not surprisingly, he's been bestowed the captain's "C" on his uniform.
At the other end of the spectrum is 22-year-old rising star Janne Keranen. Recruited away from HIFK Helsinki, the forward is ninth in the league scoring race so far this season with 10 points, including 3 goals.
There are four non-Finns on the Lukko roster this season. Former Vancouver Canucks
prospect Justin Morrison ranks fourth in the league with 12 points (4 goals). Now 30 years old, Morrison has played all around Europe during the past five seasons, including stops with Sweden's Elitserien, SM-Liiga with Lukko, the Swiss national league, the KHL and Germany's DEL. His return to Lukko this year has been a major boon to an otherwise modest collection of forwards.
American defenseman Charlie Cook has also been a key contributor. Now in his second season with Lukko, and fourth in SM-Liiga, the Cornell University graduate and former Philadelphia Phantoms (AHL) blueliner leads all defensemen in the league with 10 points. He's already tallied 3 power-play goals.
New recruit Kurtis McLean
got into four NHL games with the New York Islanders
last season after spending parts of five seasons in the North American minor leagues. The 29-year-old center has scored 2 goals and added 8 assists in his first nine games. The other non-Finn in Lukko's lineup is Czech right winger Jakub Petruzalek
. The 24-year-old, who suited up for a pair of NHL games last year for the Carolina Hurricanes
, has emerged as a key sniper for Lukko, with 5 goals in the early going of this season.
On a league-wide basis, the top two scorers are KalPa linemates Toumas Kiiskinen (6 goals, 14 points) and Kalle Sahlsted (11 assists, 13 points). The top goal-scorer to date is Tappara Tampere's Jonas Enlund
(7 goals) while his linemate Jori Lehtera
(12 assists, 13 points) is the top setup man.
Tappara, which defeated the Florida Panthers
via shootout in an exhibition game last week, is in seventh place in SM-Liiga with 15 points.