SM-Liiga: Finnish SM-Liiga

TO THE FINNISH: The Finnish are famous for their hockey passion and particular playing style.

The PlayNow Sports European Vacation stops in Finland today to highlight the SM-Liiga.

The SM-liiga is the top league in Finland, and like other European leagues they are bringing in some significant talent from North America.

There are 14 teams in the league, and most of them are situated in the southern part of Finland (as is everything else). The regular season is 60 games long, and the top six teams qualify for the postseason, and they compete for the Kanada-malja (their Stanley Cup).

Assat, the Finnish word for aces, is well-known for its raucous home atmosphere. Stephen Dixon is on the roster – if you are wondering who he is, he was a part of the 2005 gold medal winning junior squad for Canada, and he was a Penguins draft back back in 2003. Tapio Sammalkangas is also on the team. He isn’t a noteworthy player, but I wanted to write his name out at least once. They have made the playoffs in consecutive years.

The Espoo Blues have qualified for the playoffs in every season since 2004-05 (the year of the last NHL lockout, coincidentally). They have a strong team every year comprised mostly of Finnish-born players.

One of the most well-known teams in the league, HIFK has seen its fair share of notable alumni graduate on to star in the NHL, including Tim Thomas, Olli Jokinen, and Brian Rafalski. Sean Bergenheim and Lennart Petrell have signed lockout contracts. Captain Villie Peltonen is a legend in Finnish hockey. They won the league title in 2010-11 and have their sights set on a return to the top in 2012-13.

One of the coolest logos in sports (check it out if you don’t believe me), HPK or Hockey Playing Knights have a roster made up entirely of Finnish players save for two. They didn’t make the playoffs last year.

The New York Yankees of the SM-Liiga, Ilves has won 16 championships in their history. They have struggled in recent years though, narrowly avoiding regulation a few times. I’d be impressed if you knew a single player on their roster. Their winning ways are a thing of the past, but apparently they have settled some off-ice financial issues and are looking to get back on track.

Like HIFK, Jokerit play their home games in Helsinki. Both Teemu Selanne and Jarri Kurri got their hockey careers started in the Jokerit system. Erik Karlsson and Valtteri Filppula have joined to play during the lockout.  Other players to watch – Chicago prospect Teuvo Teravainen, Jarkko Ruutu, Detroit prospect Teemu Pulkkinen, and rugged defenseman and team captain Ossi Vaananen.

JYP captured the league championship in 2012, and they have yet to lose in regulation through four regular season games in 2012-13. They have a number of Canadian-born players, including Boston winger Rich Peverley, and former Lightning forward Eric Perrin. They’ll contend for a league title with a strong roster this season.

KalPa has two minority owners you may be familiar with – Flyers players Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. Former NHLer Sami Kapanen is an alternate captain. Predators forward Craig Smith has joined KalPa to play during the lockout. As of right now, he is the only North American on the roster.

Four straight years of playoff appearances haven’t produced a title for Karpat. San Jose defenseman Jason Demers has been their big lockout signing to date.

Lukko’s roster is filled with a much greater number of import players compared to the other teams in the SM-liiga. Frans Nielsen from the Islanders is on the team, as is fellow Dane Mikkel Boedker (who plays for Phoenix). And if two Danes weren’t enough, Dallas defenseman Philip Larsen is also on the roster. They haven’t won a championship since 1963 – or four years before the Maple Leafs.

Angelo Esposito, once the best prospect in hockey, is on the Pelicans roster. Injuries slowed his development, and he never emerged as the NHL force many had expected. Former Canuck farmhand Lee Goren also plays for the Pelicans. Antti Niemi has signed a lockout contract to tend goal as well.

SaiPa is a perennial bottom-feeder in the SM-Liiga. They haven’t made the playoffs in a long time, and have never won the league championship, either. Their roster is comprised of largely unknowns.

American forward Chris Connolly is the only non Finnish born player on the roster. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2009-10. Once one of the best teams in the league, Tappara has struggled to keep up with its competitors in recent times.

TPS is arguably the most well-known team in the league. They are also the most successful in league history, having captured the league title 11 times. Former CHL scoring star Corey Locke is on the roster, and their list of notable alumni is deep – the Koivu brothers, Jere Lehtinen, Sami Salo, Miikka Kiprusoff, Timonen, and more. They may not have a roster that stands out to the average hockey fan, and have yet to record a regulation win through five games this season.

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