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Faltering Finland should feel familiar for Canucks fans

Is anyone else getting visions of Virtanen and Canada?
Olli Juolevi Finland U20

With a loss to Sweden in their third game of the World Junior Championship, Finland’s fate is out of their hands. If Switzerland beats Denmark today, whether in regulation or overtime, Finland’s final game of the tournament won’t matter; they’ll finish last in Group A and play in the relegation round against either Latvia or Slovakia.

It’s absolutely stunning to see a team go from gold medal greatness to utter disaster in just one year, but for Canucks fans, this feels familiar. For the second straight year, a Canucks prospect is leading a team to World Junior disappointment.

This year, it’s Olli Juolevi, the Canucks’ fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft and the captain of Finland. Last year, it was Jake Virtanen, the sixth overall pick in 2014, with Team Canada. Juolevi and Virtanen now have something else in common besides their Finnish heritage.

Finland’s tournament started with a disappointing loss to the Czech Republic, a disappointing, if understandable, result. But in their second game, they lost in regulation to the underdog Danes, a stunning and, in Juolevi’s words, “embarassing” loss.

That Denmark went on to upset the Czech Republic as well is small consolation.

On Thursday, Finland played their best game of the tournament, but it was enough against the powerhouse Swedes, who had the finish Finland lacked. Despite out-shooting Sweden 29-20 and with numerous scoring chances around the Swedish crease, they still lost 3-1.

Juolevi finally picked up his first point of the tournament, picking up the second assist on Finland’s lone goal, a power play marker. He had the second highest ice time in the game, playing 22:39 after playing under 20 minutes in the first two games, and fired three shots on net.

He was on the ice for Sweden’s game-winning goal, but could only watch as Julius Nattinen stopped skating and let Alex Nylander get to the front of the net unhindered. It certainly wasn’t the only time Juolevi was let down by his teammates.

Last year, Juolevi led all defencemen with nine points, all assists. This year, his passes have been just as good, but they’ve landed on less talented sticks.

The gold medal team was led up front by Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, and Jesse Puljujarvi. This year, they’re all in the NHL and their absence has left Finland with limited offensive firepower.

The story was similar for Canada last year. Canada’s 2015 World Junior team was led in scoring by Sam Reinhart, Nic Petan, Connor McDavid, Max Domi, Curtis Lazar, Anthony Duclair, and Robby Fabbri. In 2016, all of them were in the NHL.

That left Virtanen as one of the go-to forwards for Canada, one of just four returning players from the 2015 team. Heading into the tournament, he was expected to provide “leadership and experience” as well as goalscoring.

Instead, he managed just one point, an assist, and his lack of discipline played a key role in Canada’s quarterfinal loss to Finland that ended 17 straight trips to the semifinals.

While Canada didn’t end up in the relegation round, they managed just one regulation win in the round robin and needed a shootout to beat Switzerland. That put them in position to lose to Juolevi and Finland, the eventual gold medalists.

It’s not a perfect parallel. Virtanen was legitimately disappointing last year, while Juolevi has played well and you have to wonder if Finland would be doing better with him getting more minutes and playing on the top power play unit. There’s also only so much he can do as a defenceman without better talent up front.

Canada’s struggles last year can’t be pinned solely on Virtanen either, as their defence and goaltending struggled mightily.

But it’s still troubling that the Canucks’ two highest picks since the Sedins didn’t step up more on the biggest stage.