Nations Cup: 4210pts (5th)
Men: 1249 (10th)
Women: 2961 (4th)
With the retirement of Muranen, Finland lost another integral part of their team for the second year in a row (Kuitunen retired in 2009-2010); however, the break through of Lahteenmaki and Niskanen minimize the void left behind by the 2001 World Sprint Champion. On the men’s side, both Heikkinen and Jauhojaervi rebounded from poor 2009-2010 campaigns to have career years.
The men’s sprint team is one of those squads that has a ton of good talent, but hasn’t necessarily reached their potential quite yet. Strandvall (16th ranked), Jylhae (22nd), Jauhojaervi (32nd) and Paakkonen (59th) all earned at least one top 10 finish last season while Nousiainen (52nd), Heikkinen (54th), Pentsinen (64th), Vaeaenaenen (75th) all had at least one top 20 finish. Finland will be looking for more consistent top 12 results from the Strandvall and Jylhae as they are the two top sprint specialists for the nation. Jauhojaervi is a classic specialist and expect him to have a few top 10 placings in the classic sprint this year; last year he failed to qualify top 30 in any freestyle sprints.
Muranen (17th ranked) left the sport while she was still on top. She won the Finnish sprint title as well as earning two top 10 finishes. The 2001 World sprint champion was the best Finnish sprinter on the circuit last year and has left some big shoes to fill. Last year, Saarinen (19th) had a sub-par sprint season for her standards and failed to win a medal and only made the finals once. After finishing 4th in the Sprint Cup a year prior, I expect that she’ll be back near the top this season and add a few more sprint medals to her already large collection.
Anne Kylloenen (25th) was an athlete that went about business in a very quiet manner. In fact, I don’t even remember her from last season, but she impressively qualified for nine races. She will be looking to continue to improve this year and make it to more semi-finals than last year (she failed to earn a single semi-final birth last season).
Sarasoja (27th), Lahteenmaki (29th),Niskanen (40th), Peraelae (45th), Roponen (50th) also earned sprint points last season despite being revered as distance skiers.
After a nightmarish end to the 2009-2010 season and start of the 2010-2011 campaign, it looked like we would never see the form Heikkinen (17th ranked) showed when he edged out Freeman to earn 3rd place in the 15km classic at the World Champs in Liberec. However, the diminutive Finn amazed the ski world and improved on his 3rd place as he won the 15km at Holmenkollen last March. This year, Heikkinen will be looking to be a serious contender for the Tour de Ski by taking a similar path as Bauer as his sprinting chops are pretty poor.
Sami Jauhojaervi (26th) had a very tumultuous season last year. He either skied very well, or placed outside the top 40. Out of the five races he earned World Cup points, he finished inside the top 16 in all of them (5th, 6th, 9th, 16th and 12th). If he can find some more consistency this year, he should climb the distance and overall ranking considerably.
Ville Nousianen (41st) is a decent skier, but not on the same level as his aforementioned teammates. His seasonal best last year was an 8th in Oberhof. There is also Juha Lallukka who made the world take note with his performance in the 4x10km as he pulled Finland back into the medals during the third leg at the World Champs and again a couple of days later with his 8th place in the frantic 50km mass-start. Lallukka is a strict freestyle specialist so he will be limited in the amount of World Cup starts he gets this season.
Even with the retirement of Kuitunen, the Finnish women still have enough talent to throw together a very good relay team. With Saarinen (7th distance ranking), Roponen (9th), Lahteenmaki (12th) and Sarasoja (24th), the Finnish women have a decently strong relay team. Include Kerttu Niskanen who just will be entering her full season on the World Cup and the women are looking pretty good for the upcoming season. With the retirement of Muranen, I wouldn’t be surprised if Niskanen took her lead-off spot, or at least leap frogs Sarasoja as the final member of that foursome.
I also really want to highlight Lahteenmaki as she’s going to be one of the future superstars of the sport. At the age of 21-years old, she finished 5th in the 10km classic in Oslo as well as earning her first World Cup podium during the Tour de Ski (which she ultimately finished an impressive 8th) during the second stage. She also anchored Finland to a bronze in the 4x5km relay. Going into her second full year on the circuit, expect her to be very familiar name by the end of the season if she isn’t already.
The future for Finland is the present. With Lahteenmaki already making a name for herself and Niskanen winning the U23 sprint, the women look to be set for more success in the coming years. At the age of 19-years old, Maria Grundvall appears to be turning into a decent sprint specialist with a 4th place at World Juniors though she is a couple of years away from World Cup readiness.
On the men’s side, it’s Perttu Hyvarinen who was one of the standouts at World Juniors this year collecting two bronze medals in individual events and helped the Finnish relay team to a 3rd place as well.
It seems that the rebuilding years for Finland are now over. They have talent across the board for both the men and the women and with top prospects coming through the junior ranks, it’s promising times for Finland. Expect Heikkinen and Jauhojaervi to build on last year’s successes while Saarinen and Lahteenmaki will head one of the strongest Finnish women’s sides in many years.