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Finnish Comps - The Military Service Problem

When I reviewed Teemu Hartikainen's sophomore year, I mentioned some issues about the Finnish comps that I've been using for the last year:

Hartikainen's full season numbers look suspiciously like Jere Lehtinen's rookie season in the the SM-Liiga, and tracks ahead of Ville Nieminen, Mikko Koivu, Sami Kapanen and close to Jussi Jokinen in their second seasons in the league. His scoring pace once he left the army equates to 22 goals and 36 points for a full season -- the impact prospect range. I've since found out that the comparables chart isn't so comparable, really, but I'll have more on that next week.

The issue is the compulsory military service that all Finnish males must complete before the age of 29. From Wiki:

A universal male conscription is in place, under which all male Finnish nationals above 18 years of age serve for 6 to 12 months of armed service or 12 months of civilian (non-armed) service.

Hartikainen got off to a brutally slow start this year and in asking him about it, I found out in November that he had just wrapped up his compulsory military service in the army. From that article:

Hartikainen began his service on May 25th 2009, and for six months had been living the life of a Finnish Army regular 10 hours a day while moonlighting as a professional hockey player in his spare time.

Hartikainen's game changed significantly when his service was done and it set me off on a quest to find out if the comparables I'd been using had also completed their military service during their 19-year-old seasons.


Above is the 19-year-old NHL-bound Finnish forwards comparables chart that I've been using for the last year. I set about trying to find out how many of his comp group chose the same path, and if so, what impact did it have on their games? From the list:

Jari Kurri -released from his commitment, reasons unknown.

Saku Koivu - completed his service as an 18-year-old.

Tuomo Ruutu - completed his service as a 19-year-old while playing for HIFK Helsinki.

Olli Jokinen - released from his commitment due his health situation. He then played a full season in the SM-Liiga.

Jussi Jokinen - unknown

Ville Nieminen - completed his service as a 19-year-old while playing for Tappara Tampere.

Mikko Koivu - served his commitment as a 20-year-old.

Sami Kapanen - unknown

Jani Rita - unknown

Sean Bergenheim - completed his service as an 18-year-old.

Ville Peltonen - completed his service as an 18-year-old.

Jere Lehtinen - completed his service as a 19-year-old while playing for Kiekko-Espoo

Valtteri Filppula -unknown

Niklas Hagman - completed his service as a 19-year-old, did not play.

Others: Teemu Selanne completed his service at 18 years old. Lauri Korpikoski completed his service at 19, and most reports indicate that the service severely affected his game.

Of note - Toni Rajala has yet to complete his service and may be forced back to Finland at some point, unless he can find Olli Jokinen's doctor.

So, rather than a complete list of NHL-bound Finnish forwards, we're left with a very small group of forwards that took the same path as Hartikainen -- Ruutu, Niemenen, Lehtinen, Hagman and Korpikoski.

I've found quotes from non-forwards like Sami Lepisto, Antero Niittymaki, Riku Helenius and Tuukka Rask about their time in the military and nearly all talk about fatigue and the toll that two jobs take on a player's conditioning. This is a really interesting idea for a study - how big of an impact does this mandatory service have on a developing player's game over time?

While it's easy to slap together the math and slot a guy into his future by his scoring rates, sometimes context is crucial. Without the specific knowledge about his service, I wouldn't have looked into the comparables list, and I wouldn't have realized the source of his statistical struggles. While some Oiler fans and reporters will be disappointed in Teemu Hartikainen's second-year effort, in reality, it was a fantastic season, all things considered.