Finland Team Preview

When I think Finland I think snow, and reindeer, and Kontiolahti. I wish I was kidding but biathlon has so invaded by head that Kontiolahti is one of the top three things I think of when I think of the country of Finland. I’m sure its an amazing country. My parents loved their time in Helsinki. And I know Chad Salmela is a huge fan so that’s all I need to know. But for me, the nation is completely intertwined with biathlon.

It’s not a bad connection either. Kaisa Makarainen with 27 wins, 85 podiums, and 6 World Championship medals, and 3 overall Crystal Globes is one of the greatest to ever do it. Since she retired just two years ago Finland has been in a bit of transition. At least on the men’s side it looks like they might be finding their way now though.

Men

Unlike the women with Kaisa Makarainen there is no great monument of biathlon success for the Finnish men. So now is the time to make it happen. Right now it looks like Tero Seppala is making an effort to be that guy. But let’s check the team out!

Quota: 5 Athletes to start

World Cup Level

Tero Seppala (26)

Last year Tero Seppala took the next step forward and became the new face of Finnish biathlon. Was he winning medals and crystal globes like Makarainen? No, but it was certainly a terrific step forward. Seppala has been on a gradual upward progression for the last five seasons and has now reached a level that he had never reached on Junior or IBU levels.

If you look at the graph above you can see that it really has been a slow and steady progression for Seppala. Last year brought his greatest successes with five top 10s including two 5th place finishes marking a new career best. In doing so he relied on new career bests in both skiing and shooting as well as the fastest shooting of his career. I mean what else can you ask for?

Prone %Standing %Total %Shooting Time
2017-20188071.775.931.8
2018-201980.872.576.731.8
2019-202079.274.676.928.2
2020-202183.176.379.729.6
2021-202288788328.4

Well truth be told, I think he can be better this year. His standing shooting at just 78% and 10 full percentage points behind his prone shooting is the obvious place to improve. If he can get that to maybe 81-82% and his overall shooting to closer to 86% he’s now entering the final tier of biathlon. He would absolutely be in the range of a top 5-10 overall finish. I don’t think it would be completely out of the realm of possibility either.

Olli Hiidensalo (31)

Hiidensalo might be five years older than Seppala, but he too showed out to the toon of a new career best overall finish of 31st. And it wasn’t a small improvement either. Before that his best overall finish was 63rd. Hiidensalo is proving once again that a biathletes’ peak lasts from mid to late 20s all the way through the early to mid 30s. He’s just chosen the latter half of that range to find his peak.

The last two seasons Hiidensalo has found a ski form that he hasn’t seen since the 2016-2017 season. Sure he’s not blowing anybody off the course but he’s also not embarrassing himself out their either. Consistent top 30 course time ranks is good! He’s paired that with shooting that is as good as he’s ever had in his career. Pair those two things with shooting times that are within a half second of his best and that’s the makings of a career season.

Prone %Standing %Total %Shooting Time
2017-201889.671.380.430.8
2018-201987.178.882.931.4
2019-202087.561.374.430.7
2020-2021806572.532
2021-202284.277.580.831.8

Can Hiidensalo keep it up? Truthfully only time will tell. But we’ve seen many of the top biathletes continue their peaks into their early to mid 30’s. Hiidensalo isn’t exactly a “top” biathlete but why not? He’s got a chance to at the very least repeat this again this season.

Filling out the World Cup Roster

With two spots secured and three more spots to go that means there are going to be plenty of World Cup starts available this year. There is a long list of men who are going to be pushing for those spots. You’re going to notice a consistent feature here. Mostly this is a group of guys who are decent, not great, but decent, at shooting. They mostly all have a lot of work to do on the skis. Maybe they can do it together?

Jaako Ranta (25)

Just two men into the roster and already we’re nearly out of men with significant World Cup experience. Ranta spent two mostly full seasons on the World Cup but those were in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 and then parts of the last two. Those two seasons weren’t full of successes. His overall ranks were nonexistent because he failed to secure a point. He was young and probably not ready for it yet. He did show off what has become his calling card though, tremendously fast shooting.

The last two years though he’s started to look a little more comfortable. After failing to break the top 60 for those two seasons he’s had seven top 60s since then with a career high of 38th which he has accomplished twice. However on the IBU Cup he’s really starting to perform. Last season on the IBU Cup he was top 30 all but two races.

He’s shown steady improvements across the board. Well maybe not in shooting time. Hard to get much faster than the he already was. His shooting accuracy has come up though. The last two seasons he’s averaged 86% overall shooting on the IBU Cup and 83% on the World Cup. His skiing has improved just a touch as well.

Ranta is not a finished product. At least he can’t be if he wants to be a consistent high finisher on the World Cup. Either skiing, or shooting, or both need to make a solid improvement. The shooting does appear to be on the rise. Hiidensalo has shown its never too late for ski improvement to come. Hopefully Ranta continues to show the improvements he was showing at the end of last season.

Otto Invenius (21)

Otto Invenius is viewed as the next great hope for Finnish biathlon. He’s shown more promise than anybody else has recently, including Tero Seppala before his climb to his current high position. Invenius put this potential on display for all to see last year at both the Junior European and the Junior Worlds with three silver medals, a 5th place, an 11th and a 15th.

This summer while training he took a major fall which disrupted his training so it will remain to be seen how well he’s able to come into the season. Regardless it doesn’t appear to have affected his overall outlook.

Invenius profiles as an extremely good skier. Last year on the Junior level every one of his course ranks was higher than 11th. His shooting though could still use some improvements. Last year on the Juniors level was the first year he reached over 80% in his career on any level. The most reassuring part of this improvement though was that it was seen in both prone and standing shooting indicating more likely to be a true improvement in his shooting vs. random small sample size.

If that was a true improvement in his shooting it is possible that Otto Ivenius is truly the next great hope for Finnish biathlon. It is possible he could even end up with ranks higher than what we are seeing with Tero Seppala right now. That might be a lot of pressure but he’s got that kind of talent. Let’s hope we see a fully healthy Invenius ready to compete right away!

Joni Mustonen (28)

Joni Mustonen only started racing on the IBU circuits just four years ago meaning he never raced on the Juniors level. On the IBU Cup those four years have shown a steady improvement. Last seasons 53rd overall finish was easily his best of the year.

He’s had a steadily improving ski ranks each of those four seasons. Last year, outside of a five race dip, he was top 20 in course time ranks every single race. By far his fastest season of his career. That’s where the good news comes to an end. His shooting, while improving, remains subpar at best. His last two years, the best shooting of his career, he had total shooting percentages of 64.5% and 63.8%. Just not great.

I won’t spend anymore time on this one. Mustonen has made the progress he wanted to see on the skis. Now he needs to find it on the range. It’s as simple as that.

Otto-Eemil Karvinen (23)

While still young, Otto-Eemil Karvinen has already spent most of the last four seasons racing on the IBU Cup. When most guys would be getting the feet wet with Juniors racing Karvinen really just jumped right into the IBU Cup with only minimal Juniors appearances scattered over the last few years.

So far he has had some inconsistent finishes. When you look at the trendline over the last 2-3 years though, it really seems to be pointing in the right direction. He hit the bottom with a 108th place finish to start the 2020-2021 campaign. Since then he’s slowly put it back together. Last season ended with a 40th place finish, his highest since 2019. It’s not the absolute best but its progress.

The progress came entirely on the backs of his shooting skills. While his ski ranks continue to 60th or lower, his shooting percentages have been steadily climbing over the last 4 years from an average around 70% to now right around 80%. His shooting times have remained right around 28 seconds nearly every race as well so no slacking there. It’s hard to tell what will be next. He’s been showing improvements and more will be required. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Ville-Valtteri Karvinen (20)

Otto’s younger brother, Ville-Valtteri Karvinen has just 10 total races so far in his career. So far though he’s showing as much if not more potential than almost anybody else in this category. Over the last two seasons he’s two top 25 finishes on the IBU Cup. In his five total IBU Cup starts he’s never finished worse than 47th. Amazingly his IBU Cup finishes are almost all better than his Juniors finishes.

The sample size is very small. Right now though he’s showing to have better ski potential than anybody else in this category Over the last year on the IBU Cup his course ranks were starting to reach up into the 20’s and 30s. Meanwhile in those 5 races he’s shooting in the low 80% range. Now that may be a little more than we should expect. On the Juniors level he only shot better than 80% in one single race.

All of this tells me that I’m very hopeful but I’m not going to hold my breath. It is just 10 total races. But Ville-Valtteri Karvinen has potential. This year I’m going to hope that he gets more experience and keeps growing. I’m really hopeful that what we saw last year on the IBU Cup was the real deal because that would be a huge deal for Finnish biathlon.

Patrik Kuuttinen (22)

Last season Patrik Kuuttinen made his first forays off of the Juniors and into the IBU Cup world. As a Junior he wasn’t loaded with success. He has one 18th place finish and the rest were between the 40s and 70s. Last year though on the IBU Cup things were pointing upward. He even already scored his first career top 40 on the IBU Cup. He also finished above 55th in 4 of his last 5 races. These are small gains but they something to note.

That little improvement he made last year looks like it was mostly related to a little more consistency with his shooting. In that good stretch he went 5 straight races shooting 85-90%. Maybe that isn’t replicable as the rest of his career is primarily around the 80% mark but it was certainly a positive marker. With ski ranks in the 50-70 range that was certainly something he needed to do.

Kuuttinen has two major things that he needs to do last year. First he needs to consolidate the shooting gains. He doesn’t need to be a 90% shooter, but consistently 85% would be tremendous for his goals. Secondly he needs to find a way to start climbing with the skis.

Juniors:

Arttu Heikkinen (18)

I mentioned much earlier Otto Invenius as having such exceptionally high potential for the Finnish team. Well just 18 years old and it is possible that Arttu Heikkinen could be another one. He really started to hit his stride last year, his third year of Juniors racing. He ended the season with four straight top 10s which included a gold and a bronze at Youth Worlds.

Heikkinen has turned himself into a very good skier. He’s been improving in ski form throughout the last three years and ended up reaching top 5 course time ranks to end the year, not coincidentally when he has his best racing. His shooting is solid in the low 80’s. For a Junior not bad but could certainly improve. Heikkinen has good potential and is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Jonni Mukkala (18)

18 year old Jonni Mukkala has eight total races across both Juniors and IBU Cup racing. We shouldn’t go crazy with this but he has been showing top 20 course times as a Juniors which is definitely worth nothing. Let’s see how he does the next couple of years. He could definitely be a name to check on on the Juniors level.

Women

The women find themselves in a state of flux. Kaisa Makarainen has moved on and Mari Eder is getting a little long in the tooth. So are we seeing the next generation of the Finnish women establishing themselves? Let’s find out.

Mari Eder (34)

Ever since the retirement of Kaisa Makarainen two seasons ago Mari Eder has become the de facto leader of the Finnish women. Although it doesn’t appear as if it will be a very long reign. At age 34 she has already toyed with retirement and we didn’t know for sure that she was coming back until just the last few weeks. Thankfully for us as fans she does appear to be returning for at least one last go around!

Over her last four seasons (Eder missed the 2018-2019 season) she’s managed to hold steady even as she’s become one of the most “experienced” women on the World Cup circuit to put it nicely. Truthfully she hasn’t seen much deterioration of her abilities yet. Just look at those ski ranks. She’s managed to stay in the top 15 women on the top level of biathlon each season. Her shooting, which has never been her strong shoot has seen only a small drop off from her career peaks.

Prone %Standing %Total %Shooting Time
2017-20188474.479.236.5
2019-202075.772.173.937
2020-20218569.277.136.8
2021-20227971.675.336.8

So can we expect this to continue for Eder even into a season in which she is going to turn 35? At some point we have to start to see her ski speed decay at least a little bit right? This isn’t like Simon Eder who seemingly has been able to continue on his current level for years longer than most biathletes could. But when your strong suit is skiing eventually time has to catch up with you. My guess we’ll see one of two things. Either she is going to be motivated for what might be her retirement year and she will attack every race with extra e energy. Somewhat like we saw with Erik Lesser at the end of last year. If that’s the case she might maintain or even have a slight surge. Or she might finally start to wear down and with her low shooting to start with she might see significant collapse in performance. I’m going to hope for and predict she goes out fighting!

Suvi Minkkinen (27)

When Mari Eder does finally decide to retire, Suvi Minkkinen appears to be ready to jump right in as the new leader of the Finns. Over the last four years her season ending rank has shot up from 104 (last) up to 43rd last season. Not quite up to Eder’s level but at her rate of improvement she will be by the end of next season!

Over the last few years she has shown across the board improvements. Just look at that shooting improvement right? With Seppala and Minkkinen both making such huge improvements in shooting it might be worth looking at what the Finns are doing in their shooting drills. Total shooting percentage of 92% and a shooting time under 29 seconds is really dang good.

Prone %Standing %Total %Shooting Time
2017-201886.783.38529.2
2018-20199581.788.328
2019-202081.376.378.829.2
2020-202186.281.583.828.4
2021-202294.489.69229.1

It hasn’t just been her shooting though. The skiing has started to rise out of the bottom of the rankings. It’s not an overwhelming difference but when you are able to go from course ranks in the 70-80’s up to the 30-40’s it takes you from just a good shooter to a good shooter who can compete. As a result last season she not only set a new career high of 18th but also had 9 or her best 11 career finishes last year. Most of those were in the second half of the season too!

Suvi Minkkinen is an athlete distinctly on the rise. Everything about her career to date and especially the last two years says that this is an athlete to watch. She hasn’t received the same attention as some other risers like Jessica Jislová or Tero Seppala but I bet it’s just a matter of time. I see no reason to believe that her career won’t continue on the upward trajectory this season. Top 20 overall finish incoming? Let’s go!!!

Who Else?

Mari Eder and Suvi Minkkinen appear to be locked in right now at the top for the Finnish women. Who else is going to join them at the start line for Sprints and Individual? And who is going to round out the relays? Well here are the candidates…

Erika Janka (27)

Erika Janka at 27 has not quite found the secret sauce that Suvi Minkkinen discovered. Over the last two seasons since the moved over to the World Cup full time she has a career best of 46th. The vast majority of her World Cup finishes are in the 70-100 range. That’s a little bit in contrast with her IBU Cup finishes which were quite consistent in the 30’s with many clustered just above and below that range.

When comparing her IBU Cup races vs her World Cup racing you can’t really see where the major differences are. Her shooting is almost exactly the same. Total shooting in the low 80’s with really really good prone shooting and mediocre at best standing shooting. For example on the World Cup last year she shot 81.4% overall with a breakdown of 94.3% prone and 68.6% standing. That’s a huge delta and just a HUGE area for improvement.

Meanwhile skiing remains a major area for improvement, at least on the World Cup. At least on the IBU Cup she was having course time ranks in the 30-50 range. On the World Cup though she’s mostly been in the 70-100’s. That’s maybe a little bit of a step backwards? It’s hard to do a direct comparison but that feels appropriate.

So should we expect her to explode like Minkkinen and Seppala? Well if you want to take the optimistic view…well she’s got enormous areas to improve. It wouldn’t take very big improvements in either skiing or standing shooting to lead to at least mildly significant improved finishes. The realistic view is that we probably shouldn’t expect it because over the last four years of racing we haven’t seen any indication of it. However her prone shooting being so good may give her a leg up for the World Cup squad as she has potential at least to help. Hope is free.

Venla Lehtonen (27)

Venla Lehtonen is yet another 27 year old Finnish biathlete. It’s actually remarkable how many of them there are isn’t it? Over the last few seasons she has vacillated between the World Cup and the IBU Cup. She seems to be successful enough on the IBU that she should get the opportunity on the World Cup. But she hasn’t quite grabbed the ring when she gets the World Cup chances.

Let’s look at last year for example. When on the IBU Cup she basically a top 35 every time she raced. Her ski ranks were actually high including 4 in the top 36 and one in the top 10. Shooting was usually 80% or above.

She then gets an opportunity on the World Cup and struggled to break the top 90. That’s not entirely out of the realm of her normal where she is either the 50’s or down below 70th. Her course time ranks were all below 60th and she shot 80% or under. After just a handful of races her season was over. I tried to find out if there was an injury but honestly I couldn’t see anything.

Her stats on the World Cup are generally all in decline the last few years. Ski ranks for her peaked in her first opportunity on the World Cup and lower every subsequent year. Shooting has been stuck around 75% and hasn’t shown much of a bump one way or the other. The one thing improving is her shooting times which has been getting faster but hasn’t had an impact on her racing. I have to be honest it really doesn’t look like a breakthrough is around the corner that maybe all she needed was new coaches?

Sanna Laari (32)

Saana Laari at age 32 does appear to be on the downward side of her career. It appears that not everybody can be Mari Eder (or Simon Eder for that matter). I don’t want to spend too much time on it. Athletes on the decline are never especially fun to talk about. My general rule has always been that professIonal athletes that want to compete should keep on going as long as they want to and are able to. It is a unique career in that after a certain point it’s impossible to do it again. So do it as long as you are able to and you enjoy it.

As for Laari her World Cup level finishes have been on the decline for the last several years. It is the same story on the IBU Cup as well. When you look at the very end of last season she had a spike in finishes after the Russians and Belarusians were excluded. Here finishes in the 30’s were the best she had in 1.5 years.

It’s not hard to see the cause of the slip. Her ski ranks had been falling for years until she leveled off the last two seasons. Shooting percentages started to fade last year too from a career average the 80’s down to around the mid 70’s. In attempt to make up for some of this she has been having faster and faster shooting. At this stage of the game it appears to be leading to diminishing returns.

Looking ahead you could see Laari taking advantage of Russia and Belarus not being on tour. She might be able to replicate the success of the end of last season and stem the deterioration at least for a time. Long term though I see no reason why there would be a major turn around though.

Young Hopes

This last group represents the young hopefuls for the Finnish women. Who amongst these women will be the next Kaisa Makarainen? Well that might be too much to ask for. But what about Mari Eder or Suvi Minkkinen?

Noora Kaisa Keranen (21)

Don’t laugh because those hopes aren’t unrealistic with a young woman like Noora Kaisa Keranen. She even has the right name! She has already shown high success on the Junior level and over the last two years is starting to show it on the IBU Cup.

Last season at Junior Euros and Junior Worlds she had all 6 finishes 11th or better. He went 10th, 3rd, and 4th at Euros and 11th, 9th, and 7th at Worlds. In doing so she showcased good ski talent with course time ranks from the teens to 30’s. She also had the best shooting of her career, averaging near 90% over that stretch up from a career average in the mid 80’s. Shooting times were exceptional as well between 27-29 seconds.

Meanwhile on the IBU Cup last year she started to have her first success at that level scoring a career best 26th twice and finishing consistently between there and the 50’s. IBU Cup course ranks in the 50’s consistently for the first time in her career and shooting in the upper 80’s confirming what she has done on the Junior level.

Go ahead and file this name away for later. She definitely is the best young hope for Finland. And she does have too 20 World Cup potential.

Sonja Leinamo (20)

Young Sonja Leinamo has only raced 8 times as a Junior over the last two seasons. So far she has been doing okay on the Juniors finishing between 30th to 50th. However the reason for optimism right now is her ski ranks are very good. Her lowest course time rank is just 27th and last year she broke into the top 10. As you might guess with those finishes and that speed the shooting has been inconsistent. She’s had a 90% day but the problem is she is usually around 70% or lower. It is clear though, she has the ski talent. She’s really quite young so if she can get the shooting to, or even be just good enough, then she’s going to be very good.

Nea Vaehaesarja (19)

At 19 she is very young and has just 3 Junior races in her career all of which were at Junior Worlds this past year in Soldier Hollow. She finished 19th, and then 16th in both Sprint and Pursuit. As always you don’t want to make dramatic statements off of 3 races unless they are really amazing. In this case they are good but certainly not that level. Her skiing was good in the 20’s and 30’s and she shot 90% every race. Maybe she’s going to shoot 90% every race in her career? That would be amazing right?!?

Rebecca Sandnaes (18)

Rebecca Sandnaes has 6 races in the last two years all of which have occurred at Youth Worlds the last two years. She made a pretty big leap year over year. 2020-2021 she finished. 42, 49, and 38. Last year she finished 29, 13, and 14th. Over that time ski rank took a moderate jump up from the 30’s to the 20’s. Shooting ,are a little leap too. Really it’s all small sample sizes. As with Vaehaesarja let’s give her a few years to develop.

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