By Risto Pakarinen World Junior 2017

After all, they both have come up through the Tampere junior system, Laine in Tappara, Koivula in Ilves. Also, they’re both big forwards – Laine is listed at 194 centimetres and 91 kg, Koivula at 190 cm and 100 kg – who like to score goals. And they’re about the same age. Laine turns 19 in April, Koivula next September.

It would be easy to make those comparisons but it’s also unnecessary because they’re two different players. However, it doesn’t mean it’s easy for Koivula to not wonder where he may be in a year or so.

“Maybe I do look at Laine and [Jesse] Puljujarvi and compare my career to theirs, but it’s also true that we’re different players at different stages in our careers. Having said that, it sometimes makes me a little desperate, being here in smaller circles… but at the same time, I love seeing them do as well as they are, and it gives me hope that someday I can be [in the NHL], too,” he told IIHF.com.

While Laine was voted Finnish league playoffs MVP and was named to the Finnish team for the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, Koivula was the Finnish junior league playoffs MVP, having scored 26 goals and 58 points in 49 regular seasons, and adding 5+7=12 points in seven playoffs games as his Ilves won the title. Koivula scored the championship clinching goal with 20 seconds remaining in Game 2 of the best-of-three series.

This season, he’s taken the step from the junior team to the Ilves men’s team and hasn’t looked out of place. He’s played all 29 games before the U20 camp, averaging a little over 15 minutes per game, and has six goals and 16 points, third on the team. Koivula is on pace to score 27 points in 50 games which is line with what some of the recent top rookies have accomplished in the Finnish league.

The 2016 Rookie of the Year, Laine, scored 33 points in 48 games, finishing 37th in the league. The 2015 winner, defenceman Otso Rantakari scored 29 points in 56 games, the 2013 rookie of the year, Artturi Lehkonen, collected 30 points in 45 games, and the 2012 top newcomer, Teuvo Teravainen, 18 points in 40 games. (In 2014, the rookie was goaltender Juuse Saros).

All three forwards in the above list are now in the NHL and that’s where Koivula, the New York Islanders’ fourth-round pick from 2016, has set his goal as well. And while he may sometimes get discouraged, he knows he’s heading in the right direction.

“I’m pleased with the first half of the season. After all, it’s my first season in the top Finnish league and while I have high expectations for myself, it’s good to be realistic, too. It’d too much to expect me to score goals or points in every game so I have to learn to play consistently well in other ways as well,” he says.

It may be unrealistic to expect him to score at a point-per-game pace in the top Finnish league, but it’s not unexpected that that’s where his mind is set. That’s exactly what he’s done in the juniors.

“Scoring is what has taken me here and made me a pro player now, but the Finnish league is a tough league. What has surprised me the most is to see how hard it is to win games. In the juniors, we could play poorly for most of the game, then score a couple of goals and win,” he says.

That won’t do in the pro league, and it’s definitely not going to be good enough at the World Juniors.

“Everything goes up a notch, and while you can mentally prepare for it, and get ready to skate faster, shoot faster, and pass faster, that there’s less time to do anything, the adaptation starts when we hit the ice there,” he says.

Finland enters the tournament as reigning champions, and Koivula thinks that gives the team a boost.

“I hope it gives us positive energy. I don’t think we feel any pressure, anyway, it’s a new team, but of course it’s exciting to try to win another championship,” he says.

The native of Nokia has his feet on the ground even if he still allows himself to dream. And if he needs proof of how quickly things can change, all he has to do is look back at how his own life has changed in a year.

Last year, on a regular Tuesday, Koivula got up at six, and started his moped car at 6.30 to drive it to the rink for practice and then to his high school. Today, he has a real car, and the Ilves Finnish league team practises later so he can sleep until 8 am. And, he’s put school on hold for the time being.

“I’m still registered, and haven’t dropped out, but I wanted to focus on hockey this year. It’s a big year for me,” he says.