With the CWHL dissolved and the future of the NWHL in serious jeopardy, Luleå/MSSK is the best professional women’s hockey club in the world. No pro team was as well-represented at the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championship as Luleå was. They sent 10 players to the Worlds in Finland; the Calgary Inferno — the most-represented North American club — sent eight.
We don’t hear the word “dynasty” very often in the world of professional women’s hockey, but one can build a strong case that Luleå is putting one together. Luleå has won three of the last four SDHL titles, and they are showing no signs of slowing down.
It’s no secret that Luleå has an abundance of offensive weapons. In addition to their big trio of Finnish forwards — Michelle Karvinen, Noora Tulus, and Petra Nieminen — Luleå also has Swedish star forward Emma Nordin and legendary Finnish defender Jenni Hiirikoski.
So, it might surprise you to hear that Luleå didn’t have the most potent even strength offense in the SDHL last year, that honor belonged to MODO who scored 110 goals at even strength, two more than Luleå’s team total. Michela Cava (MODO) led the league with 21 even strength goals and fellow Canadian Kennedy Marchment (Linköping HC) was not far behind with 20 of her own.
However, Luleå’s even strength offense was far more balanced than MODO’s or Linköping’s. The SDHL champions had six different players with nine or more goals at even strength last year; MODO had four and Linköping had six.
In addition to that well-balanced attack at even strength, which was spearheaded by Karvinen and her 2.15 points per-game last season, Luleå also had a truly lethal power play.
2018-19 SDHL Team Stats
|Luleå / MSSK||166||52||3||43.61||20.53||10.57||103.53||26.2||90.48||9||33||4||92.96||54.54|
Linköping was the only team in the SDHL with a better success rate on the power play than Luleå in 2018-19. Luleå’s power play was successful in 26.2 percent of its opportunities; and that is with Karvinen being out of the lineup with 10 games. It’s not much of a stretch to assume that Luleå would have finished on top of the SDHL in even strength goals and power play success if Karvinen didn’t miss significant time with her injury.
The Hiirikoski Factor
Of course, we can’t talk about what sets Luleå apart from the rest of the pack without talking about the greatest defender on the planet.
Hiirikoski was utterly brilliant for Luleå last season. She finished second in scoring behind Cava by a margin of just a single point despite missing two games this season. Hiirikoski averaged a staggering 8.03 SOG/GP; that’s more than two shots on goal per game than Karvinen had. Yes, the same Karvinen who was selected as the only non-U.S. forward for the All-Star team for the 2019 Worlds.
To put Hiirikoski’s 8.03 SOG/GP into context; Kendall Coyne Schofield led the NWHL with 7.25 SOG/GP and Loren Gabel led all NCAA D-I skaters with 7.29 SOG/GP. It takes a tremendous amount of skill for a defender to get a few shots on net in a single game at the pro or international level. Hiirikoski is simply as good as it gets.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking stat from Hiirikoski’s 2018-19 campaign with Luleå is her 6.96 shooting percentage. There were 31 skaters in the SDHL who scored 11 or more goals this season; Hiirikoski had the lowest shooting percentage among that group by a significant margin. In other words, you could say that she was unlucky to only have 19 goals and 44 assists in 34 games this season.
Yes, she’s that good.
Built to be Great
In addition to standout veterans like Karvinen, Nordin, Hiirikoski, and goaltender Sara Grahn, Luleå also has a solid young core. When Karvinen was kept off of the ice this year, Luleå’s young stars helped pick up the slack.
Petra Nieminen, 20, scored 13 goals in her first SDHL season this year and was one of Finland’s brightest stars at the 2019 Worlds. Tulus is another key young forward for Luleå. Like Nieminen, she played a vital role in Team Finland’s success at the Worlds. At 23, Tulus is only approaching the prime of her career now, but she has already eclipsed the 50-point mark in the regular season and was one of only four skaters to register 12 or more points in the 2019 playoffs.
The future of team’s blue line is built around 21-year-old Ronja Savolainen. Her chemistry with Hiirikoski adds a lot to her value, but she would still be one of the best young defenders on the planet without it. Savolainen finished with 10 goals and 19 assists this season; a new career-high. Her unique mix of size and skill make her a compelling understudy for Hiirikoski.
In addition to those rising stars, the addition of Danish star Nicoline Söndergaard Jensen, formerly of Linköping, will help offset the loss of Rebecca Stenberg and Melinda Olsson. Both players retired after the team won gold over Linköping. Jensen is sure to flourish under Luleå’s head coach Fredrik Glader, who is also the head coach of Team Denmark. Glader has been at the helm for all three of the team’s titles in the past four years.
There’s no doubt that Luleå has the requisite amount of talent and hardware to be considered the best women’s hockey team on the planet, but there’s more to it than that. Even with names like Karvinen and Hiirikoski on the roster, Luleå has found a way to be a team that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. That is why they averaged a shot differential of +23.08 in the regular season. When Luleå is healthy and on their game, they are the most dominant team in the world.
Under Glader, Luleå has established what greatness looks like in Nordic hockey.
All data courtesy of SDHL.se and stats.swehockey.se.