At the midpoint of the season the number of prospects from Finland likely to be drafted in the 2014 NHL Draft — due in part to several top Finnish prospects now playing junior hockey in North America — appears to be down slightly from the past two seasons.
For the fifth straight year, however, it is likely that there will be a first round pick from Finland as KalPa forward Kasperi Kapanan, the son of former NHL forward Sami Kapanen, was recently named as the top European skater in Central Scouting's midterm rankings.
Finland also had the top two European goaltending prospects according to Central Scouting's midterm rankings. HIFK's Ville Husso, who is having a strong rookie season in Finland's Liiga is in the top spot while Kaapo Kahkonen of Espoo Blues' Junior A team is in the second spot.
Other than Kapanen and perhaps Assat left wing Juho Lammikko there is no consensus as to which players from Finland will be drafted and how early they will go. As has been the case the past few drafts it is likely that NHL clubs may take late round fliers on players such as Juuso Ikonen who have passed through previous drafts but have continued to develop.
Four such players, including Husso, are featured in our mid-season Top Ten.
One area that does not appear as deep as in recent years is defense — where there doesn't appear to be a Sami Vatanen, Olli Maatta or Rasmus Ristolainen-type high-end prospect. However, Pelicans' Eetu Sopanen has an intriguing combination of size and skill and HPK's Joni Tuulola is the son of HPK all-time leading scorer Marko Tuulola and offers offensive elements from the blueline.
Among the top prospects from Finland not included in this list since they are now playing in North America is Swift Current Broncos' defenseman Julius Honka, a pair of defensemen playing in the OHL in Alex Lintuniemi (Ottawa 67's) and Jimi Kuronen (Oshawa Generals), and forward Waltteri Hopponen, who is playing in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers.
Here are the top 10 Finnish players eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft:
1. Kasperi Kapanen, RW, KalPa Kuopio
6'0”, 180 lbs., 7/23/96
For the second straight year, Finland's top prospect is the son of a former pro hockey player. While Kapanen does not have the size of the Florida Panthers' Aleksander Barkov, who was the second player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft, Kapanen's game, like Barkov's, is extremely advanced at a young age.
Kapanen made his pro debut in the SM-Liiga at the end of the 2012-13 season and had the chance to skate alongside his father, a former Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers forward. His first full pro season has been a bit of a challenge as KalPa has languished near the bottom of the league standings and is fighting for the final playoff spot. A shoulder injury in December kept him out of the 2014 World Junior Championship.
Kapanen has been dominant against players his own age, leading Finland to a bronze medal in the 2013 U18 World Junior Championship tournament. While his physical skills aren't overly impressive in terms of shooting velocity or skating speed, he has an impressive feel for the game and can identify chances and put himself into the proper spaces to either create scoring opportunities for his team or prevent the opposition from transitioning the puck.
Kapanan is likely to be the fifth straight Finnish forward taken in the first round following Mikael Granlund (Minnesota, 2010), Joel Armia (Buffalo, 2011), Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago, 2012) and Barkov (Florida, 2013).
2. Juho Lammikko, LW, Assat Pori A Juniors
6'1”, 168 lbs., 1/29/96
Due to Lammikko's height and the fact that he plays on the same club as Armia did, it would be easy to try to compare the two players. But such assumptions aren't necessarily accurate.
Not yet as developed nor abrasive as Armia was at the same age, the strength of Lammikko's game is his playmaking ability and his work ethic at both ends of the ice. Playing for Finland's U18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August, he also displayed a scoring touch, finishing with three goals and three assists in four games.
Whether Lammikko can translate the scoring to the pro level is his next challenge. In 11 Liiga games with Assat's men's team this season he had one assist and was minus-1.
Lammikko is ranked 13th among European skaters in the CSS midterm rankings.
3. Kaapo Kahkonen, G, Espoo Blues A Junior
6'1”, 190 lbs., 8/16/96
The latest goaltending prospect to come out of the Blues club, Kahkonen has started a league-high 31 games for Espoo's A junior team and is a front runner for the goaltending spot for Finland's U18 team at the upcoming 2014 World Junior Championship in Lappeenranta and Imatra.
According to one scout, he could displace Husso for the top spot amongst European goalies in Central Scouting's rankings with a strong performance at the upcoming U18 Five Nations Tournament in Dmitrov, Russia in February.
In addition to his durability and high level of conditioning, Kahkonen is sound in all areas of goaltending and his mental game is impressive for a young goalie.
He was rated second among European goaltenders in the CSS midterm rankings.
4. Ville Husso, G, HIFK
6'2”, 185 lbs., 2/6/95
Husso's skills and physical makeup compare favorably with most of the young goaltending prospects, but questions about his mental game likely led him to pass through the 2013 NHL Draft without being selected despite being rated sixth among European netminders.
Husso has seemed to answer some of those concerns with his play this season, seizing the starting job for HIFK from veterans Brad Thiessen and Antti Ore as an 18-year-old and putting up some of the best numbers among goalies in Finland in his Liiga rookie season. In 25 games so far this season, he was 14-8-2 with two shutouts with the league's fourth-best save percentage (.928) and a 1.92 goals-against average.
While there are still technical areas of his game that need refinement, and big numbers in Liiga don't necessarily translate to success against the speed and skill of NHL scorers, Husso's development this season has caught the attention of scouts.
Husso appeared in two games at the 2014 World Junior Championship as a backup to Juuse Saros (NSH) — making preliminary round starts against Sweden and Switzerland (Finland's only two losses in the tournament) — and finished with a 4.68 goals-against and .854 save percentage.
Huuso is the top-ranked European goaltender in the CSS midterm rankings.
5. Eetu Sopanen, D, Pelicans A Junior
6'3”, 210 lbs., 4/24/96
The younger brother of Pelicans forward and former New Jersey Devils prospect Vili Sopanen, Eetu Sopanen is a bit of an uncertainty at this point due to head and neck injuries that have kept him out much of this season. In 14 games with Pelicans A junior team this year he has three goals with six assists and is +3 with 18 penalty minutes.
His obvious attributes are his size and skating ability but he also has some playmaking ability and fluid play that isn't always easier for bigger players. It's difficult to project how much further along his development would be had it not been for the injury situation but he was expected to return soon and should be available for Finland's U18 team at the 2014 World Junior Championship.
While cases can also be made for Tuulola or Sopanen's Pelicans teammate Ville Vainola, Sopanen appears to be the top defensive prospect at this time.
He was rated 42nd among European skaters in the CSS midterm rankings.
6. Joni Nikko, W, Lukko Rauma
6'2”, 190 lbs., 5/31/94
Eligible for the NHL Draft for the third time in 2014, opinions vary widely on the long-term potential of Nikko, so it is as likely that he goes somewhere in the middle rounds as it is that he is not selected at all.
That being said, there were few people who did more to open scout's eyes at the 2014 World Junior Championship as did Nikko, who has also shown a scoring touch as a 19-year old Liiga rookie in domestic play.
The chief knocks on Nikko to this point (and what has likely prevented him from being drafted in previous years) are his choppy skating style and his lack of two-way play. While his skating is still not a strength, it appears much improved this year.
What stood out in his play at Malmo was his willingness to block shots and play in the hard areas of the ice in a lower line role for Finland. He also contributed three goals in seven games at the tournament, including a key second period goal in the semifinal win against Canada.
Nikko was ranked 84th among European skaters in the CSS midterm rankings.
7. Joni Tuulola, D, HPK Hameenlinna A Junior
6'2”, 181 lbs., 1/1/96
Tuulola has made a smooth adjustment to A juniors in his first season in what has been a challenging season for the defending champions. With Saros now playing in Liiga for the HPK men's team and two other key players now in Mestis, the A junior team recently went a nine-game stretch without a win but Tuulola has been a bright spot.
A likely candidate for Finland's U18 team in Lappeenranta, Tuulola has the ideal size and mobility for an NHL defenseman and has also shown a willingness and instincts to contribute on the offensive end. In 30 A junior games, he's scored four goals with 12 assists and is +17.
While he must add size and strength to compete at the men's level in Finland — let alone in North America — he does have above average skills and could be worth a late round look.
Tuulola was ranked 47th amongst European skaters in Central Scouting's mid-term rankings.
8. Teemu Lamsa, F, TPS A Junior
6'3”, 200 lbs., 2/6/1996
With the height and frame of a prototypical pro forward, Lamsa is a long-term project but does a lot of things that scouts like. While his six goals in five game certainly garnered attention at the 2013 U17 World Hockey Challenge, Lamsa is more of a two-way forward who can play center or wing.
The Turku native represented Finland at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August before returning to TPS for his first season with the club's A junior squad. Playing primarily a second- and third-line role on one of the top teams in Finnish junior hockey, Lamsa has nine goals with nine assists in 33 games and is +9 with 18 penalty minutes.
He will likely skate for Finland's U18 team in Lappeenranta and is ranked 38th among European skaters by CSS in the mid-term rankings.
9. Atte Makinen, D, Tappara Tampere/ Leki (Mestis)
6'3”, 205 lbs., 5/17/95
Not to be confused with the Jokerit forward Atte Makinen — who along with his twin brother Miro is also ranked in Central Scouting's midterm rankings (Atte at #127 and Miro at 82) — the 18-year-old defenseman has split his first pro season between Tappara in Liiga play and Mestis club, LeKi.
In his second year of draft eligibility, Makinen was among the final cuts for Finland's U20 team that won the gold medal in Sochi. While he does not possess some of the offensive skills of players like Ristolainen or Vatanen, he is a big defenseman who uses his size to his advantage and is strong in his own end of the ice.
So far this season he's appeared in nine games with Tappara and is plus-4 with one assist and eight penalty minutes.
An assistant captain for Finland's bronze medal-winning U18 team in Sochi last spring, Makinen has the team intangibles that make him an intriguing late round prospect.
He was rated 89th amongst European skaters in the CSS final rankings prior to the 2013 NHL Draft and was 70th in the midterm rankings this year.
10. Juuso Ikonen, JyP Jyvaskyla
5'9”, 170 lbs., 1/3/95
Ikonen is one of a group of highly-skilled but undersized forwards such as Henrik Haapala and Aleksi Mustonen that have been a big part of Finland's success at the junior level but whose smaller size makes NHL teams leery of taking a chance on drafting them.
As an SM-Liiga rookie in 2012-13, Ikonen scored 13 goals with 13 assists and was +1 for an Espoo Blues team that missed the SM-Liiga playoffs. He then led Espoo's A junior team in scoring in the playoffs with three goals and 10 assists in 10 playoff games but was not selected in the 2013 NHL Draft.
After beginning this season with Espoo he was obtained by JyP just prior to the World Junior Championship in January. Ikonen scored one goal with two assists in seven games for Finland's gold medal-winning team at the WJC and has five assists in 12 games since joining JyP.
He was ranked 23rd amongst European skaters in the CSS final rankings in 2013 and is ranked 105th in the midterm rankings this season.