Lehkonen heads short list of drafted wingers playing in Finland

By Tony Piscotta

Artturi Lehkonen - Finland

Photo: KalPa Kuopio forward and Montreal Canadiens prospect Artturi Lehkonen played on Finland’s top line at the 2014 World Junior Championship (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Like Sweden's SHL and the Czech and Slovak Extraligas, Finland's Liiga has been hit hard by the defection of top young players to the KHL for bigger contracts.

Players like Sakari Salminen, Jori Lehtera (STL) and former Toronto Maple Leaf Leo Komarov (all members of Finland's bronze medal Olympic team) now play in Russia rather than seeking NHL opportunities or playing in the Liiga. As a result, the prospect pool in Liiga has dwindled, with only a handful of young wingers still playing in Finland.

Instead, the league is now largely a haven for former NCAA stars like Jokerit's Steve Moses (UNH) and Broc Little (Yale), former NHL players like HIFK leading scorer Ville Peltonen, now 40, or ex-NHL/AHL types like Dan Sexton (TPS's leading scorer) and Raymond Sawada (Tappara).

The league has also provided opportunities for young players like Borna Rendulic (Croatia/HPK) and Janos Hari (Hungary/HIFK) who come from non-traditional hockey-playing countries.

KalPa's Arturri Lehkonen and Saku Maenalanen — two-thirds of Finland's first line on the gold medal-winning U20 squad at the 2014 World Junior Championship — are the top two drafted wingers currently playing in Finland, while the rest of our top five would be considered fringe prospects at this point.

Saku Salminen (TBL), who played for Finland at the 2013 World Junior Championship and whose older brother, Sami, is a freshman at Northern Michigan, missed nearly five months after a knee injury and was just getting back into the lineup as the playoffs began.

Salminen's Jokerit teammate, Antti Tyrvainen (EDM), returned to Finland this season after two years with the Oilers' AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City. Now a restricted free agent, Tyrvainen, 24, is a bang-and-boom type, but whether he returns to North America or even plays for Jokerit when it makes the move to the KHL in 2014-15 remains in question.

Austin Smith began the year in the AHL before being loaned to Assat — the same club that former Stars' forward Tom Wandell played with before spending parts of five seasons in Dallas.

1. Artturi Lehkonen, LW, 18, KalPa Kuopio
NHL Rights: Montreal Canadiens
Drafted in the second round, 55th overall, in 2013

Few people had as successful (and painful) a World Junior Championship tournament as Lehkonen did.

Despite missing two games during the tournament with an ankle injury that would force him to miss the remainder of the season, and injuring his other foot while blocking a shot, Lehkonen was a key to Finland's gold medal. In addition to scoring two goals with two assists while playing on a line with Jokerit's Teuvo Teravainen (CHI) and Saku Maenalanen, Lehkonen played a big role killing penalties in the semifinal win against Canada and in Finland's 3-2 overtime win against Sweden in the gold medal contest.

Prior to the WJC tournament, Lehkonen was leading KalPa in scoring. The 18-year-old scored seven goals with 13 assists and was -2 with four penalty minutes in 33 games. KalPa would end the season finishing in last place.

While there are rumors that Lehkonen has signed a contract to play in Sweden next season, nothing has been confirmed. Long-term he projects as a two-way forward with the skill level and competitiveness to provide offense.

2. Saku Maenalanen, LW/RW, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted in the fifth round, 125th overall, in 2013

Viewed as a long-term project with prototypical size and the frame to be a strong two-way forward when he was selected by Nashville at the 2013 NHL Draft, Maenalanen is steadily working his way into the lineup for regular season champion Karpat in his first Liiga season.

Maenalanen led all scorers with seven goals at the 2014 World Junior Championship and was +9 in seven games. He was arguably the biggest surprise for Finland at the tournament, providing key scoring in the absence of Florida Panthers rookie, Aleksander Barkov.

In 33 games for Karpat, Maenallanen has scored four goals with three assists and is +6, splitting the time between Liiga and Mestis' club Jokipojat (nine goals and six assists in 15 games).

Not an overly physical player (he had just four penalty minutes in 37 men's league games and none at the WJC), Maenalanan will likely spend at least one more year in Finland before making the jump to North America.

3. Saku Salminen, Jokerit Helsinki/Kiekko-Vantaa (Mestis)
NHL Rights: Tampa Bay Lightning
Drafted in the seventh round, 184th overall, in 2013

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman claimed he knew very little about Salminen after selecting the big winger in the final round of the 2013 NHL Draft, but that he had received great reports from the Lightning's European scouts . Unfortunately for Tampa Bay and Salminen, the 19-year-old suffered a knee injury after 13 games with Mestis team Kiekko-Vantaa and is only now getting back on the ice.

More of a two-way player with the size (6'3", 205 lbs.) to be a power forward, Salminen played a solid lower line role with Finland at the 2013 World Junior Championship and was expected to do the same this year before his injury. In 13 Mestis games with Kiekko-Vantaa he had two assists and was -7 with 16 penalty minutes.

Salminen is expected to see time in the playoffs but, obviously, the year off is a setback. Whether he will skate for Jokerit when the club makes the move to the KHL next year or play for another Liiga club remains to be seen.

4. Antti Tyrvainen, RW, Jokerit Helsinki
NHL Rights: Edmonton Oilers (Restricted free agent)
Signed as a free agent in June of 2011

Signed to a two-year contract by the Oilers to provide some abrasiveness to complement the high-end offensive skill players Edmonton has drafted in recent years, Tyrvainen spent his two seasons in North America with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons. He missed nearly two months due to injury during the 2012-13 season.

He returned to Finland to skate for Jokerit this season along with his younger brother Juhani Tyrvainen (who is now with Pelicans Lahti after a mid-season trade).  The Oilers tendered Antti Tyrvainen a qualifying offer in July of 2013 to retain his NHL rights.

In what has been an eventful final season in Liiga for Jokerit, the 24-year-old has provided toughness while chipping in offensively.  After a slow start, Jokerit entered the final week in a battle with the Espoo Blues for the sixth spot (which would avoid a preliminary round playoff series).

Second only to Assat's Jyri Marttinen with 126 penalty minutes, Tyrvainen has four goals and seven assists and is +7 heading into the final week of the season.

Long-term with Jokerit's move to the KHL, it will be interesting to see if Tyrvainen is able to compete at that level, moves to another Liiga club next year, or gives North America another shot.

5. Austin Smith, 25, RW, Assat Pori
NHL Rights: Dallas Stars
Drafted in the fifth round, 128th overall, in 2007

A native of Dallas, Smith was signed by the Stars following his senior season at Colgate in 2011-12 and played a dozen games with the club's AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars. He split last season between the AHL and ECHL and after starting the year with Texas and Idaho this season, was loaned to Assat in December.

The league champions a year ago, Assat will miss the playoffs this season and is currently 12th in the 14-team league. Skating on the club's top line with center Henri Heino and former Florida Panthers winger Kamil Kreps, Smith has six goals with six assists in 26 games. In January, he signed an extension to play for the Pori club in 2014-15.

With several young forwards now in Dallas, Smith will be challenged to secure a top-nine forward spot with the Stars and may not be tendered a contract this summer. More likely, he is destined to continue playing in Europe.

Should he return to North America for one more shot at the NHL, he will likely never score at the pace he did in college and at the ECHL level, but Smith has the defensive awareness to be a lower line forward in the right situation.

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