Finnish SM-Liiga prospects 2008-09 season preview

By Tony Piscotta

The 2008-09 SM-Liiga will have a very different look as once again some top players have headed for greener pastures elsewhere. While that may not help the quality of play, it should lead to more opportunities for younger players who might otherwise have to wait to play key roles. The season will have added excitement as last year’s championship finalists – Oulun Karpat and Espoo Blues – will also be competing in the inaugural Champions Hockey League in Europe. In addition to the two Finnish finalists, ten other European clubs will compete for the title.

With regards to prospects, the NHL changed its approach to Europeans in the collective bargaining agreement of 2005. Clubs now are supposed to have just two years from the time a European player is drafted to sign that player to a contract. Rather than speculating on teenagers in hopes that they could develop over a longer period of time, clubs now select only the top tier. And they more often target established players and sign them to free-agent contracts.  The lack of an IIHF agreement has thrown a wrench into the system, however.

The number of Finnish-trained players drafted has dwindled from the high of 26 in the 2002 draft to four and six players respectively in 2007 and 2008. However, four players who had outstanding seasons: forwards Janne Pesonen, Ville Leino, defenseman Anssi Salmela, and goalie Antti Niemi were signed to free-agent contracts by NHL clubs this year.

Here is a look at the 14 SM-Liiga clubs with an emphasis on younger players who may either be drafted or end up on NHL rosters as free agents one day.

KARPAT

The dominant team in the SM-Liiga – having won the past two championships and four titles in the last five years – Karpat will have a very different look. Behind the bench, former HPK and JyP coach Matti Alatalo takes over for Kari Jalonen. On the ice, seven of the top nine scorers from a year ago have left, as has goalie Andy Chiodo, who after taking a back seat to Tuomas Tarkki for much of the playoff run, is headed to the KHL for Dynamo Minsk.

A large budget team – and the northern-most club in Finland – Karpat rosters usually feature a mix of veteran players and top imports. While the team has again made some significant signings over the summer, there should still be opportunities for some of the club’s home-grown players to establish themselves this season. In the past, the top players from Karpat’s strong A junior program would often go elsewhere to crack the ranks of pro hockey. With Alatalo, a coach who built his reputation by developing inexperienced players into strong teams that exceeded expectations (this approach was often taken out of necessity due to the budget constraints in smaller clubs), the former junior players may have that opportunity in Oulu this year. 

Tarkki, the 28-year-old who played college hockey at Northern Michigan University, has clearly established himself as a starter in the league. Two former Karpat A goalies – 21-year-old Petri Koivisto, and 20-year-old Antti Rautiola, are fighting for the second spot. Koivisto had an outstanding season in 2007-08 for TuTo of Mestis (Finnish second league) while Rautiola was with the A juniors.

On defense, Karpat has a veteran unit with a two former SM-Liiga players returning from the Swedish Elite League and one-time Montreal Canadiens prospects Oskari Korpikari and Ilkka Mikkola back from last year. Juho Jokinen, 22, came over to Karpat from TPS in the middle of last season and is the younger brother of Tampa Bay’s Jussi Jokinen. He may fill a defensive slot as well. Twenty-year-old Atte Ohtamaa, undrafted, split last season between Karpat and Hokki (Mestis) while from the A junior ranks, 18-year-old Joni Liljeblad represented Finland in the WJC in 2007.

With Pesonen and several others forwards leaving, Kristian Kuusela is the top returning scorer from a year ago (fourth with 45 points). Never drafted, the 25-year-old is a bit smaller than most NHL scouts like. Juhamatti Aaltonen, 23, was drafted by St. Louis in 2003 but they chose not to sign him. Aaltonen plays a well-rounded game and has appeared ready for a breakout season the past two years but has not yet reached the level that his talent would suggest. Undrafted 19-year-old Tomi Pekkala put up big numbers (52 points in 40 games) in his first year of A juniors.

BLUES

Like Karpat, Espoo Blues will have a primarily veteran lineup as they prepare for Champions League and SM-Liiga play. However, unlike their Northern rivals the Blues were able to keep much of their lineup intact – including top two scorers Ryan Keller and Stefan Ohman. Keller, a 24-year-old former Saskatoon Blade, is one of three North American imports for the Blues along with defenseman Dale Clarke and former Penguins’ draft pick Ben Eaves. Coach Petri Matikainen should have another strong club this season.

Austrian goalie Bernd Bruckler was drafted by the Flyers in 2001 and played college hockey at the University of Wisconsin (where Eaves’ father Mike is the head coach). Bruckler was a workhorse for the Blues last year and should again handle the bulk of the goaltending duties. Antti Harma (a 1987-born goalie) gained some professional experience last year playing for KooKoo (Mestis) and was also on the Finnish junior team in 2007. Mika Korhonen (21)  and Mikko Koskinen (20) split the duties on Espoo’s A junior club.

Defensively, the Blues feature a veteran unit which was bolstered by the addition of 25-year-old Joonas Ronnberg from SaiPa. Of the younger players hoping to crack the lineup, Ville Lajunen (1-11-12 in twelve games) and Mikael Kurki (five points in 41 games) saw the most action in 2007-08. Kristian Nakyva, who turns 18 in November, will most likely return to A junior for his second season.

As previously mentioned, both Keller and Ohman return but the Blues will have to replace two key younger players from a year ago. Twenty-year old forward Oskar Osala, a Washington draft pick in 2006 after playing for the Mississauga Ice Dogs in the OHL,  signed a three-year contract with the Capitals in June while Mikko Lehtonen, a third-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2005, is in that team’s camp and will likely start the season with Providence in the AHL. One player returning from North America who could provide offensive punch if he cracks the lineup is 20-year old Juuso Puustinen. Puustinen, from Kuopio, spent the last two years in Kamloops after being selected by Calgary in the 2006 draft (5th round/149th overall). Despite some highlight reel goals and an exciting offensive game, he will be in Espoo and not Calgary this season, hoping to improve his overall play under Matikainen.  Twenty-three-year-old Petri Lammassaari, though a bit undersized, is one of the more skilled players in the league and should play a key role after joining the team from Lukko Rauma. Tomi Sallinen, though undrafted in the 2008 draft, was rated 24th among European skaters (2nd in Finland) by Central Scouting. Sallinen played in the junior championships in both 2007 and 2008, played 29 games for the Blues last season and tallied 21 points in 18 games at the A junior level. Jani Lajunen made his SM-Liiga debut last year as a seventeen-year old but spent most of the season at A junior. He was selected by Nashville in the seventh round (201st overall) of the 2008 draft.

JOKERIT

Once the SM-Liiga’s dominant club – and easily its most recognizable – Jokerit again features a veteran-dominated roster. After hitting rock bottom in 2005-06, missing the playoffs entirely for the first time since 1990, the club enjoyed a bit of resurgence under one-time NHLer Doug Shedden – who coached both Jokerit and the Finnish national team. In the past two seasons, the club reached the semi-finals of the playoffs – falling to Karpat in the championship in 2006-07 and then Espoo in the semis this past spring. With Shedden headed to Switzerland, another former NHLer, recent Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon takes over.

After playing in three countries last season, 2006-07 starter Juuso Riiksman will once again be in the net replacing Jussi Markkanen – who signed with CSKA Moscow. Joonas Hallikainen, 22, who was forced into an ill-fated starting role as a 19-year-old when Tim Thomas signed with Boston the day before the season started three seasons ago, remains with Jokerit while Minnesota Wild draft pick Niko Hovinen has moved on to Pelicans.

Twenty-eight-year-old Mikko Kalteva, an unsigned 2002 draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche, is actually one of the younger players on a defense unit with former NHLers Mikko Jokela, Sami Helenius and Tom Koivisto. Prospects such as Nico Manelius, Jere Olander, Heikki Hyvonen, and Teemu Eronen have enjoyed success at the junior level and may benefit from being around these players. But their game experience will likely come either in Mestis or at A junior.

The story is the same at the forward spots. Under Shedden last season, Leino, the team’s leading scorer was the only full-time forward under the age of 25. With Leino signing with the Detroit Red Wings and the next six point-getters all signing elsewhere, Hanlon’s lineup is very different. Though the names may not be the same, it will still be a veteran group. Three SM-Liiga veterans have returned to Finland after playing in the Swedish Elite League and AHL’ers Tomi Maki and Joey Tenute also signed contracts. Ice time for the prospects will be at a premium. One-time Chicago Blackhawks prospect Jan-Mikael Juutilainen, a sixth-round pick in the 2006 draft, is back in Finland after spending two years with Waterloo of the USHL. He was originally committed to playing college hockey at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, but chose to start his professional career instead. Twenty-one-year-old Ossi Saarinen put up big numbers in A juniors two years ago had a non-descript rookie season a year ago. Saarinen and Juutilainen will get long looks. Based on their play in the exhibition season, both still need time to develop. 

TAPPARA

One of the other dominant clubs in the Finnish league, Tappara finished the season on a positive note by defeating Jokerit in the bronze medal game after falling to Karpat in the playoff semi-finals. Like Karpat and Jokerit, Tappara has a new head coach as Mikko Saarinen replaces Rauli Urama, who is headed to Lukko Rauma.

Unlike the other top clubs, Tappara’s surprising season featured strong play from three young prospects – Salmela, who signed a free-agent contract with the Devils following his first appearance ever for Team Finland at the World Championship, and then-19-year-old forwards Jori Lehtera (STL) and Jonas Enlund (ATL).

Veteran goalie Mika Lehto, drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1998, begins his seventh season with Tappara. Harri Sateri, who teamed with Lightning prospect Riku Helenius for Team Finland at the 2008 World Junior Championships, moves up from A junior. The 18-year-old Sateri was drafted by the Sharks in the fourth round (106th overall) this past June.

With their top three defensemen in terms of points no longer around, the defense corps will be markedly different than a year ago. SM-Liiga veterans Miska Kangasniemi (JyP) and 24-year-old Lasse Korhonen (HIFK) have joined the club and, with a pair of veteran holdovers and Cornell University graduate and former AHLer Charlie Cook in the mix, this is an experienced group. Nineteen-year-old Harri Ilvonen was selected in the sixth round (170th overall) in the 2007 draft by Minnesota. Ilvonen spent the bulk of the season with Tappara’s A junior club, but in 11 SM-Liiga games with HPK he had four points. Jesse Turkulainen, a player who spent time in the Team Finland program, but played the bulk of his youth hockey in Sweden, is an undrafted 18-year-old with promise while 20-year-old Miko Malkamaki represented Finland in both the Under-18 (2006) and junior (2008) championships.

If it weren’t for a pair of former NHLers, Tappara might have one of the youngest groups of forwards in the league. Forty-year-old Janne Ojanen and fellow former NHLer Ville Nieminen are back in Tappara. Ojanen is 14 points away from becoming the all-time leading scorer in SM-Liiga history while Nieminen is a favorite in Tampere and returns to Finland having been gone since 1997-98 (excluding the lockout season of 2004-05). The young kids, led by Lehtera and Enlund, were a big part of the success for Tappara last season. Lehtera, undrafted in his first year of eligibility in 2007 despite being a dominant scorer for Jokerit at the A junior level, lived up to expectations and was subsequently the first Finnish player taken in the draft last June (St. Louis, 3rd round, 65th overall). After an intense summer training program designed to improve his speed and agility, he should be even better this season. Enlund, a 2006 draftee of the Atlanta Thrashers, proved to be a solid professional and worked well with Lehtera.

An interesting pre-season signing, Tappara added Kim Stromberg from Jokerit. Stromberg, an undrafted 20-year-old, combined with Lehtera in B juniors (midget) to put up some very impressive scoring numbers. Like Enlund, some scouts have questioned how much of his past production was due to Lehtera’s play. Stromberg appeared in 37 games a year ago for Jokerit, but must demonstrate more of a commitment to his game this season if he is going to be considered a long-term prospect. Teemu Nurmi, an undrafted 23-year-old, followed up the 17 goals he scored in 2006-07 season with another strong year and is back along with Arsi Piispanen – an unsigned 2003 draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Twenty-year-old Niklas Lucenius appeared in 28 games last season and is a 2007 draftee of the Atlanta Thrashers (5th round/115th overall). He will likely spend most of the year in A juniors.

JYP

Jyvaskyla, is one of the smaller SM-Liiga cities, known primarily for its university – the largest sports institute in Finland. For that reason JyP has a relatively small budget and cannot sign high profile players, but instead has to make the most of players who no longer fit into larger clubs’ plans. Under head coach Risto Dufva (and Alatalo before that) the club has managed to stay successful by playing a workmen-like style and developing each individual player to their full potential. That formula led to a fifth-place finish a year ago – ahead of large budget teams such as HIFK, Ilves, and TPS.

One of the strong areas for the team is goaltending. Thirty-six-year-old Sinuhe Wallinheimo and Pekka Tuokkola, an undrafted 24-year-old, combined to keep opponents to just over two goals per game. Twenty-year-old Jarno Laitinen is waiting in the wings but likely to spend the season in A junior.

Few players have benefited from the second chance opportunity afforded at JyP more than 23-year-old defenseman Ville Mantymaa. In 2003, after twice being selected to play for Finland in the Under-18 world championships, and success at the junior level for Tappara, the defenseman was selected by the Anaheim Ducks in the ninth round.  The Ducks decided not to sign Mantymaa, who played three non-descript SM-Liiga seasons with Tappara. In his first year with JyP, the now 6’3, 183 lb Mantymaa flourished with the added ice time and responsibilities – scoring career-high eight goals to go along with 23 assists. He never had more than two points in a season with Tappara. Former SaiPa rearguard Kalle Kaijomaa, an undrafted 24-year-old, enjoyed a similar resurgence, with 29 points after registering just four in 40 games the prior season. Another former SaiPa defenseman, 22-year-old Jarno Lippojoki (undrafted), signed with JyP this season.

Offensively, former NHLers Jarkko Immonen (New York Rangers) and Tuomas Pihlman (New Jersey Devils) along with former University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog Dwight Helminen were the top three scorers a year ago. Immonen and Pihlman will return while Helminen signed a free agent contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. Twenty-nine year-old Slovak Jiri Bicek, who spent parts of four seasons with the Devils and played for KalPa last season, has been added. Among the young prospects for JyP – all of whom have not been drafted – Miika Lahti is probably the most experienced – appearing in 43 games last season as a 20-year-old and representing Finland at the 2007 WJC tournament. The young player with the most potential for JyP is 20-year-old left wing Harri Pesonen. Pesonen, ranked 171st by Central Scouting among Europeans in 2008 but not drafted, is a prototypical power forward who played for Finland at the WJC in 2008 and was the leading scorer for the A junior team a year ago. Jouni Virpio and Filip Riska, both 1985’s, were among the top scorers in Mestis in 2007-08 with 63 and 35 points respectively.

PELICANS

No team has had more of a change in fortune – for the better – than Pelicans over the past two seasons. Perennial league doormats – the Lahti-based club has turned things around under Coach Hannu Aravirta. Playing in the 5,000-seat Isku Areena, Pelicans, have a smaller budget than many of the top clubs in the SM-Liiga. Pelicans have overcome disadvantage with a two-pronged strategy  – identifying the top young players from Kiekko Reippas (Lahti’s junior program) and signing them at a young age – and, like JyP, finding players who were highly regarded as juniors but who did not seem to reach their potential and then helping reach that level.

One unheralded player who took advantage of an opportunity with the Pelicans is Niemi. A 24-year-old from Vantaa, he debuted with Pelicans in 2005-06 after playing for his hometown team in Mestis. Following a third successful season last winter, he signed a free agent contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. Replacing Niemi will be a key challenge for Pelicans. Veteran Tommi Nikkila was signed from Tappara and the opening could also be a key break for Minnesota Wild draftee Hovinen (5th round, 2006, 132nd). Hovinen was highly-regarded goalies among 1988-born players at the midget and junior levels but could not break into the Jokerit lineup – and his development hit a wall last season. The fact that former NHLer Pasi Nurminen not only is part owner of Pelicans but also coaches the goaltenders may get Hovinen back on track.

Among the defensemen, the Pelicans have benefited from the first part of their strategy – keeping local players in Lahti. Twenty-three-year-old Tuomas Santavuori, Jani Forsstrom (22) and Joonas Jalvanti (20) all played for the junior program and now play prominent roles for the club. Santavuori is a three-year veteran of SM-Liiga play and has increased his point totals every season. Forsstrom, appearing in all 56 games in his second season and scored nine goals with 23 assists. Jalvanti, who played for Team Finland in the WJC in 2007, played 45 games for Pelicans in his first full year with the big club. Another 20-year-old defensemen from Lahti, Mikko Kousa, led K-Reipas defensemen in scoring on the A junior team; scoring 34 points in 36 games. Kousa appeared in two SM-Liiga games. Though none have been drafted, all four continue to improve.

Forward Vili Sopanen, another 20-year-old, played in the junior program and was drafted – by the New Jersey Devils in 2007 (6th round, 177th overall). A highly-skilled, power forward, Sopanen was among the top rookie scorers in the SM-Liiga in 2007-08 with fifteen goals and fifteen assists. The other Pelicans forward that is an NHL draftee, Leo Komarov, was selected by Toronto in 2006 (6th round, 180th), after a dream rookie season in which Assat Pori unexpectedly reached the SM-Liiga finals. Highly touted as a junior in Assat Pori and also team captain for Finland at the 2007 WJC, Komarov has never scored like other Assat prospects Jesse Joensuu and Joonas Kemppainen. But his all-around game appealed to scouts looking for a physical player with strong defensive skills and strong hockey sense. Still not gifted offensively, he has continued to develop under Aravirta and has become more disciplined – reducing his penalty minutes in 2007-08 after spending over 100 minutes in the box the two previous seasons. Undrafted Lahti native Jesse Saarinen is an intriguing prospect. Though just 5’7, the 23-year-old has proven to be durable in three SM-Liiga seasons and last year led the team with 20 goals.  

HIFK

If JyP and Pelicans are examples of franchises getting the most out of their resources, HIFK would have to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. One of two clubs based in Helsinki (Jokerit is the other), HIFK has developed some of the top players in Finnish hockey and has access to top imports both on the ice and behind the bench. However, with the exception of 2005-06, when Shedden guided the team to the bronze medal game, the results have fallen short. Since HIFK’s last championship in 1998, the team has had several coaches including Aravirta who was fired in the middle of a playoff series in 2006. After dismissing Paul Baxter, (the third straight North American coach after Bobby Francis and Shedden), HIFK is hoping Karpat’s Jalonen, a former HIFK player, can turn things around. 

One-time Ilves netminder Juha Pitkanen, a 28-year-old, will be in net for HIFK after playing the last two seasons for Mora in Sweden. Aleksis Ahlqvist is a 22-year-old who has limited SM-Liiga experience after transferring to HIFK from JyP as an A junior in 2006-07. Jani Nieminen, 21, played much of last season for the HIFK A juniors. None of the HIFK goalies are NHL draftees. 

HIFK, like the other big clubs, relies on veteran players and imports so few of the true prospects get a chance. The HIFK juniors have had five players drafted in the last four NHL drafts (second only to Ilves). Of those five, defensemen Teemu Laakso, a 21-year-old, was the only one to play a major role for HIFK last season. Laakso, a third-round pick by Nashville in 2005, signed a three year contract with the Predators last year but was then loaned to HIFK for the season and played 53 games. A highly-touted prospect that played in three WJC tournaments for Finland, Laakso will most likely begin this season in Milwaukee (AHL). Arguably the No. 1 defenseman last season for HIFK was 23-year-old Ilkka Heikkinen. Not drafted after playing junior in Rauma, Heikkinen joined HIFK after three seasons with Lukko and flourished in his fourth season – displaying a sense for distributing the puck and setting up the attack. Three of the other top-six defensemen from a year ago are no longer with the club but two of those spots seem filled with Markus Kankaanpera signed from Sweden (Brynas) and former Harvard University defenseman Tom Walsh, who played in the AHL last year. Twenty-year-old Juho-Petteri Purolinna, who appeared in eight games last year, has attracted the attention of Jalonen and at 6’3, 187, appears ready physically to play at the SM-Liiga level.

While two other recent NHL draftees are now with other teams (Tappara’s Enlund and KalPa defenseman Timo Seppanen) forwards Robert Nyholm and Max Warn will try and crack the HIFK lineup this season. Nyholm, regarded as the top Finnish forward among the 1988-born players when he was drafted by Columbus in the 2006 draft, opted for Kingston in the OHL for the 2006-07 and had a decent first season. After suffering a nearly career-ending freak accident when he was cut by a skate blade, he played in just 27 games for the Frontenacs last season. Warn’s size, maturity and sound defensive play as an 18-year-old playing A junior attracted the attention of the Dallas Stars in that same 2006 draft – as did his play for the silver medal winning Finnish Under-18 team. Warn appeared in 27 SM-Liiga games in 2007-08 and will be given an opportunity for an expanded role this season. Jerry Ahtola, is a non-drafted 22-year-old who appeared in 50 games as a rookie last year and Lennart Petrell, 24, was selected by Columbus in the 2004 draft but was never signed. 

ILVES

No junior club in Finland has produced as many NHL prospects as Ilves has recently.  In the last four drafts, of the thirty-three Finnish players drafted seven were trained in the Tampere club. While this success has restored the club to solid financial footing and enhanced the reputation of the coaching and training at the junior levels, it has not necessarily benefited the men’s team. Many of those young players, especially goalies like Toronto Maple Leaf Vesa Toskala and current prospects Tuukka Rask and Riku Helenius, have left Finland to play overseas before joining the SM-Liiga squad. As a result, Ilves, which has won more titles than any other club (16) but none since 1985, is generally somewhere in the middle of the standings.

Ironically, the success of Rask (Boston Bruins/Providence (AHL)) and Helenius (Tampa Bay camp/Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)) in North America has created an opening for one-time HPK prospect Hannu Toivonen – who played for the St. Louis Blues last season – to return to Finland. Toivonen, 24, is a former first-round pick of the Bruins and played in parts of three seasons at the NHL level. Thirty-three-year-old Tero Leinonen who shared the goaltending duties with Pasi Hakkinen (now in Bolzano) is also back. Prospect Mikko Patsi, a non-drafted 21-year-old, will likely spend the season in either A juniors or Mestis.

Defensemen Joonas Lehtivuori, 20, is one of the prized NHL prospects among Finnish defensemen. A puck-moving, smooth-skating player who is well-suited to the faster, more open NHL style, he is highly regarded by Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren – whose club selected Lehtivouri in the fourth round (101st overall) of the 2006 draft. Mikko Kuukka, a 23-year-old who spent two seasons with Red Deer in the Western Hockey League but was never drafted and returned to Finland, saw significant ice time a year ago for Ilves. Twenty-three-year-old Toni Niemi (undrafted) has nice size (6’3, 183 lbs) for a stay-at-home defenseman and has played seasons in the SM-Liiga.

As fine as the goalie prospects have been for Ilves lately, the stable of young forwards is equally impressive. Perttu Lindgren was selected in the third round of the 2005 draft and after a strong second half last season in Iowa (AHL) has an outside shot at cracking what should be a very strong Dallas Stars lineup for 2008-09. Iowa is no longer an affiliate of the Stars so he could end up with any of five different AHL teams. That lack of a full affiliate is one of the reasons Lauri Tukonen will spend the season in Tampere – having been loaned to Ilves by the Stars.  Tukonen, obtained by Dallas in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings, was the 11th player taken in the 2004 draft but spent most of his three years in North America in the AHL – playing just five games for the Kings. Marko Anttila, a 2004 draft pick of the Blackhawks was not signed by Chicago. He scored a career-high 14 goals in 2007-08 and is a free agent in terms of the NHL. At 6’7, 225, he is among the bigger men in the Finnish league and racked up 90 penalty minutes to go along with his 23 points.

One-time New York Islanders prospect Masi Marjamaki, 23, spent three years in the Western Hockey League and was signed by Ilves after playing with Assat Pori in 2007-08. Two other draftees, Niko Snellman (Nashville, 4th round, 2006) and Matias Sointu (Tampa Bay, 7th round, 2008) are on Ilves roster but face long odds at cracking the improved line-up. Snellman, 20, an A junior last year, played 32 games with Regina of the WHL in 2006-07. Sointu, 18, is likely to spend a second season in A juniors after an impressive debut (40 points in 41 games) that included being named to Finland’s Under-18 national team. Both Sami Sandell, who spent two years with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, before returning to Ilves in 2006-07, and highly-regarded Ville Korhonen, are undrafted 21-year-olds who will play significant minutes. Seventeen-year-old Toni Rajala, draft eligible in 2009, is at least a year away but could be one of the top Europeans taken next spring.

LUKKO

One of two clubs located on Finland’s West Coast – arch-rival Assat Pori is the other one – Lukko Rauma has generally struggled since last reaching the SM-Liiga Finals in 1988. Urama signed a four-year contract to coach Lukko following the 2007-08 season. One of his first goals is to rebuild the junior program and, like Pelicans have done in Lahti, start to keep the top young players in Rauma.

One of those young players, 20-year-old goaltender Atte Engren, signed a two-year contract with TPS following the season. Engren, who was drafted by Nashville in 2007 (7th round, 204 overall), spent the bulk of the season with the A juniors last winter. With veteran goaltender Petri Vehanen, 30, back after one of the finest seasons of his career, it is unlikely that there would be much of an opportunity for Engren in Rauma. Twenty-four-year-old Joni Myllykoski, who played well for Jukurit (Mestis), will be the backup with 19-year-old A junior Antti Raanta waiting in the wings. All three are undrafted.

Undrafted 22-year-old Esa Lehikoinen and veteran Matti Kuusisto, as well as former AHLer and Colorado Avalanche draft pick Mikko Viitanen, who was limited to 13 games last year, are the only returning regulars on the defensive corps. North American import Mark Ardelan (Scranton/Wilkes Barre (AHL)) along with Tommi Kovanen (HIFK) and Tomi Pettinen (Leksands/Sweden) are experienced. Patrik Nevalainen, a 21-year-old defenseman who played for Team Sweden in the 2007 WJC, is a bit on the small side but should add skill to the defense group.  Matias Kiviharju and Jussi Makkonen, both 19, are among the group of A juniors that Urama is looking to in the future.

Nineteen year-old Eero Elo the other Lukko junior product whose draft rights are held by an NHL team (Minnesota Wild), will most likely spend another season in A juniors. Urama and GM Timo Rajala have assembled a pretty good group of veteran forwards, led by NHL veteran Antti Laaksonen who played in Fribourg (Swiss league) last season – as well as returnees Pekka Saarenheimo, Mika Viinanen and Juha-Pekka Haataja. Haataja, 25, made a big splash in 2006-07 with 56 points for Lukko after coming over from Karpat and appeared headed to another outstanding season last year when he suffered a season-ending leg injury in the 33rd game. Mikko Tuomainen, a 22-year-old who was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2004 but never signed, is in a tough spot. He must battle several veteran players for playing time with at least a half-dozen A junior forwards on the way.

TPS

Under legendary coach Hannu Jortikka the Turku-based club won three straight SM-Liiga championships between 1999 and 2001 and appeared in the Finals in 2004. Former Buffalo Sabre Hannu Virta, one of three players whose number was retired by TPS after a very successful playing career, returns for his second season as head coach hoping to turn things around.  As far as developing home-grown players, the TPS program – which produced the likes of Philadelphia Flyer Antero Niittymaki, Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff,  and current TPS captain Antti-Petteri Berg in the past, has seen just one player drafted since 2004 – New York Rangers prospect Lauri Korpikoski.

TPS’ inability to develop its own players is evident in the goaltending position where in the past, with the tutelage of long-time goalie instructor Urpo Ylonen, it always seemed there was another prospect waiting in the wings. The last TPS A junior goalie to be drafted was current HPK goalie Teemu Lassila, who was selected by the Nashville Predators in the fourth round in 2003 but never signed to a contract. SaiPa product Juha Kuokkanen and 21-year-old Alexander Salak – both non-drafted – split the goaltending duties last season and both return. Salak, a native of the Czech Republic, established himself in 2006-07 playing for Jokipojat in Mestis. Engren hopes to challenge for playing time.

Defensively, veterans Marko Kipprusoff and Berg, who left the NHL after playing over 600 games to raise his family in Finland, are reminders of the success enjoyed by TPS junior players in the 1990’s. Joonas Jarvinen, an undrafted 19-year-old, is the top prospect from the current TPS junior program. As a rookie in 2007-08, the 6’3, 214-pounder played in fifty games as Berg missed most of the year due to injury.  Tero Konttinen, 21, was another player who had an opportunity to play because of injury last season. A gifted puck handler, Konttinen may benefit from added freedom in TPS – but his decision-making has sometimes been an issue. Twenty-two year-old Kyle Klubertanz, a former Anaheim draft pick, graduated from the University of Wisconsin last spring but was not signed. Brian Rafalski, another former Badger defenseman spent four years playing in Finland,  before signing with the New Jersey Devils. Klubertanz was drafted by the Ducks in the third round of the 2004 draft.

Left Wing Mikko Eloranta played on the first of TPS’ three straight championship teams before spending four seasons in the NHL. He returns to TPS after playing in Sweden last year.  Eloranta is among a handful of veterans on what is a fairly young group. Twenty-two-year-old Antti Erkinjuntti had a successful rookie season last year after putting up big numbers in Hokki (Mestis) the prior season. Jarkko Hattunen, a teammate of Erkinjuntti’s in Hokki in 2007-08, was among the leading scorers in Mestis last year (43 points in 43 games) and was signed by TPS. Hattunen, a 21-year-old from Kajaani, was one of the top scorers in A juniors during his two seasons with Lukko. Neither player has been drafted.

SAIPA

SaiPa, based in the southeastern city of Lappeenranta, is another small budget club. The junior program has produced some top players but those players usually end up leaving for bigger contracts either in the larger Finnish clubs, North America or other European leagues. Since the SM-Liiga expanded to 13 teams in 2000-01, SaiPa has finished higher than 11th in the standings just once, when they placed seventh in 2005-06 – current Head Coach Aki-Pekka Selin’s first season. Once again SaiPa faces an uphill climb to compete for a playoff slot.

Goalie Ville Hostikka showed promise as a junior and was drafted by the Flyers in 2003 but never signed. His first full pro season was spent with Forssa (Mestis) in 2006-07 and last year he split between SaiPa and an Austrian club. Iiro Tarkki, an undrafted 23-year-old, is the younger brother of Karpat’s Tuomas and was the starter for SaiPa a year ago.

Defenseman Juho Mielonen, 21, played in the Ilves junior program, and was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the sixth round of the 2005 draft (175th overall) after playing for Finland in the U-18 tournament. Mielonen is a play-making defenseman and appeared in 31 games for SaiPa as a rookie and also had six points in seven games with SapKo in Mestis last season.

Jarkko Immonen, a 24-year-old forward not to be confused with JyP’s player with the same name, was the leading scorer for SaiPa a year ago and returns for his fourth season. Drafted by the Stars but never signed, he played his junior hockey in Espoo and, since his rookie season with the Blues has increased his point totals every season. That trend should continue as one-time NHLer Shayne Toporowski, 33, was signed by SaiPa after leading Lukko in scoring a year ago. Joni Lappalainen, another 24-year-old from Espoo, showed some promise for SaiPa last season but suffered a career-ending leg injury. Janne Kolehmainen, a 22-year-old product of the SaiPa junior program, was drafted by Ottawa in the 2005 draft but never signed. After two seasons with SaiPa, he is now with HPK. Valtteri Tenkanen, 23, who was not signed by the Kings after being selected in the 2004 draft, is back for his first full season after joining SaiPa from JyP last year.

HPK

Under new Finnish national team coach Jukka Jalonen, Hameenlinna-based HPK was a team whose collective effort always seemed to exceed the perceived talent level of its players – consistently finishing among the top four teams in the SM-Liiga. The pinnacle of that success came in 2005-06, when, after finishing fourth in the regular season, the team defeated Assat in an unlikely playoff final matchup to give the club its first championship. After a third-place finish the following season, HPK never got things together under Alatalo last year, collapsing in the second half of the season. Jukka Rautakorpi, a successful junior level coach known for his understanding of physical conditioning, was signed to a two-year contract at the end of the season. That should come in handy in HPK – as the club was beset by key injuries a year ago.

When the team started slowly last year much of their high-priced talent was sent elsewhere, including Chiodo going to Karpat. With the veteran out of the picture one-time Nashville Predator prospect Teemu Lassila had the opportunity to fill the starting role. Now 25, Lassila had some outstanding games where he displayed the form that attracted the attention of scouts during his junior days in Turku – he was selected in the fourth round in 2003 – but was also inconsistent. HPK seems to have a lot of faith in Lassila as they did not sign another top goalie. Twenty-year-old Mikko Tolvanen, once a highly-touted B junior, has been loaned to LeKi (Mestis). Mikko Stromberg, 29, started in SaiPa two seasons ago but struggled for Innsbruck last year behind Seamus Kotyk in the Austrian league.

Injuries and the club’s fire sale decimated the HPK defensive corps last year – Tappara’s Ilvonen was actually lent to the club for eleven games. Defensemen Risto Korhonen, a two-time member of Team Finland in the WJC, was the most serious injury, missing the entire season due to a knee injury. Korhonen, 21, is known for his willingness to play a physical game, his imposing presence (6’3, 203), and stickhandling and passing skills not usually associated with a player his size. After nearly a full year off for the former Carolina Hurricane prospect (a fifth-round pick in the 2005 draft but never signed), his strength and physical ability are not an issue but whether he can handle the puck as well as he once did will be the key. Tommi Leinonen, a Karpat teammate of Korhonen’s in juniors, is another big defenseman and was selected by Pittsburgh in that same draft but was also not signed.    
 
While the signings of Steve Kariya and Ville Viitaluoma gained much of the attention this off-season, HPK has also assembled a group of talented, young prospects – two of whom took advantage of last year’s struggles to establish their selves at the SM-Liiga level. Kariya, the younger brother of St. Louis Blues forward Paul, spent the past two seasons in Sweden but is highly-regarded by the Finnish fans after playing for Espoo and Ilves while Viitaluoma, 27, was a key player in Espoo’s run to the finals.

With the presence of so many veterans, ice time will be at a premium for younger players. Pasi Salonen and Jari Sailio who had breakout seasons a year ago – will get their minutes. Salonen, 22, was selected by the Capitals in the 2004 draft but never signed while Sailio is a non-drafted 21-year-old. Salonen was HPK’s top scorer with 28 points. Sailio, though not as skilled, is one of the harder working players in the league and tied Salonen for the team lead in goals with 11. Players like Kolehmainen, who joins the club from SaiPa and former Assat forward Kemppainen, may have to wait for their opportunities. Kemppainen, since shining as a 16-year-old at the Young Lions tournament for 1988-born players, has been under the radar both as a junior and in his first two seasons in the SM-Liiga with Assat, and has not been drafted. With the structure of a coach like Rautakorpi, he may reach the level of play that his size, skill and hockey sense suggest he can play.  Jan Mikael Jarvinen, 20, will start the season at LeKi (Mestis). Considered too small since his bantam days in Ilves (now listed at 5’8, 154), he is highly-skilled with a knack for setting up the players around him and creating scoring opportunities.     

KALPA

KalPa is the last team to have been elevated back to the SM-Liiga; re-joining the league by winning the Mestis championship in 2004-05 after having been relegated out of the league five years earlier. Like other smaller cities in Central Finland, Kuopio has developed many talented players – such as Olli Jokinen and Kimmo Timonen – only to see those players move to the bigger clubs in Helsinki, Oulu or Tampere. Not surprisingly, for that reason KalPa has struggled in its three seasons back in the SM-Liiga. On a positive note, they have improved each year, tallying 18 wins in SM-Liiga play for the first time since 1991-92 (At that time, the 12-team SM-Liiga league played a 44-game season and did not include Oulun Karpat). Entering his second full season as head coach, Pekka Virta will be in one of the most unique situations in sports. Team captain Sami Kapanen, who returned to Finland this season after over 800 games in the NHL, is a majority owner of the club.  Timonen, still with the Flyers, is also a part owner of the club.

Like other small club GMs, Jukka Pennanen hopes to improve KalPa by combining less expensive veterans with the top young players from KalPa’s successful junior program. In goal, the veteran is 32-year-old Mika Oksa and there youngsters are a pair of 19-year-old goalies with loads of potential – Mika Jarvinen and Tomi Karhunen. Jarvinen split time with Oksa and had a pair of shutouts. Karhunen, who played in the OHL with Sarnia last season and was in Lake Placid this past summer with Finland’s junior team. Jarvinen was ranked seventh among European goalies but was not selected in the June 2008 draft while Karhunen will be eligible for this year’s draft.

Thirty-eight-year-old one-time Quebec Nordiques draft choice Mika Stromberg and Jussi Timonen, Kimmo’s younger brother who spent last season in the AHL, are two of three KalPa defensemen over the age of 25. Seppanen, drafted by the Penguins in 2006 after playing juniors with HIFK, played his first full season in the SM-Liiga last year in Kuopio. With a wealth of defensemen in Pittsburgh, it is unlikely he’ll sign with the club but with improvement this season he may get a chance with another organization. A trio of young defensemen from the A junior program – all not yet drafted by NHL clubs – are among the players Pennanen is hoping KalPa – are some of those young players he hopes to keep in the organization. Aku Pekkarinen, 23, split last season between KalPa and Hokki in Mestis while 20-year-olds Tomi Tuomainen and Mikko Kukkonen both played 20 games last year in addition to playing for the A junior team. Ossi Karhunen, another 20-year-old, had 30 points in 40 games last season playing for Karpat’s A juniors.

Forward Teemu Hartikainen, at 6’1, 198, has the size to play at the NHL level and was selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the sixth round (163rd) of the 2008 draft. At 18, he will likely spend the season with the A junior team. Two other former A juniors, Tuomas Kiiskinen and Aatu Hamalainen, though both just 5’9, are expected to play more prominent roles. Kiiskinen was the team’s leading scorer as a 20-year-old last season while Hamalainen (21), displayed some offense as well in his first significant SM-Liiga play as well as tallying 30 points in 24 games at the A junior level. Twenty-four year-old Jyri Junnila (also undrafted), is another under-sized forward who, after two seasons of limited ice time in Karpat, scored eleven goals in an expanded role with KalPa in 2007-08.  

ASSAT

No team has been a clearer illustration of the transitive nature of the SM-Liiga than Assat. Based in Pori on Finland’s west coast, the franchise has struggled for much of its existence. But after bottoming out with a 30-point season in 2000-01, the club steadily improved and, using a combination of veterans and promising young players, including Karpat’s Kuusela and a then 17-year-old Jesse Joensuu, along with three North American-trained 20-year-olds, the team won a franchise record 33 games and advanced to the playoff finals in 2005-06. At the same time, the Pori A junior team featured some highly-touted prospects and it looked like the future was bright. Instead, three years later, almost all of the key players from that team are gone – either for better offers with clubs both inside and out of Finland or, in the case of some of the youngsters, their development has not been what was hoped for.

One of the few positives to come out of last season was the play of former Dallas prospect Eero Kilpelainen – who teamed with Kimmo Kapanen in net. Kilpelainen was drafted by the Stars in 2003 after showing promise as an A junior in KalPa and with Team Finland in the Under-18 tournament that year. He spent the following season in Peterborough of the OHL but was never signed and returned to Finland where he played in Mestis one season before joining Assat two years ago. Now 23, he has begun to show the skills that first garnered attention. Tuomo Karjalainen, a 28-year-old product of the TPS program who spent the last two years in Sweden, was signed as Kilpelainen’s partner.

Despite the struggles last year, Assat Pori had one of the older groups of defensemen in the league – leaving little room for one-time prospects such as Juhamatti Hietamaki (23) and Eetu Heikkinen (20) both of whom are ticketed for Mestis in 2007-08. Of the two, Heikkinen seemed to show the most promise – appearing on the U-18 team in 2005-06 and playing key minutes at the A junior level as a 16-year-old. After appearing in 80 games for the SM-Liiga team the past two seasons, he will start the season with Vaasa Sport. Nineteen-year-old Jesse Jyrkkio, who played well in A juniors a year ago, seems to have passed both on the Assat depth chart. None of the three are drafted.

Two forwards who were drafted from the Assat junior program – Joensuu and Komarov – had some success in the SM-Liiga a year ago but neither will be with the club this season. Joensuu, who led Assat Pori in scoring last season, signed a three-year contract with the Islanders following the season and if he doesn’t make the big club will start the season in Bridgeport (AHL). Komarov returns to Pelicans for his third season. The aforementioned Kemppainen was another player who showed promise as a junior but never progressed from the junior to men’s level successfully while in Pori. A pair of 20-year-old former A juniors, neither of whom has yet to be drafted, could see ice time. Twenty-year-old Sakari Salminen is the top playmaker of the bunch and had 51 points in 31 games for Assat’s A junior team two years ago, appeared in 38 professional games between Assat and Mestis last year, and had four points in six games for Finland at the WJC in 2008. Ilves’ product Tommi Huhtala, after two seasons of limited ice time in Tampere, had 13 points in his first season with Pori a year ago.

Note that all three of the previously mentioned North Americans are no longer in Assat. Matt Nickerson, who was loaned to Assat by the Dallas Stars after leaving Clarkson University for Canadian junior, was a bit of a cult hero as he racked up 236 penalty minutes. The former third-round pick in 2003, after spending the following season in the North American minor leagues, split last season between Assat and Ilves and is currently a free agent. Rob Hisey, a ninth-round selection of the Minnesota Wild in that same draft, spent last season in Sweden, and winger Mike Ramsay, a teammate of Nickerson’s in juniors in Victoriaville, played last season for Fresno in the ECHL.