Teravainen tops otherwise thin group of Finnish center prospects

By Tony Piscotta

Teuvo Teravainen - Chicago Blackhawks

Photo: Chicago Blackhawks forward prospect Teuvo Teravainen made his regular season debut with that NHL club in a three-game stint with the Blackhawks back in March (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

The prospect pool of centers skating in Finland's Liiga in the 2013-14 season wasn't very deep, but the top prospect in that group — 19-year-old Teuvo Teravainen — had a season to remember.

The leading scorer for KHL-bound Jokerit in its final Liiga season, Teravainen made his NHL debut with the Chicago Blackhawks following his Liiga season and led all scorers at the 2014 U20 World Junior Championship as Finland captured the gold medal.

The rest of the centers listed in this group are not nearly as highly-regarded but instead are players who would need to flourish in the right organization to have an opportunity at the NHL level. The fact that two 24-year-olds are included in this list and that both Aaltonen and McRae spent significant time playing winger this year is an indication of a lack of depth in terms of NHL-caliber prospects.

Espoo Blues' Miro Aaltonen, who can play both center and winger, was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks as a 20-year-old in the 2013 NHL Draft after passing through two previous drafts.

Philip McRae was viewed as a promising power forward prospect when he was selected by the St. Louis Blues in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft and appeared in 15 games with the Blues in 2010-11. Now 24, he was tendered a contract offer by St. Louis last spring but instead headed to Finland and is now a restricted free agent.

The other two centers on our list, HIFK's Iiro Pakarinen and Niclas Lucenius of Turku were drafted but never signed to NHL contracts. The two are intriguing unrestricted free agent candidates but have to be considered longshot prospects at this point.

1. Teuvo Teravainen, Jokerit Helsinki
NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks
Drafted in the 1st round, 18th overall, in 2012

Jokerit's final season in the Liiga was a forgettable one as the club never seemed to come together, finishing seventh during the regular season and then being swept by HPK in a best-of-three preliminary series. The early playoff exit allowed Teuvo Teravainen to make his NHL debut, however, and after arriving in Chicago on March 19th he appeared in three games with the Blackhawks before being assigned to their AHL affiliate in Rockford.

In what was a bit of a tumultuous season for Jokerit, with multiple lineup changes through the year, Teravainen led the club in points and assists, finishing -2 with nine goals and 35 assists in 49 games. Skating on the club's top line in the playoffs with former Blues and Coyotes forward Ladislav Nagy, Teravainen was -1 with no points or penalties in the two-game series with HPK.

Teravainen was an integral part of Finland's gold medal-winning run at the U20 World Junior Championship in January. Skating on the team's top line with Artturi Lehkonen (MTL) and Saku Maenalanen (NSH) — who led all scorers in the tournament with seven goals — Teravainen seemingly created scoring opportunities every time he was on the ice and displayed a high skill level against some of the top players in his age group.

2. Miro Aaltonen, Espoo Blues
NHL Rights: Anaheim Ducks
Drafted in the 6th round, 177th overall, in 2013

Like another Ducks prospect from Finland, defenseman Sami Vatanen, Miro Aaltonen does not have the prototypical size to play in the NHL but is a highly-skilled player who is an outstanding skater and reads the game extremely well.

A horrific leg injury suffered in the first game of the 2013 World Junior Championship kept him out of the rest of the SM-Liiga season that year, but the fact that he worked to get back for the junior league playoffs in April likely impressed the Anaheim personnel staff.

In his first full season with Espoo, Aaltonen was one of four players to play in all 60 regular season games and was the Blues' fourth-leading scorer with 13 goals and 16 assists, finishing +4 with 12 penalty minutes. Aaltonen was one of four players to lead Espoo with three goals in their seven-game quarterfinal playoff series with Lukko while also adding four assists.

Signed with Espoo for the 2014-15 season, he is likely to spend at least one more season in Finland before heading to North America.

3. Philip McRae, Espoo Blues
NHL Rights: St. Louis Blues
Drafted in the 2nd round, 33rd overall, in 2008

With limited opportunities in St. Louis due to the improved talent level of the organization since he was first drafted, the son of former NHL forward Basil McRae signed a contract with Tappara Tampere last spring in hopes of getting his career back on track.

McRae spent most of his first three pro seasons with the Blues' AHL affiliate in Peoria, scoring a career-high 23 goals in 2011-12 but then skating in just 45 games the following season due to a series of nagging injuries.

It looked like McRae's experience in Finland might not turn out well as he had just one assist and was -3 in eight games with Tappara before being dealt to Espoo. The change of scenery worked well as McRae flourished playing right wing in a third line role for Espoo.

In 45 regular season games with Espoo, McRae scored eight goals with 12 assists and was +9 with 12 penalty minutes. In Espoo's seven-game playoff series with Lukko, he scored three goals with one assist and was +1 with two penalty minutes.

4. Iiro Pakarinen, HIFK Helsinki
NHL Rights: Unrestricted Free Agent
Drafted in the 7th round, 184th overall, in 2011 (FLA)

Pakarinen, like Aaltonen, was not selected in his initial year of draft eligibility, but that is where the similarity in their games ends.

Thought to be the "tough to play against" type of player that Florida GM Dale Tallon felt would change the culture of the Panthers when he was selected in the 2011 NHL Draft, Pakarinen's game seemed to hit a plateau in his final year with KalPa in 2011-12 and in his first season with HIFK the following year, and he did not receive a contract with the Panthers.

After not being signed, Pakarinen returned to HIFK this season and was named an assistant captain. In an otherwise disappointing season for HIFK, Pakarinen had a bounce back year, proving to be a Leo Komarov-type player that can score goals while getting under an opponent's skin and dropping the gloves if necessary.

The only player to skate in all 60 regular season games for HIFK, Pakarinen was second on the team with 20 goals and was -1 with 10 assists and 32 penalty minutes. Like Jokerit, HIFK was also swept in a preliminary round playoff series, scoring just one goal in two games against Pelicans Lahti.

5. Niclas Lucenius, TPS Turku
NHL Rights: Unrestricted Free Agent
Drafted in the 4th round, 115th overall, in 2007 (ATL)

Now 24, Lucenius has had a roller coaster pro career since being drafted after putting up big numbers in Tappara's junior program.

Not signed to a contract by the then-Thrashers in 2009, he had his best SM-Liiga season skating with St. Louis Blues prospect Jori Lehtera for Tappara in 2009-10, scoring 17 goals with 29 assists to finish third on the team with 46 points (Lehtera was the league's leading scorer while another former Thrashers prospect, Jonas Enlund, led Tappara with 28 goals).

Lucenius failed to match those numbers the following season with Tappara Tampere and played in the KHL with Dynamo Riga in 2011-12, where he had 15 assists in 53 games, before returning to Tampere last year.

After spending part of this season in Finland's second league, Mestis, Lucenius returned to Liiiga with TPS Turku and was the team's second-leading scorer behind former Anaheim Ducks forward Dan Sexton. TPS missed the playoffs after finishing 13th in the 14-team league.

The window may be closing on Lucenius in terms of a career in North America — and the struggles in TPS this season don't help that cause — but for teams in need of scoring, he may be an option.

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