In fact, two of the nine players from Finland that were drafted last month — defensemen Julius Honka and Alex Lintuniemi — played junior hockey in Canada this past season, with the Swift Current Broncos and the Ottawa 67′s, respectively. Honka was taken with the 14th overall pick in the first round by the Dallas Stars while the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings tabbed Lintuniemi with the final pick of the second round (60th overall).
KalPa Kuopio right wing Kasperi Kapanen, the top-rated international skater in Central Scouting’s final rankings, was the first Finland-based player selected when he was chosen by the Pittsburgh Penguins with the 22nd overall pick.
Kapanen, whose father Sami Kapanen played in the NHL and currently is the majority owner of the KalPa club for which both played last season, waited longer than expected to hear his name called. He could, however, be a good fit in an organization that is lacking in offensive prospects despite the presence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the parent club.
For the second straight year, a pair of Finnish goaltenders were drafted as HIFK’s Ville Husso, passed over in the 2013 draft, and Espoo Blues A junior goalie Kaapo Kahkonen were both selected in the fourth round. Husso went to the St. Louis Blues with the 94th overall pick and Kahkonen was taken by the Minnesota Wild with the 109th pick.
In the late rounds, two other players who were passed over in the 2013 draft were taken, with KalPa defenseman Joonas Lyytinen being selected by the Nashville Predators in the fifth round (132nd overall) and the Detroit Red Wings using a sixth round pick (166th overall) on TPS Turku left wing Julius Vahatalo.
Jokerit defenseman Miro Karjalainen won a B Junior championship with that club and was the lone player selected directly from Finland’s U18 level.
The seven draftees that played in Finland this past season is the fewest since the 2010 draft. Since the 2000 NHL Draft, which consisted of nine rounds and saw 19 players from Finland selected, this is just the fourth draft in which seven or fewer players were taken — 2007 (four), 2008 (seven) and 2010 (seven).
Kasperi Kapanen, RW, KalPa Kuopio
6’0”, 180 lbs., 7/23/96
First round (22nd overall), Pittsburgh Penguins
Kapanen grew up in southern New Jersey while his father was playing for Philadelphia so there was some speculation that he might be taken by the Flyers with the 17th overall pick. Instead, he went five picks later to one of that club’s chief rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After a season of adversity when he dealt with injuries and a losing season team-wise, the talented young forward could have an opportunity to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins sooner than expected.
“It’s the best league in the world so I’ve got to prepare myself and see what happens,” Kapanen said, looking forward to his first NHL training camp. “Of course I’m going to try and take a spot on the roster. It’s the wrong mentality if you think that you can’t do it. That’s what I’m going to try and do, but if not, I’m happy to go back to my hometown in Kuopio and play there.”
After a successful regular season, Pittsburgh struggled to score goals in the playoffs, so Kapanen could add be a welcome addition.
“I think my skating is the biggest strength. Just playing with the puck, passing, shooting, goal scoring ,” said the young forward when asked to assess his game. “I think those are the things that stick out for me. Defensively I’ve got to be better if I want to play in the National Hockey League someday.”
Juho Lammikko, RW, Assat Pori
6’3”, 190 lbs., 1/29/96
Third round (65th overall), Florida Panthers
Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has made a habit of selecting forwards from Finland in the draft, having taken one in every draft since 2010 except for the 2012 draft when Florida had just five picks. Florida recently signed veteran Jussi Jokinen so there will be at least two fellow Finnish-speaking forwards in training camp, including last year’s second overall pick Aleksander Barkov, when Lammikko reports to Florida later this summer.
“We had a need up front at both wing positions,” Tallon told reporters following the draft .”We got some size and some skill. We got some toughness as well – guys that are hard to play against.”
Florida went into this year’s draft without a third round pick but traded one of the two third rounders they had in the 2015 draft to the Islanders to move up and select Lammikko.
“It was nice to hear my name,” said Lammikko, who was asked to describe his game. “I’m a forward that wants to make plays and score. I can play the physical game. I can play every role — left wing, center and right wing.”
Ville Husso, G, HIFK Helsinki
6’3”, 205 lbs., 2/6/95
Fourth round (94th overall), St. Louis Blues
The 2013-14 season was one of redemption for Husso, who went undrafted at the 2013 NHL Draft but used that as a wake-up call and was one of the top netminders in Finland’s Liiga as an 18-year-old.
“We won the A Juniors championship a couple of years ago and I got the contract with HIFK in Liiga, and maybe I thought if I didn’t practice I’d play in league, but now I know better,” Husso admitted. “Last year when I didn’t get drafted I took that to be a big motivation. I practiced so hard. I talked to my agent and my coaches and they said, ‘No problems. Practice harder and be smart.’ “
Husso seized the starting job from veterans Brad Thiessen and Joakim Lundstrom and was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for HIFK. In 41 games, he was 19-14-5 with two shutouts and had a 1.99 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. He started both playoff games in the Pelicans sweep of his club and had a 1.25 goals-against and .935 save percentage.
Veteran Brian Elliott started most of the season for St. Louis last year before the Blues acquired Ryan Miller for the playoff run. Miller recently signed a free agent contract with Vancouver, but the Blues still have three promising youngsters in their system in Jake Allen, Jordan Binnington, and Niklas Lundstrom.
“Brian Elliott is a good goalie,” said Husso, who will likely return to Finland for at least one more season with HIFK. “I’ve not watched many games but the games I’ve seen him he’s played good.”
Kaapo Kahkonen, G, Espoo Blues A Junior
6’2”, 210 lbs., 8/16/96
Fourth round (109th overall), Minnesota Wild
Kahkonen was arguably the top goalie in Finnish junior hockey last season — he led Espoo to a championship — but after some struggles with Finland’s U18 team late in the year his draft stock slipped a bit. In going to the Wild he joins a team that looks to be on the rise. The Wild has also enjoyed success with a goalie from Finland between the pipes.
Veteran goalie Niklas Backstrom, now 36, is a Helsinki native and won a championship with Karpat in 2004-05 before signing with the Wild two years later. Injuries have prevented him from playing in the playoffs the past two seasons.
“I think maybe a couple of years,” said Kahkonen, when asked about when he thought he’d be ready to play in Minnesota. “Last year I played with the junior team and this summer I’m training with the men’s team. I haven’t played in men’s team. I think I have to play there first for a couple of years.”
The Wild already have several players from , Finlandincluding team captain Mikko Koivu, and Kahkonen feels he would fit in well.
“I heard that it’s like Finland. There’s trees and mosquitos and lakes too,” he said with a smile. “There’s a couple of Finnish players there, too. I think it may be a nice city.”
Joonas Lyytinen, D, KalPa Kuopio
6’0″, 155, 4/4/95
Fifth round (132nd overall), Nashville Predators
Since the Predators’ first NHL draft in 1998, only the Dallas Stars have selected as many players from Finland (16) as has Nashville. Lyytinen, like Husso and Vahatalo, was eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft but was not selected.
Lyytinen is another product of the KalPa junior program. Since purchasing the club along with then-teammate Kimmo Timonen in 2003, Sami Kapanan and the rest of the KalPa hockey group have emphasized the development of the club’s youth teams.
“We get a lot of good young players but we haven’t been able to create enough NHL players,” Kapanen said. “That’s something that hopefully in the coming years we can push these kids a little more and teach them the certain things that are giving them the best possible chance to make it all the way to the NHL.”
In what was a difficult season for both the A Juniors and men’s teams in Kuopio this past winter, Lyytinen stood out for his ability to compete on a nightly basis and battle despite the team’s struggles. He skates well and has some passing and stickhandling skills that suggest he can one day compete at the NHL level.
Lyytinen played 30 games with the KalPa men’s team last year and was -3 while scoring 3 goals with 6 assists and 24 penalty minutes.
Miro Karjalainen, D, Jokerit B Junior (U18)
6’5″, 205, 5/23/96
Fifth round (135th overall), Dallas Stars
The Stars went into the 2014 NHL Draft intent on improving their depth at defense. After selecting Honka 14th overall, they used six of their remaining eight picks on defenseman. The fourth of those seven defenseman selected, Karjalainen, is still fairly early on in the development curve but has the physical tools and attitude to one day be a strong shut-down defender.
Karjalainen has yet to participate in the Finland national junior team program and played mostly at the lower levels in Finland’s U18 league before joining Jokerit last season. But, despite his limited experience, he made a smooth transition and showed great progress throughout the season. At 6’5″ and 205 pounds, he is already physically imposing and likes to play an aggressive physical game.
Karjalainen played a big role for Jokerit as the club captured the B Junior (U18) championship. With Jokerit moving to the KHL for the coming season, Karjalainen will join HIFK for his first season in the Finland A Junior league in 2014-15.
Julius Vahatalo, LW, TPS Turku A Junior
6’5”, 190 lbs., 3/23/1995
Sixth round (166th overall), Detroit Red Wings
More than a few eyes were raised when the Red Wings selected the 19-year-old Vahatalo in the sixth round. Anytime Detroit nabs a European skater with a late-round pick many personnel types immediately see flashes of players like defenseman Jonathan Ericsson or forwards Gustav Nyquist, Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk, who slipped through the draft and became outstanding NHL players.
In recent years Detroit has not had that same type of success late in the draft — and Vahatalo has yet to show that he is on the same level as any of those players at this point — but there are elements of his game to like.
A skilled player who skates well and has ideal size, the knock on Vahatalo is that he does not play the bang-and-crash style that would be expected of a player his size. He skated in 18 games with the TPS Turku men’s team this past season — scoring three goals — but the upcoming season will give a lot clearer view of his long-term potential.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12