2014-15 Liiga Preview, Pt. 1: Player losses may prevent Karpat from repeating

By Tony Piscotta
Saku Maenalanen - Team Finland

Photo: Karpat Oulu forward and Nashville Predators prospect Saku Maenalanen was a key performer for Finland in that country’s run to a gold medal at the 2014 World Junior Championship (courtesy of ANDREAS HILLERGREN/AFP/Getty Images)

 

The 2014-15 season in Finland‘s Liiga will be an interesting one if only for the absence of long-time Helsinki club Jokerit, which bolted the league to compete in the KHL. Vaasa Sport, which finished second in Mestis last year but won back-to-back championships in 2010-11 and 2011-12, moves up to fill Jokerit’s spot in the 14-team league.

With Jokerit no longer competing in Liiga, some of the junior prospects from that club have moved to other Liiga clubs. Defensemen Santeri Saari, a 2013 sixth round pick by St. Louis, is still with Jokerit and will play in the KHL while defensemen Miro Karjalainen (DAL) and Petteri Lindbohm (STL) will skate for HIFK and Vaasa Sport, respectively, and left wing Markus Hannikainen will play for JyP.

In terms of NHL prospects, Finland continues to produce high-end junior players. But many of those players, such as Juho Lammikko (FLA), a third round pick in 2014, are now heading to North America to play junior hockey in Canada. With more lucrative prospects in the KHL and other European leagues, many of the top prospects are no longer playing in the Liiga but heading elsewhere.

Going into the 2014-15 season there are 17 players with NHL ties currently playing in Finland’s top league, which features mostly second-tier imports or older veterans playing out the final years of their careers.

Here is a look at each club in the order in which they finished in the 2013-14 season. The number in parentheses next to the team name represents the number of NHL prospects that should be competing for that club in the 2014-15 season.

Karpat Oulu (1)

Karpat won its first league championship since 2007-08, and the fifth in team history after finishing first in the regular season under first-year head coach, Lauri Marjamaki. The club’s championship led to bigger opportunities elsewhere for several players — goalie Jussi Rynnas (DAL) and defenseman Ville Pokka (NYI) signed NHL contracts while Juhamatti Aaltonen (Jokerit) and Ben Maxwell (Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk) headed to the KHL.

Leading scorer Ivan Huml, 22-year-old Joonas Donskoi, a fourth round pick by Florida in 2010 who never signed a contract, and one-time Philadelphia Flyer Mika Pyorala are the top returning forwards. Saku Maenalanen, a fifth-round pick by Nashville in 2013, played in 25 regular season games a year ago and should have a larger role this season. Former New Jersey Devils prospect Patrick Davis, who had a big year for SaiPa last season, and former Anaheim second-round pick Nicolas Deschamps are among the players signed in the off-season. Opportunities will be limited for younger forwards but Antti Kalapudas, 18, and 17-year-old Sebastian Aho, who is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, have been dominant in junior hockey.

On defense, Pokka may return on loan if he does not make the Islanders out of training camp. One-time St. Lawrence University defenseman Ryan Glenn was another big reason for SaiPa’s surprising success last year. The 34-year-old was signed by Karpat and joins a veteran defensive unit headed by team captain Lasse Kukkonen. Karpat has five defensemen 30 years of age or older. Vladimir Eminger, a 22-year-old from the Czech Republic, appeared in 46 games a year ago.

Iiro Tarkki, who spent the 2011-12 season in the Anaheim system and appeared in one game with the Ducks, is back in Finland after playing in Russia and Sweden the past two seasons. Tarkki will compete with 24-year-old former Sarnia Sting goalie Tomi Karhunen — who played well as Rynnas’ backup last season — for the starting spot in net.

Tappara Tampere (0)

Tappara Tampere was one of Finland’s top teams for the second straight season, finishing second in the regular season and taking Karpat to seven games in the Kanada Cup final series. Jukka Rautakorpi, who coached Tappara the past two seasons, was reportedly headed to the KHL to coach Lev Prague before financial troubles forced that team to sit out the 2014-15. Long-time assistant Jussi Tapola will be behind the bench in Tampere this season and has several players returning.

Goalie Juha Metsola, who spent two seasons with the WHL‘s Lethbridge Hurricanes, was a workhorse for the club. Appearing in 56 of 60 games, he was 29-12-13 with 12 shutouts in the regular season and had a 1.92 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. The 25-year-old is back for his third season and will be joined by former Ohio State University goalie Brady Hjelle, who played in Norway last year.

Tappara, like Karpat, lost a few players to greener pastures. Former RPI defenseman Nick Ballen led Tampere defensemen with 32 points in 54 games but is now with Dinamo Minsk in the KHL. Tuukka Mantyla played for Finland’s silver medal squad at the 2014 World Championship and replaces Ballen after spending last season in the KHL. Atte Makinen, a 19-year-old who was one of the final cuts for last year’s Finland U20 team, appeared in 10 Liiga games and is one of the few young defensemen in a veteran group. David Kolomatis spent five years in the AHL and was signed over the summer.

Among the Tappara forward group, the top seven scorers from last season are back, leaving little room for prospects to crack the lineup. One exception could be 20-year-old Henrik Haapala. Part of Finland’s gold medal team at the 2014 World Junior Championship, the small but skilled right wing saw limited ice time in 36 regular season games and 15 playoff contests last season but should have a bigger role. Sixteen-year-old Patrik Laine, eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, trained with the club over the summer and represented Finland in the recent Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

Lukko Rauma (0)

Lukko reached the Kanada Cup semifinals for the second straight season and defeated SaiPa in the bronze medal game. Unlike the previous season, when the club edged Pelicans for the final playoff spot before making an improbable playoff run, the club from western Finland was among the league leaders all season, finishing with 101 points and behind only Karpat (131) and Tappara (101).

Like the other top teams in Finland, Lukko relied on strong team play and experienced veterans rather than elite level NHL-caliber younger prospects. Coach Risto Dufva developed a reputation for getting the most out of his team through cohesiveness and high energy while coaching Jukurit (Mestis) and then JyP, and that has continued since he joined Lukko in 2012-13.

Goalie Ryan Zapolski, a 2011 graduate of Mercyhurst University, played 58 of 60 games for Rauma last season and was 30-19-7 with seven shutouts while posting a 2.02 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. The 27-year-old is back in Finland for his second season. Oskari Setanen, 20, is a promising prospect from the Lukko junior program.

Lukko lost two veteran defensemen when former Minnesota Wild and long-time Team Finland veteran Petteri Nummelin, now 40, decided to play in his hometown of Turku while Matt Generous signed with Vaasa Sport. To fill these spots Rauma signed Janne Niskala, who played in the KHL the past four seasons, and 26-year-old Mikko Kousa, who skated for Jokerit last season but will stay in Finland rather than play in the KHL. Juho Tommila, 21, is a product of the Lukko junior program and appeared in 32 Liiga games, including seven playoff games, last season.

Rauma returns it’s top three scorers up front, including one-time Dallas Star Aaron Gagnon, but Lauri Tukonen, who was the 11th player taken in the 2004 NHL Draft but skated in just five games for the Los Angeles Kings, will play for TPS Turku. Thirty-seven-year-old Ville Nieminen, who reached the Stanley Cup finals with Colorado and Calgary, signed a one-year contract with the club. Lukko received a serious blow when 20-year-old Joni Nikko suffered a season-ending leg injury while attending the Chicago Blackhawks development camp as a non-roster invitee. Undersized Jesper Piitulainen, 23, scored 11 goals in 40 games for SaiPa last season in limited ice time and was getting a trial on the top line with Gagnon and Ville Vahalahti in the exhibition games.

SaiPa Lappenranta (0)

No team was a bigger surprise last season than SaiPa, which topped the 100-point mark for the first time since being promoted to what was then the SM-Liiga in 1995-96. SaiPa made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for just the second time, finishing fourth and reaching the semifinals. As is seemingly the case every season, the club lost several players who left for bigger contracts elsewhere, but general manager Riku Kallioniemi has brought in several veterans. SaiPa could once again be tough — particularly with the ageless Jussi Markanen in net — if head coach Pekka Tirkkonen can once again put things together.

There was no better story in Finnish hockey than the season put together by the now 39-year-old, one-time Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers goalie Markanen. A native of neighboring Imatra, he returned “home” after playing the last four seasons in Switzerland. Markkanen appeared in 47 regular season games, the most he’d played since 2007-08 when he played 50 games for Jokerit in his first season back in Europe. He is joined by 24-year-old Italian goalie Andreas Bernard. Bernard played in 14 regular season games and two playoff contests with SaiPa last year and skated for Italy in the 2014 World Championship.

Offensively, SaiPa returns its top line of Janni Tavi, captain Ville Koho and 23-year-old Jesse Mankinen, who was second on the team with 13 goals. While Davis (Karpat) and Stefano Giliati (Espoo) are no longer in Lappeenranta, SaiPa have a pair of former NCAA and AHL players in David Spina (Boston College), who joined the team late in the season a year ago, and one-time Colgate center David McIntyre. McIntyre played for Grand Rapids last year and skated in seven games with the Minnesota Wild in 2011-12. Among the young forwards, Mikael Kuronen, 22, played in 40 games for Ilves two years ago and was one of the top scorers for Mestis champion KooKoo last season while Ilmari Pitkanen, 24, adds supplementary scoring and physical play.

The bigger challenge for SaiPa will be rebuilding the defense corps that lost four of the six players who finished the year with the club (Glenn and Dan Spang are now with Karpat while Lauri Taipulus signed with HIFK and massive Per Savilahti-Nagander returned to Sweden). California native and one-time Ducks prospect Brian Salcido spent parts of three seasons with SaiPa before splitting last season between the KHL and JyP and is back as the club’s top defenseman. Simo-Pekka Riikola, 22, figures to see a larger role this season and former University of Minnesota and Guelph Storm defenseman Sam Lofquist is getting a look. The 24-year-old spent the last three seasons in Sweden’s Allsvenskan. Kalle Maalahti, 23, grew up in Lappeenranta and played 28 regular season and 11 playoff games last year.

JyP Jyvaskyla (0)

No club has been more successful than JyP the past few seasons, winning two championships and reaching the playoff semifinals for five straight seasons before finishing in fifth place last season and falling to SaiPa in a seven-game quarterfinal series. One of the top sports universities in Finland is located in Jyvaskyla and the club’s junior program has produced its fair amount of prospects. But the success of the men’s team has largely been based on experience and players in their late 20’s who may have taken a little longer than expected to develop while taking advantage of second chance opportunities.

Team captain and leading scorer Eric Perrin, now 38, was Martin St. Louis’ linemate at the University of Vermont and appeared in 245 NHL games with Tampa Bay and Atlanta between 2003-04 and 2008-09. He joined JyP following a season in the KHL and enters his fifth season with the club. One-time NHL forwards Tuomas Pihlman and Petr Hubacek are expected to fill out the top line as JyP returns seven of the nine forwards who skated on the top three lines in the playoffs against SaiPa. One-time Maple Leafs forward and AHL veteran Darryl Boyce was signed over the summer.

Despite the veteran roster there are four high profile prospects looking to crack the lineup. Hannikainen, 21, was invited to the Columbus Blue Jackets development camp while Markus Nenonen, 21, led all Liiga rookies with 14 goals. Juuso Ikonen, 19, enters his third full season in Liiga and is still looking to find the offensive touch he displayed in junior hockey. Seventeen-year-old Julius Nattinen is among the top prospects from Finland for the 2015 NHL Draft.

JyP has several new faces on defense. In addition to Salcido the club lost its top offensive defensemen, Kristian Nakyva, after the 23-year-old signed a contract to play in Sweden. Nakyva is a prime example of a player who was highly regarded for his skills coming out of junior but did not crack the men’s team lineup in Espoo and was never drafted. His skating game should fit in well in the SHL and he would be an interesting free agency signing for an NHL club. Among the young defensemen in Jyvaskyla, 17-year-old Sami Niku has the most NHL promise. Niku played for Finland’s U18 team in the Ivan Hlinka and WJC tournaments last season.

Goalie Tuomas Tarkki, who played college hockey at Northern Michigan, has been one of the winningest goalies in Finland since his rookie season with Karpat in 2006-07, playing in over 50 games for JyP in each of the past two seasons. Twenty-one-year-olds Sami Rajaniemi and Dennis Saikkonen have showed promise with the JyP-Akatemia team in Mestis and in limited Liiga opportunities.

Espoo Blues (3)

Espoo Blues returned to the playoffs under first-year coach Jyrki Aho, finishing in sixth place after the disappointing 12th place finish in 2012-13. Espoo showed steady improvement and played some of its best hockey at the end of the season before falling to Lukko in seven games in a quarterfinal playoff series. No team’s junior club has had as much sustained success as the Espoo A Junior squad, which won the regular season and playoff titles in 2013-14 and has reached the finals in five of the last eight seasons. As a result, Espoo has relied on its junior program as a source of talent and has given its younger players larger roles than some of the other teams in Finland.

Right wing/center Miro Aaltonen (ANA) was Espoo’s fourth-leading scorer and third on the team with 13 goals in 2013-14 as a 19-year-old. Drafted in 2013, he has yet to sign a contract with the Ducks and will be back with the Blues. Espoo’s top two scorers — Tommi Huhtala (25) and Eetu Poysti (24) — were signed by Jokerit and will skate in the KHL. Veteran off-season acquisitions Giliati (SaiPa) and Roope Talaja (HIFK) are getting the first opportunity to skate on the top line with Kim Hirschovits. Left wing Antonin Honejsek, 23, spent two seasons with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors and played for HC Zlin in his native Czech Republic the past three seasons. Ilkka Kangasniemi and Timi Lahtinen were two of the top scorers for Espoo’s champion U20 team and will try and crack the lineup.

Defenseman Petr Zamorsky, a teammate of Honejsek’s with HC Zlin, also signed with Espoo in May before signing a two-year entry-level contract with the New York Rangers. Zamorsky is training with Blues before attending New York’s training camp and will return to Finland if he doesn’t make the NHL squad. Niklas Tikkinen, a fifth-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes in 2012 who was not signed, has been skating alongside Zamorsky in the pre-season. The 20-year-old converted forward was not taken in the 2014 NHL Draft and is an unrestricted free agent for NHL purposes. Former Barrie Colts captain Ryan O’Connor, 22, was signed over the summer after playing in Switzerland and Russia last season and 21-year-old Jere Seppala played 52 games (including seven playoff games) for Espoo as a rookie in 2013-14. Twenty-year-olds Otso Rantakari and Victor Westermarck have promise.

Veteran Jani Nieminen returns for his second season as the starter in net for Espoo but will have a new backup this year as Norwegian Lars Volden, the one-time Boston Bruins prospect, is now with Rogle in Sweden. Eetu Laurikainen, 21, is back in Finland after playing for Swift Current in the WHL the past two seasons and has the inside track on the job. Kaapo Kahkonen (MIN) was selected by the Minnesota Wild in the fourth round in 2014 and was in net for Espoo’s U20 championship team as well as starting for Finland’s U18 team at the Ivan Hlinka and WJC tournaments in 2013-14.

Pelicans Lahti (1)

Pelicans returned to the playoffs after a one year absence, finishing in eighth place behind Jokerit. Unlike the bigger clubs in Finland, the Lahti squad has frequently had to rely on imports and second-tier, older prospects to fill its roster due to a lack of top flight younger players coming up through the ranks. That appears to be changing as the Pelicans U20 team reached the A junior bronze medal game last season, with that club having five players identified as prospects by Central Scouting prior to the 2014 NHL Draft. While none of those players were ultimately selected, all trained with the men’s team over the summer and could push for playing time.

The only NHL draftee currently on the Pelicans roster is 19-year-old goalie Janne Juvonen (NSH), who was selected in the seventh round by the Predators in the 2013 NHL Draft. Juvonen spent most of last season in Mestis, appearing in four games as a backup to Pelicans starter Jere Nyllyniemi, and was also the third goalie for Finland’s gold medal-winning team at the 2014 World Junior Championship. Myllyniemi, 31, is once again expected to start. Toni Eskelin, 19, who played for Karpat’s U20 team last year, is also pushing for a spot.

Forty-two-year-old Jan Latvala is back for his 22nd season of pro hockey and anchors the defense group. Tomas Kudelka, who spent three years in the Senators organization and most recently played for HC Vitkovice in the Czech Extraliga, was signed in the off-season and will be one of the bigger defenders in Liiga. Nico Manelius, 23, was a promising prospect while playing junior hockey for Jokerit before suffering a serious knee injury. Eetu Sopanen and Ville Vainola, both 18, were highly-regarded by some scouts but went undrafted in their first year of eligibility this past June. Sopanen is the younger brother of Pelicans’ leading scorer Vili Sopanen but like Manelius missed much of his draft year due to injury.

Vili Sopanen and one-time Bruins and Coyotes prospect Tyler Redenbach — the top two scorers for Pelicans in 2013-14 — both return. The top addition for the Lahti club is Michal Repik. A second round pick and the 40th overall selection by Florida at the 2007 NHL Draft, Repik, 25, appeared in 72 NHL games and spent the last two seasons with Lev Prague in the KHL. Joel Mustonen, who played 28 games as a 21-year-old last season, could push for a top-six role. Center Hannes Bjorninen, Sebastian Repo, and Miska Siikanen were ranked 40th, 47th, and 70th respectively by Central Scouting amongst international skaters but were not drafted. All could see time before the end of the season. Twenty-year-old Taavi Vartianen is another forward with size who scored at a point-per-game pace for the Pelicans U20 team.

HIFK Helsinki (2)

HIFK, like neighbor Jokerit, had a disappointing season, finishing ninth in the regular season and then being swept in two games by Pelicans in a first round playoff series. HIFK struggled to score at times, and had just one goal in the two-game playoff series with Pelicans. With Jokerit moving on to the KHL the club becomes the lone team playing in Helsinki, though neighboring Espoo Blues is a fairly short drive.

Ville Peltonen, a long-time member of Finland’s national team who played 382 NHL games with three teams, led HIFK in scoring a year ago but announced his retirement in March. Juuso Puustinen, 25, who played two seasons with Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, and former Kings prospect Corey Elkins both return and have been skating on HIFK’s top line with Sami Blomqvist in the pre-season. Blomqvist, 24, is the son of one-time NHL defenseman Timo Blomqvist. Small by NHL standards, he was a big scorer for Espoo during his junior career and was the second-leading scorer for Jokipojat in Mestis last year. HIFK signed two former minor league prospects with NHL roots in Tomas Zaborsky (NYR) and Joonas Rask (NSH). Zaborsky, from Slovakia, led Assat Pori in scoring in 2011-12 before spending the past two seasons in the KHL and hopes to regain his scoring touch. Rask appeared in two games with the Predators in 2012-13 while spending most of the past two seasons with Milwaukee in the AHL.

Like the HIFK forward group, most of the defense corps is composed of veterans such as team captain and former University of Massachusetts-Amherst defenseman Toni Soderholm. Julius Nyqvist appeared in seven games as a 21-year-old last season and is hoping for a larger role while Juha Tarkkanen is a product of the HIFK A junior team. Sebastian Moberg, signed out of the Espoo A junior program, and Karjalainen, a fifth round pick by the Stars in 2014, are promising 18-year-olds, but one or both may spend the year in A juniors.

Goalie Ville Husso is back for HIFK after an outstanding rookie season. Not selected in the 2013 NHL Draft in his first year of eligibility, Husso re-dedicated himself to training the way he did when he led the HIFK A junior team to the 2012 finals. Expected to start the season in Mestis or back in A juniors, he seized the starting role as an 18-year-old, finishing 19-14-5 in 41 games with a 1.99 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. Husso was selected by the St. Louis Blues in the fourth round (94th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft. Kevin Lankinen, another 19-year-old, was with Finland’s U20 team in Lake Placid and is seeing time in the pre-season.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12