2014-15 Liiga Preview, Pt. 2: Tough act to follow as Vaasa Sport replaces KHL-bound Jokerit

By Tony Piscotta
Juuse Saros - Team Finland

Photo: HPK Hameenliina goaltender and Nashville Predators prospect Juuse Saros backstopped Finland to the gold medal at the 2014 WJC and is likely to be a key player for that country at this year’s WJC (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

In part two of the 2014-15 Liiga preview, Hockey’s Future takes a look at the remaining teams from Finland‘s top hockey league not covered in part one. Included in the second part is Liiga newcomer Vaasa Sport, the team selected to replace arguably the league’s most heralded organization, Jokerit, who is now a part of Russia‘s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).

Here is a look at the remaining clubs 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.

HPK Hameenliina (2)

Goaltending was also the story in Hameenlinna where Juuse Saros received the Jarmo Wasama Trophy as the league’s top rookie. Expected to split time with Edmonton Oilers prospect Frans Tuohimaa when the season began, Saros and HPK got off to a fast start and then overcame a late season slide to secure the final playoff spot. In the playoffs, HPK swept Jokerit in a first round series before losing four straight games to league champion Karpat.

Saros, a fourth round pick of the Nashville Predators at the 2013 draft, appeared in 41 regular season games and was 16-16-8 with seven shutouts while posting a 1.76 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. He was in goal for Finland’s U20 team that won a gold medal at the 2014 WJC in Stockholm. Tuohimaa will be in the AHL with Edmonton affiliate Oklahoma City, so HPK signed 30-year-old Joni Myllykoski, who played in Italy last year, to back up Saros. Nineteen-year-old Henri Viitala showed promise with HPK’s U20 team last season.

The HPK defense group returns largely intact with the exception of Marko Tuulola, who retired after a 23-year career. Tuulola had the opportunity to skate alongside his son, Joni Tuulola, who played two regular season games and two playoff contests at the end of last year as an 18-year-old. Like his father, the younger Tuulola is an offensive-minded, skilled defenseman who likes to push the play. One-time Ottawa Senators prospect Craig Schira, 26, is back with the club for his second season and is an assistant captain.

HPK head coach Pasi Arvonen will have several new forwards in his lineup as the top three scorers — including Croatian forward Borna Rendulic, who signed a contract with the Colorado Avalanche — are no longer around. Saku Salminen, a seventh round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013, was loaned to Mestis by Jokerit last year but missed most of the season due to injury. Slovakian center Marek Viedensky, 24, spent the last three seasons with the AHL’s Worcester Sharks but was not tendered a contract by San Jose and was signed by HPK over the summer. Left wing Nicolas Ritz, a 22-year-old from France, and Viedensky have been skating on the top line with Liiga veteran Eero Somervuori in the pre-season. Somervuori, 35, spent the last three seasons with HIFK. Twenty-two-year-old Otto Paajanen is a product of the Hamenlinna junior program and is an assistant captain entering his fourth season.

Ilves Tampere (2)

Ilves showed improvement last season, finishing three points behind HPK for the final playoff spot and avoiding last place for just the second time in the past five seasons. The Tampere club has made the playoffs just once in that time. Entering his second full season as head coach after taking over in mid-season in 2012-13, Tuomas Tukkola has shown patience with young players, giving prospects like Jyrki Jokipakka (DAL) and Michael Keranen (MIN) the experience necessary to earn entry-level NHL contracts.

Keranen, 24, was Ilves’ leading scorer and tied with Jokerit’s Teuvo Teravainen for second in Liiga with 35 assists last season. He signed a one-year, entry-level contract with the Wild in June. One-time Bowling Green Falcon Kai Kantola, 26, led Ilves with a career-high 19 goals and signed with Espoo in the off-season. Montreal native Mark Hurtubise, 30, has been a big scorer in the lower leagues both in Europe and North America following his junior career in Val-d’Or and will get a shot to play in Tampere this year. Twenty-one-year-old Alexander Ruuttu, selected in the second round by the Arizona Coyotes in 2011 but never signed, and 19-year-old Aleksi Mustonen, who played 18 games with Ilves after being acquired from Jokerit last year, are among the club’s top young players. Roope Hintz, eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, played in seven Liiga games a year ago and is the latest promising forward prospect to emerge from the Ilves junior program.

Goalie Joonas Korpisalo appeared in eight games as a 19-year-old last year backing up Ville Kolppanen and Juha Jarvenpaa, missing time due to injury but also playing in Mestis. A third-round pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012, Korpisalo signed a three-year entry-level contract with that club in March and will play in Finland on loan to Ilves. With Kolppanen now in the KHL, Korpisalo will compete with the 25-year-old Jarvenpaa for the starting job. Twenty-year-old Lassi Yrjola, a product of the Ilves junior program, played well against KalPa in the four-team Savon Sanomat pre-season tournament and bears watching.

The Ilves defensive group returns largely intact with the exception of former Toronto Marlies defenseman Simon Gysbers, who signed with TPS Turku over the summer. The group has a mix of experience and youth. Tommi Kivisto, a seventh-round pick by the Hurricanes in 2009 after skating for the WHL‘s Red Deer Rebels, emerged as the player many expected he could be as a junior last season. Signed by Ilves after seeing limited time in three years with Jokerit and spending one pro season in North America, — splitting the 2012-13 season between Carolina’s AHL and ECHL affiliates — he was plus-8 and had a career-high 4 goals and 11 assists in 56 games. Combative but undersized 21-year-old Konsta Makinen played for Finland’s U20 team two years ago and appeared in 26 Liiga games last year while Aleksi Makela, 19, was with Finland’s U20 team in Lake Placid this past summer. Makela was selected by the Dallas Stars in the seventh round in 2013 and has appeared in 16 Liiga games over the past two seasons.

Assat Pori (1)

Assat signed long-time NHL forward Niklas Hagman in hopes of defending the Kanada Cup championship the club won in 2012-13. But, while the 34-year-old led the team in scoring with 21 goals and 17 assists, little else went right. The Pori club not only didn’t repeat it’s playoff championship but missed the playoffs entirely, finishing 12th in the 14-team league.

Goalie Rasmus Rinne, 24, split time with 37-year-old Juuso Riksman last season and both return. Rinne, despite his 8-20-3 record and 2.55 goals-against average, received an invitation to the Dallas Stars’ development camp this past summer. Seventeen-year-old Arttu Kulmala is a product of the Tappara junior program who is eligible for the 2015 draft and has been training with the Assat men’s team.

Defensemen Esa Lindell (DAL) skated for Jokerit last season and signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Stars In May of 2014. The 20-year-old played 44 Liiga games last year and was a part of Finland’s gold medal-winning, U20 team. With Jokerit moving to the KHL, he will remain in Finland and play for Assat. Tommi Taimi, 22, Assat’s top scoring defenseman a year ago, signed a KHL contract with Amur Khabarovsk. Teemu Vuorisalo, a 19-year-old Pori native, was getting a long look in the pre-season and skated with the Finnish junior team in Lake Placid.

Hagman signed to play for Jokerit and Dragan Umicevic signed a contract to play in Switzerland which means Assat will need to replace it’s top two scorers. Juho Lammikko, a third-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2014, was expected to skate for Pori after playing 20 games last year but will instead play in the OHL with the Kingston Frontenacs.

Mika Niemi struggled last season after a 31-point season in 2012-13 but is the top returning scorer. He has been skating with 34-year-old American Michael Ryan and one-time Minnesota Wild prospect Eero Elo on the top line in the pre-season. Aleksi Saarela, a 17-year-old, was signed from Lukko Rauma and is hoping to crack the lineup after skating in 12 Liiga games a year ago while one-time Dallas prospect Austin Smith, 25, is back in Pori for his first full season after splitting last year between the Texas Stars and Assat. Jake Hansen, a 2012 graduate of the University of Minnesota, was signed in August after two seasons with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons.

TPS Turku (1)

TPS head coach Kai Suikkanen guided TPS to a championship in 2009-10 and was behind the bench for Pelicans Lahti in 2011-12 when that club went from being being saved in relegation the previous year to finishing second and reaching the Kanada Cup finals. The one-time Buffalo Sabres prospect did not have the same success in his first season back in Turku as the club finished next-to-last but he is hoping that an infusion of veteran talent will help TPS make a similar turnaround this year.

Offensively, Suikkanen and TPS general manager Ari Vuori were able to sign two of the key players from Pelicans’ playoff run in 2012 — Ryan Lasch and Radek Smolenak — along with veterans like Ilkka Pikkarainen and Lauri Tukonen. The club also brought in a large group of talented prospects and is hoping the mix of experience and young talent steadily molds into a contending team. Julius Vahatalo was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the sixth round in 2014 after skating in 18 games for TPS as an 18-year-old last season while Mikko Rantanen is a man-sized forward who scored five goals with four assists in 37 games last season as a 17-year-old. With a late 1996 birthdate, he is among the early favorites for the 2015 draft. Rasmus Kulmala (20) and Teemu Lamsa (18) are other young forwards who have represented Finland internationally at the junior level, and both should have opportunities to make their mark.

One-time Columbus goalie Fredrik Norrena officially retired after playing 48 games last season and takes over for legendary Urpo Ylonen as the TPS goalie coach. Backup Ville Hostikka signed with Sport so Teemu Lassila, a 31-year-old who split last season between the KHL and the SHL, will get the first shot at the starting job. A fourth-round pick by the Predators in 2003 who never played in North America, Lassila was one of the KHL’s top goalies in 2011-12 and is hoping to regain that form. Twenty-two-year-old Kristian Jarvinen developed under Ylonen’s tutelage in the TPS junior program and played well for Mestis playoff champion KooKoo Kouvola last season.

TPS has significantly rebuilt its defense corps, signing the ageless Petteri Nummelin as well as Simon Gysbers and 26-year-old Czech-born defenseman Jakub Nakladal. Nakladal, a product of the Pardubice club, spent the last three seasons in the KHL.

As with the forwards, Suikkanen is hoping the combination of experience and young talent pays off. Niklas Friman, who played both forward and defense in 45 games last season as a 20-year-old, is one of six defensemen 21 years of age or younger with TPS over the summer. Matias Pulli, 19, is undersized by NHL standards (5’9″ 170) but was one of the top defenders for the TPS A junior team last year. Eighteen-year-old Miro Keskitalo was the top-rated junior player for Jokerit prior to the 2014 draft according to Central Scouting (88th in the final rankings) and helped that club’s B Junior squad win a U18 national championship. Keskitalo and new teammate Teemu Vuorisalo, 19, both played for Finland in the Lake Placid camp in August.

KalPa Kuopio (3)

Little went right in Kuopio last season despite the presence of two of the more promising young forwards in Finnish hockey. Due to injuries and inconsistent play, KalPa used over 40 players, finishing last with just 12 regulation wins in 60 games. At times at the end of the year the club did not have enough players for a full lineup. Artturi Lehkonen, the Montreal Canadiens‘ second-round pick in 2013 and one of the heroes for Finland at the 2014 WJC, led KalPa in scoring with seven goals and 13 assists despite appearing in just 33 games. Kasperi Kapanen, the son of one-time Flyers and Hurricanes forward Sami Kapanen, appeared in 47 games as a 17-year-old but also missed time due to injury and had the expected difficulties of a teenager playing against men. Kapanen was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft.

Lehkonen will not be back — signing a two-year contract to play in Sweden — but Kapanen will return unless he makes the Penguins in training camp. Czech forwards Michal Berner and Tomas Kubalik, the latter a restricted free agent whose rights are held by the Winnipeg Jets, were signed after Lev Prague announced it would not be able to ice a KHL team this season. Twenty-three-year-old Arttu Ilomaki, obtained from Tappara in the middle of the 2013-14 season, skated in the top center spot in the pre-season. Among the potential NHL prospects, center Saku Kinnunen played 51 games for KalPa last season and was a member of Finland’s U20 team. He and Kapanen also attended this year’s U20 camp in Lake Placid and are likely to represent Finland at the 2015 World Junior Championship tournament in Canada.

Veteran defenseman and one-time New Jersey Devils prospect Mikko Jokela, a 34-year-old who was named team captain, was the lone addition to a defensive group that returns largely intact. Nineteen-year-old Joonas Lyytinen skated in a top-pairing role late in the year due to injuries and KalPa’s struggles last year, drawing the attention of the Nashville Predators, who selected him in the fifth round in June. Mikael Seppala, 20, also gained experience last season and at 6’2 and 190 pounds is an intriguing prospect.

KalPa will have a new starter in net as 2013-14 starter Pekka Tuokkola is now in Austria while backup Henri Kivaho signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Dallas Stars in May. Liiga veteran Eero Kilpelainen has the inside track on the starter’s job with a pair of prospects in Samu Perhonen (21) and 19-year-old Tuukka Smura vying for a spot. Smura hails from Kajaani in central Finland and has been in the KalPa junior program since 2010-11. Perhonen was a third-round pick by Edmonton in 2011 but was never signed. He played eight games in the USHL with the eventual champion Indiana Ice last year before returning to HIFK’s U20 team.

Sami Kapanen, who retired after last season, is hopeful that KalPa can get back to developing local youth players and making the playoffs as the club did for five straight seasons before last season’s collapse.

“It’s something that now that I’m done playing I’m trying to give my personal knowledge and understanding of the game for the young players,” said the one-time NHL forward at this year’s NHL Draft media festivities. “We get a lot of good young players but we haven’t been able to create enough NHL players.”

Vaasa Sport (1)

With Jokerit leaving to join the KHL the powers-that-be in Liiga announced in February of 2014 that Vaasa would be admitted for the 2014-15 season. While Sport finished second to TuTo in the regular season and was eliminated in the quarterfinals as third-place KooKoo captured the playoff title, the club’s financial situation, fan base and consistent success over the past decade suggested it was the best fit to make the move to a higher league. After capturing three league championships in four seasons between 2008-09 and 2011-12, the club will have a new look this season as several new players were added to compete at the higher level of Liiga on a nightly basis.

Tomek Valtonen, 34, takes over as head coach after spending the last seven seasons with Jokerit, spending three seasons with the Jokerit U20 team before serving as an assistant and taking over as the interim head coach in the middle of last season.

Valttonen’s Jokerit connections are evident as two of Sport’s top young prospects — defenseman Petteri Lindbohm (STL) and forward Joel Kiviranta – were with the club last year. Lindbohm appeared in 37 Liiga games with Jokerit and on loan to Assat and signed a three-year, entry-level contract with St. Louis this past spring but was loaned to Vaasa for the upcoming season. Kiviranta, 18, appeared in one Liiga game and had 37 points in 42 games for the Jokerit A Junior team last year while also playing for Finland’s U18 team in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial and WJC tournaments.

Offensively, Sport returns it’s top four scorers from last year — forwards Lassi Kokkala, Samuli Kivimaki, and Jarkko Hattunen and defenseman Eetu Heikkinen — along with veteran Marko Luomala. Luomala, now 34, skated for Sport last season after 11 years in the then SM-Liiga. He has yet to match the 27 goals he scored for Assat in 2009-10. Twenty-four-year-old Kelsey Tessier played in Sweden last year after three seasons with the New York Rangers‘ AHL affiliate, the Connecticut Whale. Charles Bertrand, a 23-year-old from France, is back in Finland after playing in the SHL with Farjestad in 2013-14. Felix Westermarck, a 19-year-old from the Espoo junior program, joins Kiviranta as someone to keep an eye on in terms of the 2015 NHL Draft.

Miko Malkamaki comes to Vaasa after three seasons with Assat, with the 26-year-old recently being named team captain. Malkamaki, Lindbohm and Heikkinen will be joined on the Sport blue line by returnees Ari Grondahl and Antti Uitto and off-season signee Matt Generous, who spent the past three seasons with Lukko. Grondahl, like Lindbohm, played in the Espoo juniors, but will be a 25-year-old Liiga rookie after five seasons in Mestis.

Ville Hostikka, a backup to Norrena in Turku last year, and Hannu Toivonen, the Boston Bruins first-round pick in 2002, will vie for the starting spot in goal while 20-year-old Jean Auren showed promise with the Finland U18 team three years ago and played 37 games for Sport’s U20 team in 2013-14.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12