Top 10 Finnish prospects for 2009 draft

By Tony Piscotta

The recent trend in recent NHL entry drafts has been away from European prospects, with a larger emphasis on American-born players – either from the US or Canadian junior leagues or even high schools. Few countries have been affected by this trend as much as Finland – with less than 10 players being selected in three of the past four entry drafts. By comparison, there were 28 (2001) and 26 (2002) selected in back-to-back years earlier this decade.

In 2009, it is doubtful that ten or more Finns will be drafted – with only the top four players all but certain to be picked.

The majority of the first-time eligible players are lacking in one or more areas – either with respect to size, physical abilities, positioning and game play, or in the cases of players such as Nico Manelius and Jere Sallinen, there were serious injuries which caused them to miss much of the season. This makes teams leery of selecting them. The real value in the Finnish prospect pool this year could lie with some of the players previously passed over in their first or second year of draft eligibility.

The Oakland Athletics in major league baseball have become known for their approach to drafting players – they avoid high profile teenage prospects that command large signing bonuses, and focus on slightly older (and equally importantly less expensive) non-drafted college players originally passed over due to some perceived shortcoming. An NHL club could do well to employ a similar tact and take a second look at some of the Finnish prospects establishing themselves either at the SM-Liiga level or in Mestis.

In the case of the Athletics, the strategy allows the small market team, to maximize the number of players signed and minimize the uncertainty of drafting long-term projects. In the salary cap era of the NHL, utilizing a similar “Moneyball” strategy to find more mature late-round value picks in the entry draft, lessens the need for expensive free agents “depth” players and lessens the likelihood of drafting a long-shot player who may never play in the NHL. 

Note: the three Finnish-born players who spent the season playing in North America – goalie Juha Metsola (Lethbridge – WHL), defenseman Tomi Kivisto (Red Deer – WHL), and University of Minnesota-bound forward Erik Haula (Shattuck-St. Mary’s) – are all considered North American prospects for draft purposes and are not included in this list. Metsola, is signed to play for HPK in 2009-10 while Kivisto has a contract with Jokerit.

Top 10 at a glance

1. Sami Vatanen, D, JyP
2. Joonas Nattinen, C, Espoo Blues
3. Toni Rajala, W, Ilves
4. Mikko Koskinen, G, Espoo Blues
5. Jesse Jyrkkio, D, Assat
6. Ilari Melart, D, HIFK
7. Olavi Vauhkonen, RW, Jokerit
8. Joni Ortio, G, TPS
9. Tomi Pekkala, RW, Karpat
10. Joonas Jarvinen, D, TPS

1. Sami Vatanen, D

The 2009 IIHF World Under-18 Championships were expected to be a “coming out” party of sorts for long-heralded Finnish forward Toni Rajala – and he did not disappoint. While Rajala deservedly received raves for his performance, it is unlikely that any player at that tournament did more to open scouts’ eyes than Vatanen. As with Rajala, some scouts question whether Vatanen has the size (now listed at 5’9, 163) to perform at the NHL level. And for a defenseman size is even more important.

What cannot be questioned is Vatanen’s skating ability, playmaking skills, and passing and shooting. Despite his lack of size, he is also very adept at positioning himself and denying opponents scoring opportunities in his own end. Vatanen is also very durable despite his stature – logging up to 30 minutes of ice time in some games without showing ill effects. Vatanen served as captain for the Finnish squad at the U18s – and his leadership ability has long been viewed as a big part of his skill set.  He is quite underrated.

After splitting the season between the JyP junior team and also appearing in five games with Diskos in Mestis, the 17-year-old is signed to a two-year contract with defending SM-Liiga champion JyP that runs through the 2010-11 season.

In the final Central Scouting (CS) rankings, released prior to the U-18 World Championships, Vatanen was rated 16th among European skaters and the sixth-highest ranked defenseman.

2. Joonas Nattinen, C

While Rajala is considered by some to have the greatest upside in terms of potential and scoring ability, many scouts are viewing Espoo Blues center Nattinen as the “safer” pick among the Finnish forwards in this year’s draft – thus his CS rating of 10th among European skaters (one spot above Rajala).

Originally a product of the successful JyP junior program, Nattinen was one of a bevy of talented young forwards in the Espoo organization. Espoo, once an also-ran among the larger clubs of Finland, won the 2008-09 Kivilinna Award as the top program at the A, B, and C junior levels. Nattinen also skated for Team Finland in both the World Junior championships and the U-18 tournament.

The two primary reasons that Nattinen is such an attractive prospect are his prototypical size for an NHL forward (6’2) and his well-rounded, two-way play. While not as physical as some clubs prefer, he is a consummate playmaker who is very adept at supporting the defense in his own end while creating scoring chances and opportunities for teammates on the attack. Like many European forwards, he does not possess a booming shot but is very accurate.

Nattinen compares favorably to another Finnish prospect Jori Lehtera (STL), who played in seven games with the Blues’ AHL affiliate Peoria at the end of the 2008-09 season after leading Tappara in scoring in his second full season in the SM-Liiga. 

Nattinen is signed with the Espoo Blues through the 2010-11 season and Coach Petri Matikainen is anticipating him playing a larger role next fall after having played in 19 games with the men’s team between SM-Liiga and Champions League play in 2008-09.

3. Toni Rajala, F

Few players in have garnered such attention at an early age as has Rajala. Since his Ilves’ C junior days, frequently playing up a level in competition, he has drawn comparisons to many of the top forwards, especially Finland’s Saku Koivu.

In terms of talent and production, those comparisons would seem well-founded. Rajala is a dynamic offensive player with skills, instincts and creativity that are matched by few players anywhere. That ability is complemented by a seemingly endless drive.

The great debate, and the reason he is not ranked higher, is whether at his size he will still be able to compete against the larger and stronger players in the NHL the way he has at the junior levels. As USA defenseman William Wrenn told HF at the U-18 tournament, Rajala is a handful for the same-aged opposition.

“He’s fast, he’s skilled and tenacious,” said Wrenn. “He’s really hard to play against.”

With similar-sized players such as Patrick Kane, Brian Gionta, Martin St. Louis, and Sergei Samsonov all enjoying success at the NHL level, it would appear that there is a place for Rajala too. How soon his name is called at the draft remains to be seen.  He could really be taken anywhere.

4. Mikko Koskinen, G

No player in this year’s draft has grown in reputation as has Espoo goaltender Mikko Koskinen. Ranked second by CS among the European goaltending prospects, the 20-year-old from Vantaa could be a poster child for late bloomers and an inspiration to young players who have had to wait for the right opportunity.

As recently as the fall of 2007-08, Koskinen was a backup goalie in the Espoo juniors while also playing for some smaller clubs. Given an opportunity to play regularly for the first time in the middle of that season, the man-sized Koskinen responded – playing well enough to gain some attention. Despite never being a part of the Team Finland junior program, he was ranked fourth among European goalies in the final 2008 CS rankings though he did not get selected. 

It’s doubtful that even Koskinen, now listed at 6’7, envisioned the season he would have this year – which ultimately led to him being almost a sure thing to be picked this year. Koskinen started the season with the A juniors and eventually joined the men’s team. By the middle of the season he had taken over as the starter from former Flyers prospect Bernd Bruckler (who took the Blues to the SM-Liiga finals last year). In 33 regular season games, Koskinen allowed less than two goals per game. He also started all 14 playoff games – though Espoo was upset by Karpat in the semifinals.

Obviously, Koskinen’s greatest strength is his size – which he utilizes to his advantage. Like most big goalies, his biggest task going forward is to increase his foot speed and mobility – both of which he has spent time addressing this off-season.

While the style of play in the SM-Liiga is similar to North America, the one area the league lacks due to the exodus of Finnish-born talent is shooting and scoring.  So it remains to be seen if his training has been good enough.  

5. Jesse Jyrkkio, D

After the first four players, it is a bit of a guess as to which, if any, of the Finnish prospects will be picked next. While some of the 1991-born defenders have garnered some attention – with the trio of Espoo’s Krystian Nakyva, Kalpa’s Rasmus Rissanen, and Mikael Aaltonen (TPS) all ranked among European skaters by CS (28th, 37th, and 97th respectively) – a player who is a bit of a wild card is Jyrkkio.

While his detractors may have some legitimate points – and the fact that he was passed over twice in the NHL draft would seem to substantiate their doubts – there is one thing that is irrefutable. Few young players possess the offensive abilities, creativity and skills of the 20-year-old from Hameenlinna.

Another positive factor is his physical development. No doubt teams shied away from him as a 17-year-old when he was just over 5’9 and appeared a bit fragile. Now 5’11 and 168 pounds, he has shown, both in SM-Liiga play and in the WJCs, the ability to withstand contact and play stronger on the puck when necessary.

So what is there not to like about Jyrkkio?

For one, the 1989 group of Finnish players is viewed as one of the weaker ones – something they did little to dispel with a bad performance in the Lake Placid pre-season camp last July and in barely avoiding relegation at the World Juniors. Another factor is that he plays in Assat, with a small budget club and few legitimate scorers (This may end up working in his favor as it is likely he will be in one of the top two pairs of defensemen for the men’s team next season). The largest knock on him, we suspect though, is much like veteran Finnish blueliner Petteri Nummelin, his high risk/high reward approach to the game – often trying to make the spectacular play rather than the simple – has scared off some organizations.

Should an organization be able to incorporate his offensive flair while limiting his risk taking, Jyrkkio could be a special player.

6. Ilari Melart, D

HIFK’s Melart, like Jyrkkio, is another 1989-born defenseman who has yet to be selected in the NHL draft. Other than that, the two have very little in common.

Melart, at 6’3, 207, is a throwback, physical North American style defenseman whose first concern is clearing his own end and preventing goals with little regard for the offensive game. As a rookie in the SM-Liiga in 2008-09, Melart appeared in 27 games for HIFK and recorded 62 PM – second amongst HIFK defensemen.

Though not geared for the offensive game, he does have a decent enough shot and can contribute to his team maintaining possession. The strength of his game is in physical play – as his jarring collisions have made him a bit of a fan favorite. And he is also strong along the boards. The biggest areas he must address are foot speed and mobility.

Signed to a two-year contract with HIFK that runs through 2010-11, if Melart is not drafted this June and continues to develop as he did this past season he will be an attractive unrestricted free agent.

7. Olavi Vauhkonen, RW

When HF first identified Vauhkonen as a prospect for the 2007 draft, the now 6’4, 220 was coming off a strong performance in the U-18’s but was still considered a long shot to ever be a serious prospect. At the time, it was believed that he dominated juniors based solely on his size and that he did not have the requisite skills necessary to succeed at higher levels.

While he will never be confused with Rajala or Jyrkkio in terms of offensive talent and flashiness, the Jokerit forward has used his strength and power, along with an analytical understanding of the game, to become a legitimate goal scoring threat and punishing body checker. He is also a valuable force on the power play as he is nearly impossible to move once he establishes position in front of the net.

Coming off of a 20-goal season at the A junior level in 2008-09, Vauhkonen signed a two-year contract with Jokerit. After also making his SM-Liiga debut last season (11 games, 0 points, 0 PiMs), he should have a chance to play a bigger role next fall.

Vauhkonen’s biggest obstacle will be adapting to the higher skating pace of the SM-Liiga. If he is successful, he could very well develop into a prototypical NHL power forward.

8. Joni Ortio, G

Turku-based TPS has established a reputation for developing world-class goalies thanks to the teaching of both Vladimir Yurzinov and more recently one-time Finnish great Urpo Ylonen. While it is too early to add Ortio, an 18-year-old who backstopped the U18’s to their bronze medal shootout win in Grand Forks, to the list of great goalies that have come out of TPS, he is the latest prospect.

Ranked seventh among European goalies by CS, Ortio is still a long-range project. On the plus side, he is a decent-sized player at 6’1, 181 and is very athletic – often making acrobatic saves. As his performance in Grand Forks shows, he also has the mental toughness to recover from early struggles – in their 5-4 win the Finns trailed 4-1 late in the second period. On the downside, he sometimes finds himself in bad positions and also must improve his foot work and loose puck control.

In a draft that appears to be thin on goaltending prospects, a club may very well take a flier on Ortio – knowing that he has time to develop. At the same time, the recent track record of Finnish goalies drafted as juniors has not been good (of the five Finnish goalies selected since 2005, only Harri Sateri and Tuukka Rask are still viewed as potential NHLers). Ortio, assuming he can have another strong season in 2009-10, may have to wait a year to be selected.

9. Tomi Pekkala, RW

Some in Finnish hockey believe that you cannot judge a player from Karpat by their statistics due to an emphasis on team success over player development at the lower level of junior hockey. In the case of Pekkala, his great scoring totals have been doubly scrutinized since he plays with one of the top prospects among next year’s draft class –- 17-year-old playmaking whiz Mikael Granlund. Throw in the fact that Oulu is located in the northwest corner of Finland and not in the Helsinki area and it’s easy to see how Pekkala may have gone unnoticed.

Pekkala, though, was scoring over a point per game, well before Granlund arrived at A junior. In fact, in the last three seasons, including his last year in B junior in 2006-07, the Rovaniemi native has put up over 50 points in each season while playing a gritty, physical style of hockey. In fact, it’s very likely that players such as Joonas Komulainen benefited from playing with Pekkala as much as Pekkala did from being in the powerful Karpat lineup.

Twenty-year-olds in A junior are dismissed as being “men among boys” and that argument may have some validity in Pekkala’s case as the 6’0, 201-pounder was physically stronger than many of the opponents he faced. But if Pekkala continues to put up points – either with Karpat’s SM-Liiga team or RoKi in Mestis next season – many of his critics will be proven wrong.
 
10. Joonas Jarvinen, D

The 2008-09 was a long one for TPS. After a slow start, a coaching change, and a slew of injuries, the Turku club finished 10th in the 14-team SM-Liiga. Two bright spots in the season were the play of Czech-born goalie Alexander Salak, who recently signed a free-agent contract with the Florida Panthers, and Jarvinen’s continued maturation into a top-four SM-Liiga defenseman.

Heavily scouted as a junior player do mainly to his height at an early age (now 6’3), Jarvinen has been a fixture for the Team Finland juniors. He was ranked as the 37th skater among Europeans in 2007 and unranked by CS for both the 2008 and 2009 drafts. That lack of interest is no doubt due to his lack of foot speed, limited offensive abilities and limited physical play.

What makes Jarvinen an intriguing prospect – and if not a draftee then certainly a possible free agent signee in the future – is his defensive play. Jarvinen’s game is similar to that of a young Kjell Samuelsson. Samuelsson, like Jarvinen, had limited mobility (and was probably not as strong as Jarvinen) when he first arrived in North America. What he did do was play with great determination and was willing to block shots, angle opponents out of scoring areas, and occupy passing/shooting lanes. These areas are all strengths for Jarvinen as well. 

While the nature of the NHL has changed since the late 1980’s, and there is no way to predict Jarvinen will have a 14-year career in the NHL, as Samuelsson did, he should at least get some consideration in the late rounds.

Other notable draft-eligible players


Goalies

Erno Suomalainen (’91), Espoo Blues – One of the top goalies in A junior and a backup to Ortio on the U-18 team. He shows some promise but like Ortio must get stronger and more consistent. Ranked 9th among European goaltenders by CS.

Antti Raanta (’89), Lukko – A workhorse for Lukko A junior team and he also has the size that Mika Jarvinen lacks. Ranked 11th by CS among European goaltenders.

Juuso Oinonen (’88), Jokipojat – Non-drafted in both the 2007 and 2008 drafts, the once-promising junior struggled for two years in HIFK but bounced back nicely after returning home to Joensuu  – playing both in Mestis and at A junior (Division I). Not ranked by CS.

Defensemen

Nico Manelius (’91), Jokerit – A very talented two-way defender at A juniors. He would have attracted a lot more attention but suffered a serious knee injury and played just 17 games in 2008-09. Appears to have fully recovered and should be in camp with the SM-Liiga club. His ranking of 102 by CS is more a result of his injury than his ability and if he is fully recovered he could be a steal.

Krystian Nakyva (’90), Espoo – Highly-skilled and gifted offensive player. Decent size at 6’0 but needs to fill out and add strength. Some questions about his competitiveness and how willing he is to play in small spaces. Ranked 28th among European skaters.

Rasmus Rissanen (’91), KalPa – Feisty defender with strength and size. Limited offensive play to date – scoreless in six games with Under-18 team in Grand Forks. Ranked 37th among European skaters by CS.

Ari Grondahl (’89), Espoo – A late 1989, Grondahl is the largest defensemen prospect at 6’5, 212. Showed some offensive ability in both Mestis and A juniors but was scoreless in six games at the World Junior tournament. Has never been ranked by CS.

Jesse Turkulainen (’90), Tappara – Big defenseman who likes physical play and has some offensive ability. Returned to Finland for 2008-09 season after playing two seasons of junior hockey in Sweden. Not ranked by CS.
 

Forwards

Sami Blomqvist (’90) Espoo Blues – Son of former NHLer Timo Blomqvist led all goal scorers with 40 goals in A junior and has an incredible ability to read the openings in the offensive zone and arrive at the right time. Not tremendously strong or willing to play in tight spaces and must improve his defensive play. Has had some interest from NCAA programs in the US and may pursue that route. Ranked 40th among European skaters by CS.

Pekka Jormakka (’90), JyP – Small but talented two-way forward with a great understanding of the game. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to 17 games and kept him out of the WJC but he was able to make his SM-Liiga debut and should have a prominent role for JyP this season. Ranked 45th among European skaters by CS.

Jere Sallinen (’90), Espoo – Youngest player in SM-Liiga when he played six games in the SM-Liiga in 2007-08 season. More of a physical, checking line type of player than his older brother Tomi. But has size and character teams like. Played just nine games in A juniors this past season due to a back injury. Ranked 75th by CS.

Joonas Rask (’90), Ilves – Another of the highly-skilled, playmaking forwards developed in the Ilves system. Attended NHL combine last year but was not drafted. Strengths are his passing and offensive support – size and strength are concerns. Younger brother of Bruins prospect Tuukka Rask. Ranked 90th by CS.

Tomi Sallinen (’89), Espoo – Eligible for 2008 draft but not selected, his strengths are his skating, maturity, and ability to read plays and create opportunities. Not as physically strong or combative as his younger brother but was a solid third line center in the SM-Liiga in his first full season. Ranked 121st by CS.

Niko Palonen (’89), Assat – Large, physical forward from a small club and another late bloomer who has flown under the radar but could be more suited to the North American game. Two assists in 27 SM-Liiga games. Not ranked by CS.

Nestori Lahde (’89), Tappara – Nineteen-year-old has been a regular on Team Finland’s junior squads and shows flashes of goal scoring ability and physical play at the junior level. Made his SM-Liiga debut in 2008-09 but has yet to show the playmaking or passing and stickhandling skills of the other top Finnish forward prospects. Not ranked by CS.

Jani-Petteri Helenius (’90), Jokerit – Scoring numbers have slowed a bit since his days in lower juniors but plays a steady, responsible game and is also physical and competitive. Appeared in 28 SM-Liiga games this season in a lower line role and scored one goal with one assist. Not ranked by CS.