SM-Liiga preview 2009-10

By Tony Piscotta

The “S” in the SM-Liiga is “Suomi” – or Finland. That name will be even more appropriate this coming season as, with a few exceptions, the bulk of the clubs have avoided signing import players – particularly those from the ECHL, AHL or NCAA university hockey – and have instead focused on signing Finnish-trained players. With a number of veteran Finnish players returning from other European leagues – primarily the KHL in Russia or Sweden’s Elitserien – and some high profile talent from the various junior clubs moving into key roles, the team that captures the Canada Cup championship trophy this season will definitely be Suomi Mestis (Finland Champion).

Whether this trend is due to financial concerns or just an attempt to imitate the success of JyP (which won the Finnish championship last season with a team almost entirely made up of Finnish players), it is clear that the league’s general managers have focused more on home-grown talent when putting their teams together this season.

While a couple of smaller clubs like SaiPa and TPS, who don’t seem to have as many A junior prospects in the pipeline, have signed a handful of imports to fill their rosters, the traditionally veteran-laden and import-filled clubs like Espoo, and the two Helsinki clubs, Jokerit and HIFK, will likely have a number of teenagers in their lineups including a pair of 17-year-olds who may be the top Finnish prospects in the 2010 NHL draft.

JYP

By winning the SM-Liiga regular season and playoff titles last spring, JyP not only proved that a smaller market, low-budget team could be successful but also started a trend. The “Jyvaskyla model” – talented Finnish-trained players, coached to play well as a unit – has spread throughout the league as teams try to imitate what has worked for Coach Risto Dufva.

JyP’s culture has attracted many players who might have signed for much more money elsewhere. Under both Dufva and his predecessor, Sami Alatalo, Jyp has taken players that were overlooked as youngsters, or whose reputation was a bit diminished due to perceived shortcomings, and allowed them to develop to their fullest potential. In return, many players have shown their loyalty by choosing to to stay in Jyvaskyla despite offers elsewhere. JyP’s roster returns almost intact, with the exception of leading scorer Jarkko Immonen, the former New York Rangers prospect (KHL’s Ak Bars Kazan) and top offensive defenseman (Ville Mantymaa (Frolunda, Elitserien). Mantymaa was a ninth-round pick of Anaheim in 2003 but never signed to a contract.

While JyP has worked wonders for many former juniors from other clubs, the high-profile players from their own system, such as current Espoo Blues forward Joonas Nattinen, often leave for larger clubs. As a result, the emphasis has been on a defense-first, team system which, while not aesthetically exciting, has worked well.

While Nattinen is in Espoo, Dufva will have one exceptional talent, 18-year-old defenseman Sami Vatanen, who could fill Mantyma’s offensive role. One of the heroes and the team captain of Finland’s bronze medal squad at the U-18 World Championships last spring, Vatanen is a creative passer and excellent stick hander with the speed and determination to change the course of a game instantly. Despite his small stature, he is durable, logging tremendous amounts of ice time both for the Finnish junior teams and at A junior last season. Vatanen was selected by Anaheim in the fourth round in the recent 2009 NHL draft.

In goal, Wallinheimo and Pekka Tuokkola will again form one of the top duos in the league. In a somewhat unorthodox move, Dufva rotated the two in the four-game sweep of Karpat in the SM-Liiga finals – with Wallinheimo in net for the opener and the championship clincher in Game 4 while Tuokkola was the starting goaltender in Game 2 and Game 3. Tuokkola, at 25, was one of the top young goalies in the league last year and there were rumors in the off-season that he would be signed to a free agent NHL contract. With the return of Wallinheimo and Tuokkola, Jarno Laitinen, a 21-year-old with loads of potential who had a fine rookie season with D-Team, will continue his development with that club in Mestis.

Offensively, JyP is not likely to have any one newcomer put up that numbers that Immonen did a year ago (23 goals, 41 assists in 58 games). Several players who split last season between D Team and playing part-time with JyP are hoping to contribute more this year. Harri Pesonen, a 21-year old whose older brother Jussi will play for Ilves this season after spending the last two seasons with HIFK, appears to have the most offensive ability of that group. Eighteen-year-old Pekka Jormakka has been a regular in the Team Finland juniors and has been on the radar of NHL scouts for the past two years. He appeared in 17 SM-Liiga games last season but was injured for part of the year. At 5’9, 183, his size has been a factor in him not yet being drafted. Markus Poukkula, a 20-year-old, scored three goals in the nine games he appeared in a year ago.

KARPAT

Karpat, has been the dominant team in the SM-Liiga since 2003, winning four titles in six finals appearances and having the top regular season record four straight seasons prior to last year. Though finishing an uncharacteristic fifth during the regular season, the Oulu squad eliminated Jokerit in the opening round and then defeated Espoo Blues in a rematch of the previous season’s final series before being swept by JyP in the finals.

Karpat, as usual, will again be looking to replace some of their top players; their top three scorers were all signed to large contracts after the season – Toni Koivisto (Magnitogorsk) and Jonas Andersson (Dinamo Minsk) in the KHL while Daniel Corso (Timra) signed in the Elitserien. Karpat generally does not rely on their junior club to restock the lineup and again this year they have been able to lure two veteran players – defenseman Teemu Aalto and forward Kimmo Koskenkorva – back to Finland while also signing one-time Los Angeles Kings prospect Pavel Rosa, who split last year between the KHL and Sweden.

Goalie Tuomas Tarkki, 29, continued to be one of the top goalies in the SM-Liiga and handled the bulk of the action but Petri Koivisto, played well in his 23 appearances. The 22-year-old proved he is capable of being successful in the SM-Liiga after spending two seasons in Mestis. Though some feel the former Karpat junior’s numbers may be a bit inflated playing behind Karpat’s defense, often against weaker opponents, Karpat’s juniors have produced a number of quality goaltenders lately, including Nashville’s Pekka Rinne. Another goalie in that pipeline is Antti Rautiola. Barring an injury to the top two, he will begin his professional career with Hokki in Mestis after a solid season in A juniors. In a bit of a surprise, Rautiola’s backup last season, 19-year-old Petteri Simila, was the final pick of this year’s NHL draft, going to the Canadiens. Simila’s size (6’5”) was especially appealing and he was also drafted by the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL, where he will play this fall. 

Simila, despite the success of Karpat at the SM-Liiga level, is the first player from Karpat selected since 2004 (Rinne and Oskari Korpikari) and the first player drafted directly from the junior team since center Jari Viuhkola (Chicago) in 1998.

Karpat juniors likely would have had their first skater since Viuhkola selected in next spring’s draft, had Mikael Granlund not left Oulu, along with his younger brother Markus, to play for HIFK in Helsinki. While Mikael Granlund dominated A juniors as a 16-year-old last year, his presence might have caused scouts to overlook two other talented forwards –- Tommi Pekkala (20) and Joonas Komulainen (19) –- who will try to crack the veteran lineup of Coach Matti Alatalo’s team. Pekkala’s 29 goals led the team and tied him for third in the league behind Espoo’s Sami Blomqvist (40) and Juuso Rajala (no relation to Edmonton Oilers’ prospect Toni) who scored 30 goals for Lukko. Komulainen, 19 goals and 46 points last year, will most likely return to A juniors while Pekkala may spend at least part of the season in Mestis, possibly in his home town of Rovaniemi with recently-elevated RoKi.

The addition of Aalto to a veteran defense corps that returns all six of the top players from a year ago means ice time will be at a premium for prospects like Atte Ohtamaa (21), and juniors Joni Liljeblad (19) and Mikko Niemela (18). Ohtamaa has the size and physical tenacity that teams covet and understands defensive play. His offensive game has been limited to this point; he appeared in 48 games last year recording a pair of assists.

ESPOO BLUES

Due to both their success on the ice the past two seasons – which has led to three players signing with NHL clubs – and the financial struggles that forced them to pare some salaries – the Blues lineup will have a much different look this season. Coach Petri Matikainen does have a core group of veteran players returning, and the players that have come through the Blues junior program are some of the most highly-regarded prospects in Finland.

Goalie Mikko Koskinen was the first Finnish player drafted last June, selected with the first pick of the second round by the New York Islanders after an unbelievable rookie season in which he supplanted veteran Bernd Bruckler and proved to be one of the top goalies in the SM-Liiga. Koskinen signed a three-year contract by the Islanders so the first task for Espoo is finding his replacement. Twenty-four-year-old Iiro Tarkki, the younger brother of Karpat’s Tuomas, was signed by Blues after the season along with his SaiPa teammate Jarkko A. Immonen. Taller and a more athletic than Tuomas, but equally adept at playing his angles, Iiro Tarkki was one of the few bright spots last season in Lappeenranta. Twenty-one-year-old Mikko Tolvanen, a product of HPK’s junior program who played for LeKi in Mestis last season was signed as well. Erno Suomalainen shows promise at A juniors and shared the goaltending duties with Joni Ortio on Finland’s U-18 bronze medal team.

The real excitement in terms of prospects for Espoo is up front where Matikainen will be forced to replace a pair of 20-plus goal scorers in Ryan Keller, signed by the Ottawa Senators, and Petri Lammassaari, who will miss up to six months after suffering a knee injury.

Second-leading scorer Juuso Puustinen is one of four NHL draftees. Puustinen, was a fifth-round pick of Calgary in 2006 and put up nice offensive numbers in two seasons in the WHL with Kamloops and also for Team Finland in the 2008 U-20 tournament but has not yet signed a contract. Some doubts exist about his toughness and willingness to compete in tight spaces but his playmaking ability and creativity make him a legitimate offensive threat.

Nattinen, the second Finn selected in this past year’s draft (3rd Round, Montreal), enters his rookie year after an outstanding season at A juniors and an equally impressive performance at the U-18 tournament. A strong two-way forward who can play either center or wing, Nattinen is not as flashy as some of the more exciting players in his age group but has the size and strength they do not.

Jere Sallinen, who made his SM-Liiga debut at the age of 17 two years ago but missed all but a handful of games last year due to a back injury, is another player with size and strength which led the Minnesota Wild to select him in the sixth round in June. While not as offensively gifted as Puustinen or Nattinen, Sallinen plays with the edge and toughness of prototypical power forwards.

Nineteen-year-old Jani Lajunen, a seventh-round pick of Nashville in 2008, was a point a game scorer at A junior last season while also appearing in 29 games with spot duty for the men’s team. Lajunen, though similar to Sallinen and Nattinen, in size, does not seem to have the edge of the former nor the outstanding offensive skills of the latter. Lajunen’s greatest strength may be his ability to read situations and play a positionally sound game. Tomi Sallinen (20), Jere’s older brother and Blomqvist (19) are a pair of undersized players who are intriguing as prospects. Sallinen, more skilled but less physical than his younger brother, was a regular in the Espoo lineup as a rookie last year and also appeared in Team Finland’s junior team lineup. Blomqvist’s 40 goals led all A juniors and he has been given some opportunities to play with the top line during the “friendly” matches.

Defensively, Ville Lajunen, was one of the team’s leaders as a 20-year-old a year ago, and has worn the captain’s “C” during the summer matches this year. Lajunen, the older brother of Jani, was first thrown into the fire due to injuries during the playoffs two years ago and held his own. His physical strength and defensive play are still issues but  he is very competitive and also has a strong point shot and good offensive instincts. Krystian Nakyva, 18, is highly-skilled and some thought he might have been drafted last spring despite concerns about his strength and willingness to play in small areas. Both Ville Lajunen and Nakyva are eligible for the 2010 draft.

KALPA

The team ownership group in Kuopio, which includes NHL defensemen Kimmo Timmonen and leading scorer Sami Kapanen, was determined to build a top club utilizing primarily players developed in the successful KalPa junior program when the team was elevated to the SM-Liiga after winning the Mestis league in 2005. After languishing in the the bottom of the standings for three years, KalPa’s strategy began to bear fruit last year as KalPa gained 45 points in the standings in the regular season and then capped the year with a trip to the playoff semifinals and a win over Espoo to capture the bronze medal.

While veterans Kapanen and Kalle Sahlstedt, a pair of 35-year-olds, were the leaders offensively, the KalPa lineup frequently featured up to a dozen players with three years or less experience. With most of its lineup returning intact, Coach Pekka Virta’s team should continue to challenge the more established clubs.

Of the young players, none was more impressive than goaltender Mika Jarvinen. As a 19-year-old he combined with veteran Miko Oksa, to give KalPa one of the SM-Liiga’s better tandems. Jarvinen joined KalPa from HPK during his B junior days and first gained notoriety by being the first goalie to score a goal in SM-Liiga play as a rookie two years ago. Though smaller than the prototypical NHL goaltender at 5’9” – which sometimes leaves him vulnerable in the top of the net – Jarvinen’s athleticism, instincts, and positioning and an above average glove hand have allowed him to flourish. With Oksa leaving for Minsk in the KHL, KalPa signed former New Jersey Devils first round pick Ari Ahonen, who spent last season in Frolunda. Tomi Karhunen (19), who spent some time in the OHL with Sarnia in 2007-08 and has also played for Finland’s junior teams in the past, will likely start for RoKi in Mestis.

Defensemen Timo Seppanen, a 2006 pick of the Penguins, was one of the leaders in minutes played a year ago. A player who reads the puck well and can distribute to start the play, Seppanen has sometimes been criticized for holding the puck too long before making decisions – especially in the neutral zone. But his understanding of the defensive game and anticipation are strong suits. Seppanen, 22, did not participate in Pittsburgh’s prospects camp this summer, and the fact that the Penguins have quite a few prospects on defense makes it unlikely that he is in their future plans. With continued development, he could be a potential free agent candidate.

Pasi Hirvonen, a 20-year-old, is a no-nonsense throwback type of defenseman who has good size and enjoys the physical part of the game. While his offensive production was limited, he does have some passing ability and also has a decent shot. His challenge will be to develop his technical skills enough to be able to compete the way he does now against stronger, more talented players. Ville Hyvarinen and Rasmus Rissanen, both 18, played well at A juniors last season. Hyvarinen has gotten ice time in the pre-season. Rissanen, who was a sixth-round pick of the Hurricanes in the recent draft, has signed to play with Everett of the WHL this fall.

Left wing Teemu Hartikainen, a bit of a surprise draft pick by Edmonton in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, was third on the team with seventeen goals and was one of the leading scorers for Team Finland at the WJCs – all despite not turning 19 until May. While his all-around game, skating and stick skills still need developing, he has shown the willingness to compete to make plays and a good instinct around the net, particularly on the power play. Tuomas Kiiskanen, 21, is a skilled and tenacious playmaker and led KalPa with 28 assists. While he is impressive offensively, both his defensive play and his size (5’9”, 172) are issues. However, with another strong season it seems likely that either a KHL or NHL team will take a flyer on him as a free agent. Aatu Hamalainen, 22, is another playmaker who flourished last season after mostly part-time duty in his first two seasons with KalPa. A bit light and undersized, he is a skilled passer who reads the play well. Like Kiiskanen, his defensive play is spotty at times. 

HPK

HPK, like KalPa, had a remarkable change of fortune last season. After a disastrous season in which injuries and disharmony led to a 12th place finish in 2007-08, first-year coach Jukka Rautakorpi guided HPK to third place in the regular season (43 points better in the standings). Despite a disappointing loss to KalPa in the playoffs, in which Hartikainen scored an overtime goal in the final game to end HPK’s season, things look promising for this campaign in Hameenlinna.

HPK, like Espoo, suffered economic losses – exacerbated by the costs of repairs to their arena – and have trimmed some salaries. The key challenge for Rautakorpi will be replacing the top two scorers – with Jussi Makkonen headed to Minsk (KHL) and Steve Kariya in Sweden. HPK has gone the domestic route in filling its roster holes – all six newcomers are products of Finnish junior hockey.

One area that is set is goaltending. Teemu Lassila, who was drafted during his TPS junior days by Nashville in 2003 but was never signed, put it all together last year and was a workhorse for HPK; his 54 games played were the second most appearances to only Petri Vehanen’s 57 games with Lukko. Lassila, 26, returns this season and will be joined by 20-year-old Juha Metsola. Metsola returns to Finland after spending the last two seasons in the WHL with Lethbridge. Like Lassila, Metsola appeared in over 50 games last season. When he was on, Metsola was simply brilliant and he is a very athletic netminder. Metsola played well in four games with the Finnish team at the WJC, despite the overall struggles the team had in narrowly avoiding relegation. At 5’9” his size is a concern and some scouts question his consistency. Despite a lack of goaltending talent in this past year’s NHL draft, he was not selected.

Like Metsola, forward Aki Seitsonen returns to Finland from North America. Seitsonen spent three seasons in the WHL with the Prince Albert Raiders and was drafted by Calgary in 2004. Seitsonen has the size and hockey sense to be a solid two-way forward and was signed to a three-year contract by the Flames in 2006. After two seasons spent mostly in the ECHL, he appeared in 45 games for Quad Cities in the AHL last season but has yet to reach the potential the Flames saw when they drafted him. Though no longer in Calgary’s plans, under Rautakorpi’s tutelage he may regain his confidence and develop into the player he was projected to be. One such player who is an example of restored confidence is Joonas Kemppainen. Kemppainen, 21, was one of the top players in his age group as a 16-year-old playing for Assat B juniors, but he had a rather non-descript tenure with Team Finland’s junior squads and his production seemed to hit a plateau. In his first full season of SM-Liiga play with HPK last year, he began to show some of the skills that first garnered attention. While his offensive scoring pace is not yet what it was at the junior level, he established himself as a solid two-way forward in the league. As he gains confidence and matures, he could very well develop into a forward worthy of a look as an NHL free agent in the future. 

Defenseman Risto Korhonen, a fifth-round selection of Carolina in 2005, split last season between HPK and LeKi (Mestis). At 6’3, 201, the 22-year-old has the prototypical size for a stay-at-home defender but his physical tenacity is a concern.

JOKERIT

If there is one franchise that typifies the transition that is occurring in the SM-Liiga it is Jokerit. Jokerit, which has featured Canadian players in its lineup since the mid-70’s, is taking a Finland-only approach this year. After a disappointing conclusion to what had started as a promising season under coach Glenn Hanlon, the Jokerit management made quite a few changes, including not re-signing leading scorer Joey Tenute, who will play in Frankfurt, and replacing Hanlon with veteran Finnish coach Hannu Aravirta, who led Pelicans a year ago.

The biggest news in Helsinki regarding Jokerit during the off-season may have been the signing of three veterans of both Team Finland and the NHL – forwards Esa Pirnes and Jukka Hentunen and defenseman Anti-Jussi Niemi – who played last season in the KHL. While those three have received a lot of attention, the real key to Jokerit’s fortunes will be how quickly some of the talented but inexperienced former junior players grasp the teaching of Aravirta. If the friendly matches of August were any indication, not only will the lineup be exclusively Finnish, it will feature more young prospects than in previous years.

Seventeen-year-old Teemu Pulkkinen’s pre-season scoring caused quite a buzz and he heads the list of those prospects. Pulkkinen, who like Granlund is considered a top prospect for next spring’s NHL draft, is remarkably advanced for a player his age. During last spring’s U-18 championships in Fargo, ND, Pulkkinen was one of the more impressive offensive playmakers in the tournament – finishing with 13 points (7 goals, 6 assists) in six games. In addition to his skills and instincts, he plays with the determination and will that is characteristic of top goal scorers. As he grows and gains a better understanding of the defensive side of the game, he should be even more imposing.  

Jan-Mikael Juutilainen, 21, drafted in the sixth round by Chicago in 2006, spent two years in Waterloo in the USHL but then decided against playing college hockey at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and instead returned to Finland where he split last season between the men’s and A junior teams. A very creative and skilled offensive player, he should have an opportunity to become a more complete player surrounded by guys like Pirnes and Hentunen. Whether that puts him back on the Blackhawks radar remains to be seen.

Twenty-year-olds Tomi Pallassalo and Olavi Vauhkonen, though not drafted, appear to be ahead of Juutilainen at this point while Ilamari Pitkanen and Jani-Petteri Helenius, both 19, both saw some time in the SM-Liiga last year. Pallassalo, like Juutilainen was a very effective playmaking center for the A junior team a year ago while Vauhkonen’s skating speed is the biggest question mark as his size and combativeness make him a fan favorite and more suited to a lower line role. Pitkanen, like Vauhkonen, is a big and physical player who can play along the walls and creates offense by driving to the net. He was the last forward cut from the U-18 team a year ago. Helenius is more of a two-way player whose offensive numbers declined since his early days of B juniors but who may benefit from playing under Aravirta.

Defensively the top six will be tough to crack with Niemi, Tom Koivisto and a quartet of experienced back liners. One player who has caught the attention of the Jokerit brass is 18-year-old Teemu Eronen. Though a bit undersized, he has impressed with his stickhandling and cleverness with the puck. Tommi Kivisto, spent last season with Red Deer in the WHL. Kivisto, the most highly-regarded defender among the 1991-born Finns, started off strong for the Rebels and was looked at as a high round draft pick but his play tailed off a bit – both for Red Deer and with the U-18 and U-20 Finland squads. He was selected by Carolina in the seventh round. Nico Manelius, 19, is another talented defender but he missed all but 17 games last season due to a serious knee injury.

Goalie Jani Kautto, 19, also missed much of last season due to an injury when he was cut by a skate blade in November, but he was one of the top goalies in B juniors two years ago. With a pair of veterans in returning starter Juuso Riksman and Mikko Stromberg as the backup, it is likely Kautto appears ticketed to either A juniors or Mestis.

HIFK

Like their Helsinki neighbors and arch-rivals, Jokerit, HIFK has frequently had one of the larger payrolls in the league and has featured several Canadian coaches dating back to 1968 – when former NHLer Carl Brewer was signed as a player/coach. Last season, with coach Kari Jalonen taking over after leading Karpat to its third championships in four seasons, a veteran-laden HIFK team again finished in the middle of the pack. With two players signing NHL free agent contracts – defenseman Ilkka Heikkinen (New York Rangers) and forward Ilkka Pikkarainen (New Jersey) – and several others not re-signed, HIFK will have a new look this season.

Like Jokerit, HIFK’s lineup will feature a number of players returning to Finland complimented by a number of products of their heralded junior program. And in Granlund, HIFK fans will have a high profile 17-year-old of their own to enjoy.

In contrast to Pulkkinen, Granlund is not the natural goal scorer and shooter that Pulkkinen is. Where Granlund excels, as he proved with both Karpat at A juniors last year and in the U-18 World Championships, is in his ability to find open teammates or deke opponents in order to create scoring opportunities or maintain possession. Playing on a line with Petteri Wirtanen, who is back in Finland after three years with the Anaheim Ducks spent mostly in the AHL, and 23-year-old center Jerry Ahtola, Granlund had five assists in a 6-3 win over TPS in a recent tournament.

Wirtanen, 23, earned a three-game look-see two seasons ago due primarily to his skating ability and solid two-way play. Playing with Ahtola and Granlund, he has seemed to find the scoring touch he displayed as a junior – some feel his lack of scoring was the primary reason he remained in the AHL a year ago.

Two other HIFK forwards selected in the 2006 draft, Max Warn (DAL) and Robert Nyholm (CBJ), both fifth-rounders, saw time in the SM-Liiga a year ago as 20-year-olds but their futures appear headed in opposite directions. Warn, with his prototypical power forward size and willingness to play a physical game saw fairly regular ice time. Nyholm, more of a top-two line scorer and power play threat – a role played by veterans like Pikkarainen, leading scorer Kim Hirschovitz, and Arttu Luttinen last season – appeared in just seventeen games and played the bulk of the time with Kiekko-Vantaa. Center Teemu Ramstedt (20), who spent two years with TPS after spending the bulk of his juniors with HIFK, flourished in his first season back in Helsinki. Eetu Poysti, another promising 20-year-old, began treatment for lymphoma after being diagnosed in the spring.

Dale Clarke, one of the top defenders for second-place Espoo and one of the few remaining North American imports in the league, is one of three veterans signed as the HIFK blue line underwent an overhaul for the second year. Joni Havarinen, 22, one of the lone returnees, has the size and skating ability necessary to compete but his decision-making and physical strength are concerns. Ilari Melart, 20, is a tough, physical player and a strong body checker who is also willing to fight, but his skating speed and quickness are concerns. Juha-Petteri Purolinna, 21, impressed Jalonen last pre-season with his size and technical skills but due to the number of more experienced defensemen he spent the season with Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis. That may be his fate again this season.

Though the season enjoyed by Espoo’s Koskinen was the big story in the SM-Liiga as far as goaltending went last year, HIFK’s Jani Nieminen’s ascent was equally impressive. After starting the season on fire with Kiekko-Vantaa, Nieminen stepped in to upgrade the position with HIFK. Now 22, he displayed confidence and sound positioning as well as athleticism and quickness. While his size sometimes makes him susceptible to shots in the top of the net, especially when he is on the ice, he has established himself a legitimate SM-Liiga goalie. He will be joined by a familiar face this year; Jan Lundell, who spent five seasons with HIFK before heading to KLH Chomutov in the Czech Republic last season, is back this year.

ILVES

Ilves produces as many gifted junior players as any club in Finland, but that dominance hasn’t always translated to the men’s team, which is usually stuck in the middle of the pack and has seen a revolving door of coaches trying to restore the once-proud franchise to prominence. That was the case again last year as the Tampere-based squad finished just two games above .500 and fell in the prelimary round of the playoffs in a tumultuous season. Coach Sakari Pietila has been replaced by Heikki Malkia, one of the most celebrated players in SaiPa history and a coached in the SM-Liiga for several years, including a previous three-year stint in Ilves highlighted by a bronze medal in 2001. He spent the past three seasons in Denmark.

Malkia will have his work cut out for him as the inconsistency of the men’s team seemed to affect the juniors as well. Despite having a number of players who have shined in the Team Finland junior teams, including Toni Rajala, the A juniors also had a mediocre record.

On the positive side, former Boston Bruin first-round pick Hannu Toivonen returned to the SM-Liiga last season hoping to restart his career with Ilves and did so. Playing with renewed confidence, he again displayed the skills that he showed in glimpses during his brief NHL tenure with the Bruins and Blues. Toivonen was rewarded at the end of the season with a new contract from the Blues that will see him either in St. Louis or with the Blues’ AHL affiliate in Peoria. And 18-year-old Jaako Simola has shown flashes of potential at A juniors.

Defensemen Joonas Lehtivuori, who impressed in the Flyers pre-season camp last year before returning to Finland, will be in North America this year – either with Philadelphia or with Adirondack in the AHL. Despite the loss of Lehtivuori, the Ilves’ defense corps should be fairly solid. Former Red Deer Rebel Mikko Kuukka, 23, was expected to play a key role a year ago but suffered a season-ending knee injury in October after just 12 games. His return along with holdovers Markus Seikola and Arto Tukio, along with signees Antti Bruun (29, Malmo/Zvolen last season) and Antti Hulonen (32, Jokerit), should give Ilves a solid nucleus. Defensemen Lauri Tokoi, one of 11 Finns selected in the CHL’s Import draft, will play juniors with PEI in the QMJHL.

Rajala, who broke the record for most points in the Under-18 tournament last season with 19 in six games for Team Finland last spring, was selected by Brandon of the WHL in that draft and was supposed to head to Canada as well but a knee injury in the Team Finland junior camp has his plans for this season on hold right now.

Four other forwards for Ilves are NHL draft picks, but at this point none have yet demonstrated that their potential as juniors will translate into an NHL career. Pasi Salonen (Washington) and Marko Anttila (now 6’8” and the tallest Finnish player ever drafted when Chicago selected him) were late round picks in 2004 and, while both have become solid SM-Liiga regulars, neither appears to be in the plans of the teams that selected them.

Niko Snellman impressed Nashville scout Janne Kekalainen with his passing ability and physical style of play when the Predators selected him in the fourth round in 2006. However, his aggressive and sometimes reckless style has been a bit self-destructive at times – both in terms of injuries and excessive penalty minutes – which has kept him from displaying the play-making ability the Predators feel he possesses. Due to injuries last year, he played in just 18 games between LeKi (Mestis) and A juniors and will be a rookie in the SM-Liiga this season.

Ville Snellman, Niko’s older brother, was signed by Ilves after playing in Sweden last year. Malkia is familiar with him from his days in SaiPa and it is hoped that his presence will be a positive influence on the young winger. Matias Sointu, a crafty goal scorer with plenty of skill, like Niko Snellman missed the bulk of the season last year due to injury. A 2008 selection of the Lightning after scoring 21 goals as a 17-year-old in A juniors, Sointu was drafted by the Ottawa 67s in the recent CHL Import draft. He appears to be back on track – and with some added bulk – playing well for the Finnish U-20 team in a summer tournament and will spend the year in the OHL. Joonas Rask, another 19-year-old, is a skilled playmaker and the younger brother of Boston Bruins goaltending prospect Tuukka Rask.

PELICANS

A quick glimpse at the average age of the Pelicans roster (26.21) gives the impression that the team has a veteran lineup. However, that figure is largely skewed by five players over the age of 35. In reality, despite the experience on defense, Lahti will feature mostly younger players in the forward slots.

First-year Head Coach Mika Toivola, who returns to the SM-Liiga after a one year hiatus, having previously coached at Lukko Rauma, will have a situation very similar to the one he had in Pori – when he led an unheralded Assat team to their only league title in 2005-06. Toivola like Aravirta has also been effective working with young players in the past.

In goal, it is hoped that Minnesota Wild draftee and HIFK product Niko Hovinen can begin to take over more of the goaltending chores from the veteran Nikkila. After struggling to establish himself with HIFK, Hovinen, was signed by Pelicans last year and split the season between Lahti and Heinola in Mestis. Nineteen-year-old Joonas Kuusela, an Espoo native, was not drafted this past spring but showed some promise last season in limited SM-Liiga and in A juniors and was in Team Finland’s junior team camp this summer.

The defense corps is very familiar, as five of the seven players came up through the local Kiekko Reipas program, including three players – Jani Forststrom (23), Mikko Kousa (21), and Joonas Jalvanti (20) – who had significant ice time a year ago despite their youth.

Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick Leo Komarov, one of the team leaders and the second most penalized player on the team (144 PIM), is well known to Toivola as he was a rookie on that SM-Liiga championship team in Pori. However, Komarov signed a two-year contract with Dynamo Moscow in the KHL, and must be replaced. The only NHL draftee among the Pelicans forwards is Vili Sopanen, a powerful winger who was a sixth-round selection of New Jersey in 2007. Center Henri Heino, another Lahti native with Team Finland junior experience, first played for Pelicans as an 18-year-old in 2004-05 and had his best SM-Liiga season point-wise a year ago.

TPS

A quick look at the final standings would lead one to believe that last season was yet another lost one for the once-proud Turku club. In reality, the team was two different clubs – with the one that finished the season a lot tougher to play against than the team that started the season and quickly fell to last place. Coach Kai Suikkanen, who took over for former Buffalo Sabres/Rochester Americans teammate Hannu Virta after the team’s dreadful start, deserves much of the credit.

A huge key to the turnaround, which saw TPS give eventual SM-Liiga champion JyP all they could handle in the quarterfinals before eventually falling in six games, was the play of goaltender Alexander Salak. After splitting the starting role with Juha Kuokkanen the previous year, Salak emerged as a true number one – appearing in 52 games and giving TPS a chance to win almost every night. Following the season, the Czech native was signed to a free agent contract by the Florida Panthers. Atte Engren, a 21-year-old drafted by the Predators in 2007, split last season between Kiekko-Vantaa (Mestis) and TPS in his first full pro season. He should benefit both from the experience gained playing after Kuokkanen left last year and another season under the tutelage of TPS’ highly-regarded goalie instructor Urpo Ylonen. David Leggio, 25, a college teammate of TPS winger Max Kolu at Clarkson, was signed over the summer and will compete with Engren for the starting role. Leggio was a first-year pro with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL last season. Eighteen-year-old Joni Ortio, the starting goalie for the bronze-medal winning U-18 team, was selected by the Calgary Flames in the sixth round last June and is the latest in the Turku line of goaltending prospects. Drafted by the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL, Ortio will likely spend one more season in Finnish A juniors before either heading to Canadian juniors or the SM-Liiga.

In addition to Salak’s goaltending, a second factor in TPS’ improvement was the defensive play. Suikkanen gave expanded roles to some of the younger players and few responded to this more positively than Joonas Jarvinen. At 19, Jarvinen used his size to his advantage and gave the team a solid presence on the defensive end. With Marko Kiprusoff signing a contract to play in France, Jarvinen, though he is still a bit thin and his strength is a concern, is expected to fill a larger role this season.

Unlike some of the other clubs, TPS has not had as many players come through its junior programs and has thus relied on procuring talent from elsewhere. In addition to Leggio, Canadian defenseman Darcy Campbell and American Mike Radja are former college players who are in Turku this season after playing North American pro hockey while Swedish defenseman Jens Skalberg split last season with Farjestad and Malmo.

Michal Birner, 23, was a 2004 draft pick of the St. Louis Blues out of the fabled Slava Praha junior program in his native Czech Republic. After playing four seasons in the OHL and AHL in North America, he signed a contract with Pelicans last year but suffered a broken arm after appearing in just six games. Based on his play in the friendly games, he will be one of the top playmakers for TPS. There is also a chance that TPS could have former Montreal draft pick Juraj Mikus, a Slovak forward who put up 90 points for Skalica HC, in their lineup this year. Mikus is attending camp with the Los Angeles Kings but if he is not offered a contract he will play in Turku. 

LUKKO

Like TPS, Lukko’s talent pool at the junior level in Rauma is smaller than those of the big city teams in the Helsinki area and in Tampere, which forces club management to look elsewhere for players. A second challenge for Lukko is keeping some of the top juniors in Rauma – TPS’ Engren for instance played his juniors there.

Though Engren is in Turku, Coach Rauli Urama is fortunate to have a pair of Rauma natives in net – both of whom were among the busiest goalies in Finland a year ago. Petri Vehanen, 31, after returning to Lukko in 2007 after a season in the Russian Super League, appeared in 55 games for the second straight season in 2008-09. While not particularly gifted in any one area, Vehanen is tremendously consistent and is positionally sound. Twenty-year-old Antti Raanta is another big goalie in the tradition of Koskinen and Rinne and played in more games and saw more shots than any goalie at A juniors last season. Raanta was in the mix for Finland’s U-20 team a year ago and, like Vehanen, Raanta plays a non-descript game and doesn’t do anything that jumps out but manages to put up good numbers and gives his team a chance to win. While Vehanen will get the bulk of the duty, Raanta should see more time than backup Joni Myllykoski did a year ago.

Eero Elo, another product of Rauma’s juniors, is one of two young forwards who have done well in the friendly games and should be among the top rookies in the SM-Liiga this year. Elo, a fifth-round selection of the Wild in 2008, at 19 has the size (6’3”, 198) and temperament of a prototypical NHL power forward and is willing to drive the net to create scoring chances. Twenty-one-year-old Juuso Rajala, like the more highly acclaimed Toni Rajala a product of the Ilves’ juniors (the two are not related), is a bit undersized at 5’9”. Playing for Lukko’s A juniors for the first time last season, Rajala led all scorers with 64 points (30 goals, 34 assists). Despite his size, he has continued to be an offensive threat playing against the older players in the SM-Liiga this summer and should be one of the bright spots for Lukko this season. Jakub Petuzalek, another undersized player who was a late round pick of the Rangers in 2004 and had a big season in the AHL last year, was a key free agent signee. Petruzalek, 24, a Czech native, played well enough in Albany last year to earn a two game call-up with the Carolina Hurricanes. Miikka Tuomainen, another Rauma native, was also a draftee in 2004 (Atlanta). Entering his fourth full season, the 23-year old has the size and strength to be a productive power forward but his skill level and willingness to compete have not yet risen to the level that would indicate he has a future in the NHL.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, defensemen Tony Vidgren plays a spirited game and also has shown some offensive playmaking ability at A juniors but was not selected in his first year of draft eligibility this past June. The 19-year-old appeared in 17 SM-Liiga games but with a veteran core group returning and Harri Tikkanen signed from HPK, it is likely he will again spend the bulk of the season in A juniors.

ASSAT

Pekka Rautakallio’s impact on Finnish hockey has been huge – the Pori native was the first Finn to appear in an NHL all-star game and the SM-Liiga’s Best Defensemen trophy is named after him. Rautakallio, after a playing and coaching career that included stops in the NHL and Switzerland as well as coaching Espoo Blues during the late-1990’s, is home in Pori after being hired to replace Alpo Suhonen, who resigned suddenly in July. Suhonen, so far the only Finnish coach to be a head coach in NHL history, did not have much success in his tenure as Assat has struggled since reaching the SM-Liiga Finals in 2006 under Toivola. Last spring Assat narrowly avoided relegation to Mestis – defeating Vaasa Sport in a seven-game series that included an overtime win in Game 6.

Rautakallio, who signed a one-year contract, faces the same obstacles that challenged Suhonen – fewer junior players to choose from and a small budget which often sees Pori’s best players head elsewhere once they mature.

The emergence of one-time Dallas Stars prospect Eero Kilpelainen as one of the top goalies in the SM-Liiga has been one of the few bright spots. Drafted in 2003 after a strong showing for Team Finland in that year’s U-18 World Championships, he played a year in Petersborough before returning to start his pro career in Finland. Like some of the other young Finnish goalies, he is a bit small by NHL standards but is very quick and plays a smart positional game. He was at his best against Vaasa Sport, posting a shutout in the final game, 3-0, after the Mestis champions played a very inspired series to give Assat all they could handle. Juusi Rynnas, 22, split the season a year ago between Kiekko Vantaa and Vaasa Sport in Mestis but the former Assat junior has the size (6’4”) that Kilpelainen doesn’t and should provide a solid backup with one-time Penguins prospect Tomas Duba now back in the Czech Republic. Twenty-year-old Juha Jarvenpaa played very well at A junior ago in leading Assat Pori to the SM-Liiga semifinals.

While Assat was fairly sound defensively under Suhonen, scoring goals was frequently a challenge due to a lack of top flight forwards. One exception was rookie Sakeri Salminen. Salminen was the leading scorer for the silver medal-winning Assat A junior team two years ago and continued that trend in the SM-Liiga – leading offensively-challenged Assat with 16 goals. A small player and a bit on the light side by NHL standards, he is a highly-skilled stickhandler with a keen understanding of the offensive game and a quick, accurate shot. The lack of forwards, while a handicap, did provide an opportunity for a younger player to get more ice time than they would in other places and Tommi Huhtala (21), a former Ilves junior, and Tuomas Huhtanen (22) are two youngsters who took advantage of that.

Defensemen Jesse Jyrkio, a bit of a high flyer who put up big offensive numbers with the junior team and had four assists in six games with Finland’s U-20 squad, is another young player who should have an opportunity for increased ice time. Jyrkio, 20, is the son of an Assat junior coach known for emphasizing attack and creativity, and those are his strengths. However, he struggled in 20 SM-Liiga games last season and at times appeared to be too ambitious and seemed to get out of the team game. He, as much as anyone, should benefit from having Rautakallio behind the bench.

TAPPARA

Historically one of the top clubs in the SM-Liiga, Tappara continued to flounder in the standings since winning the league championship in 2003 but the struggles on the ice were overshadowed by the news that Coach Mikko Saarinen had to leave the team towards the end of the season to undergo treatment for cancer. For both Saarinen and Tappara, things appear to be looking up this year. Saarinen will continue taking treatments through the Fall but was back with the club during their friendly matches. The club is looking forward to its upcoming match with the Florida Panthers.

On the ice, Tappara has also embraced the “Finland first” motto – although GM Mikko Leinonen recently signed a pair of Canadian forwards in veteran Lee Goren and 21-year-old John Hughes, a scoring machine in the OHL with Belleville and Brampton who spent his first season in pro hockey in Austria a year ago. Gone, however, are half a dozen older players and imports with several former junior stars set to assume major roles on this year’s squad.  

Twenty-one year old Jori Lehtera has already made a name for himself as Tappara’s top forward. Selected by St. Louis in the third round in 2008, Lehtera is a playmaker and uses his teammates well to create opportunities while playing a strong two way game. While not yet the finisher that his skills suggest he will be, his all-around play and instincts are impressive. He also gained his first experience in North America last season – appearing in 14 AHL games with the Blues’ affiliate in Peoria after Tappara’s season was over, but he is back in Tampere for one more year. Jonas Enlund, a former HIFK A junior, again combined with former Jokerit rival Lehtera to provide an offensive spark. Enlund, 21, was a draft pick of Atlanta in 2006. While his competitive nature, intellect and determination have made him an effective player in the SM-Liiga, there are questions as to whether he has the size, strength and technical skills to compete at higher levels. Another Thrasher draft pick, center Niclas Lucenius, must make huge strides if he is to remain in Atlanta’s plans. Though skilled, the 20-year-old faces an uphill battle to crack the men’s team lineup and some have questioned his concentration level. Lucenius was selected in the fourth round in 2007 and at times he can play a strong two-way game but he has not yet convinced either the coaches or scouts that he can do it on a consistent basis.

Nestore Lahde, also 20, has been part of the Team Finland junior program in the past and has been given a long look by Saarinen during the pre-season. Kim Stromberg, whose scoring exploits in juniors were viewed with skepticism by those who felt much of his success was due to Lehtera, enjoyed a solid first season with Tappara after seeing limited ice time as a rookie with Jokerit the previous year. Lahde is eligible for the 2010 draft while Stromberg will be a 22-year-old free agent.

A pair of former Tappara junior defensemen, Pekka Saravo and former Los Angeles Kings prospect Tuukka Mantyla return home this season to provide a badly needed boost to an area that was a concern a year ago. Twenty-one-year-old Harri Ilvonen, a sixth-round pick of Minnesota in 2007, should benefit greatly from their presence and has been partnered with Saravo in the friendly matches. Ilvonen appeared in 23 SM-Liiga games a year ago. Jesse Turkulainen, 19, who played his junior hockey in Sweden before playing with the Tappara A juniors last season, has the size and strength needed to be a solid stay-at-home defenseman but is still learning to use his skills to maximum effectiveness.

Goaltending for Tappara will again be split between veteran Mika Lehto and San Jose Shark prospect Harri Sateri. Sateri, who turns twenty in December, has been in net for Team Finland’s last two WJC teams and made a favorable impression in 22 games as an SM-Liiga rookie. Unlike some of the smaller elite goalies in Finland, Sateri is much bigger and more of a traditional butterfly goalie who relies on strong positional play and net coverage. While not yet as consistent as he needs to be, he should only improve as he matures.

SaiPa

SaiPa is the most isolated of the SM-Liiga clubs – located in Lappeenranta near the Russian border in southeast Finland. With a limited talent pool, which is often raided by the larger clubs in Finland, SaiPa has been in effect a farm team for some of the larger clubs. Coach Ari-Pekka Selin again has the challenge of developing a competitive squad despite the losses of several top players.

The losses start in goal – with Iiro Tarkki now in Espoo. One-time Philadelphia Flyers prospect Ville Hostikka, 24, has steadily improved since being selected in 2003 but will more than likely be tested steadily this season. Jere Myllyniemi, the odd man out in Espoo after the emergence of Koskinen last season, finished the year in Rogle (Sweden) a year ago but the SaiPa management have confidence in him. An interesting prospect could be Italian junior national team goalie, Andreas Bernard, a nineteen-year old who was named top goalie in the Division I world junior championships and also played some for Bolzano last season. Bernard will start the season at A juniors.

Defenseman Juho Mielonen, 22, is hoping to finally get his career back on track after a serious shoulder injury a year ago finished his season after just twelve games. Mielonen’s size, skating ability, and temperament at an early age drew the attention of the Detroit Red Wings, who selected the Ilves junior in the sixth round in 2005 after seeing him play for Team Finland at the U-18 World Championships.  Unfortunately, a string of injuries has not yet allowed him to play a full season since. Finally healthy, he has seemed to work well with Jarno Lippojoki. Lippojoki, 23, was a part-time player with JyP during their championship season last year and also saw action in Mestis with D-Team. Simo Malkia, though just 5’8”, was the top defender a year ago but the Lapeenranta native, who wore the number 20 that had been retired to honor his father, is signed with Jokerit for this year.

The forwards are mostly a group that relies on competitiveness and team play. Eighteen-year-old Jesse Mankinen, a product of SaiPa’s junior program and another hometown boy, has gotten a long look from Selin during the pre-season. Like Malkia, he is a smaller player but he could get some consideration from the Team Finland junior coaches over the winter. In an effort to shore up the forwards, SaiPa signed a pair of import players just prior to the start of the season. Tyler Redenbach, 24, is a former third-round pick of Phoenix who played in Odense (Denmark) last season. Like SaiPa leading scorer Shayne Toporowski, Redenbach is from Saskatchewan and played in the WHL. Petr Pohl, a Czech native who played Canadian juniors in Quebec and was a draft pick of Columbus in 2004, spent most of last season with Johnstown in the ECHL and is with SaiPa on a tryout contract.