The trend of top junior talent heading to Canada has continued to skim some of the top talent from the junior level in Finland. In recent years that exodus has also seen players heading to the USHL. But with many of the top pro players heading to other leagues, some of the nation’s top draft-eligible prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft are gaining experience playing against men in the country’s top pro league, Liiga.
TPS Turku center/right wing Mikko Rantanen — Finland’s top scorer at the recent World Junior Championship in Canada — is almost certain to be picked in the first round. That would make it six straight years that a player from Finland has been taken in the first round.
The picture after that becomes much less clear.
While there are other players from Finland with the skills and attributes to be selected in June, all have some issues that create uncertainty. After Rantanen, each of the prospects from Finland would be considered developmental-type picks, and with each one a case can be made that they won’t be taken at all.
Whether it’s injuries, inconsistent play, or in the case of HIFK’s Christian Heljanko the lack of the prototypical size of an NHL goaltender, each player has issues to their game that NHL scouts and player personnel people will scrutinize likely right up until Draft Day.
As was the case a year ago, when HIFK goalie Ville Husso was selected by the St. Louis Blues after not being chosen in the 2013 NHL Draft in his first year of eligibility, Hockey’s Future is fairly confident that at least one player who passed through the 2014 NHL Draft will be selected next June.
Defensemen Joni Tuulola has been one of the most improved prospects in Finland skating for HPK Hameenlinna and was sorely missed when an injury kept him out of the WJC. Sebastian Moberg, another defenseman who plays for HIFK, is not as certain to be selected as Tuulola but is much improved and has competed at the Liiga level as an 18-year-old.
Among the top prospects from Finland not included in this list since they are now playing in North America are right wing Petrus Palmu — a small but offensively gifted player who skates for the Owen Sound Attack in the OHL — and Green Bay Gamblers (USHL) defenseman Vili Saarijarvi.
With the 2015 draft expected to be much deeper than last year’s it may be tough for Finland to match the output of the past two years when a total of 19 players from Finland were selected.
Here is the midseason top 10 Finnish players eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft:
1. Mikko Rantanen, RW/C, TPS Turku
6’4″, 210 lbs., 10/29/96
Rantanen has the rare combination of skill, size and hockey sense that separates him from many of the prospects in the upcoming draft. An assistant captain for the TPS men’s team and already in his second Liiga season as an 18-year-old, Rantanen has not looked out of place despite his youth. While TPS has struggled and will likely miss the playoffs, Rantanen has scored four goals with 11 assists in 40 games to this point and is -2 with 16 penalty minutes.
He has been dominant for Finland both at the U18 and U20 levels and was one of the few players to produce offensively at the most recent World Junior Championship — leading Finland’s U20 squad with four goals in five games.
While his shot is not the caliber expected of a player with his frame — and he does not play a particularly abrasive style — Rantanen’s potential is significant and he should not last past the first 15 picks according to most sources.
2. Veeti Vainio, D, Espoo Blues U20
6’0″, 165 lbs., 6/16/97
Vainio may be the biggest boom-or-bust type prospect in the draft pool out of Finland. There are some positional issues to his game that must be addressed but his attacking instincts, technical skills and physical makeup compare favorably with many of the other defensemen in the draft.
Like fellow Blues A junior teammate Teemu Pulkkinen (not to be confused with the Detroit Red Wings prospect with the same name), Vainio has reportedly skated with the club’s junior team to maintain his NCAA eligibility rather than playing in Liiga (neither Pulkkinen nor Vainio have committed to schools at this point). Two other defensemen who skated for Espoo’s A junior championship team along with Vainio last season, Mika Ilvonen, who competed for Finland at the WJC, and Erik Autio, are currently playing college hockey with St. Cloud State and Penn State respectively.
According to one scout, “(Vainio’s) offensive skills are just great. He has the size and strength, he can skate, he has first step-quickness, he can shoot and he can deliver the puck at your stick in front of the net.”
What will likely prevent Vainio from going as early as his skill set suggests is his inconsistent defensive game, which can be careless at times, and his tendency to push the play and try to create offense even if no opportunity exists.
3. Joni Tuulola, D, HPK Hameenlinna A Junior
6’2”, 181 lbs., 1/1/96
It was a bit of a surprise last June when Tuulola was not selected at the 2014 NHL Draft despite being ranked 47th among European skaters in Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings and 41st in the final rankings. The son of long-time HPK forward Marko Tuulola has taken his game to another level in his first year of Liiga play and should not go unselected this time around.
In his first 25 games with the HPK men’s team, he scored five goals with three assists and was +1 with six penalty minutes. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury mid-season that kept him out of the 2015 World Juniors, where he was sorely missed.
Like Vainio, Tuulola’s defensive game is still a work in progress but he has a willingness to join the attack with the requisite skills and skating ability to do so.
Olli Salo, who coach Tuulola with the HPK Hameenlinna U20 team, is almost certain that Tuulola will be drafted this time around.
“Joni Tuulola played really well before the injury,” said Salo. “Now he is back.”
4. Julius Nattinen, C, JyP Jyvaskyla/JyP-Akatemia (Mestis)
6’2″, 185 lbs., 1/14/97
The younger brother of Montreal Canadiens‘ 2009 third round pick Joonas Nattinen, who now plays for MODO in Sweden, Julius is a player upon whom projections vary widely. Like his older brother, his size and skill set compare favorably with other players his age and suggest he can be a consistent scorer one day.
Nattinen was one of Finland’s top forwards for the U18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and is expected to skate for the U18 squad in the upcoming World Juniors. In seven games with JyP in Liiga play he has three assists and he has scored at nearly a point-per-game pace playing in Mestis.
What concerns some scouts at this point is a lack of consistency and the lack of a physical edge to his game. More of a playmaker than a pure scorer, Nattinen has not always dominated games to the degree that his talent level suggests he can.
5. Roope Hintz, C/RW, Ilves Tampere
6’2″, 185 lbs., 11/17/96
As with Nattinen, opinions vary widely on Hintz, who is a smooth skating forward with great speed, strong stick skills and offensive instincts. On the downside, he doesn’t play a tremendously abrasive game and tends to play on the perimeter at times.
One of the final cuts from Finland’s U18 team last spring, Hintz was one of four first-year draft-eligibles with the U20 team in Canada at the 2015 World Juniors along with forwards Rantanen and Sebastian Aho, and defenseman Sami Niku.
Hintz had a solid if unspectacular showing for the offensively-challenged Finland squad, recording two assists and finishing +3 in five games at the WJC. In his first full season of Liiga play with Ilves he has scored four goals with 10 assists in 29 games and is +7 with four penalty minutes.
6. Christian Heljanko, G, HIFK Helsinki U20
5’10”, 160 lbs., 4/2/97
If Heljanko were three inches taller there is little doubt that he would be receiving a lot more hype heading into the upcoming draft. Like Nashville Predators prospect Juuse Saros, his size may cause him to wait a bit to hear his name called in Florida, but in a goaltending-rich country like Finland he has clearly been the top goalie at the junior level.
In 15 games with the HIFK A junior team, his .927 save percentage is the top mark in Finland junior hockey among full-time starters. Heljanko also played for Finland at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Tournament along with JyP’s Veini Vehvilainen.
Santeri Matikaiinen, a goaltending coach in the Ilves system, feels Heljanko has surpassed Vehvilainen as the top goaltending prospect from Finland for this year’s draft.
“Christian Heljanko from HIFK is the best goalie (in junior hockey),” Matikainen said. “Vehviläinen was good two years ago. The only problem with Heljanko is the size.”
7. Aleksi Saarela, C/LW, Assat Pori
5’10”, 195 lbs., 1/7/97
Saarela is another player who has had injuries this season — most recently suffering a concussion that has him out of the lineup — but is an offensive prospect due to his high energy level and scoring instincts.
After playing junior hockey in Rauma and making his Liiga debut with Lukko two years ago, Saarela has played a consistent role for Assat in his rookie season after making the move to Pori. In his first 33 games he scored three goals with five assists.
As with many young scorers, Saarela is a work in progress when it comes to his defensive game and positional play, and he may need to add some bulk and strength to play in the smaller arenas of North American hockey. Saarela’s offensive instincts are his main attribute that has drawn the attention of scouts.
8. Ville Jarvinen, D, Tampere Ilves U20
6’4″, 205 lbs., 1/3/97
An injury early in the year ended Jarvinen’s season after five games though it is hoped he can make it back for the A juniors playoffs. Whether a team is willing to take a flier on a player who has been out that long remains to be seen, but for a team looking for a big, defensive defender who skates well and has some skill, Jarvinen could be a good fit.
Jarvinen represented Finland at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Tournament last August and would be a candidate to skate for the U18 team at the World Championship if he is healthy. Skating for the Ilves U18 team in 2013-14, Jarvinen scored 12 goals with 25 assists while accumulating 72 penalty minutes in 45 regular season games.
Jarvinen scored one goal with one assist in five games for the Ilves U20 team this season before suffering his injury.
9. Veini Vehvilainen, G, JyP-Akatemia (Mestis)/ JyP Jyvaskyla U20
6’1”, 175 lbs., 2/13/1997
With the height and frame of a prototypical NHL goalie, Vehvilainen appeared set to be one of the top goaltending prospects coming out of Europe heading into the 2014-15 season. At times he has shown that potential while playing against men with Akatemia in Mestis but he has not had the same success playing with Finland’s U18 team nor with the JyP U20 team.
In fairness to Vehvilainen, both the JyP U20 team and Finland’s U18 team have been overmatched at times and he has faced a lot of shots. In one game against Russia at the Four Nations tournament in the fall he faced 51 shots. The JyP U20 team is currently 15th in the 16-team A junior league and has won just nine of 39 games.
As with any goalie there is a long development curve and it is difficult to project where a goalie’s game will be in four or five years. More will be known about Vehvilainen’s long-term potential after this year’s U18 World Juniors. His raw ability and physical attributes could attract the attention of an NHL club.
10. Sebastian Moberg, D, HIFK Helsinki/Kiekko-Vantaa (Mestis)
5’11”, 165 lbs., 2/24/96
Moberg, like Tuulola, is in his second year of draft eligibility after not being selected in 2014. While being slightly undersized for an NHL defenseman — and not very active offensively — Moberg has been solid in Liiga play and, with some added bulk and physical strength, could be an effective defender. Though he is not overly combative, the strength of his game is his positional play.
“He is mobile, moves the puck well and his overall skill level is OK,” said one scout when asked to compare the HIFK defenseman to some of the other defensemen who were not selected in 2014.
Moberg, who skated for Finland’s U18 team at the 2014 World Championship last spring, had one assist and an even plus/minus in his first 16 games with HIFK. Playing in Mestis he is currently +6 with four assists and six penalty minutes in eight games with Kiekko-Vantaa.
Five more to watch
Sebastian Aho, LW, Karpat Oulu/Karpat U20
5’11”, 170 lbs., 7/26/97
Not to be confused with the Swedish defenseman with the same name — who also competed in the 2015 World Juniors — Aho has skated in 18 games for league-leading Karpat as a 17-year-old and is an offensively-gifted scorer. Aho and Karpat teammate Antti Kalapudas led Finland’s A juniors with 59 points each in 2013-14. Both played for Finland‘s U18 team at the 2014 World Championship, and for the U20 team at the 2015 WJC.
Aho struggled to create offense and was scoreless in five games at the recent WJC in Canada and there are questions about his ability to play in hard spaces and willingness to engage in physical play.
Kasper Bjorkqvist, C/W, Espoo Blues U20
6’0″, 180 lbs. 7/10/97
Bjorkqvist has flown under the radar a bit in terms of being a prospect in the deep Espoo Blues’ organization. While his overall skill level and style of play do not elicit immediate excitement, what has raised eyebrows is his ability to score goals on a consistent basis and the physical edge to his game. Bjorkqvist played 17 regular season games with Espoo’s league champion U20 team last season as a 16-year-old.
This season, he scored two goals in four games for Finland’s U18 team at the Ivan Hlinka tournament in August. In his first 26 games with the Blues in A juniors play he has 16 goals with 10 assists and is +11 with 51 penalty minutes.
Sami Niku, D, JyP Jyvaskyla/JyP-Akatemia (Mestis)
6’0″, 175 lbs., 10/10/96
A year ago at this time, Niku was drawing comparisons to some of the top defensemen prospects to come out of Finland and looked like he would be a fairly high draft pick. But the season has not gone as well as was hoped and he appears to have hit a plateau. While Niku’s skill level and potential suggest he could turn into a late-round steal one day, he is no longer viewed as a can’t-miss prospect. In five games at the 2015 World Juniors for Finland’s U20 team he was +2 with no points nor penalties.
“Sami Niku started the season well but has not improved,” said one scout. “He looks tiny (and) loses one-on-one battles too often – there’s a lack of strength.”
Jonne Tammela, RW, KalPa Kuopio/KalPa U20
5’10”, 180 lbs., 8/5/97
Originally from the northwest coast of Finland, Tammela spent one season with the JyP junior program before moving to Kuopio last season. After limited time with the JyP U20 team he had 16 points in 24 games in A juniors for KalPa and also played for Finland’s U17 team.
Tammela has continued to show progress in his second season in Kuopio for a club that has featured several young players and has had a big turnaround — currently fourth after finishing last in Liiga in 2013-14. In 15 Liiga games this season, Tammela has scored two goals and is +1 with two penalty minutes.
Tammela also had an opportunity to play for Finland’s U18 team at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and was +3 with one goal in four games. While he lacks the size of some of the other prospects coming out of Finland this year, his positional play is sound and he skates well.
Sami Valiharju, G, Karpat Oulu U20
6’3″, 190 lbs., 9/6/96
If there is a sleeper pick for this year’s draft from Finland it could be Valiharju, a late bloomer who is playing in the top division for the first time. After skating for the neighboring Kiekko-Laser program in junior hockey, the huge goaltender is splitting time with Samuli Jukuri for the Karpat U20 team and has posted a .925 save percentage in his first 20 games. Valiharju has also dressed as a backup for the Karpat men’s team in Champions League play but has yet to appear in a Liiga game.
While Oulu is somewhat isolated from the rest of Finland in the northwest corner of the country, the area has produced some outstanding goaltending prospects including current Predators’ all-star Pekka Rinne. Obviously, it’s a reach to expect Valiharju to reach that level but his physical makeup and raw ability suggest there is potential.
As with most young goaltenders the key will be whether or not he can transform that raw talent into a productive professional career.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12