Top drafted forwards in Finland

By Tony Piscotta

The performance of Team Finland at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver was a window into the state of Finnish hockey. With a veteran-laden lineup, Finland captured a surprising bronze medal with a comeback win over Slovakia after being overwhelmed by a youthful Team USA in the semifinals.

The result was both a testament to, and perhaps a curtain call for, the greatest generation of Finnish hockey players like Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. At the same time, the lack of high-level young players on the squad, particularly when compared to the Americans, amplified the whispers of the past few years that the new generation of Finnish players may not equal the previous one.

The lack of high-end prospects is especially noticeable in the SM-Liiga. With the exodus of young players to North American juniors and other top players moving to Sweden, Russia and other European countries, Finland’s national league is a haven for older players who are just below NHL-caliber or who simply wish to play at home. 

Of the 15 NHL-protected, drafted forwards, not more than two or three appear to be serious candidates to one day play in the NHL.

Top five wingers at a glance

1.    Teemu Hartikainen
2.    Jonas Enlund
3.    Jere Sallinen
4.    Eero Elo
5.    (tie) Lauri Tukonen
5.    (tie) Antti Pihlstrom

Top five centers at a glance

1. Jori Lehtera
2. Joonas Nattinen
3. Petteri Wirtanen
4. Niklas Lucenius
5. Jani Lajunen
      

Wingers

1. Teemu Hartikainen (EDM)
6’1, 200 lbs
Drafted: 6th Round, 163rd overall, 2008
May 3, 1990
Currently playing for KalPa Kuopio

Hartikainen was not highly regarded coming out of juniors but the Oilers thought his size and competitiveness were intriguing enough to take a low-round flier on him. After leading all SM-Liiga rookies with 21 goals in 2008-09, the Kuopio native enjoyed a solid second season for second-place KalPa this season. In the playoffs, he scored goals in each of the first three games and was playing with veterans Tommi Miettinen and former NHLer Sami Kapanen on KalPa’s first line (he spent the bulk of the season in either a second or third-line role).

Much improved as a skater and beginning to develop a more complete understanding of the game, Hartikainen projects as a solid two-way forward who can contribute offensively. His willingness to play in traffic also distinguishes him from some of the top young forwards coming out of Finland. 

2. Jonas Enlund (ATL)
6’0”, 185 lbs
Drafted: 6th round, 165th overall, 2006
November 3, 1987
Currently playing for Tappara Tampere

Less heralded than teammate and league MVP Jori Lehtera, Enlund has a great understanding of the game and is able to anticipate situations, consistently going to the right place to make plays – both offensively and in defensively.

Questions remain about his strength, skating, and overall skill level, but few players get as much out of their ability as Enlund. Playing alongside Lehtera, he tied for the league lead with 28 goals on a young Tappara squad. Enlund added three goals and three assists as seventh-place Tappara defeated Jokerit in the preliminary round to advance to play KalPa.

Enlund’s future is a bit up in the air at this point. While Tampere fans would love to see him stay with Tappara for one more season, he fits into the Thrashers move towards younger players. But there are also rumors that he and Lehtera may be headed to Russia.

3. Jere Sallinen (MIN)
6’0”, 183 lbs
Drafted: 6th round, 163rd overall, 2009
October 26, 1990
Currently playing for Espoo Blues

Sallinen’s first full SM-Liiga season was one of ups and downs.

Sallinen had a personal highlight in the playoffs, assisting on brother Tomi’s game-winning goal against Karpat in triple overtime. The fact that he was playing this year after just nine games last season due to a back injury was also a plus. He also was named to Team Finland for the World Junior Championships.

On the downside, at the WJC he was injured in the second game on a hit from behind and missed most of the tournament. In SM-Liiga play, his numbers weren’t great (five goals, six assists in 38 games) and Espoo struggled.

Sallinen’s strength, and the reason the Wild drafted him despite his injury last year, is his grit and determination. That physical, reckless style some feel some feel makes him susceptible to the injuries he has suffered. 

He is likely to return to Espoo next season.

4. Eero Elo (MIN)
6’3”, 190
Drafted: 5th Round, 145th Overall 2008
April 26, 1990
Currently playing for Lukko Rauma

To paraphrase a former NFL football coach, “All he does is score goals.”

Both with Lukko’s juniors, and in limited time with the SM-Liiga club, Elo’s scored goals (seven of them in limited ice time in 18 games). He also scored in his first playoff game for offensively-challenged Lukko. Elo also scored twice in six games for Team Finland at the WJC.

Not yet 20, he is still maturing physically and must continue to develop a more complete game to be a true NHL prospect. He will be challenged to maintain his scoring pace among bigger, more athletic defenders.

Elo could be in development camp with the Wild this summer but is likely to play a full season in the SM-Liiga next season before giving North American hockey a shot. 

5.  (tie) Antti Pihlstrom (NAS)

5’11”, 180
Drafted: Signed to free agent contract by Nashville, 2007
October 22, 1988
Currently playing for JyP

Pihlstrom, though never drafted, has the most NHL experience of any of the young Finnish forwards – he played 53 games for Nashville in 2008-09 after making his NHL debut a year earlier.

Though a bit undersized, Pihlstrom plays with energy and what the Finns call “sisu”. He is not a natural scorer, but has flourished offensively since arriving in Jyvaskyla on Jan. 20. He had 21 points in 17 games after arriving and added a goal in the playoff opener. 

Pihlstrom signed a qualifying offer with the Predators last spring but then signed with Farjestads (Sweden) rather than going to the AHL. He played 43 games in Sweden before returning to Finland so his status as far as the NHL is in limbo.

He may fit a role for the right team but could also be in that grey area between the AHL and NHL.

5.  (tie)  Lauri Tukonen (TB)
6’2”, 198 lbs
Drafted: 1st round, 11th overall, 2004
September 1, 1986
Currently playing for Lukko Rauma

Tukonen’s spot here is a testament to his skill level and an indictment of the lack of forward depth in the SM-Liiga. Tukonen signed with the Kings in 2005 and spent three years with Manchester (AHL), appearing in five NHL games in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons without registering a point.

He returned to Finland last season after his contract ended, splitting the year between Ilves and Lukko. His rights were traded from the Kings to Tampa Bay, but he didn’t make the Lightning and returned to Lukko.

His 2009-10 season is a microcosm of Lukko’s — a fast start and disappointing finish. Tukonen scored six of his nine goals before Dec. 8 and had not register a point in three playoff games as Lukko was in danger of being swept by TPS in the quarterfinals.

Tukonen’s skill level may get him one more look. More likely, his career will be in Europe.

Centers

There have been talented centers to come out of Finland recently such as Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu. But with the exception of SM-Liiga MVP Jori Lehtera and possibly Espoo Blue Joonas Nattinen, the current group does not appear to be very distinguished. The next elite center to come out of Finland may be 18-year-old Mikael Granlund, who played for HIFK this season and is eligible for the 2010 draft.

1. Jori Lehtera (STL)
6’1, 200 lbs
Drafted: 3rd Round, 65th overall, 2008
December 27, 1987
Currently playing for Tappara Tampere

Lehtera dominated the SM-Liiga scoring race for the second straight year – finishing with 69 points, including an amazing 50 assists in 57 games, to easily outpace the next leading scorer. In the playoffs, he has continued to lead Tappara, with nine points in six games.

While the strength of his game is his offensive play, he is a much-improved skater and has worked on his defensive, two-way play since being drafted by St. Louis after an outstanding junior career with Jokerit. Surprisingly, despite prolific scoring numbers, he had never represented Finland in a national tournament until the recent Channel One Cup in Moscow. 

Lehtera made his North American debut last season, appearing in 14 games (seven regular season, seven playoffs) for the Blues’ AHL affiliate in Peoria. Though he did not put up great offensive numbers, he did gain valuable experience.

His status for next year is up in the air at this point with rumors that he and possibly teammates Enlund and Niklas Lucenius may be headed to Russia.

2. Joonas Nattinen (MTL)

6’2”, 185 lbs
Drafted: 3rd round, 65th overall, 2009
January 3, 1991
Currently playing for Espoo Blues

Nattinen was the first Finnish forward selected in the 2009 draft (ahead of phenom Toni Rajala, now in the WHL) due to a strong performance at the U-18 World Junior tournament.

Drafted based on his stick-handling ability and hockey instincts, as well as the prototypical “frame” scouts seek, Nattinen was unable to crack the SM-Liiga lineup on a consistent basis. He played just 23 games (plus one playoff contest) and registered three assists. He continued to have success at the junior level, with 13 points in 11 games for the Blues and four assists in six games for Team Finland at the WJC. In 10 games with Hokki in Mestis (second league), Nattinen scored two goals and added two assists.

Not yet mature physically, Nattinen has the requisite skills to be successful at the next level. The next challenge is to produce consistently in full-time duty.

3. Petteri Wirtanen (ANA)

6’0”, 190 lbs
Drafted: 6th round, 172nd overall, 2006
May 28, 1986
Currently playing for HIFK Helsinki

Wirtanen, though limited offensively, is the sound two-way player most good teams have.

After signing a three-year contract with the Ducks in 2006, he spent the bulk of that time in the AHL, appearing in three games with Anaheim in 2007-08. Currently a restricted free agent, he returned to Finland this season since Anaheim does not have an AHL affiliate.

Wirtanen has been a key part of the resurgence of HIFK this season giving Coach Kari Jalonen solid play in the second center role behind leading scorer Kim Hirschovits. While Hirschovits, Granlund, and 22-year-old Teemu Ramstedt have gotten a lot of attention for their offensive efforts, Wirtanen has been just as valuable.

Wirtanen’s future in Anaheim is unclear since the Ducks have a number of younger prospects competing for ice time. Teams generally don’t sign third and fourth-line forwards from Europe but he could be worth a look.

4. Niklas Lucenius (ATL)

6’0”, 195
Drafted: 4th Round, 115th Overall 2007
May 3, 1989
Currently playing for Tappara Tampere

A center during his junior days with Tappara, Lucenius can play any forward position and has been a winger on a line with Lehtera and Enlund during the playoffs.

Frequently compared to Lehtera during his junior days, Lucenius enjoyed a higher reputation among the Finnish hockey brain trust and was a regular in the Suomi lineup in international play. Like Lehtera, much of his game is predicated on offensive skills and aggressiveness. He scored 17 goals and his 29 assists were second only to Lehtera on the team this season. 

Sometimes criticized in the past for inconsistency, as well as spotty play in the defensive zone, Lucenius has been a key player for Tappara. While he still has hot and cold streaks, he’s been playing over 20 minutes per game most nights.

Lucenius’ NHL future is uncertain. He could move to Russia as well. 

5.  Jani Lajunen (NAS)

6’1”, 175
Drafted: 7th Round, 201st Overall 2008
June 16, 1990
Currently playing for Espoo Blues

The Nashville Predators have drafted a number of long-range prospects from Finland with late-round picks and Lajunen is one of them. Though his lack of physical strength and bulk discouraged others, the Predators see potential in his playmaking and stickhandling skills. 

Lajunen didn’t set the world on fire in his full pro season, but is progressing. The younger brother of defenseman Ville Lajunen, one of the team’s point leaders, he played 46 games and scored six goals with nine assists, mostly in a fourth-line role. He also played in all three playoff games with no points.  

Like Nattinen, he was selected by Finnish coaching legend Hannu Jortikka for the WJC squad. Centering the third line that featured Pekka Jormakka and Tampa Bay prospect Matias Sointu, he scored a game-winning goal and collected four assists.

While expectations are low for any seventh-round pick, Lajunen continues to improve.