Finland SM-Liiga 2010-11 season preview

By Tony Piscotta

The difficult conditions that have affected the worldwide economy have leveled the competitive playing field in the SM-Liiga. In 2009-10, with the top Finnish players heading towards more lucrative deals in North America or elsewhere, the bigger clubs could no longer dominate by simply signing high-priced talent and import players to win a championship.

JyP, which has historically relied on a system that gets the most out of solid, fundamentally sound team play, won the regular season title. In the playoffs, Turku-based TPS, an also-ran for several years, used a balanced attack and solid goaltending from the combination of 21-year-old Atte Engren and American David Leggio to capture the Canada Cup. Conversely, big budget clubs like Espoo Blues, Jokerit, and Karpat finished in the middle of the pack or lower and weren’t much of a factor in the post-season.

Once again this season the SM-Liiga race figures to be wide open as several top players have left the league for big contracts elsewhere. Ironically, the struggles of a year ago are proving beneficial to some of the clubs that were lower in the standings – as they had an opportunity to gain experience for their younger players.

In terms of NHL prospects, the numbers have dwindled a bit in Finland – as they have in much of Europe. Like other European countries, Finland‘s prospect pool has been hurt by players leaving the domestic league to play junior hockey in North America. At the same time, those players who defected to North America, with some notable exceptions, have not been as dominant in their return to Finland as was expected.

Here is a look at the NHL draftees and noticeable impact young players for each of the SM-Liiga clubs:

Espoo Blues

Espoo was hit hard by a financial crisis prior to the 2009-10 season which forced the club to shed many veteran contracts. While that led to a predictable drop in the standings, a handful of younger players were given substantial roles for the club and gained valuable experience. Unfortunately, Blues are off to a slow start once again this year.

Goaltender Iiro Tarkki, 25, joined Espoo last season after two seasons with SaiPa and played well despite one of the biggest workloads in the league – posting a 2.44 goals against average and .918 save percentage in 54 games. Several NHL clubs were reportedly interested in signing him to a free agent contract but he is back in Espoo and has played eight of nine games thus far. Despite a 2-5-1 record, his goals against average is 1.98 with a .919 save percentage. Mikko Tolvanen, 22, is a big goalie who developed in the HPK organization and returns to backup Tarkki. A pair of 18-year-olds – Jonathan Iilahti (VAN), a 2010 draft pick of the Canucks (6th round, 175th overall), and Norwegian standout Lars Volden – will be with the junior team but could see action during the season.

Twenty-two-year-old Ville Lajunen was the leading scorer amongst defensemen and second-leading scorer for Espoo in 2009-10 with five goals and 33 assists in 58 games. He and veteran Ville Varakas see the most ice time for Espoo and Lajunen scored two goals with six assists in the Blues’ first nine games. Aleksi Laakso, another talented defenseman, like Lajunen was eligible for the past two NHL drafts but not selected. He is another offensively-skilled player but his small stature is a concern for NHL scouts. Espoo has four veteran defensemen so the opportunities are limited for newcomers. Jani Hakanpaa, a fourth round pick (104th overall) by St. Louis in 2010, will be with Espoo’s junior team after playing B Juniors (midget) for Kiekko-Vantaa in 2009-10. Nineteen-year-old Krystian Nakyva has represented Team Finland at the junior levels in the past and played in seven SM-Liiga games last season.

A lack of offense has been the key reason for Espoo’s struggles thus far but there are some young prospects. Unfortunately, Joonas Nattinen (MON), who impressed scouts with his play for Team Finland at the 2009 WJC U-18 tournament and was Montreal’s third-round pick (65th overall) in 2009, suffered an achilles injury and could miss the first half of the season. In limited ice time with Espoo in 2009-10, he had three assists in 23 SM-Liiga games. Jani Lajunen (NAS), Ville’s younger brother, had a solid season for Espoo last season and signed an entry-level contract with the Nashville Predators. After attending Predators’ rookie camp over the summer, he is back in Espoo for at least one more season. Jere Sallinen, a 2009 sixth-round pick (163rd overall) of the Wild, was the top scorer among the returning drafted players with 5 goals and 6 assists in 38 games in 2009-10. Both he and Jani Lajunen have had limited ice time roles to this point this season. Sallinen’s brother Tomi, 21, is Espoo’s second line center and leads the team with three goals after scoring seven goals with 13 assists in 57 games last season. Twenty-year-old Matti Jarvinen played college hockey at Alabama-Huntsville in 2009-10 and had five goals with 13 assist in 30 games for the Chargers. He started this season on loan to Sport in Mestis.

HIFK

HIFK finished fourth in the regular season a year ago and had the top rookie in the league in Mikael Granlund (MIN). Both HIFK and Grandlund have continued to enjoy success as the Helsinki-based club is leading the league in the early going while Granlund, the Minnesota Wild‘s first round pick in 2010, is scoring at a point per game clip as an 18-year-old.

Granlund scored 13 goals with 27 assists in 43 games in 2009-10 and represented Finland in both the U-18 and U-20 World Championship tournaments. In June, Granlund became the first Finnish forward since 2004 to be taken in the first round of the NHL draft when he was selected ninth overall. While leading scorer Kim Hirschovits signed a contract to play for Timra in Sweden, HIFK has two other exciting young forwards who could garner free agent interest. Teemu Ramstedt, though never drafted, is a highly-skilled 22-year-old who flourished playing with Granlund and Jerry Ahtola. Ramstedt scored 10 goals with 33 assists in 58 games in 2009-10 and led all HIFK scorers in the European Trophy (ET) tournament this summer with three goals and seven assists in seven games. His playmaking continued into the current SM-Liiga season as Ramstedt scored two goals with 10 assists in the first eleven regular season games. Ahtola, 24, was never drafted by an NHL team but is tied with one-time Florida Panther Ville Peltonen for the team lead in goals with six.

Petteri Wirtanen, also 24, was drafted by Anaheim in 2006 and appeared in three NHL games during three seasons in the Ducks organization. He is a key two-way forward for HIFK. Twenty-one year old Niko Piiparinen, one of the leading scorers for HIFK’s junior team in 2009-10, made a decent impression over the summer; scoring two goals with two assists in seven ET games but has not yet cracked HIFK’s lineup on a full-time basis. Lennart Petrell (CBS), Robert Nyholm (CBS) and Max Warn (DAL) are all former NHL picks that were never signed to NHL contracts. Petrell, now 26, has become a dominant power forward in the SM-Liiga and has five goals and four assists in eleven games but neither Nyholm nor Warn have been able to earn a top line role to this point. Warn has seen a bit more ice time and has two goals with three assists in nine games so far while Nyholm was loaned to Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis and has scored two goals in six games with HIFK.

Defenseman Mikko Kousa, a product of Lahti’s Kiekko Reipas program, was signed by HIFK after spending his first two pro seasons with the hometown Pelicans. The 22-year-old was an impressive offensive player in the European Trophy tournament, scoring one goal with four assists in five games and led HIFK defensemen with three goals in 2010-11, but may be a bit undersized (5’9 170) for the North American game. Ilari Melart, 21, has the size and combativeness necessary to be stay-at-home defenseman but his skating and skill level are question marks. Neither Kousa nor Melart were drafted.

Veterans Jan Lundell and Juuso Riksman share the goaltending duties.

HPK

HPK was a surprise finalist in the SM-Liiga playoffs a year ago – finishing fifth in the regular season standings – and the Hameenlinna club is once again hovering in the middle of the pack to start the season.

One-time Nashville Predators product Teemu Lassila, now 27, back-stopped HPK to the SM-Liiga finals in 2009-10 and is again a workhorse – playing in HPK’s first ten games. Juha Metsola, 21, was Lassila’s backup a year ago and returns this season. Metsola played two seasons for Lethbridge in the WHL but was never drafted. As an SM-Liiga rookie, he appeared in just four games during the regular season and one more contest in the playoffs. Metsola, despite limited SM-Liiga action, showed some promise with his play in Mestis (Finland’s second league). In thirteen games with three different clubs, he allowed just over two goals per game while stopping over 93 percent of the shots faced. As a junior, Metsola started for Team Finland’s U-18 (2007) and U-20 (2009) teams but his size (5’9) is a concern to North American scouts.

HPK’s veteran defense corps this season will feature four players 28 or older (including one-time Devils prospect Josh MacNevin) so opportunities are limited for younger players. Twenty-four-year-old Swedish defensemen Mathias Porseland, who played for Rogle in the Swedish Elite League the past two seasons, led HPK defensemen with 24 minutes of ice time per game and had seven assists through ten games. Santeri Alatalo, 20, has appeared in nine of the team’s first ten games. Lauri Karmeniemi, a Hameenlinna-born 19-year-old, played 17 games last season and played for Finland in the 2009 WJC U-18 with one assist in six games. He is in the mix for Finland’s U-20 squad later this winter.

Juuso Puustinen, a big scorer in two seasons with the WHL‘s Kamloops Blazers, scored 14 goals with 20 assists as a rookie with Espoo Blues in 2008-09 but his numbers dipped last season (eight goals, 13 assists in 54 games) due in part to Espoo’s purge of veteran forwards like Ryan Keller and Ben Eaves. Drafted by Calgary in 2006 but never signed by the Flames, Puustinen, now 22, has high-end finishing ability, and was HPK’s leading goal scorer after ten games with five goals, but he has yet to display a complete game. He is perceived as a perimeter player and will have to show a bit more grit to play in North America. Antti Roppo, 21, played his youth hockey in Ilves’ junior program and represented Finland at the WJC U-20 tournament in 2009. After scoring 27 goals with 18 assists in 59 games with the USHL‘s Indiana Ice in 2009-10, Roppo is back in Finland to start a pro career rather than playing college hockey. In his first ten games, he’s averaged just less than 11 minutes of ice time and had two goals with one assist.


ILVES

Ilves has possessed one of the top junior programs in Finland for several years – head coach Juha Pajuoja led the A junior team to a gold medal in 2004-05 – but has struggled at the men’s team level; bottoming out with a last place finish in 2009-10. Pajuoja, who took over for Heikki Malkia in the mid-season last year, returns behind the bench and is counting several Ilves-trained youngsters to help turn things around in Tampere. Ilves has not reached the SM-Liiga playoffs semifinals since 2001 and was sitting in 11th place after ten games this season. One of two clubs located in hockey-rich Tampere, Ilves has the smallest player budget in the league. But the team does feature a handful of NHL prospects as well as 2002 Edmonton Oilers first round pick Jesse Niinimaki.

One-time NHL goalie Jani Hurme, now 35, split last season between Sweden and Ilves and is the starting goalie for Ilves. Sami Aittokallio, 18, led Ilves A junior team to a bronze medal last season and was drafted by Colorado in the 4th round (107th overall) in 2010. Aittokallio was slated to be Finland’s starter at the 2009 WJC U-18 tournament before suffering an injury but will push for a spot with the U-20 squad this winter. Aittokallio has a two-year contract with Ilves and appeared in two of Ilves’ first ten games.

On defense, Ilves looks to replace former Maple Leafs’ draft pick Markus Seikola, who will play in Sweden after scoring 22 goals with 22 assists in 60 games last year. Swedish defenseman Nils Backstrom, 24, who concluded four years of college hockey at Alaska-Anchorage in 2009-10 is one of the key newcomers while veterans Antti Bruun and Ryan Glenn, both 30, return. Twenty-year old Niko Peltola, who played A juniors with Vaasa Sport and appeared in 14 Mestis games last season, has been a top-four defenseman for Ilves; averaging over 20 minutes of ice time in Ilves’s first ten games.

Forward Toni Rajala, a highly-skilled offensive player who enjoyed great acclaim as a junior, returns to Finland after reaching the Memorial Cup finals with the WHL‘s Brandon Wheat Kings in Canadian junior hockey last season. A fourth round draft pick (101st overall) of the Edmonton Oilers in 2009, Rajala had an uneven season with the Wheat Kings. He was overshadowed by some of the other top scorers in the powerful Wheat Kings lineup at times but was at his best in the Memorial Cup tournament, finishing with two goals and five assists in seven games.

Joonas Rask, an assistant captain and teammate of Rajala’s on the last two Team Finland WJC U-20 squads, scored 10 goals with nine assists in 43 games in his first full SM-Liiga season a year ago. Rask was selected by Nashville in the seventh round (198th overall) in 2010 after being passed over in the previous two drafts. Twenty-year old Matias Sointu, who was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2008 but not signed, is back in Finland to begin his pro career after splitting last season between Sudbury and the Ottawa 67s in the OHL. Sointu started the season on loan to LeKi in Mestis.

JOKERIT

Big things were expected from the Helsinki club in 2009-10 after a number of high profile signings and the much-anticipated SM-Liiga debut of junior star Teemu Pullkinen. Things did not go as planned – Jokerit struggled out of the gate and the then-17-year-old Pulkkinen never really got untracked before suffering the first of a couple of nagging injuries. While the team did manage to turn things around a bit in the second half and even added Swedish NHL veteran Michael Nylander for the stretch run and the playoffs, Jokerit was never a serious challenger.

With Coach Hannu Jortikka and new GM Jarmo Kekalainen placing more of an emphasis on developing and featuring young, home-grown players, both Pulkkinen and Jokerit are off to a better start this season. Pulkkinen appeared in just twelve games for Jokerit in 2009-10, scoring one goal and two assists with six penalty minutes. While injuries kept him from playing for Team Finland at the WJC U-20 tournament, he was a force for Jokerit’s A junior team, scoring 20 goals with 21 assists in 17 games and adding three goals and three assists in four playoff games. At the WJC U-18 tournament in Belarus he led all goal scorers with 10 goals and had five assists in six games and was subsequently drafted by Detroit in the fourth round (111th overall) in the 2010 NHL draft. He is a highly-skilled player who skates well and is first and foremost a goal-scorer. In Jokerit’s first ten games he has five goals with five assists.

Other than Pulkkinen, the majority of the Jokerit forward corps is a veteran bunch, including former NHLers Esa Pirnes, Ben Eaves, and Jukka Hentunen. Two young players who received extensive ice time during the Europe Trophy games; Jan-Mikael Juutilainen and Antti Kerala could have expanded roles as the season goes on. Juutilainen, 22, was drafted in the sixth round (156th overall) by Chicago in 2006 and spent two years with Waterloo in the USHL but was never signed by Chicago after returning to Finland. A highly-regarded junior and point-per-game player in two appearances with Finland at the WJC U-18 and U-20 tournaments, he saw limited ice time in 40 SM-Liiga games in 2009-10. Through ten games this season, he appeared in six contests and scored twice. Kerala, 23, is the quintessential late bloomer. A play-maker since his junior days in HPK, Kerala had a breakout season with Jokipojat in Mestis in 2009-10; scoring 10 goals with 38 assists in 45 regular season games and then adding six goals with seven assists in nine playoff games. In Jokerit’s first ten games he scored one goal with one assist and was plus-four.

Petteri Nokelainen, 24, was a first-round pick in 2004 by the Islanders and split last season between Anaheim and Phoenix but is now back in the SM-Liiga after appearing in 189 NHL games.

Nineteen-year-old defensemen Teemu Eronen, Tommi Kivisto, and Nico Manelius are all from Vantaa and all played in Jokerit’s junior program. The three have been pushing to crack the Jokerit lineup for the past couple of seasons despite Jokerit’s tendency to rely on veteran signees. That trend continued this year as the team signed Ossi Vaananen, who played in the KHL last season, over the summer and named him team captain and then added former University of Massachusetts-Lowell assistant captain Jeremy Dehner. Of the three 19-year olds, Eronen is the most advanced at this stage in his career. While he has less than ideal size for a defenseman, he skates well, distributes the puck and reads the play. Currently out of the lineup due to injury, he played 33 games in 2009-10 and scored one goal with 11 assists and 18 penalty minutes. Kivisto, has been a staple of Team Finland’s junior program and has the prototypical size and skating ability scouts like. Kivisto spent one season in the WHL with Red Deer in 2008-09 and was selected by Carolina in the seventh round (208th overall) of the 2009 draft. He averaged just over 15 minutes playing in nine of Jokerit’s first ten games but had no points and was minus-four. A year ago he played 22 SM-Liiga games and had two assists. He also participated in the WJC U-20 tournament, tallying one assist. Manelius, after suffering a serious knee injury in 2008-09, returned last season to appear in 14 SM-Liiga games and was a key offensive presence for Jokerit’s A junior team. Some felt he would be drafted this summer based on his play a year ago as he combines size, skills and the initiative to create scoring chances. Manelius appeared in four Europe Tourney games this summer and was scoreless in three regular season games while also playing for Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis to start the season.
Twenty-year-old Jere Olander is another young defenseman for Jokerit.

Mika Jarvinen, at 5’9, does not have the size that most clubs now look for in a goalie but the 21-year-old former HPK junior is thriving in his first season as a starter after three mostly successful seasons as a backup with KalPa. Jarvinen after a strong European Trophy tournament, including a 4-2 win over Karpat in the fifth-place game, has made the most of his opportunity with Jokerit. In his first nine starts he was 6-3, including a 4-0 shutout of his former club, with a 2.51 goals against average and .929 save percentage. While in Kuopio, Jarvinen scored a goal during his rookie season in 2007-08 and last season appeared in 19 games as well as three playoff games and had a 1.97 goals against average and .921 save percentage backing up one-time Devils prospect Ari Ahonen. Veteran Mikko Stromberg, a former starting goalie, is currently the backup.

JYP

JyP, which was generally perceived to be a team that relies on solid team play rather than high-level talent, has an outstanding young prospect in young defenseman Sami Vatanen and has is once again one of the top teams in Finland in the early season, currently sitting in second place.

Vatanen’s play as a rookie for the regular season champs last season should have silenced many of the critics who were concerned that he was too small to compete against older, stronger players. After dominating the A junior level in 2008-09 and impressing scouts at that season’s WJC U-18 tournament, which led to him being selected by Anaheim in the fourth round (106th overall) in the 2009 draft, there were some who felt the 5’9, 165-pounder would be too small to have the same impact at the pro level. Vatanen proved those concerns wrong; leading all JyP defensemen and finishing fifth on the team in scoring with 7 goals and 23 assists in 55 games. Vatanen also represented Finland at both the WJC U-20 and World Championships.

Vatanen, 38-year old Kalle Koskinen, and 34-year old Jyrki Valivaara are the top defensemen for JyP. Twenty-two-year-old Antti Jattinen is the only other defensemen under twenty-six.

Pekka Tuokkola and one-time University of Denver goalie Sinuhe Wallinheimo shared the goaltending chores for the last four seasons in Jyvaskyla. With Wallinheimo retiring after the bronze medal game last season, JyP signed Joni Myllykoski from Herning in the Danish league; giving JyP a pair of 26-year-olds.

Myllykoski has received the bulk of the work in the early going and has played well. Prior to this season his best season in Finland came in 2007-08 while playing for Jukurit in Mestis. He allowed just 2.13 goals against average with a .921 save percentage in 44 games that year.

Among the JyP forwards, Antti Pihlstrom, 25, appeared in 54 NHL games with the Predators and also played for their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee after signing a two-year, free-agent contract in 2007. He split last season between Sweden and the SM-Liiga and is back with JyP for a full season in 2010-11. Vili Sopanen, 22, was drafted by New Jersey in 2007 but never signed by the Devils. After growing up in Lahti’s Kiekko Reipas club and playing three pro seasons with the Pelicans, he signed with JyP and in the teams first ten games he had 3 goals with 4 assists.

In September, the Boston Bruins announced a partnership agreement with JyP that could include player transfers as well as training, scouting and tactical strategies. It is not yet clear how the arrangement will work.

KALPA

Sami Kapanen, a majority partner in the group that owns KalPa, retired as an active player after leading the team in scoring in 2009-10. He and the rest of the leadership group, which includes Flyers’ defenseman Kimmo Timonen, can be proud of the strides that the Kuopio club has made since returning to the SM-Liiga in 2006 after winning Mestis. The team’s strategy is predicated on signing the top young products from the Kuopio junior program while supplementing them with targeted veterans. KalPa, which had traditionally lost many of its top players to the bigger clubs, particularly in Helsinki, has not only risen to the top of the SM-Liiga standings but also boasts several recent NHL draftees.

Teemu Hartikainen, a sixth-round selection (163rd overall) by the Edmonton Oilers in 2008, went from being an awkward teenager to a 6’1, 210 pound power forward who scored 15 goals with 18 assists in 53 games last season as a 19-year-old. Hartikainen signed a three-year entry level contract with the Oilers in May and is playing for Oklahoma City in the AHL.

With three of their top five scorers (Kapanen, Hartikainen and veteran Kalle Sahlstedt, who also retired) no longer around, KalPa will be hard-pressed to match their offensive output from a year ago and was sitting in seventh place after 11 games.

Tuomas Kiiskinen, 23, is small by North American standards but is one of KalPa’s top scorers and had three goals with two assists in the first ten games. He is one of two returning players that had 30 assists in 2009-10 and was second to Kapanen with 43 points in 50 games a year ago. Toni Hyvarinen, 22, is like Kiiskinen, a former KalPa junior and has shown some offensive prowess in limited ice time. Hyvarinen scored two goals with two assists in KalPa’s first eleven games; in just over 11 minutes per game. Iiro Pakarinen, 19, impressed at A juniors and appeared in 38 SM-Liiga games a year ago. He should again represent Finland at the WJC U-20 championship. Pakarinen appeared in eight of KalPa’s first 11 games with one assist and six penalty minutes.

Defenseman Rasmus Rissanen is another Kuopio-born player developed in the KalPa system and now in North America. Selected by Carolina in the sixth round (178th overall) in 2009, he is a prototypical physical defenseman with the size and temperament to intimidate opposing forwards. After training with KalPa in the summer, he is again playing for Everett in the WHL.

As far as KalPa’s SM-Liiga club, the KalPa defense is comprised mainly of Finnish veterans and Swedish import Adam (Andersson) Masuhr (27). Mikko Kukkonen, 22, and Pasi Hirvonen, 21, have seen lower pairing action for KalPa.

Ahonen, the Devils first-round pick in 1999, spent five seasons in the AHL before returning to Finland in 2006. After two seasons in Sweden, he returned to the SM-Liiga and had the best season of his career in 2009-10 with KalPa. Now twenty-nine, he figures to see even more action with Jarvinen now playing for Jokerit. Backup Aleksis Ahlqvist, 24, showed some promise as a backup with HIFK and for Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis in 2008-09 but missed most of last season. Petteri Simila, 20, is KalPa’s junior goalie and was drafted out of the Oulun Karpat junior program by the Montreal Canadians with the final pick of the 2009 draft (7th round, 211th overall) due to his size (6’5, 190) and potential; he had played just seventeen games at the A junior level to that point. He was drafted by the Niagara Ice Dogs in the 2009 CHL Import Draft but his stay in Canada was brief. Then 17-year-old Mark Visentin (PHOE) seized the starting job and Simila appeared in just eleven games before being traded and eventually returning to Finland. His play seemed to pick up in a handful of appearances with KalPa’s junior team at the end of the year and he should benefit from playing a full season. Whether that will be enough to put him back on the Canadiens’ radar remains to be seen.

KARPAT

No SM-Liiga team has been hit harder by the changing economic situation of the SM-Liiga than Oulu-based Karpat which has lost top players to bigger contracts in Sweden and Russia the past two seasons. After dominating the SM-Liiga for much of the decade (Karpat won four championships and reached the finals in six of seven seasons), Karpat finished below .500 for the first time since 2000-01 (the club’s first season back in the league after 12 years of exile in Mestis). Karpat is once again one of Finland’s younger teams in 2009-10 after dominating with veteran-laden rosters for much of the decade.

Tuomas Tarkki, who played for Northern Michigan University and with the AHL‘s Chicago Wolves in 2005-06, was the starter for Karpat for four seasons but is now with MoDo in Sweden. Petri Koivisto, 23, backed up Tarkki the past two seasons, appearing in 27 games last year, and is playing well in his first season as a starter. Koivisto, after backstopping Karpat in five games during the European Trophy tournament over the summer, was off to a 4-4-1 start with a 2.33 goals against average and .923 save percentage in Karpat’s first ten SM-Liiga games. A product of the Karpat junior system, Koivisto was one of the top goalies in Mestis with TuTo in 2007-08. Rookie Tomi Karhunen, 20, was 18-18-2 with a 3.59 goals against average and .891 save percentage for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL in 2007-08 in his lone season in North America. He is Koivisto’s backup and had a 2.36 goals against average in 25 games for Karpat’s junior team a year ago.

While goaltending has not been a problem, Karpat has struggled to score goals. Joonas Donskoi, a fourth round pick (99th overall) of the Florida Panthers last June, is among the young forwards in the Karpat lineup. One-third of Finland’s top line at the 2010 WJC U-18 tournament (along with Granlund and Pulkkinen), Donskoi scored 2 goals with 2 assists in 18 SM-Liiga games in 2009-10 while dominating at the junior level. Donskoi is a solid two-way player whose strengths are his playmaking and skating abilities. After scoring one goal with two assists in seven Europe Trophy games, he scored two goals with two assists in his first eight games this season. Oulu-born Julius Junttila is a talented 19-year old and could challenge for a spot with Finland’s WJC U-20 squad this winter. A dominant scorer for the A junior squad in 2009-10, Junttila appeared in five SM-Liiga games in 2009-10 and had a hat trick against Pelicans. In his first ten games this year he has two goals with two assists. Joonas Kemppainen, 22, hails from the hockey hotbed of Kajaani and was the dominant forward for his age group playing junior hockey for Assat. With the prototypical size of a two-way forward and an instinctive understanding of the game, his offensive production has not yet matched his potential and his skating and technical skills are works in progress. In Karpat’s first ten games this season he had one goal with two assists and an impressive plus-seven.

One-time Nashville Predator Mikko Lehtonen and veteran Ilkka Mikkola anchor an experienced defense corps. Twenty-two-year- old Atte Ohtamaa has the height and mindset of a steady defensive defenseman. While he is not particularly aggressive, is a bit light and has a limited offensive game, he plays sound positional defense. Twenty-one-year-old Joni Liljeblad represented Finland during his junior years and had two assists in his first eight games with Karpat this season after spending the past two seasons with Hokki in Mestis.

LUKKO

Rauma-based Lukko was one of the big stories in the first half of the season last year, leading the league out of the blocks thanks to the stellar goaltending of Petri Vehanen and timely scoring led by imports Kurtis McLean, Justin Morrison and one-time Rangers and Hurricanes prospect Jakub Petruzalek. While Lukko faded during the second half after
Vehanen signed a KHL contract and was replaced by former NHL goalie Mikael Tellqvist and then suffered a meltdown in the playoff quarterfinals, being swept by TPS, the 2009-10 season re-energized a franchise that had struggled in recent years.

Petruzalek, 25, who appeared in two games for Carolina (one assist) in 2008-09, is back with Lukko and had four goals with five assists in Lukko’s first ten games. He scored 17 goals with 24 assists in 55 regular season games in 2009-10. One of the key additions for Kukko has been Dallas Stars prospect. Perttu Lindgren. Lindgren, 23, was one of the heroes for Dallas’ AHL affiliate Texas during its run to the Calder Cup finals last spring, scoring seven goals with 10 assists in 24 playoff games. While he is still on the Stars’ protected list, he could not crack the lineup in Dallas and is back in Finland with Lukko. Lindgren was off to a fast start offensively; scoring 4 goals with 10 assists in his first ten games.

Lauri Tukonen has also benefited from the presence of Lindgren. Tukonen, 24, was a first round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2004 and was in Tampa Bay’s camp last season but could not secure an NHL roster spot. He was off to a fast start in Rauma and appeared headed to a career year last season, but his scoring pace slowed and he was not much of a factor in the playoffs. In his first nine games this season, Tukonen scored three goals with five assists.

While Janne Keranen, 23, was never selected in the NHL draft, he garnered some attention with a breakout season last year. After being stuck in a lower line role with HIFK in his first two pro seasons, he scored 11 goals with 18 assists in 59 games in 2009-10. He’s again off to a good start – with two goals and four assists in Lukko’s first ten games. Eero Elo, 20, whose height and impressive goal-scoring totals as a junior garnered the attention of the Minnesota Wild, who took a late round flier on him in the 2008 draft, remains an intriguing prospect. His game is still highly unpolished and the Wild did not retain his rights. Elo appeared in three of Lukko’s first ten games and scored one goal in limited ice time.

Lukko has a veteran blue line; the top eight defensemen are all 24 or older including former St. Cloud State defenseman Aaron Brocklehurst (25) who played for Gwinnett and Reading in the ECHL in 2009-10. Promising twenty-year-old Tony Vidgren suffered a serious knee injury and is out indefinitely.

Goalie Miika Wiikman led HPK to an unlikely SM-Liiga championship in 2005-06 then signed a three-year free agent contract with the New York Rangers after the following season but spent the bulk of that time playing for the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford as well as spending time in the ECHL. His tenure in North America ended with the Phoenix organization after a mid-season trade last year and he is now with Lukko. Lukko generally relies on one goaltender and the 25-year-old Wiikman started eight of the team’s first ten games, going 5-3 with a 2.76 goals against average and .901 save percentage. Antti Raanta, 21, was a workhorse for the Lukko A junior squad and is serving an apprenticeship of sorts behind Wiikman. In his first two games, Ranta was 1-1 with a 4.04 goals against average and .826 save percentage, bouncing back from a rough first start when he allowed five goals in a 6-2 loss to Tappara.

PELICANS

Pelicans enjoyed a rare winning season with Hannu Aravirta behind the bench in 2007-08 but for much of its existence the Lahti-based club has been more concerned with avoiding relegation to Mestis than competing for an SM-Liiga championship. That was again the case in 2009-10 as Pelicans slipped to 12th place in the fourteen-team league. While the lack of championship banners in Isku Areena is disheartening, the organization has given some younger players (particularly goaltenders) their first opportunity to compete at the SM-Liiga level. Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi, now with San Jose, and former Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Karri Ramo, now in the KHL with Omsk, both played for Pelicans.

Barring any mid-season acquisitions, Pelicans will go through the season with two young goalies in 2009-10. Niko Hovinen played for a very strong Jokerit junior team and was overshadowed by fellow 1988-born Finnish goalies Atte Engren (NAS) and Riku Helenius (TB) but Minnesota saw enough potential to make him a late round pick in 2006. After completing his junior career and a making handful of SM-Liiga appearances in two more seasons with Jokerit, Hovinen was signed by Pelicans in 2008-09. A back up, mostly behind veteran Tommi Nikkila, in two seasons in Lahti he was not offered an entry level contract by the Wild. With Nikkila now playing in Italy, Hovinen is now the Pelicans starter and was in net for all but one period in the teams first nine games. While his 2.74 goals against average is a bit high, he stopped nearly 92 percent of the shots faced. Twenty-year old Joonas Kuusela, a product of the Espoo junior program, has played well in limited time with the Pelicans since coming to Lahti two seasons ago. Kuusela has shown a lot of promise playing for the Pelicans junior squad and was effective in net for Mestis affiliate HeKi in 2009-10 – particularly in the relegation playoffs where the team avoided dropping to Suomi Sarja.

Jyri Marttinen, 28, a late round draft pick of Calgary in 2002 who never signed an NHL contract, and 38-year-old Jan Latvala are the top two defensemen on an experienced but not especially talented defensive unit. Joonas Jalvanti, a 20-year-old who grew up in Lahti’s Kiekko Reipas club, is the only defensemen who could be considered a prospect at this point. Now in his third SM-Liiga season, he had two assists and was averaging over 20 minutes of ice time in Pelicans’ first nine games after appearing in 58 games in 2009-10 (with 6 goals and 6 assists). Juha Uotila, who skipped his senior season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha to sign a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2008, played one season with the Leafs’ AHL affiliate in 2008-09 and is now in his second season in Lahti. This season, Uotila had one goal with one assist and was minus-4 after eight games.

None of the young forwards in the Pelicans’ lineup appear to be "prospects" at this point. Four players who may be familiar to North American hockey fans, for very different reasons, are Jakub Sindel, Dwight Helminen, Lou Dickenson, and Mike York. Sindel played for Tappara during the Europe Trophy summer tournament before being transferred to Pelicans. He was a second-round pick of Chicago in 2004 and played 59 games in Canadian juniors with Brandon in 2004-05. He then returned to his native Czechoslovakia and never signed an NHL contract. Helminen, a former University of Michigan forward, appeared in 27 NHL games over the past two seasons and was with the Carolina and San Jose organizations. He is back in Finland where he played for JyP in 2007-08. The 27-year-old Hancock, MI native appeared in seven playoff games for the Sharks last season; scoring once. Dickenson, a former Edmonton Oilers prospect, was featured on Canadian television in the reality series “Making the Cut”. Dickenson, 28, spent a year in the ECHL after the series and played in Mestis the past two seasons. York, a veteran of 579 NHL games, was signed by the Pelicans in September and had one goal and one assist in his first five games. Now 32, York spent the last two seasons playing in the AHL.

SAIPA

Isolated in the southeast corner of Finland in the small city of Lappenranta, SaiPa, like
the Pelicans, has spent much of the last decade in the bottom of the SM-Liiga standings – finishing in tenth place or lower in nine of the last ten seasons – including last season’s
11th place finish. SaiPa hasn’t produced as many prospects as the other clubs in Finland and many of the top players from its junior club flee for more lucrative deals elsewhere. As a result, the roster features castoffs from the larger clubs or middle tier imports. Not surprisingly, SaiPa was again struggling after ten games this season.

Veteran Jere Myllyniemi is back for his second season in net for SaiPa and is backed up by Ville Hostikka – a native of Lappenranta who was drafted by the Flyers in the 2003 NHL Draft but never signed to a contract. Myllyniemi, 27, has played well early in the season and has kept SaiPa in most games despite facing nearly 30 shots per game in his first nine games. Andreas Bernard, 20, is the Italian national U-20 team’s goalie and played well for SaiPa’s A junior team in 2009-10. He is back in Finland for a second year.

Veteran defenseman Joni Tuominen along with Swedish import Daniel Sondell is the top pair for SaiPa in the early part of the season – averaging over 25 minutes of ice time per game. Twenty-three year old Marlo Koponen, who hails from nearby Imatra and grew up playing in the SaiPa juniors, is in his third SM-Liiga season after making his pro debut with Mestis’ HeKi in 2007-08.

Canadians Tyler Redenbach, Shayne Toporowski and Scott Barney were three of the top four scorers for SaiPa a year ago. While Redenbach and Barney return, the the 35-year-old Toporowski is now playing for Tappara. Redenbach, who once had a 105-point season for WHL Swift Current, was a third round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2003. After scoring 26 goals for AHL Providence in 2005-06 he shuffled around the minor leagues for two seasons before playing in Denmark in 2008-09. Barney, 31, was a heralded second-round-pick of the Kings in 1997, and was a dominant power forward in juniors before suffering a severe back injury that prevented him from playing for three seasons. Barney appeared in 27 NHL games and 276 AHL contests over five seasons between 2002-03 and 2007-08 and signed with SaiPa last season after a season in Germany.

In terms of younger prospects, only 19-year-old Jesse Mankinen stands out but he averaged less than five minutes of ice time in SaiPa’s first nine games.

TAPPARA

Tappara featured some of the top young players in Finland last season, including 2009-10 SM-Liiga MVP Jori Lehtera (STL), and was a respectable seventh in the standings after fighting to avoid relegation a year earlier. With the loss of two-thirds of their top line, including Lehtera, to the KHL, as well as its top young offensive defenseman being out of the lineup, a slip in the standings was expected. Instead, Tappara has featured a more balanced attack and gotten quality goaltending from an unlikely source and was sitting in fourth place after ten games this year.

Twenty-year old Niklas Lucenius is coming off a breakout season a year ago and is the only player left from a line that featured Lehtera and one-time Atlanta Thrashers prospect Jonas Enlund, both now in Russia with Yaroslavl and Novosibirsk respectively. Like Enlund, Lucenius was drafted by the Thrashers in 2007 but despite his strong play in 2009-10 he did not receive a qualifying offer from Atlanta and is now an unrestricted free agent for NHL purposes. Kim Stromberg, 22, put up big numbers as a junior playing alongside Lehtera with Jokerit and had five assists in six games for Tappara in the Europe Trophy but has not been able to establish himself as a consistent offensive threat at the SM-Liiga level. In Tappara’s first ten games this season he had just one goal after scoring four goals with six assists in 39 games in 2009-10. Tomi Pekkala, 21, scored eight goals in 19 games as a rookie last season in Tampere after being obtained from Karpat in mid-season. A prolific scorer as a junior with Karpat, Pekkala scored 2 goals with two assists in six Europe Trophy games but was scoreless and minus-two in this season’s first seven regular season games.

A surprising source of offense in Tappara’s first five games has been 20-year-old defenseman Jesse Turkulainen, who scored a goal with three assists in Tappara’s first ten games after posting just three assists in 24 games in 2009-10. Undrafted by the NHL in his first two years of eligibility despite prototypical size (6’3, 200) for a defenseman, Turkulainen played his youth hockey in Sweden before signing with Tappara in 2008-09. While veterans like one-time Kings prospect Tuukka Mantyla and Pekka Saravo will see the bulk of the ice time for Tappara, Turkulainen has averaged nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game thus far. Twenty-two-year-old Harri Ilvonen, a 2007 Minnesota Wild draft pick, was the top offensive defenseman for Tappara last season, especially in the playoffs, but is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury.

The goalie picture in Tappara is a crowded one. Former Buffalo Sabre Mika Noronen, now 31, was signed in the off-season. Harri Sateri, last year’s starter, played well enough in 2009-10 to earn an entry-level contract with San Jose, who drafted him in the 4th round in the 2008 NHL draft. Despite a sub-.500 won/loss percentage last season, Sateri was in camp with the Sharks and made a big impression before returning to Tampere at the beginning of October. In Sateri’s absence, former HIFK junior prospect Jani Nieminen, and not Noronen, handled the goaltending chores for Tappara. Nieminen, 23, is a bit undersized compared to NHL goalies but had a very good rookie season for HIFK in 2008-09. Despite his strong first season, he was in a backup role with HIFK last year, behind veteran Jan Lundell and then, ironically, Noronen. After posting a 2.98 goals against average and .923 save percentage in four Europe Trophy games, Nieminen led Tappara to a 4-1 start in SM-Liiga play with the same .923 save percentage and a 2.20 goals against average. He and Sateri have shared the goaltending duties since the latter’s return but Sateri was still looking for a win after two starts while Nieminen was 6-1-1 with a 2.12 goals against average and .926 save percentage in eight starts.

TPS

Turku-based TPS, which finished in tenth place in three of four seasons prior to 2009-10, turned things around with a sixth-place finish in 2009-10 and then rolled to the Canada Cup in the playoffs, with American defenseman Lee Sweatt and veteran forward Ilari Filppula playing key roles. With Sweatt (Vancouver), Filppula (Detroit) and goalie Leggio (Buffalo) all signing North American deals after the season, TPS has taken a step back and was still searching for its first regulation win after 11 games (0-9-2).

Engren, a seventh-round pick of Nashville in the 2007 draft, signed a two-year contract with the Predators in May but will play at least one more season in Finland. He and Leggio played a big part in the playoff success last year but he and the TPS defense have struggled early on this season – allowing more than five goals in two of the first three games. Engren’s 3.44 goals against average in eight games is the second worst in the SM-Liiga among full-time starters (to Ilves’ Jani Hurme 3.61) but is at least partially attributable to the porous defense played by TPS. Joni Ortio, 20, was a sixth-round pick of Calgary in the 2009 draft and was Team Finland’s goalie at the 2009 WJC U-20 tournament. Drafted by Swift Current of the WHL in the 2009 CHL Import Draft, Ortio played well for TPS’ A juniors last year and it was anticipated he would head to Canada this season. Instead, he decided to stay in Finland under the tutelage of respected goalie coach Urpo Ylonen. Ortio was winless in his first two starts this season with a 4.00 goals against average and .908 save percentage. Twenty-one year old Tommi Virtanen is also with TPS should Ortio return to juniors.

Some of the early season defensive struggles could be attributed to inexperience on defense; Coach Heikki Leime has experimented with a handful of young players due in part to injuries to veterans Garret Raboin and Aki-Petteri Berg. Joonas Jarvinen, 21, is a solid, stay-at-home defenseman who benefited from playing alongside Berg and Sweatt last year. Veli-Matti Vittasmaki appeared in 34 regular season games and all fifteen playoff contests a year ago and the 20-year-old averaged over 21 minutes in TPS’ first 10 games. Mikael Aaltonen is highly-regarded as a 19-year old junior and played two of TPS’ first 11 games this season after seeing action in 10 SM-Liiga games in 2009-10.

With Filppula gone and one-time Blues prospect Michal Birner injured, former San Jose Shark Tomas Plihal and Canadian Mario Valery-Trabucco, along with returnees Ville Vahalahti and Sami Venalainen are TPS’ top scorers. Vallery-Trabucco, 23, is a 2010 Union College graduate and scored 23 goals with 22 assists in 45 games for the Dutchmen in 2009-10. After leading TPS with five goals and five assists in eight European Trophy games, he scored four goals with one assist and had eight penalty minutes in his first 11 SM-Liiga games. While several veteran forwards came up through TPS’ junior program, 19-year-old Toni Kluuskeri is the only current junior who appears capable of cracking the lineup this season. A bit light for pro hockey in North America at this point, and yet to be drafted, Kluuskeri appeared in two exhibition games for Finland’s WJC U-20 squad in its series against Mestis opponents; scoring one goal with one assist.

ASSAT

Assat has appeared made the playoffs just twice since 1998 and has had just one winning season during that time; in 2005-06 the Pori-based squad faced similar small-town underdog HPK in a memorable SM-Liiga final. If neighboring rival Lukko’s early success last year was an eye-opener, this year’s fast start by Assat, which sat in third place after ten games, was perhaps even more surprising.

Unlike Lukko, which rode the scoring of key imports and high-profile NHL draftees like Tukonen to its fast start, Assat’s success has been achieved thanks to the efforts of a mostly anonymous group of young players in their mid-20’s who have either come up through Assat’s juniors or were discarded by larger clubs – though the Assat attack will receive a boost with the return of Tomas Zaborsky.

Goalie Eero Kilpelainen, 25, was a fifth-round pick of Dallas in 2003 and played one season for the OHL‘s Peterborough Petes (2004-05) but was never signed by the Stars. Now in his fifth season in Pori, he shared the goaltending duties with hulking Jussi Rynnas last season. Rynnas signed a free agent contract with Toronto following the season and is now with the Leafs’ AHL affiliate Marlies. Kilpelainen has done well as the main man for Assat despite less than ideal size. Playing all but two minutes in Assat’s first ten games, he is 6-3-1 with a 2.40 goals against average and .929 save percentage. Juha Jarvenpaa, 21, who some felt might be this year’s Rynnas, was very good for Assat’s junior team in 2009-10 and is backing Kilpelainen.

On defense, Jesse Jyrkkio has been a high-risk, high-reward offensive defenseman since his days in junior hockey but the 21-year-old has become more responsible in his second season, though there are still occasional mental lapses. In his second full SM-Liiga season, his offensive numbers were down in the team’s first ten games, (one goal, one assist) but Jyrkkio’s plus-five was the best amongst Assat defensemen and his 21 minutes of ice time per game is second only to Ville Uusitalo. Juho Mielonen, a 2005 Detroit draft pick, was injured for much of his time with SaiPa and thus never signed by the Red Wings. Playing his first full, injury-free season in 2009-10 for SaiPa, he was finally able to display his talent and has been a welcome addition in Pori. The twenty-three-year old was Assat’s leading scorer among defensemen in the first ten games with two goals and two assists. Miko Malkamaki, 23, is a product of the Tappara junior program and played 25 games with HC Liberec in the Czech Elite League last season. Malkamaki had four assists in his first eight games with Assat.

Zaborsky, 22, was drafted by the Rangers in 2006 and after leaving his native Slovakia to play two seasons of junior hockey with Saginaw in the OHL spent most of 2008-09 in the ECHL. After attending Rangers camp last season but failing to secure an AHL spot, he signed with Assat and scored nine goals with 17 assists in 43 games as an SM-Liiga rookie. He was traded from the Rangers to Anaheim in July and attended camp with the Ducks hoping to land an NHL or AHL spot but was again assigned to an ECHL club (Elmira) and chose instead to re-sign with Assat.

In Zaborsky’s absence, veterans Aki Uusikartano and Tuomas Santavuori were the leading scorers in Pori. But the big story, both literally and figuratively, has been the play of 17-year-old Joel Armia. The Pori native, who scored 15 goals in 21 games for Assat’s A junior team in 2009-10, scored two goals with four assists and was plus-five in his first seven SM-Liiga games. At 6’3 187, he has the proverbial frame scouts look for and though his skating looks a bit stiff, he has strong stick handling and shooting skills and should draw attention at the WJC U-18 tournament. Tommi Huhtala, 22, is another promising young player but has been slowed by injury, appearing in just two of the first ten games. Center Mika Niemi, 22, is also a Pori native and was second on the team with 25 assists in 52 games a year ago. Niemi had two goals and one assist in eight games before suffering a leg injury that is expected to keep him out of the lineup until late October.