Kapanen the best NHL-affiliated forward prospect coming out of Finland’s Liiga

By Tony Piscotta
Kasperi Kapanen - Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo: Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Kasperi Kapanen had a somewhat disappointing 2014-15 season in Finland’s Liiga but finished well competing for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL playoffs (courtesy of Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

Liiga has steadily seen some of the top young forward prospects in Finland head elsewhere rather than pursuing careers in the nation’s top domestic pro league. That happened once again in 2014-15 as two of the heroes from the 2014 World Juniors — KalPa Kuopio left wing Artturi Lehkonen (Montreal) and Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago), Liiga’s sixth-leading scorer skating for Jokerit in 2013-14 — are no longer playing in Finland.

Lehkonen, who returned to Finland’s U20 team for the 2015 World Juniors, spent the winter with Frolunda in Sweden’s SHL while Teravainen is now with the Chicago Blackhawks after playing for that team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, most of this season.

Croatian-born forward Borna Rendulic, who played for HPK Hameenlinna last season, also made his NHL debut this winter, splitting the season between the Colorado Avalanche and their AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters. Center Michael Keranan, the leading scorer for Ilves in 2013-14, signed an entry-level contract with the Minnesota Wild and skated for the Iowa Wild in the AHL.

As a result of this trend, Hockey’s Future identified the top five forwards playing in Finland for 2015. Interestingly, there are no true centers among the group of affiliated players playing in Liiga — though Anaheim Ducks prospect Miro Aaltonen has played center and wing in the past. He played right wing on the top line for the Espoo Blues this season.

Many of the league’s top scorers are older veterans, like Kim Hirschovits from the Espoo Blues and JyP’s Eric Perrin, who finished 1-2 in the points race. Hirschovits, a 32-year-old center, was drafted by the New York Rangers in 2002. Perrin, 39, appeared in 263 NHL games, including 18 playoff games, over three seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers and was a college teammate of the Rangers’ Martin St. Louis.

Of the eight forwards with connections to NHL clubs that skated in Liiga this year, only KalPa 18-year-old Kasperi Kapanen can be considered a blue-chip prospect at this point.

Three players with experience in the AHL — Tomas Kubalik, Antti Tyrvainen, and Juuso Puustinen — are currently restricted free agents, but none appear likely to play in the NHL in the near future. Only Kubalik is featured among our top five forwards.

The other four forwards with NHL affiliations — Aaltonen (Anaheim), Saku Maenalanen (Nashville), Saku Salminen (Tampa Bay), and Julius Vahatalo (Detroit) — were all drafted but have yet to sign entry-level contracts with their respective clubs. Aaltonen, Maenalanen, and Salminen all were selected at the 2013 NHL Draft, with the signing deadline for Aaltonen coming up on June 1st,  while Maenalanen and Salminen remain property of their respective NHL clubs until June of 2017. Vahatalo was selected in 2014 and thus does not have to be signed until 2018.

Of those four, Salminen, selected in the seventh round by Tampa Bay in 2013 due primarily to his projectable size, appears to be the least likely to be signed and is not included in this list of the top five forwards.

Here are the top five NHL-affiliated forwards in Finland this year.

1. Kasperi Kapanen, RW, 18, KalPa Kuopio
NHL Rights: Pittsburgh Penguins
Drafted in the first round, 22nd overall, in 2014

The 2014-15 season for Kapanen has been one of highs and lows — and some pain — after he was selected by Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft. Ironically, he was selected by Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford, the same man who drafted his father Sami in the 1995 draft when Rutherford was with the Hartford Whalers.

Kasperi Kapanen impressed with his play during the Penguins’ development camp in July and was signed to a three-year, entry-level contract. A finger injury suffered in that camp prevented him from playing with the Penguins’ rookie squad in London, Ontario. There was talk of him opening the season with the Penguins during training camp before he was ultimately returned to KalPa.

After finishing last in Liiga in 2013-14, KalPa was much better this season, eventually finishing sixth in the 14-team league. Kapanen was a streaky scorer for the Kuopio squad but saw steady ice time in a third-line role, finishing the regular season with 11 goals and 10 assists in 41 games.

On the downside, Kapanen struggled along with the rest of the Finland U20 team at the 2015 World Junior Championship. He scored his only goal (and only point) in the team’s final game, a 6-3 loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals. On the plus side, Kapanen did generate some offense in the 2015 AHL Playoffs for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, posting three goals and five points in seven games.

Long term, Kapanen’s skill set and ability to read offensive plays suggests he can be a special player one day. His lack of size and bulk is an obstacle at this point but he should add strength and size as he matures physically and continues to train.

2. Miro Aaltonen, 21, RW Espoo Blues
NHL Rights: Anaheim Ducks
Drafted in the sixth round, 177th overall, in 2013

Now in his third Liiga season, Aaltonen was the fourth-leading scorer for Espoo and 19th overall in Liiga with 16 goals and 21 assists in 57 regular season games, finishing +12 while averaging 17 minutes of ice time. Often skating on the Blues’ top line with Hirschovits and left wing Ville Korhonen, Aaltonen is a shifty and gifted offensive player who will go into the hard areas to make a play.

Aaltonen’s size and lack of hard, physical play are cause for concern — and he passed through two NHL Drafts before being selected by Anaheim in 2013 — but his level of competitiveness and willingness to handle tough situations makes him an intriguing prospect. His ability to play all three forward spots is also a plus.

Espoo finished fifth in the regular season before being swept by JyP in the quarterfinals. Aaltonen scored one goal with one assist and was -2 in four playoff games.

3. Tomas Kubalik, 24, RW, KalPa Kuopio
NHL Rights: Winnipeg Jets
Drafted in the fifth round, 135th overall, in 2008 (by Columbus)

Tomas Kubalik , who appeared in 12 NHL games while in the Blue Jackets’ organization, got off to a fast start with KalPa after playing just 18 KHL games with Lev Prague in 2013-14. But his offensive production cooled as the season went on and he does not appear likely to play for the Jets.

A native of Plzen, Czech Republic, he had spent parts of three seasons with Plzen HC before dominating the QMJHL as a 19-year-old with the Victoriaville Tigres in 2009-10. In addition to his 12 NHL games with the Blue Jackets over two seasons, Kubalik had 53 points (24 goals, 29 assists) for the AHL’s Springfield Falcons in his first pro season (2010-11) but has not matched those numbers since.

Kubalik’s size and skill level suggest he should be a consistent scorer and effective two-way player, but he has yet to put it together for a full season. With KHL runner-up Lev last season, he missed much of the season due to hand injuries. He and Lev Prague teammate Michal Birner joined KalPa at the start of the 2014-15 season after Lev suspended operations due to financial troubles.

Birner was KalPa’s leading scorer in the regular season but Kubalik, after starting the season with two goals and 10 assists in his first 17 games, again struggled with consistency. He had one assist in seven games in November and missed most of December due to injury — returning to the lineup in a game against HIFK on December 30th.

Kubalik was obtained by Winnipeg in March of 2013 in a trade for Spencer Machacek, then played 10 games with the Jets’ AHL affiliate in St. John’s. He was tendered a qualifying offer following the 2013-14 season but never signed with Winnipeg. At this point, it is unlikely he still fits in the Jets’ plans but he could receive a free agent offer from a team intrigued by his combination of size and skill.

4. Julius Vahatalo, 19, LW, TPS Turku
NHL Rights: Detroit Red Wings
Drafted in the sixth round, 166th overall, in 2014

The Detroit Red Wings have earned a reputation for drafting players from Europe in the late rounds and then having those players go on to superstardom — with Tomas Holmstrom (10th round, 1994), Pavel Datsyuk (sixth round, 1998), and Henrik Zetterberg (seventh round, 1999) being the most prominent examples of that trend. In those cases, however, the talent level of those players was fairly well known, but there was uncertainty about whether they would ever come to North America.

Julius Vahatalo is similar to some of the more recent late round picks by Detroit, many of whom have yet to make their mark in the NHL. He is a big player with raw ability but is still very much an unproven commodity.

TPS Turku endured a tough season in 2014-15, finishing ahead of only first-year Liiga club Vaasa Sport in the standings. As a result of their struggles, the club gave several teenagers the opportunity to play in Liiga for the first time.

Vahatalo skated in 36 games for TPS, averaging 9:24 of ice time, and scored one goal with one assist while finishing -9 with eight penalty minutes. According to one scout who saw him play several times this season, Vahatalo has good hands and reads the play well but his speed is an issue at times.

In five games for Finland’s U20 team at the 2015 World Juniors, Vahatalo was +1 with no points nor penalties.

5. Saku Maenalanen, 20, RW, Karpat Oulu/Pelicans Lahti/Hokki (Mestis)
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted in the fifth round, 125th overall, in 2013

In 2013-14, Maenalanen dominated at times at the junior level due to his size and shooting ability, leading all scorers with seven goals at the 2014 World Junior Championship and finishing +9 in seven games while taking advantage of skating on the squad’s top line with Teravainen.

In his second pro season, Maenalanen had trouble cracking the lineup with the league’s best team, Karpat. He played 20 games with Karpat, scoring four goals and averaging 10:27 of ice time, and was loaned to Pelicans early in the year, also playing for Hokki in Mestis as well as skating for Karpat’s U20 team as a 20-year-old.

Despite the prototypical size of a power forward, Maenalanen does not play an abrasive style and tends to play around the edges of the game at times. With several talented, young forwards in the Nashville system, he could face a numbers game in securing a contract with the Predator

Other Notables

Joonas Donskoi, 22, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: San Jose Sharks
Drafted in the fourth round, 99th overall, in 2010 (by Florida)

Joonas Donskoi has steadily progressed in his five seasons playing for Karpat. Drafted but never signed to a contract by the Florida Panthers, he was the top scorer in the 2014-15 regular season for the league’s best team — and fifth overall in scoring in Liiga — with 19 goals and 30 assists in 58 games.

Donskoi does not play an overly physical game, nor does his skating stand out amongst other young prospects, but his productivity and competitive nature was enough to attract the attention of the San Jose Sharks, who recently signed Donskoi to an entry-level deal.

Juuso Puustinen, 26, RW, HIFK Helsinki
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators – Restricted Free Agent
Drafted in the fifth round, 149th overall, in 2006 (by Calgary)

Too old to still be considered a prospect under the Hockey’s Future prospect criteria, Puustinen spent two seasons with Nashville’s AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, without receiving an NHL call-up. The one-time Kamloops Blazers forward is an opportunistic scorer in Finland but his game seems more suited to Europe than North America. With the depth of the Predators’ forward group, it does not appear likely that Puustinen returns to North America.

Saku Salminen, RW, 20, HPK Hameenlinna
NHL Rights: Tampa Bay Lightning
Drafted in the seventh round, 184th overall, in 2013

Salminen played with HPK this season after playing in the Jokerit junior program but didn’t have much of an offensive impact and is not overly active for a player his size. Forwards like Salminen sometimes take longer to develop as they mature physically and develop their two-way awareness.

With the forward depth in Tampa Bay, it is uncertain as to whether he’ll receive an offer in the next couple of seasons. If Salminen remains unsigned long term but continues to develop, he could receive unrestricted free agent offers in the future in much the same manner as current Edmonton Oilers‘ forward Iiro Pakarinen did; Pakarinen was drafted by Florida but never signed, instead spending three seasons in Liiga before being signed by Edmonton.

Antti Tyrvainen, 25, LW, Ilves Tampere
NHL Rights: Edmonton Oilers – Restricted Free Agent
Signed as free agent in 2011

Antti Tyrvainen, despite the lack of prototypical enforcer size, plays a hard game bordering on chippy and will do anything to help his team win. When he signed a two-year contract with Edmonton in June of 2011, it was hoped he might be able to supply the grit to go along with the many high-profile offensive talents drafted by the Oilers. He played 55 games with AHL affiliate Oklahoma City in his first season in North America and was limited to just 32 games with the Barons due to injury in 2012-13.

Tendered a qualifying offer by the Oilers that June, he instead returned to Finland, skating with Jokerit last season before joining Ilves in 2013-14 when Jokerit headed to the KHL. Like Toronto Maple Leafs‘ forward Leo Komarov, Tyrvainen could find a spot in the NHL one day. Tyrvainen does not have the technical skills nor skating ability of Komarov but brings a similar attitude. It is likely he remains in Finland for the foreseeable future.

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