2015 NHL Draft Review: Rantanen heads bumper crop of Finnish draftees

By Tony Piscotta
Mikko Rantanen - Colorado Avalanche

Photo: Colorado Avalanche 2015 first round pick Mikko Rantanen signed an entry-level deal with the team in July (courtesy of Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

 

 

Entering the 2015 NHL Draft, there was much uncertainty regarding the prospects coming out of Finland. TPS Turku center Mikko Rantanen was the top-ranked European skater according to Central Scouting, but after that it was anybody’s guess as to how things would go in Sunrise, Florida.

As it turned out, it was a very good year in terms of prospects from Finland being drafted.

Rantanen went in the first round as expected — going 10th overall to the Colorado Avalanche — but there were three more players from Finland taken in the second round.

Overall, a total of 12 players that skated in Finland last year, plus defenseman Vili Saarijarvi, a hero for the U18 team at the World Championship who played for the Green Bay Gamblers last season, were selected by the time the draft ended.

That represented the most players taken from Finland since 2006. The four players taken in the first and second rounds were the most since 2011 when five Finnish players were selected in the first two rounds.

Rantanen was the third straight forward from Finland to be the top-ranked European skater after Kasperi Kapanen last year and Aleksander Barkov in 2013. Teuvo Teravainen, who skated for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, was the second-ranked European skater in 2012 behind Nashville’s Filip Forsberg.

Rantanen possesses a rare combination of size, skating ability, stick-handling and passing skill with a seemingly non-stop motor. He does not play an overly punishing style but uses his large frame well along the boards and in tight spaces to retrieve and control pucks. Rantanen is too much for smaller players to handle at the junior level and was one of the bright spots for a disappointing TPS squad in Liiga last season.

As with the 2015 draft class as a whole, the talent pool in Finland appeared to consist of a group of 20 or more players that were either high-end prospects or not likely to be drafted — depending upon the specific source.

Forwards Sebastian Aho (Carolina, 35th overall), Roope Hintz (Dallas, 49th) and Julius Nattinen (Anaheim, 59th) impressed the personnel people in their respective organizations enough to be selected in the second round.

Aho is not to be confused with the defenseman from Sweden with the same name who was in his second year of draft eligibility and ranked by CSS but once gain passed over. The Finnish Aho is undersized by NHL standards and is more of a playmaker and two-way player than true scorer. Ironically, he did score the biggest goal of the year in Finland last season, scoring in overtime for Karpat Oulu in the decisive seventh game of the Kanada Cup finals.

Hintz was ranked fifth amongst prospects from Finland in the Hockey’s Future rankings prior to the 2015 NHL Draft and played in Liiga last season, skating in 42 regular season games for Ilves Tampere. In terms of offensive instincts and playmaking ability, he may be the most promising of the prospects coming out of Finland. He has the prototypical size for an NHL forward but does not play an overly abrasive game, though he is a demon along the walls and in the corners

Nattinen is the younger brother of Montreal Canadiens‘ 2009 third round pick Joonas Nattinen. The first skater from Finland selected in that draft, the older Nattinen is now playing in Sweden, having played one NHL game in three years with the Montreal organization. Julius Nattinen has the prototypical size of a power forward and the natural inclination to support teammates either with passes or positioning. He has a unique combination of size and skill to go along with strong team skills and, while not a natural scorer, he can fit in well in a variety of roles.

Saarijarvi was the first Finnish-trained defensemen selected, but since he played in North America last year he was not listed among the international skaters in the CSS rankings, nor was he among the 210 North American skaters in their final list. Taken by the Detroit Red Wings in the third round (73rd overall), the Rovaniemi native opened eyes with his play for Finland at the World Juniors. He is a small but ambitious and offensively-gifted force on the blue line. Originally headed back to Finland to play for Karpat, Saarijarvi was selected by the Flint Firebirds (formerly Plymouth) in the CHL Import Draft and will play major junior hockey in Canada.

Forward Aleksi Saarela of Assat Pori was the last player from Finland taken in the first 100 picks, going to the New York Rangers in the third round (89th overall) as a classic boom-or-bust prospect.

As talented as any of the forwards in this year’s draft crop, Saarela was viewed as a potential first-round pick before battling injuries during the 2013-14 season and ending that year with a disappointing showing at the 2014 U18 World Championship. Saarela spent the full year in Liiga in 2014-15 and was arguably the best forward for Finland’s silver medal U18 team at this year’s World Championship. According to one scout, “if any team or coach can reign him in there, they’ve got a pretty good player.”

As with the case in the 2006 draft, many of the players taken in June this year were late round projects whose long-term potential is far from certain.

However, in that 2006 draft class Toronto’s Leo Komarov was the 13th of 14 players from Finland selected when he was chosen in the sixth round and is the only Finnish player from that draft currently on an NHL roster.

KalPa Kuopio right wing Jonne Tammela is another player who benefited from a strong showing at the U18 World Championship and was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the fourth round (118th). Flying under the radar among some of the more high profile forwards, Tammela possesses sound positional skills and is a strong skater with a physical component to his game.

Five of the final six players selected from Finland were defensemen.

Niko Mikkola (St. Louis, 127th) and Veeti Vainio (Columbus, 141st) were chosen in the fifth round. HPK Hameenlinna’s Joni Tuulola was taken by Chicago in the sixth round (181st) in his second year of draft eligibility. Twenty-one-year-old Markus Nutivaara was selected in the seventh round (189th) by the Columbus Blue Jackets in his fourth year of draft eligibility, and JyP’s Sami Niku was chosen by the Winnipeg Jets with the 198th overall pick in the same round.

Mikkola, who appeared in 10 Liiga games with KalPa and skated with the club’s junior team last season, is the fifth defenseman from Finland selected by the St. Louis Blues in the last six drafts. Espoo’s Vainio was the second-ranked prospect from Finland according to Hockey’s Future prior to the draft. He has the ideal physical attributes and technical skills to be a dominating defender, but his production has not yet matched those abilities.

Tuulola is an undersized, offensively-oriented defender whose father, Marko, was HPK’s all-time leading scorer. Nutivaara is the prototypical late bloomer but saw significant ice time during the Liiga playoffs and was +6 with six points (1 goal, 5 assists) in 16 games. Niku is another player whose star dimmed a bit in his draft season, particularly after Finland’s U20 team struggled at the World Juniors. But he has significant offensive skills and is a product of the same JyP program that produced Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen.

Finland’s reputation for developing world class goaltenders is merited, but ironically just one netminder from that nation was selected in the 2015 NHL Draft, and it was not one of the two in Central Scouting’s final rankings.

Playing primarily at the U18 level for JyP this past season, Markus Ruusu had little in terms of exposure and did not compete at the World Junior level, but his play did draw the notice of the Dallas Stars, who selected him in the sixth round (163rd overall).

“He has good size, he’s athletic and that is the bottom line to be a good goalie,” said one former national junior team goalie coach. “He’s really calm, his positioning in the blue ice is pretty damn good, he’s in balance playing the rebounds and recovering after stops. I really think he’s going to be something.”

Omissions

While the selection of Ruusu was a welcome surprise, perhaps the biggest eye opener in terms of players that were not selected were the three goalies who were not drafted.

Following the 2013-14 season, Veini Vehvilainen appeared all but certain to be selected. The top junior goalie in his age group for several seasons and a mainstay for the Finland U18 team, Vehvilainen’s technical skills and athletic ability compared favorably to the other goaltenders in the 2015 draft. Struggles this year with both Finland’s U18 team and playing for JyP-Akatemia in Mestis were at least partially attributable to the play of the team in front of him and it was thought that his strong showing at the 2015 U18 World Championship would attract draft attention. He was subsequently invited to the Anaheim Ducks‘ prospect camp.

HIFK U20 goalie Christian Heljanko, though undersized, has been a frequent teammate of Vehvilainen’s on the Finland U18 team and was arguably the top goaltender in Finnish junior hockey last season. It was thought a team might take a late round flier on him.

Alexandar Georgiyev was ranked 10th in the Central Scouting rankings of international goalies in his second year of draft eligibility following his first season with TPS Turku. A product of the Khimik Voskresensk program in Russia, he made great strides under the tutelage of former NHL goaltender Fredrik Norrena with TPS.

Looking Back

While 14 players from Finland were selected in the 2006 NHL Draft, the results were not great.

Of those players, only five appeared in NHL games, with former Islanders and Oilers forward Jesse Joensuu, selected by New York in the second round (60th overall), leading all in games played (129). Komarov (104 games) should eclipse that mark this season and leads all players with 35 total points (12 goals, 23 assists).

Goalie Riku Helenius was the first Finnish player chosen in that draft, going to Tampa Bay in the first round (15th overall). He appeared in one NHL game, before rebuilding his career in Europe and is currently with Jokerit in the KHL.

Among the five players taken in the first two rounds in 2011 – one first round pick and four second rounders – the jury is still out.

Selected by Buffalo with the 16th overall pick, former Assat Pori right wing Joel Armia was part of the blockbuster deal that sent Evander Kane to the Sabres last February and will look to crack the Jets’ lineup this season. He has shown some offensive ability at the AHL level and could benefit from the fresh start.

Of the second round picks, Calgary’s Markus Granlund has appeared in 55 games with the Flames so far and appears closest to seizing a full-time NHL role. Miikka Salomaki — taken by the Nashville Predators with the 52nd overall pick, one pick after the Arizona Coyotes selected Alexander Ruuttu — has played a strong two-way game with the Predators’ AHL affiliate in Milwaukee and could earn a lower-line role in Nashville this year.

Goalie Christopher Gibson was drafted but never signed by the Los Angeles Kings. He is in Toronto’s organization but does not appear close to playing at the NHL level anytime soon. Ruuttu, the son of former NHL forward Christian Ruuttu, was never signed by Arizona and after appearing in 25 Liiga games for TPS Turku last season is now playing in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second division.

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