With the addition of former Mestis club KooKoo, Finland’s Liiga in 2015-16 will feature 15 teams for the first time in league history. But, while the Kouvola-based squad should enjoy an intense rivalry with neighboring SaiPa Lappeenranta in southeastern Finland, things aren’t likely to change at the top of the league standings.
Karpat won its second straight league title last year despite player losses from the previous season. Once again, some of the top players from the previous season have moved on from the Oulu club but, to borrow an American football cliche, Karpat doesn’t rebuild, it simply reloads.
Leading scorer Joonas Donskoi (San Jose) and forward Joonas Kemppainen (Boston) both signed NHL deals following the Liiga playoffs, but winger Ivan Huml and defenseman Adam Masuhr return along with Karpat’s two exciting juniors, Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi.
Tappara finished second to Karpat a year ago and took Oulu to overtime in the decisive seventh game of the Kanada Cup finals. Pekka Jormakka and Olli Palola — two of the top three scorers for Tampere last year — have moved on to the KHL, but Kristian Kuusela returns. One-time Ducks prospect Stephen Dixon has enjoyed a successful career in Europe and is back as well. The two skated with Veli-Matti Savinainen in Champions League play.
With the addition of the 15th team this season, Liiga will offer opportunities for more players — which has means added opportunities for veterans to squeeze a season or two out of their career. At the same time, more teenagers than ever will have a shot at playing at the men’s level.
TPS Turku skated one of the oldest defense pairings in pro hockey in their first Champions League game with 42-year-old Petteri Nummelin paired with long time NHL defenseman Henrik Tallinder (36).
Several of Finland’s top junior-aged players moved to North America this season to play in either Canada or the USHL but even with those departures there are a number of players scouts will have their eyes on this season.
Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine are both potential first round picks. Puljujarvi skated with Huml and center Mika Niemi in Karpat’s first Champions League game while Laine scored two goals with one assist for Tappara in the club’s first game.
Those two are the most prominent juniors skating in Liiga this season but there are several other younger players that will receive scrutiny either as potential draft picks or to sign as potential free agents.
Here is a look at the upcoming season with an emphasis on those NHL prospects. KooKoo is featured first followed by the returning teams in the order of finish in 2014-15. The number in parentheses indicates the number of players whose rights are held by NHL teams.
KooKoo Kouvola (0)
KooKoo moves up to Liiga after finishing second to Jukurit Mikkeli in Mestis last season. As with the other smaller clubs in Finland, the roster is made up largely of players in their later 20s and early 30s. While the experience and talent level of these players should allow KooKoo to be competitive, very few of these players are viewed as NHL-caliber prospects at this stage of their careers.
A core group of players from last year’s Mestis squad — including leading scorer Juuso Ralaja — return from last year, but none are viewed as potential NHL players at this point. Like the men’s team, KooKoo’s junior team will move up to the top level after playing in the second division last year and may face some growing pains making the adjustment.
Frederic Cloutier, a native of Quebec who was the ECHL Goalie of the Year in 2001-02, has had a long career in Europe and played in 42 games (including nine playoff games) for KooKoo last season. He is competing with fourth-year pro Juha Jarvenpaa, who played with Ilves last season, for the starting job in net.
Defenseman Ari Vallin played 24 games for the AHL’s Rochester Americans in 2006-07 and was part of Karpat’s championship teams the past two seasons. He will be a team captain. Ossi-Petteri Gronholm has been with HPK the past four seasons and has been skating on the top pair with Vallin in pre-season. In terms of defensemen who could one day draw interest as an NHL unrestricted free agent, 21-year-old Mikko Lehtonen played 37 games for TPS last season and skated for the gold medal-winning Finland U20 team at the 2014 World Junior Championship. Ryan O’Connor, 23, is in his third season in Europe following his junior days in the OHL. O’Connor played for the Espoo Blues last season.
Nineteen-year-old Arttu Pelli is back in Kouvola after playing for SaiPa’s U20 team last season. He is small for a typical NHL defenseman but has some offensive skill.
The KooKoo forward group consists of mostly older veterans such as 37-year-old Josh Green, a veteran of 358 NHL games who played for Tappara the past two seasons. Former University of North Dakota center Matt Watkins appeared in one game with the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2011-12 and played in Austria last season. Juuso Rajala, 26, led Kookoo with 12 goals and 45 assists in 55 regular season games in Mestis play last year and had 3 goals with 15 assists in 19 playoff games. He has some Liiga experience, playing a career-high 50 games with Ilves in 2013-14.
Jan-Mikael Juutilianen was a sixth round pick for Chicago in 2006 and played two seasons with the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks but never signed an NHL deal. Juutilainen had limited success in three Liiga seasons with Jokerit and one year with HPK and has skated for KooKoo since 2012-13. An assistant captain the past two seasons, Juutilainen has 43 goals in 130 regular season Mestis games over three seasons in Kouvola.
Karpat Oulu (6)
The losses of Donskoi and Kemppainen and a lingering injury to goalie Iiro Tarkki could affect Karpat early in the season, but on paper things are far from bleak in Oulu.
Colorado Avalanche prospect Sami Aittokallio, who appeared in one game with the Avalanche two years ago during a promising first AHL season with the Lake Erie Monsters, was signed over the summer and had a shutout in his first Champions League game. Aittokallio played 14 games for Lake Erie last season as a backup to former first-round pick Calvin Pickard, but the chance to see more time with Karpat should aid his development. One-time Oilers and Flyers prospect Niko Hovinen is also signed and will be with the team until Tarkki returns.
Former Philadelphia Flyer Lasse Kukonen and Masuhr anchor one of the league’s best defense corps. Jani Hakanpaa joins Karpat after two years in the AHL (he is an NHL restricted free agent whose rights are held by St. Louis). Arto Laatikainen, obtained mid-season from TPS in 2014-15, had 17 assists in 19 playoff games last spring. Among the younger NHL prospects, Markus Nutivaara was solid for Karpat in the playoffs as a 20-year-old and was subsequently drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the seventh round of the 2015 NHL Draft.
The Karpat forward group is a veteran unit as well since Huml (Bruins), Esa Pirnes (Kings) and Mika Pyorala (Flyers) all have NHL experience while Mika Niemi is entering his seventh Liiga season. He had a career-high 38 assists last season for Assat Pori.
Of the three Karpat forwards whose rights are protected by NHL clubs, Aho, a second-round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes in this past draft, appears to have the highest upside. A bit thin by NHL standards, he is more of an opportunist than a true scorer. He appeared in 27 regular season games and 10 playoff contests last season and scored the biggest goal of the season, scoring the game-winner in overtime against Tappara to clinch the Kanada Cup.
Miro Aaltonen (Anaheim) and Saku Maenalanen (Nashville) were both late round selections in the 2013 NHL Draft but neither have signed contracts to this point. Aaltonen was the fourth-leading scorer for Espoo last season while Maenalanen skated in 28 regular season games (including an eight-game stint on loan to Pelicans) and had one assist in seven playoff games with Karpat last season.
The excitement among the Karpat juniors revolves around Puljujarvi. The big forward skated in 21 Liiga games with Karpat last year as a 16-year-old and drew raves for his play with Finland’s U20 team at the 2015 World Juniors last winter. His size and skill level is impressive but what has most piqued the interest of scouts is his seemingly endless amount of energy.
Tappara Tampere (0)
Tappara Tampere did not miss a beat under first-year head coach Jussi Tapola last season, finishing second to Karpat in the regular season and once again reaching the playoff finals before losing in a decisive seventh game.
As was the case for Karpat, the Tappara lineup lost its leading scorer from a year ago as Olli Pallola will be playing in the KHL. Pekka Jormakka, who scored 15 goals last season, is also in the KHL after joining Jokerit and Green is now with KooKoo. However, like their chief rivals, the Tampere club looks fairly deep on paper.
Tampere has no players that currently have NHL connections — Jani Lajunen spent two seasons in the Nashville and St. Louis organizations and joins Tappara after winning a championship in Sweden last year, but is an unrestricted free agent for NHL purposes.
The club does have one of the high profile prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft in Laine, and 21-year-old Henrik Haapala could gain some consideration after passing through the draft twice.
Laine was one of the heroes for the silver medal U18 team at the past World Juniors, scoring eight goals with three assists in seven games. The big forward has a nice set of offensive skills with the size and determination to dominate at times. Haapala has some intriguing offensive skill, although he is a bit undersized for an NHL prospect, and could attract attention with a big season.
One-time Anaheim Ducks’ prospect Stephen Dixon joined the club mid-season in 2014-15 and has been skating with Kuusela and Veli-Matti Savinainen. Savinainen is back in Finland after splitting the last two seasons between Sweden and Russia. Jan-Mikael Jarvinen is another smaller forward with some playmaking skills.
On defense the club returns six of the seven defensemen who played in the final game against Karpat, with one-time Canucks’ prospect Henrik Tommernes returning to his native Sweden. Former Barrie Colts defenseman Nick Plastino was signed in the off-season after spending time in Sweden and Italy, so opportunities are limited for the Tappara juniors. Twenty-year-old Akke Makinen has the prototypical size of an NHL defenseman and has skated in the World Juniors for both the Finland U18 and U20 teams but has drawn a wait-and-see approach from NHL scouts to this point.
One-time Lethbridge Hurricanes goalie Juha Metsola handled the majority of the goaltending for Tappara in the playoffs last season but is now in the KHL. Mika Noronen, the Buffalo Sabres first-round pick in 1997, spent last season in Switzerland and Germany and will compete with Tomi Karhunen for the starting job. Karhunen played well for Karpat in the playoffs in Tarkki’s absence last spring, going 5-2 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .887 save percentage. Twenty-year-old Czech goalie Dominik Hrachovina played in three games for Tappara last season and also competed in Champions League play and is an intriguing prospect with solid physical tools and ideal size for a goalie.
Lukko Rauma (0)
Lukko reached it’s third straight playoff semifinals after finishing third and took Tappara to seven games before falling 4-2 in the decisive seventh game. Like their Tampere rivals, Lukko is comprised largely of older, experienced veterans making it difficult for young prospects to crack the lineup.
Ville Vahalahti, 36, led Lukko in scoring last season and returns with a core group of forwards that includes former Seattle Thunderbird Aaron Gagnon, who appeared in 38 NHL games with the Stars and the Jets between 2008-09 and 2012-13. Sami Lahteenmak was signed in the off-season after three seasons with Assat. One late bloomer who could draw free agent interest with another big season is 25-year-old Olavi Vauhkonen. One of the bigger players in the league (6’5”, 230), the Jokerit junior product led Lukko with 17 goals in the regular season and scored seven goals in 14 playoff games in his first season in Rauma.
Janne Niskala, a fifth-round pick for the Predators in 2004 who appeared in six games with Tampa Bay in 2008-09, is part of a solid group on defense. Jesse Virtanen, 24, is a sound two-way defenseman but isn’t very big nor overly physical. Juho Tommila played in 39 regular season games and 10 playoff contests as a 21-year-old last year and has skated with Niskala at times in the pre-season.
Former Mercyhurst University goalie Ryan Zapolski was a workhorse for Lukko last season, appearing in 50 of 60 regular season games and 14 playoff contests in his third season in Liiga. He was 19-10-21 with seven shutouts and had a 2.21 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. Oskari Setanen played well in limited opportunities but left to challenge for the starter’s job with TPS Turku. Rasmus Rinne, 25, was 8-11-7 and had a 2.35 goals-against for Assat last season and was signed in the off-season.
Several talented goalies have come up through the Lukko junior program throughout the years — such as Iiro and Tuomas Tarkki, current New York Ranger Antti Raanta and one-time Predators prospect Atte Engren, who is now in the KHL. Antti Karjalainen, 20, appeared in 43 games for the Lukko U20 team last season after spending the previous year in Austria. He will likely start the year in Mestis but could see action if either Zapolski or Rinne falter.