2015-16 Liiga Preview, Pt. 1: Karpat shooting for threepeat as Finland’s top club

By Tony Piscotta

Ville Husso - HIFK Helsinki - Champions Hockey League

Photo: HIFK Helsinki goaltender and St. Louis Blues prospect Ville Husso is likely to carry the workload in goal for Helsinki in the 2015-16 season after playing in 41 games in each of the past two seasons (courtesy of IFK Helsinki/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

 

JyP Jyvaskyla (2)

JyP finished fourth in the regular season and, like the other three top teams, reached the playoff semifinals as there were no surprises in the Liiga post-season. One of five teams to hit the 100-point mark (fifth-place Espoo had exactly 100 points), JyP swept the Blues in the quarterfinals before falling to Karpat in seven games, winning two games in overtime before falling in the decisive seventh game, 4-2.

Four of the top five scorers for JyP last year were 30 years or older, including leading scorer Eric Perrin (39). Three of those five return, including defenseman Mikko Luoma (39). Perrin is now with TPS Turku while 22-year-old Markus Hannikainen, the team’s third-leading scorer, signed an entry-level contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Goalie Tuomas Tarkki, 35, is entering his 11th pro campaign and fourth in Jyvaskyla. Last year’s backup, Sami Rajaniemi, is now in Lahti. Dennis Seikonen and promising 18-year-old Veini Vehvilainen will vie for the backup spot, with one or both likely spending time with JyP-Akatemia in Mestis. Vehvilainen was the primary goalie for Finland’s U18 team last season, enduring a roller coaster season that ended on a high note when he stopped 60 of 62 shots in that gold medal game at the World Juniors in a 2-1 loss to the USA. He was ranked sixth among international goalies in the Central Scouting final rankings but was not chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft.

In a bit of a surprise goalie Markus Ruusu, who split the 2014-15 season between the JyP U20 and U18 teams, was not among the 10 international goalies in the CSS rankings but was drafted by the Dallas Stars in the sixth round of the 2015 draft. Ruusu will likely play for JyP-Akatemia this season.

Ruusu was one of three players from JyP to be selected in the 2015 NHL Draft. Center Julius Nattinen was chosen in the second round (Anaheim) and defenseman Sami Niku was a seventh-round selection of the Winnipeg Jets. Nattinen will play for the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts this season after appearing in nine Liiga games last year. Niku had one assist in 12 games for JyP last year and had 25 points (three goals, 22 assists) in 39 regular season games for JyP-Akatemia, with five assists in six playoff games.

Thirty-eight-year-old Mikko Luoma, the leading scorer amongst defensemen last year, returns and is skating with promising 24-year-old Juuso Pulli. Niku teamed with AHL veteran Nolan Yonkman in the club’s first Champions League game. Yonkman, 34, appeared in 76 NHL games during his 13-year career before heading to Finland this season.

While Julius Nattinen is headed to North America, at least one Nattinen will be in the lineup as older brother Joonas, who spent three seasons in the Montreal organization (including one game with the Canadiens), joins the club after playing for MODO in Sweden last year. Topi Nattinen, 21, is a cousin of the two brothers and is also looking to secure a roster spot. He was one of the top scorers for JyP-Akatemia last year. Joose Antonen and Henri Kanninen are two promising forwards. Both may start the year with JyP-Akatemia but have some offensive ability.

Espoo Blues (2)

Espoo Blues has had one of the top teams in Finland’s A junior league for the past five seasons, and that success has begun to rub off on the men’s club. While many of those juniors eventually head elsewhere for greener pastures — such as Karpat’s Aaltonen and defenseman Kristian Naykyva, who recently signed with Nashville after playing in Sweden last season — things are looking up for the men’s team.

Espoo will have a new goaltender this season as Eetu Laurikainen signed an entry-level deal with Edmonton following last season and Jani Nieminen is now with SaiPa. One-time Linkoping goalie Christian Engstrand, 26, split last season between Austria and Sweden’s Allsvenskan. He will compete with 19-year-old Kaapo Kahkonen for the starting slot in Espoo. Kahkonen was selected by Minnesota in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Draft and was with Finland’s U20 team at the USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid in August.

Leading scorer Kim Hirschovits, a Rangers’ pick in 2002, returns for his third season in Espoo but imports Bracken Kearns (Islanders), Stefano Gilati (KHL) and defenseman Ryan O’Connor (KooKoo) are elsewhere. Returning veteran Ville Korhonen and Markus Poukkula, who was signed after playing with JyP the past two seasons, have been skating on a line with Hirschovits but there should be opportunities for some of the younger players.

Janne Puhakka spent the past two seasons in the QMJHL with Chicoutimi. The 20-year-old was sometimes overmatched due to his lack of size but has some offensive ability and should benefit from his experience with the Sagueneens. Center Robert Rooba and left wing Timi Lahtinen are other young forwards looking for expanded roles this season.

Twenty-one-year-old Otso Rantakari, who attended the Islanders’ development camp in July, was one of the top two-way defensemen for Espoo last season. He finished the year +9 and scored 11 goals with 18 assists in 56 regular season games. Espoo signed 20-year-old Juuse Vainio, who played 56 games for HPK last season. Veeti Vainio (no relation to Juuse) was selected by Columbus in the fifth-round of the 2015 NHL Draft and will look to crack the lineup for Espoo as an 18-year-old this year. Niklas Tikkinen, who was drafted by Arizona in 2012 but never signed to a contract, skated for Espoo last year but is currently not signed with any team.

KalPa Kuopio (3)

Perhaps no team has relied more on the players from its junior program than KalPa, and after a forgettable season in 2013-14, the Kuopio club had a bounce back year in 2014-15. With a balanced attack in which seven players had 20 or more points, KalPa finished sixth in the regular season, falling to Lukko Rauma in six games in the playoff quarterfinals.

Kasperi Kapanen, the Penguins’ first round pick in 2014, is now with Toronto after an NHL trade and won’t return to KalPa in 2015-16, but there are several promising players coming up through the system. Leading scorer Michael Birner is also gone, having returned to the Czech Republic, but there is a mix of veteran and youth talent that should allow the club to compete again this year.

Returnees Jaakko Rissanen and Janne Keranen have been skating with one-time New Jersey Devils prospect Patrick Davis in the pre-season. Keranen led KalPa with 18 goals last season. Among the younger forwards for KalPa, Jonne Tammela skated in 32 games as a 17-year-old last season. He played for the Finland U18 team at the World Juniors and was selected by Tampa Bay in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. Tammela is sound in all three zones and was another player that participated in the Lake Placid evaluation camp. Joni Nikko also has World Juniors experience while 20-year-old Balazs Sebok is a center from Hungary who played in Karpat’s junior program and played in Mestis last season.

Veteran Mikko Jokela anchors a defense corps that returns largely intact with the exception of Veli-Matti Vittasmaki (now with Ilves). Nashville Predators prospect Joonas Lyytinen played in 52 games last season as a 19 year old and his +10 rating was one of the better marks for KalPa. Twenty-one-year-old Juuso Riikola, like Lyytinen, lacks the prototypical bulk of an NHL defenseman but has competed at the Liiga level from a young age. Niko Mikkola has the ideal frame of an NHL defenseman and was drafted by St. Louis in his second year of draft eligibility this past June. He skated for Hokki in Mestis last year and will look to secure a lower pairing role.

One-time Dallas Stars prospect Eero Kilpelainen provided stability in net for KalPa in his first season in Kuopio and returns, as does backup Samu Perhonen. A former third-round pick by Edmonton in 2011, Perhonen appeared to bottom out during an eight-game stint with the USHL’s Indiana Ice as a 20-year-old two years ago but turned things around with KalPa last year, playing well when called upon.

HIFK Helsinki (4)

HIFK received a boost last season when Russian forward Nikolay Goldobin, the San Jose Sharks‘ first round pick in 2014, joined the club in October rather than returning to junior hockey. While the play of imports like Goldobin, Tomas Zaborsky and Corey Elkins provided entertainment for the fans in Helsinki, the club once again ended up in the middle-of-the-pack, finishing seventh in Liiga and falling to Tappara in a quarterfinal series after sweeping Ilves Tampere in the preliminary round.

Goldobin will skate in North America this year but Zaborsky, a one-time Rangers and Ducks prospect, is back along with Elkins for HIFK. Jasse Ikonen scored 10 goals in 29 games for HIFK last season and has been playing on that line in the Champions League. Juuso Puustinen and Joonas Rask, both of whom spent time in Nashville’s system skating for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, will also vie for ice time.

The top off-season acquisition in terms of junior prospects is winger Roope Hintz. A product of the Ilves junior program, Hintz was the 49th player taken in the recent NHL Draft when he was selected by Dallas in the second round. Hintz played 42 Liiga games with Ilves last season and also played for Finland’s U20 team at the World Juniors. He is a strong-skating, creative player who can generate chances for teammates.

Joonas Jarvinen, a 26-year-old who spent two seasons with Milwaukee before heading to KHL club HK Sochi last season, is back in Finland and joins an experienced defense group. The Predators still hold his NHL rights as a restricted free agent. Long-time Liiga veterans Hannu Pikkarainen and Toni Soderholm are now in Germany but the club signed promising Tommi Taimi. Taimi spent last season in the KHL with Amur Khabarovsk after three seasons with Assat Pori.

Nineteen-year-old Miro Karjalainen was a fifth-round selection by Dallas in 2014 after playing primarily with the HIFK U18 team the previous season. He missed all but a handful of games last season and will likely start the season either in juniors or in Mestis. Drafted largely due to his physical size, demeanor and work ethic, he is a long-term project but if healthy could be a sleeper.

Twenty-year-old goalie Ville Husso played in 41 regular season games for HIFK for the second straight year and is back after attending the St. Louis Blues‘ development camp. Husso played for the Finland U20 team at the World Juniors last winter and was a fourth-round selection by the Blues in the 2014 NHL Draft. HIFK has one of the youngest goaltending tandems in Liiga as Kevin Lankinen, also 20, is back as well. Lankinen played in six playoff games for HIFK in Husso’s absence last spring and attended the Islanders’ prospect camp in July.

SaiPa Lappeenranta (0)

SaiPa slipped in the standings following its 100-point season in 2013-14, finishing eighth in the regular season before sweeping Assat Pori in a best-of-three preliminary series and falling to Karpat in five games in the quarterfinals. The new rivalry with neighboring KooKoo should generate plenty of interest in the southwest corner of Finland but in terms of competing with the top teams in Liiga the club will have a big challenge.

Timeless veteran Jussi Markkanen, who turned 40 in May, returns after playing 47 regular season games and three playoff contests with his hometown club. The one-time Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers goalie, a native of neighboring Imatra, stopped 27 shots in a 6-0 shutout of Assat in the opening game of the playoffs and was 2-1 in three post season games before suffering an injury. Italian goalie Andreas Bernard took over in the series against Karpat but is now with Assat Pori. Former Espoo Blues goalie Jani Nieminen was signed in the off-season.

With limited options from the SaiPa junior team in recent years the club has relied on imports, and that is especially true on the backend. Swedish-born Johan Larsson is in his fourth Liiga season and second with SaiPa. Brian Salcido, a one-time Anaheim Ducks prospect, was the team’s second-leading scorer last year but is now in Germany. Brett Carson appeared in 90 NHL games with Calgary and Carolina between 2008-09 and 2012-13 and was signed in the off-season after playing in Sweden and Austria last season. Sam Lofquist, who spent two seasons at the University of Minnesota, is back for a second season. Kalle Maalahti is small by NHL standards (5-9, 175) but plays with a feisty side and is the top homegrown defender.

Nashville Predators’ prospect Mikko Vainonen, who joined SaiPa in January and skated through the playoffs last year, is back in North America.

Offensively, SaiPa has several new faces.

The club lost two of its leading scorers from a year ago in  Janni Tavi (JyP) and 23-year-old  Jesse Mankinen (KalPa), who led SaiPa with 13 goals. Davis (KalPa) and  Giliati are also no longer in Lappeenranta. Former Boston College left wing David Spina is now with TPS Turku but SaiPa has two players with NCAA and AHL experience in one-time Colgate center David McIntyre and former Minnesota Golden Gopher Chad Rau.

Rau, who can play center or wing, skated in nine games for the Minnesota Wild in 2011-12 during a five-year AHL career, joining SaiPa mid-season last year after starting the year in Austria. McIntyre played college hockey at Colgate University before spending four seasons in the AHL and skated in seven games with the Wild that same season. Former teammates in the AHL, the two have been skating on a line with Petteri Nokelainen. Back in Finland after playing in the KHL last season, Nokelainen played in 266 NHL games, including 21 playoff contests, between 2005-06 and 2011-12.

In terms of NHL potential, one player to watch as a potential UFA candidate is hulking Matti Jarvinen. After playing one season of college hockey at the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 2009-10, the Lontoo native spent four nondescript seasons with the Espoo club, frequently skating in Mestis. In 57 games for SaiPa last year he scored 9 goals with 20 assists with 52 penalty minutes (all career-highs).

At the other end of the size spectrum, 22-year-old Ville Jarvelainen is a crafty playmaker who should see plenty of ice time after a limited role with HPK Hameenlinna, while 19-year-old Adam Zboril — the older brother of Boston Bruins 2015 1st round pick Jakub Zboril — put up big offensive numbers for SaiPa’s junior team last season.

Assat Pori (3)

A second straight disappointing season following the Kanada Cup championship in 2012-13 meant wholesale changes for Assat Pori this past off-season. Assat finished ninth in the regular season and was swept in the preliminary round by SaiPa. One-time Atlanta and Calgary Flames defenseman Pekka Rautakallio returns for his second season behind the bench in his second tenure with the club and should have a much more competitive squad this season.

The changes start in the net where both Juuso Riksman (Italy) and Rasmus Rinne (Lukko) have moved on. Former Devils first-round pick Ari Ahonen is back in Finland after three years in the KHL, but the 34-year-old played just five games for Admiral Vladivostok last season. Andreas Bernard showed some promise playing behind Markkanen in Lappeenranta and with Italy’s national team but has yet to see a heavy workload at the pro level. Eighteen-year-old Arttu Kulmala handled the bulk of the goaltending for the Assat U20 team last season and shows promise.

As with the other smaller clubs in Finland, the Assat Pori forward corps features several older veterans such as Josh Gratton (32) and Michael Ryan (35), but the club does have two exciting homegrown prospects in Juho Lammikko and Aleksi Saarela.

Back in Finland after skating for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs last year, Lammikko was a third-round selection by the Florida Panthers in 2014 but has yet to sign an NHL entry-level contract. He is a big forward with some significant offensive skills and should add to the Assat attack this season. Saarela was taken by the New York Rangers in the third-round in the 2015 draft after playing 51 games for Assat as a 17-year-old. Highly-regarded as a prospect coming out of the Lukko junior system, Saarela’s size, approach to the game, and ability to stay healthy are concerns but he is among the most talented offensive prospects in Europe and was part of the Finland U20 team at the Lake Placid evaluation camp.

Like the Assat forward group — which will have several new faces with seven of the top 10 scorers from 2014-15 either elsewhere or not signed — the Pori squad will have a far different look on defense.

Esa Lindell was loaned to Assat by the Dallas Stars last season and was the team’s third-leading scorer. He will either skate for the Stars or in the AHL this season. Dallas and Assat have enjoyed a productive relationship, with players like Tom Wandell and tough guy Matt Nickerson eventually playing with the Stars after spending time in Pori. Troy Vance is the latest Stars prospect looking to refine his game in Pori. Drafted in the fifth-round in 2011 and signed to an entry-level deal in 2012, the 22-year-old Vance skated in the ECHL in his first pro season last year.

With the exception of Vance, four of the top defensemen for Assat are 30 years of age or older, so opportunities are limited for the youngsters in the club. Twenty-one-year-old Valtteri Viljanen was one of five players to skate in all 62 games, including both playoff games, for Assat last season. Teemu Vuorisalo, 20, played in 22 games, including both playoff games; splitting the year between Liiga and Mestis.

One intriguing prospect skating with Assat during the pre-season is 16-year-old Eemeli Rasanen. Signed after playing for the Jokipojat U20 team in his hometown of Joensuu, Rasanan is a tall defender with some ability. He was selected by Sioux City in the recent USHL Entry Draft and is not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2017.

Part 1 | Part 2

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12

 

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