The 2015-16 Liiga season officially begins on Friday with a slate of seven games. Hockey’s Future previewed some of the better clubs heading into the season in part 1 of the Liiga preview, while part 2 will cover the remaining teams that have some work to do to get back amongst the upper tier of the league.
This Liiga preview emphasizes NHL prospects, with the number in parentheses indicating the number of players from each Liiga club whose rights are held by NHL teams.
Ilves Tampere (2)
Ilves reached the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, finishing tenth with 29 wins, the most for the club since 2008-09. Ilves was swept by HIFK in the “pity playoffs”, as the preliminary round is known by some, but will look to build on last season’s improvement.
One key reason the team was able to hold off HPK Hameenlinna was the play of goaltenders Joonas Korpisalo and Juha Jarvenpaa. Korpisalo, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, will attend training camp with the Blue Jackets and skate for new AHL affiliate Lake Erie in 2015-16, while Jarvenpaa is now in Kouvola.
Veteran Hannu Toivonen, a first round pick for Boston in 2002 who saw NHL action with the Bruins and St. Louis between 2005-06 and 2007-08, has the inside track on the starter’s spot after playing 45 games for Vaasa Sport last season. Twenty-one-year-old Henri Kiviaho, now in the second year of his original entry-level contract with the Dallas Stars, was loaned to the club in July after playing in the ECHL last season. Lassi Yrjola began last season with the USHL’s Chicago Steel and played two games for Ilves after returning to Finland.
One-time Brandon Wheat Kings left wing Sami Sandell scored 15 goals with 26 assists in 50 games to lead Ilves in scoring in 2014-15, his second season with the club. Sandell returns along with 30-year-old Tapio Laakso, but there will be several new faces.
Twenty-two-year old Teemu Rautiainen and center Aleksi Mustonen, 20, are two talented youngsters who could draw interest from NHL scouts with another strong season. One-time Oilers’ prospect Antti Tyrvainen provides both playmaking and toughness for Ilves.
With 11 defensemen still competing for roster spots less than two weeks before the start of the regular season, Ilves will have one of the younger defense groups in Liiga. Veli-Matti Vittasmaki, 25, was acquired in the off-season after playing for KalPa last year while former Flyers’ prospect Blake Kessel, at 26, is the second oldest player among the group — one year younger than Jarkko Nappila. One-time Rangers and Islanders prospect Jyri Niemi is an assistant captain while 22-year-old Swedish defenseman Marcus Fagerudd was also getting a long look.
Aleksi Makela, a seventh-round pick by Dallas in 2013, played in 30 games with Ilves last year as a 19-year-old. He will look to earn a full-time role, and possibly an entry-level contact with the Stars, this season. Teenagers Ville Jarvinen, who played for Finland in the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Tournament, and Jarkko Parikka, back in Finland after spending the past two seasons in North America, are with Ilves’ men’s team as well but could start the year either in Mestis or with the Ilves U20 team. Jesper Mattila, a 2016 NHL Draft-eligible defenseman, participated in the Lake Placid evaluation camp with the FInland U20 team.
HPK Hameenliina (2)
As bleak as things were for HPK Hameenlinna last season, one of the few bright spots was Juuse Saros in net. Though he wore down a bit at the end of the season, he played in 47 of 60 games in his second Liiga season and finished 13-18-16 with six shutouts for a team that didn’t score many goals. His 2.14 goals-against and .929 save percentage were among the best in Liiga, and he was rewarded with a three-year entry-level contract from Nashville.
With Saros now in North America, veteran Jere Myllyniemi and 23-year-old Kristian Jarvinen will vie for the spot.
Myllyniemi, 32, played in 13 games for Pelicans last year after being supplanted by Janne Juvonen for the starting job. Jarvinen, while slightly smaller than NHL standards, is a product of the TPS Turku goalie pipeline and long-time goalie instructor Urpo Ylonen. He played in 11 Liiga games last season, skating in five games with HPK on loan from TPS and playing six games with TPS. Jarvinen and Mikko Ramo shared the goaltending duties for KooKoo two seasons ago during that club’s Mestis championship run. Joonas Toivonen, 21, was in net for HPK’s U20 team during its silver medal run last spring. He will start his pro career with Kettera in Finland’s second division and is considered a long-term project at this point.
With the top eight scorers from last year no longer around, including leading scorer Jesse Saarinen (KHL) and defenseman Craig Schira (SHL), there will likely be some struggles early on as HPK develops cohesion.
One-time Colorado Avalanche forward Riku Hahl returns to his hometown after playing for Jokerit the last four seasons and should provide stability in the middle of the ice. Patrick Holland, 23, played five games for Montreal two seasons ago and will look to get his career back on track after a lost third pro season. Traded to Winnipeg in a multi-player deal just prior to the season, he had 2 assists in 21 games for Jets’ AHL affiliate St. John’s and was briefly with the Ontario Reign in the ECHL. Czech forward Vojtech Polak, a former Dallas prospect who played five games with the Stars over two seasons in 2005-06 and 2006-07, was the second-leading scorer for Ilves last year and will be counted on to replace some of the lost offense.
Among the younger forwards in the mix, Sakari Manninen, 23, is a waterbug-type center who had 19 points (4 goals, 15 assists) in 51 regular season games for Karpat last season and played in 19 playoff games during the run to the Kanada Cup. Nineteen-year-old Waltteri Hopponen played in the USHL with Sioux City and Lincoln last year and was with the Finland U20 team in Lake Placid. He has passed through two NHL Drafts without being selected but could earn interest with a strong season.
On defense just one regular, 23-year-old Petteri Nikkila, returns, with HPK having a youthful and talented but inexperienced group.
Henrik Forsberg at 29 is the oldest defenseman on the roster and has shuffled between Mestis and Liiga for much of his career before playing 46 games with Lukko last season. Joonas Lehtivuori spent two seasons in the Flyers’ organization and was signed this summer after spending four seasons in Sweden with MODO.
HPK has two defensemen with NHL connections in 20-year-old Santeri Saari and 19-year-old Joni Tuulola. Saari, a sixth-round selection by St. Louis in 2013, played 13 games with HPK last year on loan from Jokerit, finishing the year in Sweden’s Allsvenskan with Bofors IK. Tuulola appeared in 32 games with HPK last season — scoring 5 goals with 5 assists — before suffering a late season injury. He was selected by Chicago in the sixth round in 2015 in his second year of draft eligibility. Tuulola missed Chicago’s development camp while recuperating but is expected to play a larger role this season once he returns.
Matias Haaranen is another undersized player by NHL standards but appeared in two games with HPK last year and was with Finland’s U20 team in Lake Placid last month.
Pelicans Lahti (1)
Pelicans has done a nice job of producing players through it’s K-Reipas and Pelicans junior programs, but that success has not translated to the men’s team, where the club has reached the playoffs just twice in the last six seasons. The run to the Kanada Cup finals in 2011-12 seemed like a distant memory this past season, when injuries wrecked any playoff hopes and the club finished 12th in the 14-team league.
If there was one bright spot during the otherwise frustrating season in Lahti it was the emergence of Nashville Predators prospect Janne Juvonen as a legitimate starting goaltender as a 19-year-old. Despite being under siege on many nights, Juvonen played in 46 of 60 games, finishing 12-23-11 with three shutouts while posting a 2.51 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. Selected by Nashville in the seventh round of the 2013 draft (the same draft in which the Predators drafted Saros), Juvonen has yet to sign an entry-level deal and will be back in Lahti this season.
The addition of Rajaniemi from JyP gives the club two promising young netminders, and both should benefit from the tutelage of former NHL goalie Pasi Nurminen, the goaltending coach who also happens to be one of the club’s owners.
Pelicans will have a new face behind the bench as Petri Matikainen is one of two new head coaches in Liiga this year. Twice named the SM-Liiga’s Coach of the Year while coaching the Espoo Blues from 2005-2011, Matikainen returns to Finland after three seasons in the KHL.
Lahti’s top three scoring leaders — Michal Repik, Tyler Redenbach, and Tommi Paakolanvaara — all headed to Switzerland towards the end of last season and none are expected back.
Ryan Potulny, an AHL veteran who played 126 NHL games with the Flyers, Oilers, and Senators between 2005-06 and 2010-11, was signed in the off-season and has been skating on a line with former Tappara forward Antti Erkinjunti and 25-year-old Liiga rookie Anrei Hakulinen. Hakulinen scored 17 goals with 32 assists in 54 games for TuTu in Mestis two years ago but was limited to 13 games with Pelicans last season due to a shoulder injury.
Teddy Da Costa, the older brother of former Ottawa Senator Stephane Da Costa, came to Lahti mid-season last year after playing for Tappara and Mestis club LeKi and has been skating with veteran Antti Jaatinen. Lahti native Henri Heino played with Pelicans from 2004-05 to 2010-11 before going to Jokerit and returns after skating for Assat last year.
While the experienced players should provide structure for one of the league’s younger teams, the club has three skilled teenage forwards who could have an impact.
Miska Siikonen missed much of the season last season due to injury — skating in nine Liiga games and scoring nine goals with five assists in 11 games for the Pelicans U20 team — but at 6’3” and 200 pounds is an imposing force who can play either center or wing. Hannes Bjorninen played 46 Liiga games last year, scoring one goal with five assists, and was part of the Finland U20 team at the 2015 World Juniors. Sebastian Repo played 10 games with Pelicans last year before heading to the USHL to play for the Sioux City Musketeers. In 30 USHL games Repo scored six goals with nine assists. Repo and Siikonen were both with the Finland U20 team in Lake Placid in August.
At 43, defensemen Jan Latvala is in his 23rd season of pro hockey and is one of three returnees on what is a rebuilt blueline in Lahti. One-time University of North Dakota defensemen Ben Blood, an Ottawa Senators draft pick in 2007, spent two seasons with the AHL’s Binghamton Senators and was one of the big free agent signings after skating in Norway last season. Twenty-nine year old Stefan Lassen played for Matikainen during the coach’s brief tenure in Austria and provides experience.
Eetu Sopanen and Ville Vainola are the top two defense prospects from the Pelicans U20 team. Sopanen skated in 23 Liiga games as an 18-year-old last season and was with the Finland U20 team in Lake Placid this summer. Vainola, while not as big as Sopanen, skated in seven Liiga games and was +2 with two assists. He was among the top offensive defensemen in Finnish junior hockey, scoring 11 goals with 18 assists and finishing +12 in 48 regular season games for Lahti’s U20 team.