2015-16 Liiga Preview, Pt. 2: Ilves looks to build on progress made last season

By Tony Piscotta

Julius Vahatalo - Team Finland

Photo: TPS Turku forward and Detroit Red Wings prospect Julius Vahatalo appeared in 36 Liiga games for TPS, posting a goal and an assist in 2014-15 (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

 

TPS Turku (1)

Ari-Pekka Selin, like Matikainen, was signed to a three-year contract to coach TPS Turku after coaching in the KHL. And, like his counterpart in Lahti, Selin has some heavy lifting to do to turn things around. Selin has also coached the Kazakhstan national team and has experience in getting the most out of limited assets — spending six seasons with SaiPa and coaching HPK in 2012-13.

TPS won just 20 games last season, finishing ahead of only first-year Liiga club Vaasa Sport. Out of the playoff race midway through the season, Turku gave several younger players the opportunity to play, shedding some of their larger contracts.

One of those players was 17-year-old Mikko Rantanen, who was one of the most exciting players for TPS on many nights and was subsequently selected by Colorado in the first round of the NHL Draft. Rantanen signed an entry-level contract with the Avalanche in July and will likely skate for the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage this year.

Forwards Eric Perrin, Ville-Vesa Vainola, David Spina, Tero Koskiranta and team captain Tomi Kallio are all 30 years old or older, and with other veterans like one-time Kings’ first-round pick Lauri Tukonen in the lineup, opportunities for younger players will be limited.

Twenty-year-old Julius Vahatalo was a sixth-round pick by Detroit in 2014. He appeared in 36 games last season, scoring one goal with one assist. Center Teemu Lamsa has prototypical size for an NHL forward and played for the Finland U18 team in 2013-14. Tadas Kumeliauskas scored seven goals with six assists in 27 games last season, and the 24-year-old from Lithuania could draw interest as a free agent with another solid season.

In addition to Nummelin and Tallinder, TPS also signed veterans Harri Tikkanen and Jani Forsstrom so opportunities will be limited on the club’s blueline, as well. Twenty-one-year-old Niklas Friman played 50 games a year ago and is an all-around defenseman with decent size who can play in all situations. Miro Keskitalo appeared in 14 games last season and was with the Finland U20 team in Lake Placid as an 18-year-old.

Veteran goalie Teemu Lassila appeared in 49 games a year ago and returns as does 19-year-old Aleksander Georgiyev. Georgiyev appeared in 14 games with TPS and had an outstanding season at the junior level in his first season in Finland. He was ranked 10th amongst international goaltenders in the CSS rankings prior to the 2015 NHL Draft but was not chosen. TPS signed Setanen from Lukko in the off-season so Georgiyev could spend time in Mestis or back with the TPS junior team.

Vaasa Sport (1)

The jump from Mestis to Liiga proved to be as difficult as expected as Vaasa Sport finished last in its first season. Relying on a mix of holdovers from the Mestis team and free agents from other clubs the squad was simply overmatched on many nights. Vaasa added several new players in the off-season, but much of the team returns intact and should benefit from the experience gained last year. It would be a stretch, however, to expect Sport to compete with some of the top teams in Liiga just yet.

One player who took advantage of the new opportunity was left wing Charles Bertrand. A native of France who played in the Lukko junior system, Bertrand led Vaasa Sport in scoring as a 23-year-old with 16 goals and 31 assists in 60 games. He attended the Islanders prospect camp this past summer and could draw interest as a potential unrestricted free agent with another strong season.

The core of the Vaasa forward unit returns, and with the addition of veterans Joonas Komulainen, Thomas Vanttinen, Gabriel Spilar and Otto Karvinen, ice time could be tough to come by for junior prospects. Joel Kiviranta, 19, played 47 games for Sport last season, scoring eight goals with five assists, and played in two Ivan Hlinka tournaments for Finland. He is a product of Jokerit’s junior program and isn’t very big but skates well and is a nifty playmaker. Kiviranta was with Finland’s U20 team in Lake Placid this summer.

The addition of former ECHL and AHL defenseman Jake Newton, who had 49 points in 37 games for Val Gardena in Italy last year, should help out on the blue line. With one-time Boston College defender Mike Brennan, former HPK defenseman Aleksi Laakso, and returnees Mikko Puka and Oskari Manninen the defensive unit should be much-improved.

Sixteen-year-old Robin Salo skated in four games for Sport last season and has been paired with Newton at times during the pre-season. Salo’s father Robert played defense for Sport and Kiekko-Espoo (later Espoo Blues) during a 14-year career. Salo skated for Finland in the recent Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament but is not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2017.

Part 1 | Part 2

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12

 

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