2011 NHL Draft: Top 10 draft eligible prospects in Finland

By Tony Piscotta
Photo: Joel Armia is the top ranked Finnish prospect for the 2011 NHL draft. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The seven players drafted from Finland in 2010 marked the third time in four years the total was below double digits (10 Finnish-trained players were selected in 2009). But that disappointment was somewhat tempered by the fact that HIFK’s Mikael Granlund was selected with the ninth overall pick by Minnesota – the first time since 2006 a Finnish player was selected in the first round.

In 2011, once again there does not appear to be a huge number of Finnish prospects if the draft publications are accurate – but for the second straight year it appears there will be at least one first rounder.

Unlike Granlund, whose reputation was established in his early bantam days in Oulu, the rise of Assat’s Joel Armia has been more meteoric – capped by an outstanding rookie SM-Liiga and a strong performance at the World U-18 championship tournament. In addition to Armia, who many see going in the middle of the first round, two forwards from the Oulu area, Karpat’s Miikka Salomaki and Markus Granlund, Mikael’s younger brother, could be selected in the first half of the seven-round draft.

As in 2010, when both goalies from the U-18 team (Sami Aittokallio and Jonathan Iilahti) were drafted by Colorado and Vancouver respectively, it appears there are several legitimate goaltending prospects. This year’s U-18 starter, Samu Perhonen, is the top ranked prospect among European goalies according to Central Scouting and Lars Volden, an import from Norway, played for Espoo Blues’ Junior A team, and is likely to be selected.

While goaltending is considered a strength of Finnish hockey, the same cannot be said for the defense position. As has been the case for the past decade, the Finnish talent pool is thinnest on the blue line. Since the 2000 NHL draft, 43 Finnish defensemen have been drafted and only one, Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen, has played more than 300 NHL games. Last year, Espoo’s Jani Hakanpaa was a bit of a surprise when he was taken by the St. Louis Blues in the fourth round – a pick made largely to his size and long-term potential.

Another trend that has continued this past season was the in flux of imports to Finnish junior hockey. Possibly due to the number of Finnish-born players heading to North America to play junior or college hockey, there were several imports from second tier hockey countries. In addition to goalies like SaiPa’s Andreas Bernard (Italy) and Volden (Norway), forwards Charles Bertrand (France) and Robert Rooba (Estonia), and defenseman Roland Hofer (Italy) also competed in Finland in 2010-11.

Note: The Top 10 list does not include Finnish players who played in North America last season.

Top 10 at a glance:

1. Joel Armia, RW, Assat Pori
2. Samu Perhonen, G, JyP A Junior
3. Miikka Salomaki, LW, Karpat
4. Markus Granlund, C, HIFK A Junior
5. Lars Volden, G, Espoo Blues A Junior
6. Iiro Pakarinen, RW, KalPa
7. Frans Tuohimaa, G, Jokerit A Junior
8. Joel Mustonen, C, Skelleftea A Junior (Sweden)
9. Samuli Kankaanpera, D, JyP A Junior
10. Alexander Ruuttu, C, Jokerit A Junior

1. Joel Armia, RW, Assat
6’3 185 5/31/93
Pori, FI

While Mikael Granlund‘s exploits were well known for several years prior to his outstanding rookie season in the SM-Liiga in 2009-10, few would have predicted Armia’s ascent to potential first round status prior to this season. Unlike Granlund, who has an impressive array of clever tricks and very good playmaking instincts, Armia plays a more linear game – driving to create chances and using his stick handling ability and strength, as well as a hard, accurate shot. Any doubts as to whether he would similarly dominate playing against older players were erased when Assat Head Coach Pekka Rautakallio, a former NHL defenseman, inserted him into a top line role for Assat’s SM-Liiga squad. In 48 games, Armia scored 18 goals with 11 assists for an Assat team that surprised most Finnish hockey fans by winning 41 games and finishing second behind regular season champ JyP. Armia was also impressive at the World U-18 championships, scoring four goals with nine assists to pace fifth-place Finland.

Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that while Armia had success this season, he is just beginning scratch the surface of his potential and his game continues to evolve. He is a quick learner and continues to work to improve his technical and tactical skills. Armia is rated fourth amongst European skaters by CSS.

2. Samu Perhonen, G, JyP A Junior
6’3 175 3/7/93
Jamsankoski, FI

For the second consecutive year, Finland has the top-ranked European goalie according to CS (Aittokallio in 2010). Like Armia, Perhonen’s stock has risen fairly recently, thanks in part to the steady tutelage of JyP goalie coach Jarkko Hyyttia. "(Hyyttia) is very good. He’ll ask me what’s needed and then we meet together and decide what I should be doing better. We are trying to improve just one thing at a time and that’s very important," said Perhonen. A butterfly-style goalie, he excelled for JyP this season and was at his best in the in the SM-Liiga junior playoffs leading his team to the championship. Perhonen also started for Finland at the world U-18 championships but struggled and seemed to lose focus at times – finishing with a pedestrian 3.52 goals against average and .875 save percentage in four games in Germany. Perhonen’s struggles in the U-18 tournament aside, he is a goalie who is solid in all areas and looks to control rebounds, preferring to use his glove when possible. Extremely consistent, Perhonen stopped over 92 percent of the shots faced in A junior play (regular season and playoffs).

3. Miikka Salomaki, LW, Karpat
5’11 200 3/9/93
Raahe, FI

Overshadowed by Karpat prospects like Julius Junttila and Florida Panthers 2010 draft pick Joonas Donskoi heading into the 2010-11 season, Salomaki used his strength and hard work to earn a spot in Karpat’s SM-Liiga lineup. "He’s an amazingly strong guy on his skates. He is one of the most powerful guys (in the SM-Liiga) even for someone so young," explains Donskoi, who like Salomaki is from Raahe. "He works hard and is training every day". Salomaki, one of five Finnish players to attend the NHL’s prospect combine, was impressive in the physical tests and opened some eyes with his conditioning level. On the ice, Salomaki plays a tough physical game but he is also good at going to the net and creating chances. His best offensive gifts are his passing and shooting skills. In 40 SM-Liiga games, he scored four goals with six assists. Salomaki was also in Germany with Finland’s U-18 squad and tallied four goals with two assists in six games. He is rated seventh among European skaters by CSS.

4. Markus Granlund, C, HIFK A Junior
5’10 170 4/16/93
Oulu, FI

Markus, like his brother Mikael, moved to HIFK in Helsinki prior to the 2009-10 season. While it is unfair to compare Markus Granlund to his extremely talented older brother (Mikael cracked HIFK’s SM-Liiga lineup as a seventeen-year old and played for Finland’s World championship squad this past spring), the younger Granlund is a skilled player who skates well. Markus Granlund has consistently put up scoring numbers at the junior level and is a gifted playmaker who creates chances and makes the players around him better.

Granlund led the HIFK A junior squad with 52 points in just 40 games – scoring 20 goals with 32 assists. He was equally impressive for Team Finland at the World U-18 championship, scoring two goals with eight assists. Though not yet physically developed as a player, Granlund does not shy away from physical play and is willing to compete in small spaces. His 49 penalty minutes were third most on the HIFK squad.

Central Scouting rated Markus Granlund ninth amongst European skaters.

5. Lars Volden, G, Espoo Blues A Junior
6’3 190 7/26/92
Oslo, Norway

Volden first impressed scouts in leading Norway‘s U-18 squad to the Division 1 World Championship in 2010. Some eyes were raised in Espoo last spring when the Blues signed him to their junior team, which at the time featured eventual Vancouver Canuck draft pick Jonathan Iilahti and one-time Team Finland U-18 goalie Erno Suomalainen. Working with renowned goaltending coach Marko Torenius and competing in practice with Iilahti on a daily basis (Suomalainen played with Vaasa Sport this season), Volden elevated his game playing in a tandem with Iilahti. He was at his best in the playoffs as Espoo finished second to JyP. A large goalie that fills much of the net and frequently relied on his athleticism in the past, Volden was a natural fit for the "less is more" style of goaltending played in Espoo. Like other Torenius disciples (Islanders’ prospect Mikko Koskinen, for instance) Volden relies on angles and anticipation to control play and limit chances. In addition to his play in Espoo, Volden was in the net for Norway at the World U-20 championships. His inflated numbers (6.17 goals against average and .857 save percentage in four games) were due as much to Norway being overmatched in the top division as an indictment of Volden’s play.

Volden was ranked sixth amongst European goalies in the CSS final rankings.

6. Iiro Pakarinen, F, KalPa
6’1 195 8/25/91
Suonenjoki, FI

Pakarinen had a solid, if not spectacular second season in the SM-Liiga, scoring seven goals with three assists in 49 games and then adding a goal in seven playoff games. Pakarinen’s modest scoring totals are a bit of a concern as he is one of the more highly-skilled players and a very smooth, fluid skater. Pakarinen, has been especially impressive playing in some of the camps held for Finnish young players but those performances have not yet translated into consistent production. In addition to his skating and stick handling skills, he possesses a strong shot which suggests he should score more goals. Though his talent level suggests he is better suited to the bigger rinks in Europe, he plays with abrasiveness not always associated with skilled forwards. Pakarinen is very good at controlling the puck in close quarters. In addition to playing for KalPa, Pakarinen played for Team Finland at the U-20 World Championships for the second straight year and scored one goal with two assists in six games.

Pakarinen was ranked 63rd among European skaters in 2010 by CSS but not drafted and is ranked 81st in the 2011 final ratings.

7. Frans Tuohimaa, G, Jokerit A Junior
6’2 180 8/19/91
Helsinki, FI

Another large goalie who uses his size well, Tuohimaa joined Jokerit’s A junior team this season after playing his youth hockey and two Junior A seasons with cross-town rival HIFK. How much of his success can be attributed to playing for third-place Jokerit is debatable, but Tuohimaa was one of the busiest goalies in A juniors, playing in 37 regular season games and seven playoff contests and had the top save percentage in the league, stopping over 93 percent of the shots he faced.

While Tuohimaa has not been as highly regarded as some of the other goalies in his age group, and has played for Finland’s junior program in some international matches but never at the U-18 or U-20 world championships, his play this season did attract the attention of the scouting community.

Not ranked by CSS and undrafted in 2010, he was rated the sixth among European goalies by CSS in their final 2011 rankings.

8. Joel Mustonen, C, Skelleftea A Junior (Sweden)
5’10 175 9/18/92
Oulu, FI

Opinions vary widely on the Finnish-born forward who plays junior hockey in Sweden‘s Super Elite league. Though he has played for Finland’s junior teams and participated in team camps since he was a U-16 in 2007-08, Mustonen has yet to be selected for any world junior tournament teams. He seemed a much-improved player in 2010-11, particularly over the second half of the season. Mustonen played well enough to make his pro debut in the Elitserien, skating in eight games for Skelleftea, though he didn’t register any points in limited ice time. In junior play, he had his best offensive season to date, particularly in the second half of the season and in the Acton Cup playoffs (three goals and three assists in five games). While he is not a pure scorer, Mustonen plays a sound two-way game and a high-skill type of hockey which has also drawn the attention of the KHL (he was selected in the 4th round, 91st overall by Dynamo Minsk in that league’s draft).

Mustonen was rated 19th among European forwards in the final CSS rankings.

9. Samuli Kankaanpera , D, JyP A Junior
6’2 180 3/4/1992
Jyvaskyla, FI

Kankaanpera’s consistency and stamina, as well as his ability to contribute on the offensive end, make him an intriguing prospect. While he is neither a true offensive rushing defenseman nor a shut-down, stay-at-home type, he is extremely consistent, has a decent-sized frame which should fill out as he matures, and averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game. While he may not have all the "measurables" that scouts look for in a prospect, his intangibles are impressive and he is a leader for a JyP team that generally wins. In addition to first and second place finishes in back-to-back years at the midget level prior to this season, JyP won the SM-Liiga junior league playoff title in 2010-11.

Kankaanpera was ranked 126th among European skaters by CSS in 2010 but not drafted and is not ranked this year.

10. Alexander Ruuttu, C/RW, Jokerit A Juniors
6’1 185 12/9/1992
Chicago, IL

Born in Chicago when his father Christian was playing for the Blackhawks, Ruuttu played youth hockey in Helsinki’s HIFK club before switching to Jokerit in 2008-09. Ruuttu’s stock as a prospect rose in 2010-11 thanks to some added strength and muscle but he is still a work in progress to this point. He is a threat in the offensive zone, goes to the net with power to create scoring chances and led Jokerit with 18 goals in 41 games. As with most bigger young forwards playing in Finland, detractors will wonder whether he will be able to have that same success in the more defense-minded North American hockey against older, stronger players. To his credit, Ruuttu is working to steadily improving the other aspects of his game. He will be given a chance to crack Jokerit’s veteran SM-Liiga lineup in 2011-12. Though he is far from a given at this stage, he has shown the willingness to put in the time necessary to develop a well-rounded game.

Ruuttu has yet to compete for Team Finland in a world championship junior tournament but was ranked 16th amongst European skaters by Central Scouting.