SM-liiga 2011-12 Season Preview

By Tony Piscotta
Photo: Florida prospect Joonas Donskoi (27), is currently playing with Karpat where he has three goals and three assists in 18 games. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The 2011 NHL Draft capped off what was an enjoyable hockey season in Finland. After watching the national team defeat arch-rival Sweden handily in the IIHF World Championship tournament, Finnish hockey fans had the pleasure of seeing five Finnish players selected in the first two rounds of the draft for only the second time in history. In the domestic SM-Liiga, Helsinki-based HIFK, traditionally one of the stronger teams in the league, captured the Kanada Cup by defeating an upstart Espoo Blues club that had finished night in the regular season but reached the playoff finals.

Much has changed in the SM-Liiga – as Espoo coach Petri Matikainen took over in HIFK as cup-winning coach Kari Jalonen took the reigns of Novgorod in the Russian KHL. A veritable coaching carousel has existed in the SM-Liiga of late – with only five of the fourteen clubs having the same man behind the bench as they did at the start of the 2010-11 season. That carousel continues as JyP, which finished first in the regular season the past three seasons and won the SM-Liiga championship in 2008-09, parted ways with Coach Risto Dufva two games into the season.

Despite all the change, it looks like the league will once again consist of haves and have-nots – with a few clubs spending money on high-priced imports (ironically, small-market Assat appears to be one of those teams) while others look to compete with young domestic players or second level imports.

Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the prospects currently playing in the SM-Liiga, beginning with 2010-11 regular season champ JyP.

JYP

Goalie Riku Helenius, 23, a first-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2006 was tendered a qualifying offer in the spring by the Lightning. He will be back in Finland on loan to JyP after spending most of the past two seasons with Sodertalje in Sweden. Helenius was thrown to the wolves a bit after signing his first pro contract with Tampa Bay and struggled in stints in the AHL and ECHL during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 season so his tender offer raised some eyebrows. In Jyvaskyla he will likely play in a tandem with veteran Joni Myllykoski. Samu Perhonen, the Oilers third round pick in 2011, is also on the JyP roster but the 18-year-old will likely spend the season with JyP’s junior team and with JyP Akatemia in Mestis.

Twenty-year-old defensemen Sami Vatanen has been one of the most exciting players in the SM-Liiga and signed an entry-level deal with Anaheim in March, but will play this season with JyP. Kristian Nakyva, 20, showed some promise as a junior in Espoo with his skating and offensive skills but did not produce enough for the SM-Liiga club. Harri Ilvonen, 23, was drafted by the Wild in 2007 but never tendered a contract offer. Ilvonen appeared in 121 SM-Liiga games over the past three seasons with Tappara.

Forwards Antti Pihlstrom (26) and Tuomas Pihlman (28) spent some time in the NHL and may be familiar to North American fans but are past the age of being considered "prospects" – as is 35-year-old Eric Perrin, a college teammate of Martin St. Louis and Tim Thomas at Vermont.

Assat Pori

Former Calgary Flame Pekka Rautakallio guided Assat to a surprising second-place finish a year ago but is now coaching Dynamo Riga in the KHL. Karri Kivi takes over behind the bench in Pori. Joel Armia, taken 16th overall by the Sabres in the 2011 NHL Draft, will look to improve on his impressive rookie season. One-time Rangers and Ducks prospect Tomas Zaborsky, 23, has been one of Assat’s top scorers the past two seasons and seems content to finish out his career in Europe while one-time NHL prospects Radek Smolenak (24) and Stephen Dixon (26) are among the imports signed this season.

Defensively, Juho Mielonen, 24, a 2005 draft pick of the Red Wings but no longer a part of Detroit organization, has done a remarkable job of returning from a series of major injuries and returns for his second season with Assat. Twenty-two-year-old Jesse Jyrkkio continues to be one of the better young skilled defensemen in Finland though he is no longer the offensive force he was in junior hockey. Earlier comparisons to long-time Team Finland star Petteri Nummelin may have been overly optimistic.

Barring the signing of a veteran free agent, Assat will rely on a pair of 22-year-olds in net to replace veteran Eero Kilppelainen (now with Jokerit). Juha Jarvenpaa, a product of the Assat junior system played well in nine SM-Liiga appearances last season while Antti Raanta was a workhorse for neighboring Lukko Rauma during his junior days and played in 37 SM-Liiga games for Lukko over the past two seasons. Niklas Kekki, 19, has done well at the junior level but is not a major factor at this point.

HIFK Helsinki

HIFK not only defeated Espoo in the SM-Liiga playoff final series but also hired former Blues boss Petri Matikainen, a two time winner of the Kalevi Numminen Coach of the Year award, as their new coach. Matikainen will have his work cut out for him if HIFK is to repeat as champions. HIFK is a high-pressure club that traditionally has one of the highest payrolls in the league and is always expected to compete for a championship.

In terms of prospects, HIFK has nine players over 30 and generally doesn’t play very many young prospects. However, they likely have the top young player in the league in 19-year-old Mikael Granlund. The ninth player taken in the 2010 NHL Draft, Granlund capped off a phenomenal season a year ago with an impressive display for Finland at the World Championships. He has continued to score frequently both in the European Trophy summer tournament and in the early SM-Liiga games. Ironically, Granlund has been playing on the top line with HIFK’s oldest player, former NHLer Ville Peltonen. Robert Nyholm, 23, is a one-time Columbus Blue Jackets prospect and has seen fourth line duty for HIFK early in the year. Markus Granlund, 18, Calgary’s second round pick, will likely spend much of the season at the junior level or competing in Mestis while 17-year-old Kalle Tornianen is another junior player who could see time during the year.

Defensemen Kristian Tuohilampi is a 21-year-old who played for Vaasa Sport in Mestis in 2009-10. Though he was never drafted nor part of Finland’s national team program, he appeared in eight games during the European Trophy tournament and is the only youngster to appear in the HIFK lineup thus far.

Finnish veterans Jan Lundell (37) and Juuso Riksman (34) will be in net.

Lukko Rauma

Like some of the other smaller cities in Finland, Rauma relies on outside talent, frequently import players, to remain competitive. While that formula has not yet led to a playoff championship, nor has it produced many NHL quality prospects in the Lukko junior program, Lukko has finished in the top four the past two seasons and advanced to the playoff semifinals in 2010-11.

Perttu Lindgren, 24, was a key player for the Texas Stars during their run to the AHL finals in 2009-10 and led the SM-Liiga in points a year ago with 23 goals and 43 assists in 56 games. While Dallas still hold his NHL rights, it is seeming less and less likely that Lindgren is interested in returning to North America. Lauri Tukonen, 25, and Kris Beech, 30, were first round picks in 2004 and 1999 respectively while 21-year-old Eero Elo was selected by the Wild in 2008 but never signed to a contract. Charles Bertrand, 20, is a French-born prospect who played midget hockey in Slovakia and Austria before joining Lukko’s junior program in 2009-10.

Like HIFK, Lukko has a veteran defense corps which recently added former Sabres prospect and Saint Lawrence University graduate Matt Generous (26) to the mix.

Danish goalie Simon Nielsen, 24, and Rauma junior Patrik Heikkila will see limited time in net behind 1997 Sabres’ first round pick Mika Noronen. Noronen, now 32, shuffled between the NHL and AHL between 1999-2000 and 2004-05 before heading to Russia for three seasons and has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts since returning to Finland in 2009-10.

Kalpa Kuopio

After struggling for the first three seasons after returning to the SM-Liiga in 2005-06, KalPa has been one of the league’s more competitive teams – twice reaching the semifinals before falling in the quarterfinals last spring. Tuomas Tuokkola is the new coach for KalPa but is no stranger to the club having served as an assistant for three years and guiding the A junior team a year ago.

Much of KalPa’s success has come due to an emphasis on developing players from within – such as current Edmonton Oilers prospect Teemu Hartikainen. Another forward who fits that mold is Iiro Pakarinen, a 7th round pick of Florida in 2011. Pakarinen, 20, has appeared in 97 games over the past two seasons for KalPa and is a high energy player with the skating ability and skills to be an offensive threat.

Defensively, stay-at-home steady defenseman Mikko Kukkonen is the only regular under the age of twenty-five.

Ari Ahonen, now 30, is another former first-round pick who has put things together since returning to Finland and will handle the bulk of the goaltending for KalPa. Ahonen was thought to be an eventual successor to New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur when he was selected – in 1999. Juha Toivonen, 24, the younger brother of former Boston first-round-pick Hannu Toivonen, is the backup.

Jokerit Helsinki

One-time national team coach Erkka Westerlund returns for his first full season after taking over midway through the season a year ago. As always, Jokerit will feature some of the top veteran players from Finland as well as a handful of key imports but there are a number of highly-regarded players from the successful Jokerit junior program worth keeping an eye on.

Nineteen-year-old Teemu Pulkkinen, a fourth-round pick by Detroit in 2010, may be the best pure goal scorer among the NHL prospects in Finland. A dominant player since his bantam days, Pulkkinen scored 18 goals with 36 assists in his first full SM-Liiga season a year ago. Center Alexander Ruuttu, 18, was selected in the second round by Phoenix in 2011, but will likely spend one more season with Jokerit’s junior team.

On defense, a trio of 20-year-olds have steadily risen through the ranks from Jokerit’s junior program to the big club. Teemu Eronen appeared in 48 games in 2010-11 and scored two goals with 13 assists. He was selected in the seventh round by St. Louis in 2011. Tommi Kivisto, a 7th round pick of Carolina in 2009 after playing a season with the WHL‘s Red Deer Rebels, had five assists in 38 games for Jokerit last season and was tendered a qualifying offer by the Hurricanes in May 2011. Nico Manelius, highly-regarded in his junior years before suffering a serious knee injury, has gotten his career back on track and appeared in 13 games last season and played well for Mestis’ Kiekko-Vantaa. Due to Jokerit’s depth on defense, he will start the 2011-12 season in Vantaa.

Last year’s starter in goal, former Nashville Predator Jan Lasak is now in the KHL. Kilppelainen, the former Stars prospect, was signed from Assat and will start. Zoltan Hetenyi, a 23-year-old from Hungary and Oilers’ prospect Frans Tuohimaa, a seventh-round pick in 2011, will share the back up duties as well as seeing time in Mestis with Kiekko-Vantaa. The 20-year-old Tuohimaa is a product of Jokerit’s junior program and was one of the top goalies in the Finnish junior league last season.

HPK Hameenlinna

HPK generally is somewhere in the middle-of-the-pack in the regular season but then is at its best in the post-season. In addition to winning a surprising championship in 2005-06, the club advanced to the semifinals the following season and was runner-up in 2009-10. The central Finland-based club has relied on developing its own talent, identifying talented players from other clubs that may have been overlooked, and supplementing that talent with targeted veteran imports. While this players may be a rung below NHL-caliber, the formula has worked well domestically for HPK.

Goalie Mika Jarvinen is a prime example. While his size (5’9) has kept him off the radar of most NHL scouts, the 22-year-old has been one of the top young goalies in Finland since he first appeared in 24 games with KalPa in the 2007-08 season. He replaces last year’s starter Teemu Lassila, a former Nashville prospect who is now with Novokuznetsk in the KHL. Mikko Tolvanen, 23, a product of HPK’s junior system, is back with HPK after spending the last two seasons splitting time between being a backup in Espoo and playing in Mestis. HPK’s Anssi Pesonen, 21, had the top goals against average (2.05) in the SM-Liiga junior league last season and could also see time.

As with the other top SM-Liiga teams, the defense corps in HPK is primarily older players, including 40-year-old team captain Marko Tuulola. Twenty-one-year-old Santeri Alatalo is the lone exception. A product of the JyP junior program and son of long-time coach Matti Alatalo, he appeared in 61 games in 2010-11 (including playoffs) scoring three goals with seven assists and was minus-two with 48 penalty minutes. Alatalo is not a physical defensive defensemen nor a gifted offensive threat but uses his skating and instincts to be an effective second-pair defensemen with HPK.

The forward unit, too, for HPK is an assembly of veteran Finnish players and imports such as Alex Leavitt and Scott Barney. One newcomer pressing for ice time is 20-year-old Jaakko Turtiainen. Turtiainen appeared in 41 games in 2010-11, scoring four goals with six assists and was minus-four with 28 penalty minutes. One-time Buffalo first-round pick Marek Zagrapan, now 24, was signed by HPK after splitting last season between the Czech Republic and the KHL, but has been in a lower line role thus far for HPK.

Karpat Oulu

After dominating the SM-Liiga between 2002-03 and 2008-09, appearing in the playoff finals in six of sevens seasons and winning four championships, Karpat has slipped to the middle of the pack after being forced to purge many of its larger salaries. While those financial difficulties affected Karpat’s place in the standings, it was a boon for some of the prospects coming out of Karpat’s outstanding junior program ( although arguably the top two prospects, Mikael and Markus Granlund left Oulu to play for HIFK in Helsinki). Coach Hannu Aravirta is highly regarded as a teacher of the game which should help the many young players in Karpat’s lineup.

A pair of teenagers who’ve made the most of their opportunity with Karpat are Joonas Donskoi and Miikka Salomaki. Donskoi, 19, a 2010 fourth round pick of Florida, scored 16 goals with 11 assists in 52 games and was plus-seven in his first full SM-Liiga season in 2010-11. Salomaki, 18, was a powerful two-way forward and scored four goals with six assists and was plus-two with 53 penalty minutes in 40 games last season. The Nashville Predators selected him in the second round of the 2011 draft. Twenty-year-old Julius Junttila, a dominant scorer at the junior level, opened eyes by starting his SM-Liiga career with a hat trick against the Pelicans in 2009-10 but has not yet matched that success at the pro level and went undrafted for the second straight year in 2011. Junttila scored two goals with three assists for Finland at the World Junior U20 championships and had 4 goals with 4 assists in 29 SM-Liiga games in 2010-11 but questions persist about his size and strength and willingness to compete in small areas. Joonas Kemppainen, 23, a top junior player during his days with Assat, is off to a fast start playing alongside Junttila and could be an intriguing free agent prospect in the future.

Twenty-three year old Swedish defenseman Oscar Eklund, who played for Djurgarden but was never drafted by an NHL team, is on the top defensive pairing with Finnish veteran Ilkka Mikkola. Atte Ohtamaa, also 23, came up through Karpat’s junior system and is in his fourth full season. Ohtamaa is playing alongside 35-year-old Czech defenseman and one-time Oilers and Flames prospect Jan Snopek.

Twenty-six-year old Ville Hostikka, a sixth-round pick in 2003 by the Flyers, is the starter in goal for Karpat while Tomi Karhunen, 21, who played for the Sarnia Sting in 2007-08 is the backup.

Blues Espoo

Under Matikainen, the Blues reached the SM-Liiga semifinals in four of his seven seasons and twice reached the finals. Perhaps no post-season was more satisfying than last season when, after finishing ninth, the Blues advanced to the SM-Liiga finals before falling to HIFK. While Matikainen is now in HIFK, much of the Blues organization remains in place. Long-time assistant and Finnish U20 head coach Lauri Marjamaki takes over. Prior to joining the men’s club in 2007-08, Marjamaki had coached in the Espoo junior program since 1999 so he is familiar with the culture and operating style of the club.

In terms of prospects, the Blues have rivaled the famed TPS program in their ability to churn out high quality goaltending prospects seemingly every year. Karpat-trained Petri Koivisto, 24, has established himself as a quality SM-Liiga starter and was signed to be the number one goalie after four seasons splitting time in Oulu. A pair of 19-year-old drafted juniors could see time during the season. Lars Volden, a native of Norway, was selected by Boston in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. Volden will mostly serve as Koivisto’s backup while also playing for Espoo’s junior team. Jonathan Iilahti split last season between Espoo’s junior program and Kiekko-Laser in Mestis. A sixth-round pick of the Canucks in 2010, he was drafted by the Vancouver Giants in the 2011 CHL Import Draft but chose to return to Finland for one more season under the tutelage of Espoo goaltending coach Marko Torenius. Iilahti started the 2011-12 season on loan to Vaasa Sport in Mestis.

Twenty-four-year old Ville Lajunen, the older brother of Nashville prospect Jani, is one team captain. He is one of the better offensive defensemen in the SM-Liiga but to date has yet to receive any NHL offers. Jani Hakanpaa, the huge 19-year-old who was selected by St. Louis in the fourth round in 2010 is on the Espoo roster, but barring injuries will spend the season playing for the junior team. Hakanpaa is also a likely candidate for Finland’s U20 team in Alberta this winter. Alexsi Laakso, 21, another undersized offensive defenseman, appears to have regained his spot in the Espoo lineup. After an impressive rookie season in 2009-10 (he was ranked 60th amongst European skaters in Central Scoutings final draft rankings prior to the 2010 NHL Draft but not selected), Laakso spent most of last season with Sport in Mestis and was also loaned to Pelicans for a pair of games.

The Espoo forward group is a nondescript bunch who relies on hard work and tactical play to be successful. Twenty-year-old winger Jere Sallinen was selected by the Wild in the 2009 NHL draft but was not tendered an offer last June. He plays on a line with his older brother Tomi. Center Matti Jarvinen, who played college hockey at the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 2009-10, is trying to crack the lineup after playing in Mestis with Vaasa Sport last year. Teemu Ramstedt, 23, is the top center for Espoo and is with the Blues after playing the last three seasons with HIFK.

Ilves Tampere

Ilves has one of the more successful junior programs in Finland but has not matched that success at the SM-Liiga level. A dominant club for much of the early years of Finnish hockey, Ilves has not reached the finals since 1997-98. Juha Pajuoja, who took over in mid-season during the 2009-10 campaign after coaching many of the current Ilves players in the junior program, is back behind the bench for his second full season. The club showed some improvement last season after avoiding relegation the previous year. And the young players in the Ilves lineup should continue to develop.

Finnish veterans Vesa Toskala and one-time Rangers and Coyotes prospect Miika Wiikman will start the season in net. A pair of promising 19-year olds, Sami Aittokallio, a 4th round pick of Colorado in 2010, and Ville Kolppanen, who played for Team Finland in a September U-20 tournament in Russia are listed on the roster but will likely spend much of the year in Mestis or with Ilves’ junior club.

Twenty-nine-year old former Predator and Panther defenseman Ville Koistinen was one of only two defensemen under thirty in the Ilves opening season lineup so it may be difficult for prospects to see ice time this year. Jyrki Jokipakka, 20, was a seventh-round pick by the Stars in the 2011 NHL Draft and will likely split the season between LeKi in Mestis and the Ilves junior team. Twenty-five year old Swedish defenseman Nils Backstrom, who was a 2004 draft pick of Detroit and played college hockey at Alaska-Anchorage, has been the youngest defensemen in the Ilves lineup thus far.

Forward Toni Rajala, 20, one of the most highly acclaimed players in Finland during his junior days, attended Edmonton’s camp hoping to secure a spot with Oklahoma City in the AHL but was an early cut and is back with Ilves for a second SM-Liiga season. Signed to an entry level contract by the Oilers in 2010, Rajala was loaned to Ilves in 2010-11 and scored nine goals with 13 assists in 44 games; scoring four more goals in six playoff games. A fourth-round pick of the Oilers in 2009, his status in the organization appears to have dropped with the influx of young forwards over the past two seasons. Joonas Rask, 21, made a positive impression in Nashville’s prospect camp over the summer and is back for his third full SM-Liiga season. Rask will miss the early part of the season due to a hand injury but should be a key forward for Ilves as he plays in all situations. The younger brother of Boston goalie Tukka Rask, he was selected by the Predators in the 2010 NHL draft after twice previously being passed over. Twenty-one-year old Matias Sointu, who was drafted by the Lightning in 2008 but never signed and Kai Kantola, a 24-year-old who played in the USHL and played college hockey at Bowling Green, were seeing time on Ilves’ second line as the season opened.

Tappara Tampere

Like it’s neighbor and rival Ilves, Tappara has struggled for most of the decade since reaching the finals in three straight years between 2000-01 and 2002-03 – the year of Tappara’s last SM-Liiiga championship. After reaching the semifinals in 2007-08 under current Lukko coach Rauli Urama, Tappara has struggled, including an eleventh-place finish last season. Unlike Ilves’ Pajuoja, Tappara coach Sami Hirvonen does not appear to have many high end prospects.

One exception is 16-year-old Alexander Barkov, who has dominated at the junior level and with Fiinland’s U18 squad in international play. Not eligible for the draft until 2013, Barkov will likely spend the year with the junior team but did appear in one game during the European Trophy tournament over the summer. Barkov’s father, Alexander Sr., played ten years for Tappara after playing for Spartak and Novosibirsk in his native Russia and also appeared in three World Championships for Russia during the 1990′s.

Of the other young forwards for Tappara, Jan-Mikael Jarvinen, 23, is a pint-sized dynamo who constantly creates opportunities and scored 20 goals with 34 assists in 48 games for Mestis’ SaPKo in 2010-11. Jarvinen’s line mate Tomi Pekkala, 21, was a high scorer during his junior days with Karpat. Pekkala is looking to bounce back from a sub-par 2010-11 season. In 35 games with Tappara last season he had one goal with three assists after scoring 12 goals with eight assists in 43 contests as an SM-Liiga rookie the previous season.

Jani Nieminen, 24, shared the goaltending chores with Sharks’ prospect Harri Sateri last season. Sateri is now in North America and likely will play for the AHL Worcester Sharks. Replacing Sateri is one-time Lethbridge Hurricanes goalie Juha Metsola. Metsola, 22, is smaller than most NHL goalies but is extremely active in the net and can be very difficult to beat when he’s on his game.

Twenty-two-year-old defenseman Viktor Ekbom, a sixth round Penguins pick in 2009, was signed by Tappara after not being tendered a contract by Pittsburgh. Ekbom played for Linkoping in his native Sweden the past two seasons and also appeared in three games with the Penguins AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2010-11. Aleksi Elorinne, 21, is a Joensuu native and has been in the Tappara lineup in the absence of team captain Pekka Saravo. Elorinne scored his first SM-Liiga goal in his first game.

SaiPa Lappeenranta

SaiPa has made the playoffs just three times since returning to the SM-Liiga in 1996 and has not had a winning season since 2005-06. SaiPa’s struggles on the ice have been compounded by financial issues off and the club usually cannot retain its better home-grown talent. SaiPa figures to once again struggle this season though two import defensemen – Brian Salcido and veteran Slovak Richard Lintner – should help some when they eventually join the team.

The absence of Salcido, a former Duck prospect who played at Colorado College, and the 33-year-old Lintner have provided an opportunity for SaiPa junior product Jere Pulli to get some ice time early in the season. Pulli, who captained SaiPa’s junior team in 2009-10 and appeared in 19 SM-Liiga games last season, has the prototypical size and demeanor of a shut-down, stay-at-home defenseman and enjoys the physical side of the game.

Winger Jesse Mankinen, 20, is another homegrown player from Lappeenranta. In his first full season a year ago, Mankinen scored six goals with three assists. Latvia native Roberts Jekimovs, 21, scored 24 goals with 19 assists for Jokipojat in Mestis in 2010-11 and started the season with SaiPa on a tryout basis. He is a skilled offensive player.

SM-Liiga veteran goalie Jere Myllyniemi is slated to handle the bulk of the goaltending duty for the third straight season. Andreas Bernard, a 21-year-old from Italy, had a 2.51 goals against average in four games last year and could see more time this season. Eighteen-year-old Richard Ullberg is a talented junior goalie and played for Team Finland at the World Junior U18 championships in 2011.

TPS Turku

TPS’ reign as Finnish league champs did not last long. After a magical playoff spring in 2010, when the sixth-place Turku club rolled through the SM-Liiga playoffs to capture its first SM-Liiga championship since 2000-01, TPS won just 12 games in regulation and narrowly avoided having to play a relegation series. In reality, the 2010-11 TPS team bore little resemblance to the previous year’s squad as Coach Kai Suikkanen was hired to coach Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL while several players departed. North American’s Lee Sweatt and goalie David Leggio left for the AHL and leading scorer Ilari Filppula signed a deal with Detroit – though he did not get to play with his brother Valtteri (spending the season with Grand Rapids in the AHL). Filppula returned to Finland for the 2011-12 season, signing a deal with Jokerit.

With the disarray of last season behind, things in TPS may be looking up. Pekka Virta is the new coach in Turku after five seasons with KalPa but the real excitement surrounding the team has to do with a 16-year-old defenseman named Rasmus Ristolainen.

Though not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2013, Ristolainen first garnered international attention with his play at the Ivan Hlinka U18 tournament over the summer. Ristolainen has a rare combination of size and skating ability (particularly for a player his age) but did not seem out of his element playing with TPS during the European Trophy tournament or in early season league play.

TPS was still experimenting with its defensive combinations at the start of the season. Veli-Matti Vittasmaki, who was impressive as a 19-year old during TPS’ playoff run two years ago, played 56 games in 2010-11 and scored two goals with five assists and was minus-nine. Twenty-four-year old Timo Seppanen, who was drafted by the Penguins in 2006 but never played for Pittsburgh, is back in Finland after playing for Sweden’s Sodertalje last season.

Scoring-wise, TPS will count on import forwards and one-time NHL prospects like Ryan Stone (26) and the Czech Republic trio of Tomas Plihal (28) Michal Birner (25) and Jakup Cerny (24) to lead the attack.


Pelicans Lahti

Things appeared to be looking up in Lahti after a rare winning season and sixth-place finish under Aravirta in 2007-08 but the team could not build on that success. Things bottomed out last year as the club finished last in the league standings and had to defeat Mestis champion Vaasa Sport in a relegation series to remain in the league. Coach Mika Toivola, who spent two seasons behind the bench in Lahti, was replaced by former TPS coach Suikkanen, who was relieved of his coaching duties in mid-season last year in Yaroslavl.

While the Pelicans have often struggled in the standings, Lahti has frequently been a place where players can take advantage of the opportunity to re-vitalize their careers. Current San Jose Shark goalie Antti Niemi, who saw limited ice time during his junior career in Kiekko-Vantaa, was a workhorse for three years in Lahti before signing a free agent contract with Chicago.

Current Pelicans’ goalie Nico Hovinen was more well-known than Niemi, he was drafted out of the Jokerit junior program by Minnesota in 2006, but his future did not appear very bright when he signed with the Pelicans in 2008. Having never matched his junior results both while trying to crack Jokerit’s SM-Liiga lineup and in his first two seasons with the Pelicans, he was not offered a contract by Minnesota. Hovinen, to his credit, put it all together in 2010-11, posting a 2.59 goals against average and .921 save percentage in 49 games. Following the season, the now 23-year-old Hovinen signed a free agent contract with the Flyers. Hovinen will finish out his contract with the Pelicans before attending Philadelphia’s camp in 2012-13. Former Karpat junior goalie Antti Rautiola, 23, played well for Kiekko-Laser in Mestis last year and is another one looking for a second chance under the tutelage of Pelicans goalie coach Pasi Nurminen. Twenty-one-year old Joonas Kuusela has been in the Pelicans/Kiekko Reipas junior program since 2007-08 and played well for HeKi (now Pelitat) in Mestis in 2010-11.

Defenseman Joonas Jarvinen, 22, enters his fourth year in the SM-Liiga. The tall, defensive defenseman joins Lahti after three seasons with TPS where he was coached by Suikkanen and saw a lot of ice time during the SM-Liiga playoff run in 2010. While Jarvinen’s skating and lack of combative play remain concerns, his reach and defensive instincts make him a potential free agent signee in the future.

As with Hovinen and Niemi, several of the young Pelicans forwards fall into the "second-chance" category. Twenty-one-year-olds Pekka Jormakka (JyP) and Sami Blomqvist (Espoo) and former Stars’ prospect Max Warn (HIFK) were all highly-regarded as juniors but saw limited ice-time with their previous clubs. Vili Sopanen, 23, was drafted by the Devils out of the Pelicans junior program in 2007 for his potential as a power, two-way forward. He scored 21 goals with the Pelicans in 2009-10 but hadn’t developed the way scouts had hoped and wasn’t signed. He played with Jyp last season but is back in Lahti. Sopanen’s younger brother Iiro, 22, has the size of his brother and hopes to crack the Pelicans lineup after scoring 10 goals with 12 assists for HeKi in Mestis in 2010-11.

Forward Ryan Lasch, 24, is a Lake Forest, CA native and one of two North American imports in the Pelicans lineup. Though a bit undersized for North American pro hockey, Lasch put up big scoring numbers in four years of college hockey at St. Cloud State and played for Sodertalje in Sweden last year. Justin Hodgman, 23, played four years of junior hockey with the OHL‘s Erie Otters and spent parts of the past two seasons with the AHL Toronto Marlies. In 42 games with the Marlies in 2010-11, Hodgman scored 12 goals with 17 assists and was plus-seven with 44 penalty minutes.

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