Trio of U20 players among top NHL-drafted defensemen out of Finland

By Tony Piscotta
Sami Niku and Antti Kalapudas - Team Finland - 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship

Photo: JyP Jyvaskyla defenseman and Winnipeg Jets prospect Sami Niku (R) is one of a trio of defensive NHL prospects that competed for Finland in their gold medal run at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship (courtesy of MARKKU ULANDER/AFP/Getty Images)

 

 

The 2015 NHL Draft saw six defensemen from Finland selected for only the second time since the draft was reduced to seven rounds in 2004. Though none of those players were selected in the top two rounds — as current Pittsburgh Penguin Olli Maatta was in the 2012 draft class that was previously the largest — the 2015 draft class has increased the number of NHL-drafted defensemen playing in Liiga. This has helped to expand this list to a top 10 after listing just five players last year.

At first glance, few if any of these defensemen have the potential to be the next Maatta or Rasmus Ristolainen, the 20-year-old from TPS Turku who is in his second season with the Buffalo Sabres and looks like he will be a fixture in the lineup for years to come.

Puck movers Sami Niku (Winnipeg) and Joni Tuulola (Chicago) played key roles for Finland’s gold medal U20 team at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship and have some potential but are still working to develop the supplemental areas of their games.

Karpat’s Markus Nutivaara, drafted by Columbus as a 21-year-old last spring, looks like he may be a late-round steal. He has shown a playmaking element to his game to go with his defensive play, leading the team’s defensive corps with 20 points before suffering an injury that has had him out of the lineup since early January.

Defensive defensemen like Karpat’s Jani Hakanpaa and Veeti Vainio are big defense-first players who could be a fit in the right situation.

One surprising story has been the emergence of American defenseman Troy Vance with Assat Pori. Vance had a nondescript season in the ECHL in 2014-15 in his first pro campaign but has flourished in a larger role with Assat.

KalPa Kuopio teammates Joonas Lyytinen (Nashville) and Niko Mikkola (St. Louis) are both seeing regular ice time and continue to progress. HPK Hameenlinna’s Santeri Saari (St. Louis) and Dallas Stars‘ prospect Aleksi Makela of Ilves Tampere – not to be confused with the Karpat defenseman who has the same name – round out the top 10.

HIFK’s Miro Karjalainen is one of two other defensemen with NHL ties skating in Finland this year. Drafted by Dallas in 2014 because of his size, work ethic and long-range potential, Karjalainen missed most of the 2014-15 season due to injury and illness. The 19-year-old made his Liiga debut in two December games with HIFK earlier this season, but has again battled injury this year and has spent most of the season with the club’s junior team.

Veterans Joonas Jarvinen (Nashville) and Keith Aulie are skating for first-place HIFK Helsinki, but at 27 and 26 years of age respectively, neither are considered prospects based on HF’s criteria. Jarvinen is a restricted free agent whose rights are held by the Predators. Aulie, who played 31 games for the Edmonton Oilers last season, was signed by HIFK in January due to injuries at defense.

Mikko Vainonen, released from his contract with Nashville in October after playing 31 ECHL games last season, joined Assat Pori in November. He is an unrestricted free agent in terms of his NHL rights.

1. Sami Niku, 19, JyP Jyvaskyla
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets
Seventh round (198th overall), 2015

Few players have had their game as closely scrutinized as Sami Niku’s was during his junior days. With impressive skating ability and stick and passing skills at an early age, the Haapavesi native was an impact player both in the domestic junior leagues and for Finland’s U17 and U18 teams. At the same time, his slight frame (6’0″, 180 lbs.) and inconsistent defensive game were causes for concern. As a result, he lasted until the final round in the 2015 NHL Draft until the Jets took a late round flier on him. This season has been one of growth for Niku. He has shown signs of being more consistent in his own end, both in Metsis with JyP-Akatemia and with the club’s Liiga squad. He was one of Finland’s better players at the 2016 World Juniors, showing a sense of when to push the play and when to be more conservative. His lack of bulk and strength will likely be an issue as he moves up the ranks, but there is time for him to address both areas. While it is too early to compare him to current Anaheim Ducks defenseman Sami Vatanen, also a product of the JyP youth program, there are things about Niku’s game that suggest he can be an effective skating defenseman.

2. Markus Nutivaara, 21, Karpat Oulu
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets
Seventh round (189th overall), 2015

Markus Nutivaara’s emergence should be a source of inspiration for any younger players who may develop a bit later than their peers. Coming out of the Karpat U18 program, he was not selected in his initial draft year in 2012, subsequently moving to Lahti to play for the Pelicans U20 team. Still playing junior hockey as a 20-year-old last year, he eventually made his Liiga debut with Karpat Oulu. Nutivaara played in 35 regular season games for Liiga champion Karpat and then had a strong performance during the playoffs, earning the attention of NHL scouts. This season has been a breakout year for Nutivaara. In addition to scoring five goals with 15 assists in 42 games before suffering an upper body injury, Nutivaara skated for Finland’s national team during a portion of the Europe Hockey Tournament. At 6’0″ and 185 pounds, he has average size for an NHL defenseman but he skates well and can read the play effectively. Nutivaara’s injury forced him to miss the Champions League final against Sweden’s Frolunda, but he is expected to be back in time for the Liiga playoffs.

3. Joni Tuulola, 20, HPK Hameenlinna
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks
Sixth round (181st overall), 2015

Things have not gone well in Hameenlinna this season, with the team likely to miss the playoffs for the second time in four seasons and head coach Pasi Arvonen being replaced late in the year by former HPK A Juniors head coach, Olli Salo. In his second season in Liiga, Tuulola has played on the top two pairings for HPK for much of the season and has experienced the ups and downs of a young player working his way into pro hockey. On the plus side, he shows flourishes of elite skating and technical skills that compare favorably with other young defensemen. At the same time, his positional game is still maturing and he can be overly ambitious in his decision-making. Tuulola was a key contributor to the Finland U20 team’s gold medal push, finishing +5 with an assist in seven games. Tuulola’s offensive instincts sometimes put him in precarious situations but his skill level and physical tools suggest he can one day be an NHL-calibre defenseman.

4. Veeti Vainio, 18, Espoo Blues/Keupa HT (Mestis)
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets
Fifth round (141st overall), 2015

The youngest of the defensive prospects currently playing in Liiga, Veeti Vainio has skated in 19 games for Espoo this season and also played in six games in Mestis. Slowed at the beginning of the year by a wrist injury suffered during the Blue Jackets’ training camp, Vainio has a combination of size (6’2″, 190 lbs.), skating ability and combativeness that makes him an interesting prospect. Vainio is still fairly raw in terms of his positional game but his physical and technical skills package suggests significant potential.

5. Jani Hakanpaa, 23, Karpat Oulu
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
Fourth round (104th overall), 2010

Overshadowed by young defensemen like Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson and Petteri Lindbohm in the St. Louis system, Hakanpaa returned to Finland this year after two seasons with the Blues’ AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves. Envisioned as a Chris Pronger-type defenseman when he was drafted due to his combination of size (6’5″, 220) and skating ability, Hakanpaa plays a sound but not overly physical style focused on preventing scoring opportunities with limited offensive impulses. A restricted free agent whose rights are held by the Blues, he has been a solid presence in the Karpat lineup with a career-high 10 assists in 50 games. While he is still fairly low on the depth chart in the St. Louis organization, Hakanpaa should draw interest this summer from other clubs looking to beef up their defensive group.

6. Troy Vance, 22, Assat Pori
Drafted by the Dallas Stars
Fifth round (135th overall), 2011

Troy Vance has taken a circuitous route to arrive in Finland — playing junior hockey in the United States before spending parts of four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Signed to an entry-level contract by Dallas in the summer of 2012, Vance struggled to get ice time with the Stars’ ECHL affiliate, the Idaho Steelheads, last season and spent part of the season with the expansion Missouri Mavericks. The move to Pori has led to a resurgence for the 6’5″, 220-pound defenseman. Averaging over 22 minutes of ice time and playing in all situations for Assat, he is the team’s leading scorer among defenseman while providing a combative presence. With the depth in the Dallas organization, Vance faces long odds at one day skating for the NHL club. His play this season could spark interest from other clubs, however.

7. Joonas Lyytinen, 20, KalPa Kuopio
Drafted by the Nashville Predators
Fifth round (132nd overall), 2014

Joonas Lyytinen is in his third Liiga season with KalPa, playing much of the season on the top pairing for the Kuopio club. Slightly undersized for an NHL defenseman, he does not play an overly punishing style. The emergence of Santeri Lukka and Juuso Riikola on the KalPa blue line has limited Lyytinen’s offensive role, so he has not had the breakout season some expected after he scored eight goals with nine assists in 2014-15. Currently out with a lower-body injury, Lyytinen is expected to return prior to the playoffs. He has yet to sign an entry-level deal with Nashville and his performance during the playoffs will be closely watched.

8. Niko Mikkola, 19, KalPa Kuopio
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
Fifth round (127th overall), 2015

The second defensemen from Finland selected in the 2015 NHL Draft after Vili Saarijarvi (DET), Niko Mikkola is slowly working his way into the lineup for KalPa in his first Liiga season. Another product of the Karpat youth program in northern Finland, Mikkola is a big (6’4″, 185 lbs.), stay-at-home defender with the ability to start the transition with a strong first pass. Playing for Finland at the World Junior Championship, he was sometimes overmatched against faster, quicker forwards, but he is an effective shot blocker and plays with a high energy level.

9. Santeri Saari, 21, HPK Hameenlinna
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
Sixth round (173rd overall), 2013

The St. Louis Blues have selected defensemen from Finland in five of the last six NHL Drafts. The last of four picks the Blues made at the 2013 draft, Santeri Saari was coming off a 23-point season for the Jokerit U20 team and cut an imposing figure at 6’2″ and 191 pounds. A projection pick at the time who was ranked 116th among international skaters by NHL Central Scouting, Saari, like Makela, continues to be a work in progress. After spending the 2014-15 season with three different teams in three countries — including nine games for Jokerit in the KHL — Saari has played 36 games for HPK, steadily seeing more ice time. More of a skating defenseman than a punishing player despite his imposing size, Saari does not appear likely to sign an entry-level deal anytime soon.

10. Aleksi Makela, 21, Ilves Tampere/Leki (Mestis)
Drafted by the Dallas Stars
Seventh round (182nd overall), 2013

Aleksi Makela was a late-round projection pick in the 2013 NHL Draft and has yet to establish himself as an NHL prospect. He averages 12:36 minutes of ice time in 31 games for an Ilves squad that will miss the playoffs, and has spent part of the season in Mestis with LeKi. Makela has not yet displayed the consistency necessary to have success at the pro level and, with a large number of defensemen in the Stars’ prospect pool, it is not likely that he will receive an entry-level deal anytime soon. But the fact that next season he is reportedly heading to Assat Pori — a club that has enjoyed a close relationship with the Stars through the last decade — suggests Makela may still be on the organization’s radar.

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