Aho, Hintz among top NHL properties competing in Finland in 2015-16

By Tony Piscotta

Henrik Haapala - Tappara Tampere - Champions Hockey League

Photo: Tappara Tampere forward Henrik Haapala produced his best Liiga season to date, posting 12 goals and 30 points in 47 games in the 2015-16 campaign (courtesy of Tappara Tampere/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)


Other Notables (in alphabetical order)

Miro Aaltonen, 22, RW, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Unrestricted Free Agent
Drafted in the sixth round, 177th overall, in 2013 by Anaheim

One of the top players for the Espoo Blues in 2014-15, Miro Aaltonen continued to put up points after joining Karpat this year. Drafted but never signed by the Anaheim Ducks, the Joensuu native is a high energy player with some stick handling and passing skill.

Aaltonen added a feisty edge to his game in 2015-16, finishing with a career-high 51 penalty minutes. One of the more courageous players in Liiga, Aaltonen overcame a gruesome leg injury at the World Juniors to get his career back on track.

In 58 regular season games this year he scored 15 goals with 20 assists and had a +9 plus/minus. He had three assists and was +3 with no penalties in three playoff games.

Charles Bertrand, 25, RW, Vaasa Sport
NHL Rights: Unrestricted free agent
Never drafted

Croatia native Borna Rendulic used his success in Finland to earn a contract with the Colorado Avalanche, spending the past two seasons in the AHL and appearing in 14 NHL games with Colorado (he will play in the KHL in 2016-17). Bertrand, who hails from France, could attract similar attention, though he is equally likely to play out the rest of his career in Europe.

A regular for Team France in both the World Championship and in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in 2013, Bertrand was the leading scorer for Vaasa Sport, which reached the Liiga playoffs in just their second season in the league after being elevated from Mestis.

Bertrand first arrived in Finland for the 2009-10 season after spending two seasons in midget hockey in Slovakia. Now in his fifth Liiga season, he scored a career-high 19 goals with 19 assists and was +4 with 16 penalty minutes in 52 regular season games, adding one goal with one assist in the two-game preliminary series against TPS Turku.

Henrik Haapala, 22, LW, Tappara Tampere
NHL Rights: Undrafted free agent
Never drafted

Prior to the current group of big, powerful forwards like Hintz, Laine, and Maenalanen the Finnish junior team was known for having undersized-but-fast and highly-skilled forwards like Henrik Haapala and Karpat Oulu’s Juuso Ikonen. The 21-year-old Ikonen will play for Djurgardens in Sweden next season, but if there is a player that might attract the attention of NHL scouts given the success of players like Artemi Panarin it could be Haapala.

A teammate of Maenalanen’s on the 2014 gold medal team, the Lempaala native had a breakout season in his fourth Liiga season. He scored 12 goals with 18 assists and was +9 in 47 regular season games (all career best numbers). Haapala scored three goals with three assists in 18 playoff games with Tappara, defeating HIFK in the Kanada Cup finals.

As with any player of his stature, durability and the ability to battle in tight areas are a concern. His skill level and speed, combined with the changing nature of the NHL game, could attract the attention of a club in need of scoring.

Markus Nenonen, 23, RW, JyP Jyvaskyla
NHL Rights: Undrafted free agent
Never Drafted

Markus Nenonen has been a bit of a one-trick pony in his first three Liiga seasons, but when that trick is shooting and scoring, it is a nice one to have. Unlike his first two seasons when Nenonen was a defensive liability at times, he has steadily improved in that area of the game.

Despite the loss of scorers Eric Perrin, Markus Hannikainen (CBJ), and Ikonen due to budget concerns, JyP was once again one of the top teams in the league, and Nenonen was a big part of that success.

A big forward who will use his size and strength to drive to the net, he led JyP with 18 goals in the regular season and was +13 with eight assists and 14 penalty minutes. He added four more goals and was +4 with two assists and two penalty minutes in 13 playoff games.

Niko Ojamaki, 20, RW, Assat Pori
NHL Rights: Draft Eligible 2016
Never Drafted

Often overshadowed playing with Saarela in Pori, Niko Ojamaki came in to his own as a scorer in his second Liiga season and could be an intriguing free agent if not selected in the 2016 NHL Draft. Like Karpat defenseman Markus Nutivaara, who was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets as a 21-year-old last year, Ojamaki is still eligible to be selected and could be worth a late-round flier.

One of the relatively few forwards in Finland that is a right hand shot, Ojamaki is consistent in all three zones and was Assat’s fourth-leading scorer behind Karki, veteran Juha Kiilholma, and Saarela.

The lone player for Assat to play in all 60 regular season games, he scored 16 goals with 17 assists and was +12 with six penalty minutes.

Saku Salminen, RW, 21, Jokerit (KHL)/TuTo Turku (Mestis)
NHL Rights: Tampa Bay Lightning
Drafted in the seventh round, 184th overall, in 2013

Saku Salminen had hoped to revive his prospects of receiving an entry-level contract with the Lightning by moving up to the KHL and playing for the club that gave him his first pro opportunity.

Unfortunately, he skated in just nine games with Jokerit and spent seven games with TuTo, missing most of the year due to injury.

Still just 21 years old, and with the kind of frame (6’3″, 200 lbs.) that will allow organizations to be a little more patient, Salminen does have some positives in his favor as he is a player who can play center or wing.

On the downside, he appears no closer to reaching the NHL than he was prior to the 2015-16 season and will try and re-establish himself as an NHL prospect playing in Liiga With SaiPa next season.

Peter Tiivola, 22, C, Lukko Rauma/Espoo Blues
NHL Rights: Undrafted free agent
Never drafted

Peter Tiivola is a big (6’3″, 205), skating center who began showing signs of breaking out in his third Liiga season.

An assistant captain for Blues before signing with Lukko in February in part due to Espoo’s financial troubles, he is signed with Rauma for the next two seasons and should continue to thrive under the tutelage of Vuori.

In 42 games with Espoo, he scored 10 goals with eight assists and was -4 with four penalty minutes. Tiivola had two assists and an even plus/minus in 10 regular season games with Lukko and scored his first goal for Rauma in the playoffs, finishing with one goal, one assist and a +1 rating in five playoff games.

Julius Vahatalo, 21, LW, TPS Turku
NHL Rights: Detroit Red Wings
Drafted in the sixth round, 166th overall, in 2014

The 2015-16 season was a turnaround year for TPS after the club hit rock bottom the previous season. The club added veteran forwards Perrin, Tomi Kallio and David Spina and the moves allowed Julius Vahatalo, who struggled as a 19-year-old in 2014-15, the opportunity to thrive in a less pressurized situation.

Viewed as a worthwhile late-round projection pick in 2014 due to his combination of size (6’5″, 195), stickhandling and shooting skills, Vahatalo is still developing in terms of his mobility and consistency.

Detroit has earned a reputation for snaring players from Europe in the later rounds in the draft, but to this point Vahatalo remains more of a project than a can’t-miss prospect.

The Vahto native scored nine goals with four assists and was -4 with six penalty minutes in 49 regular season games. Playing on the TPS third line in the playoffs, he had an even plus/minus with no points nor penalties while averaging 9:25 minutes of ice time.

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