2016 NHL Draft Preview: Puljujarvi, Laine the cream of a solid Finland crop

By Tony Piscotta
Jesse Puljujarvi - Team Finland - 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship

Photo: Karpat Oulu forward and 2016 prospect Jesse Puljujarvi earned MVP honors at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship while playing alongside Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine for Finland’s gold medal squad (courtesy of MARKKU ULANDER/AFP/Getty Images)

 

 

If Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi were the only players coming out of Finland this year, the 2016 NHL Draft would still be a big one for Suomi fans. Much like the Tyler vs. Taylor theme of the 2010 NHL Draft — when media sources tried to determine whether current Dallas Star Tyler Seguin or Edmonton’s Taylor Hall would be the top overall selection — Puljujarvi and Laine have been in the media spotlight all season and are surefire first-round picks. But those two are just part of what is expected to be a large class of Finnish players taken in the 2016 NHL Draft.

London Knights’ defenseman Olli Juolevi — though technically a North American prospect — is another likely first round pick and the three first round selections would be the most from Finland since 2004 when forwards Lauri Tukonen (Los Angeles), Petteri Nokelainen (New York Islanders) and Lauri Korpikoski (New York Rangers) were taken midway through the first round.

Even without considering Saginaw Spirit defenseman Markus Niemelainen and Halifax Mooseheads center Otto Somppi (also listed as North American skaters), many mock drafts show a dozen or more players from Finland being selected. The bulk of those players are talented forwards, with 10 Finnish forwards in NHL Central Scouting’s (CSS) top 30 international skaters.

Goalie Veini Vehvalainen, in his second year of draft eligibility, is ranked third amongst international netminders.

Finland’s junior teams won gold medals at both the U20 and U18 World Championships and featured several talented defensemen. But with Juolevi — the youngest defenseman on the U20 team — and Niemelainen – part of the U18 squad in Grand Forks – not in the mix, there are no defensemen in our top-10 group.

The 2017 NHL Draft should be another story as six of the seven defensemen for Finland’s U18 team — including captain Juuso Valimaki — are not eligible until next year. TPS Turku U20 defenseman Tarmo Reunanen is the highest ranked Finnish defenseman (53rd) in the CSS European skater rankings.

Here is the Hockey’s Future ranking of the top 10 prospects from Finland for the 2016 NHL Draft.

1. Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Karpat Oulu
6’3”, 205 lbs., 5/7/97
Tornio, Finland

Jesse Puljujarvi first caught the attention of international scouts at the 2015 World Juniors, playing for Finland’s U20 team as a 16-year-old. With a rare combination of size, skill and seemingly boundless determination, Puljujarvi was constantly a threat and looking to make plays.

Patrik Laine’s scoring exploits and big shot have many targeting him as the likely second overall pick behind American Auston Matthews, but this writer feels that Puljujarvi’s all-around game separates him (slightly) and gives him the edge.

Playing on Finland’s top line with Laine at the 2016 World Junior Championship along with his Karpat teammate Sebastian Aho (CAR), Puljujarvi led all scorers with five goals and 12 assists for 17 points and was named the tournament MVP.

In Liiga he played for a veteran Karpat Oulu team and, as a 17-year-old, scored 13 goals with 15 assists and was +5 in 50 regular season games for the two-time defending champs. Puljujarvi had four goals with five assists in five playoff games as Karpat reached the semifinals, falling to eventual champion and Laine’s club, Tappara Tampere.

2. Patrik Laine, LW/RW, Tappara Tampere
6’4″, 210 lbs., 2/3/98
Tampere, Finland

 

Patrik Laine had a dream season in his draft year — winning a gold medal with the Finland U20 team, a championship in Liiga (where he was named the playoff MVP), and capping the year winning a silver medal playing for Finland at the 2016 IIHF World Championship.

Like Puljujarvi, he has a rare combination of size, agility, stickhandling and passing skills. Laine’s calling card is a lethal and accurate slap shot. Much like current Washington Capitals‘ star Alexander Ovechkin, the right-shooting Laine is dangerous playing on the left side, particularly on the power play; allowing him to get off a one-timer quickly.

Concerns about his positional play and defensive game entering the season appear overstated, and his all-around play in 2015-16 quieted many of his skeptics.

Like Puljujarvi, Laine is expected to go off the board with one of the top three picks in Buffalo.

3. Henrik Borgstrom, C, HIFK U20
6’3″, 175 lbs., 8/6/1997
Helsinki, Finland

 

Injured for a good portion of the 2014-15 season, Henrik Borgstrom was not selected in his first year of draft eligibility last year. He returned to the HIFK U20 team rather than playing in Liiga to maintain his NCAA eligibility and is one of the key recruits for the University of Denver.

Borgstrom was a dominant scorer for HIFK in A Juniors, finishing third in the league in scoring, and is expected to make an immediate impact for coach Jim Montgomery’s Pioneers as a freshman this fall.

The prototypical “late bloomer”, there is some concern about Borgstrom due to the back issues during his draft year and the fact that he was dominant at the A juniors level against smaller, less skilled players. But he has an impressive combination of size, speed and a full toolkit of offensive tricks. His college career should allow him time to mature physically while refining the tactical and technical aspects of his game.

Borgstrom, not ranked prior to the 2015 NHL Draft, is ranked ninth amongst international skaters by CSS this year.

4. Janne Kuokkanen, LW/C, Karpat Oulu U20
6’1″, 175 lbs., 05/25/98
Oulunsalo, Finland

 

Overshadowed by Laine and Puljujarvi much of the year, there are several forwards who have flown under the radar. Janne Kuokkanen, Otto Makinen, Aapeli Rasanen, and Eetu Tuulola all enjoyed success playing for Finland’s gold medal-winning U18 team in April.

Not as physically imposing as the top three forwards on our list, Kuokkanen is the type of player who grows on scouts for his consistency. A strong, smooth skater, he is capable of playing a variety of roles and is still developing.

One of the top scorers in Finland’s U20 league as a 17-year-old, he also made his Liiga debut, scoring two goals in his only game with Karpat.

Perceived as a fringe draft player early in the 2015-16 season, he is ranked 20th amongst European skaters in the final CSS rankings and should be selected in the second or third round.

5. Otto Makinen, C/RW, Tappara Tampere U20
6’1″, 180 lbs., 5/21/98
Tampere, Finland

 

Otto Makinen, like Rasanen, spent much of his junior career in the shadows of Laine with Tappara. A technically-skilled forward who can play either center or wing, he is dangerous around the net and has a quick release to his shot.

Makinen is difficult for scouts to evaluate because at times he appears dominant but at other times is less effective. His offensive production has yet to match the visual impression he makes when he is on his game.

That was the case in Grand Forks, when he finished with one goal and one assist in seven games while 2017 draft-eligible forward Eeli Tolvanen led the team in scoring. Makinen did score four goals in five games for Finland’s U18 team at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, then led a group of second-tier prospects playing the top center role for Finland at the Five Nations Tournament in November.

Makinen is ranked 13th amongst international skaters and could be picked somewhere in the second or third rounds.

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