The 1999 draft is over and the first round was as European as expected. From a Finnish point of view this draft went surprisingly well – 18 Finns got drafted. It’s a quite high number when you compare it to previous years.
There’s this interesting trend going on in Finland: 1990s has been the decade of hockey in Finland. Hockey is no longer sports, it’s entertainment business and a legitimate career option to young boys. The number of young hockey players is going up all the time and with Jari’s, Teemu’s and Jere’s example every kid wants to make it in the NHL one day.
Ten years ago there were no hockey agents in Finland, now there are plenty of them. Our junior national teams, (especially our U18 team), have been very succesful in last 5 years. Still only 2 goalies (Ahonen, Jokela), 2 D-men (Harikkala, Kesä) and 2 forwards (Salmelainen, Hyytiä) got drafted from this year’s U18 gold medal team. Coach Jouko Lukkarila said ”we don’t play for the scouts, we play to win.”
A new trend is that players who really haven’t been noticed by national team coaches get drafted now (Sainomaa, Ruutu, Rajamäki). It indicates that NHL team scout more and more European players and they have now full time scouts following the European junior leagues and not just elite players at international tournaments as they used to do.
Here are the Finnish players who got drafted:
#13, Jani Rita, RW, Edmonton: Rita was quite happy after the Oilers picked him, an organization which is familiar with Finnish players. In the Finnish Veikkaja-magazine, Rita talked about his predraft interview with Oilers. The hotel room was full of Oilers’ staff and most of them were smoking cigars so that Rita could hardly see Sather with all that smoke. Rita was thinking: ”I’m an athlete, I should go and open the window, damn it!” Obviously the interview went just fine and Oilers got their first line winger of the future. I think Rita will stay in Finland for one more year and hones his skills under dynamic coaching duo Erkka Westerlund – Raimo Summanen (former Oiler) of Jokerit. Rita will probably be paired with Detroit pick Tomek Valtonen.
#27, Ari Ahonen, G, New Jersey: This pick seems to surprise most North Americans but Devils have one of the best scouting department in the NHL and they can evaluate talent. Ahonen was just great at U18 WJC. He outplayed Russian Konstantinov in that tournament. Ahonen is a very dedicated hockey player. He quit school so he could concentrate on playing. Ahonen is from Jyväskylä, but he moves to Helsinki next season. One could say that he was the last present to HIFK from their former GM/Ottawa’s Euro-scout Jarmo Kekäläinen who now leaves for North-America. Kekäkäinen has filled HIFK roster with prospects in previous years.
#41, Tony Salmelainen, LW, Edmonton: When a player this short (5´9) gets drafted in the second round he must be something special and he is. He’s a kind of player winners have. Great skater, exceptional work ethic, versatile forward. His father Tommi was first ever Finnish player that got drafted in the NHL in 1969 by Blues. He never played a game there however.
#62, Teemu Sainomaa, LW, Ottawa: A big winger who has lots of upside. He basicly had no international experience, but he played so well with Jokerit Junior B team that he ended up as a 2nd rounder. You’ll hear more of him next season when he’ll play with Jokerit senior team.
#70, Niklas Hagman, LW, Florida: ”Godfather of Finnish hockey prospects”, Matti Väisänen, Florida’s Euro scout (guy who drafted Kurri, Tikkanen, Lehtinen etc.) got Hagman to Florida. He is a goal scorer with speed. He signed a 2 year deal with Division I (minor league) team Kärpät of Oulu. Nice move, he’ll get lots of quality ice time with high profile Northern team under ”cult-figure”-coach Juhani Tamminen.
#100, Teemu Kesä, D, New Jersey: Devils got yet another future NHL D-man with this pick. Kesä is an aggressive banger with limited offensive skills. His character will take him to NHL.
#118, Jaakko Harikkala, D, Boston: Nice pick from Boston. Jaakko has played with men for 4 years now. Good hitter, good character. His mobility and skills could blossom under Lukko’s new coach Vasili ”Viktor’s son” Tikhonov.
#183, Riku Hahl, C, Colorado: Riku is a dependable defencive center who played regularly with men this season. Comes from athletic family. Didn’t quite succeed on international junior level this year, but he’ll blossom later. A good, solid, pick by Avs.
#197, Arto Laatikainen, D, NY Rangers: Smallish offensive D-man with lots of potential. Hard to knock off skates, good shot. He needs to play defencive game with more authority. Has played very well in SM-liiga. This could be great pick by Rangers.
#201, Mikko Ruutu, W, Ottawa: His older brother Jarkko just signed with Vancouver and younger brother Tuomo is one of the 83 born Finnish top prospects. Works hard, hasn’t matured physically yet to be effective along the boards. Needs to add lower body muscles, his skating is a bit funny looking. Ambitious player. A solid project pick by Sens. Mikko will attend Clarkson College next season.
#216, Erkki Rajamäki, W, Tampa Bay: Another college bound (Colgate) player from HIFK. Doesn’t have international experience.
#218, Markus Kankaanperä, D, Vancouver: A solid performer who is getting better and better all the time. Needs to find offensive touch to his game. Plays hard in front of the net. This guy will make the NHL.
#225, Mikko Hyytiä, C/W, Montreal: A sleeper pick by Habs. Has lots of offensive upside. Good hands, gritty enough. All Stars center at U18 WJC. He was more of a play maker there, but has been mainly a scorer in Finnish Junior B league. All he needs is experience. Fits nicely to Habs’ ”theme” this year: Buturlin, Thinel.
#237, Antti Jokela, G, Carolina: Talented goalie who got outplayed by Ahonen at U18 games. Still a solid prospect with good goalie skills. Needs quality ice time.
#244, Mikko Kuparinen, D, Tampa Bay: Big rearguard with IHL experience this season. A future minor leaguer, probably won’t make the NHL ever.
#245, Tommi Santala, C/RW, Atlanta: He could get signed after next season. Has lots of tools: size, mobility, shot. Needs to put them together on more constant basis. If he does that, this was a good pick for Atlanta.
#247, Mikko Eloranta, W, Boston: An older player who can jump right in. Hard working style. Smallish but doesn’t shy away from contact. Scores nice hard worker’s goals, can be used as penalty killer. Problems with scoring consistency at times.
#257, Hannes Hyvönen, W, San Jose: A physical goal scorer who has had problems with consistency and stupid penalties in previous years. Has matured a lot, nice 1-on-1 moves. Lacks hockey sense. Wants anxiously to get to the NHL.
Notably not picked: Ville Hämäläinen, Olli Ahonen, Jani Väänänen, Arto Tukio, Tuukka Mäntylä.
DRAFT 2000 preview: Some good Finnish prospects will try to make the first 3 rounds like big winger Samu Isosalo of North Bay (he may come back to Rauma because of coach Tikhonov), center Jarkko Immonen who was the best player of our U17 team this season, D-men Tero Määttä, Olli Malmivaara, Lasse Kukkonen Juho Kuronen and Karri Takko… maybe goal scoring but hot tempered C/W Teemu Laine will be there too.
DRAFT 2001: This draft should be loaded with Finnish talent. Late 82 birthdays W Jaakko Hagelberg, Toni Koivisto, Tuomas Pihlman. And 83 born gems C Mikko Koivu, Tuomo Ruutu and W, Petri Koskinen, Eetu Holma and G Kari Lehtonen.