What a difference a week makes.
Hockey’s Future-Lightning was told last week that the Lightning had no plans to sign any of their older European prospects, but that quickly changed as the Lightning have signed right winger Eero Somervuori to a one year, two-way contract. Contract talks began after Somervuori’s agent contacted the Lightning, expressing a strong desire to have Eero join the North American hockey ranks this year.
A seventh round draft choice in the 1997 draft, Somervuori’s signing marks the end of a long and arduous six-year odyssey to gain the attention and respect of both the Lightning and the Finnish hockey world.
In the Beginning
To fully appreciate Somervuori’s signing, you have to appreciate the roller coaster ride he has had to get to this point in his career. The diminutive native of Järvenpää, Finland began his career in the Jokerit organization in 1993 at the age of 14-years-old. He was immediately acknowledged as one of the best up and coming stars in Finland after posting 23 goals and 54 points in 29 games with Jokerit’s junior-C team. The outstanding season Somervuori had cemented him in the eyes of many Finnish hockey observers as one of the best up and coming stars in the entire nation.
Just one year later, in the 1994-95 season, injuries held Eero to just 10 games with Jokerit’s junior-A team. The setback was only temporary though as Somervuori quickly recovered and returned to form and, after tearing up both the junior-A and junior-B levels, Eero made his SM-Liiga debut in 1996-97. In the SM-Liiga though, against men, the diminutive 17-year-old could not manage more than a goal and an assist with Jokerit’s big club. He slipped to the seventh round in the draft where Donny Murdoch and the Lightning quickly snapped him up.
The pick reaped early rewards as Somervuori made the gold medal winning Finnish World Junior Championship team in 1998, chipping in three goals and nine points and making the all-tournament team. Comparisons within the organization to Russia’s Andrei Kovalenko ensued, and in Finland, Somervuori soon gained the nickname “Little Selanne” for his offensive exploits and for wearing Selanne’s trademark number eight. In the summer of 1998, the Lightning offered Somervuori a rookie contract, and the sky seemed the limit for the 5’11” 185 lb. star.
A Bump in the Road
Somervuori’s agent rebuffed the Lightning’s contract offer, and Eero returned to Finland for the 1998-99 season. It was a decision that would take Somervuori to the brink of obscurity and back again. Relegated to a checking line role which didn’t suit his talent, he stumbled through two disappointing seasons with Jokerit where he only managed a paltry 13 goals and 27 points in 104 games. Questions about Somervuori’s size and work ethic soon abounded, and the Lightning quickly soured on their once promising Finnish right winger.
The Long Road Back to Respectability
In the summer of 2000, Somervuori obtained a transfer to another SM-Liiga club, HPK Hämeenlinna. A modest transaction, little did anyone know that Eero would soon exact a terrible price on the SM-Liiga for his years on Jokerit’s checking line. In 1999-2000, he began to display his old goal-scoring touch, notching a solid 14 goals in 56 games and earning a long term spot on HPK’s scoring line. The following season, Eero exploded with 25 goals and 48 points in 56 games on a team that featured former Lightning center Vladamir Vujtek and was the most feared offensive machine in the SM-Liiga. By the end of that season, he was tied for third in the league in goals, and was tenth in points.
Having gained the respect of Finland’s top league, Somervuori still found doubters in the Lightning’s front office. During a web chat last season, Hockey’s Future-Lightning asked Jay Feaster if he would sign the deadly sniper. His reply to that question makes this week’s signing all the more amazing. On March 21, 2002, Feaster blasted Somervuori, saying:
“We had 27 reports filed on this player since the time Rick Dudley took over as GM. Eero is a 5’9″ 185 lb. right winger who does not compete consistently, night in and night out. He is also weak along the boards. When you combine this with the fact that when we tried to sign him when Jacques Demers was GM, his agent demanded a ridiculous amount of money and signing bonus, it is my opinion that there are better ways for us to spend our money.”
What A Difference A Year Makes
This year, with the departure of Vujtek and a handful of other foreign veterans from the HPK lineup, Somervuori had his work cut out for him if he was going to prove himself to a skeptical Lightning organization. Somervuori rose to the challenge, scoring big goals early in the season to help keep the youthful HPK team in the hunt. He then began turning into more of a playmaker later in the season, helping establish his line with Atlanta Thrashers prospect Tommi Santala and Dallas Stars prospect Antti Miettinen as arguably the most feared offensive force in all of European professional hockey. The three would play for team Finland on three of the legs of the Euro Tour, a series of four tournaments pitting national teams comprised of the best club players in Europe from Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic against each other.
By the end of the season, HPK finished with the best record in the SM-Liiga and Eero had posted another solid offensive season with 21 goals and 45 points in 56 games. He even earned very modest consideration for the MVP award in the league. More impressively, he answered GM Jay Feaster’s criticisms by setting a career high in penalty minutes with 42 and competing more fiercely along the wall. He also finished +19, making him a +34 over the course of the last two seasons. Somervuori has turned doubters into believers, shedding the one-dimensional tag in the process. In a press release, Feaster made the proverbial 180, saying:
“Eero Somervuori is an extremely talented, hard-working player with incredible speed and quickness, outstanding puck skills and a nose for the net. Eero is a very dangerous player one on one, and he has worked hard in Europe developing his all-around game. We attempted to sign him five years ago and since then he has improved in every facet of the game and has developed into a legitimate offensive threat and a solid two-way player.”
Somervuori is an offensive dynamo displaying a dynamic combination of speed, stickhandling skills, and a deadly sniper’s instinct and shot. Now 24, he carries considerable experience and credentials after making multiple appearances for the Finnish national team and as a star in the SM-Liiga the last two seasons. The Lightning believe Eero could not only make the team out of training camp, but also could assume a spot on a scoring line beside Vincent Lecavalier or Brad Richards.
The obvious knock on Somervuori is his lack of size. Listed at 5’10” 185 lbs., the emphasis should be placed on “Little” in the “Little Selanne” nickname. That factor, and the adjustment to the North American sized rinks and culture will be his greatest obstacles to sticking in the National Hockey League. Questions about his commitment to physically compete and play both ends of the rink may still linger, but he’s largely answered those criticisms over the last two seasons.
There’s no doubt that now, six years after he was drafted, it’s now or never for Eero, and that he’s entirely a hit-or-miss proposition. We here at Hockey’s Future-Lightning love Eero’s upside, especially if he can earn a spot with either of the Lightning’s talented young centers, and see him as a cross between Martin St. Louis and Sami Kapanen potentially capable of 20-25 goals and 45-55 points. However, continued hard work and a little luck will be required for Somervuori to get there.