Finnish Elite League prospect preview

By Pekka Lampinen

A look at how NHL prospects will fit into the plans of their Finnish Elite League teams in 2004-05.

Espoo Blues

The Espoo Blues hope to have invested their resources wisely this year, something they haven’t always done. The team has acquired plenty of depth and the lineup appears to be balanced. Twenty-four-year-old Arto Laatikainen (NYR) put up career high points from the blueline last season, now his role can be anything from the first pairing to the third. Tero Maatta (SJ), 22, is
predicted to be the sixth defenseman. WJC veteran Janne Jalasvaara and Tommi Pelkonen will log spare minutes behind Maatta in a healthy defense corps.

From a prospect watcher’s point of view, Lauri Tukonen (LA) is by far the greatest point of interest on the team. He was pegged for a big role in the offseason, but now he has been pushed back. The top lines have found a good form in Landon Wilson – Donald
MacLean- Kari Kalto and Teemu Elomo – Olli Ahonen – Ladislav Kohn. Tukonen finds himself on the third line where he is to start the season with mediocre linemates. Veteran centers Juha Ylonen and Markku Hurme are both injured. Jarkko A. Immonen (DAL) is a winner in this situation and gets a chance at a bigger role. Twenty-year-old high-energy wingers Joni Toykkala and Antti Pihlstrom continue to develop on the
lower lines. Mikko Lehtonen, draft eligible in 2005, is unlikely
to make any kind of debut in SM-Liiga in his draft year.

HIFK

HIFK retain their excellent defense core from last season. Toni
Soderholm
did not leave for the NHL of course and he continues to captain the team. The team has three interesting undrafted defensemen in Mikko Turunen, Hannu Pikkarainen and
Ville Varakas, who will enjoy varying amounts of ice time.
Unfortunately Teemu Laakso, a top 2005 prospect, is buried so deep beneath his elders that he is very likely to play basically all season in
juniors.

HIFK’s first line Timo Parssinen – Brett Harkins – Kimmo Kuhta is still intact and looking for another triple victory in the point leader
table. Beyond them the situation is turbulent. Tommi Santala (ATL) had already joined the team but then re-signed with the Thrashers. Joonas Vihko (ANA) will try to reach the second line and around 30 points again this season. Arttu Luttinen’s (OTT) development
stalled altogether last season, and it is a make or break year for him.
Kim Hirschovits (NYR) has been very impressive in preseason, just like two years ago when he still failed to translate his success into regular season performance. HIFK have impressive depth in juniors and brings in multiple new players each year, this time the spotlight is on a
recent Blue Jackets pick, Lennart Petrell. His style is suitable
for any line from second to fourth, the question is whether he is too
much of a liability in most ways imaginable.

Hameenlinna HPK

Hameenlinna is a small town for an SM-Liiga team and HPK have had to
make do with limited resources, successfully as of late. Typically home
to multiple foreign stars, the team’s lineup in 2004-05 is largely
domestic. Joni Puurula (MTL) is still the starting goalie,
challenged by rising young talent Miika Wiikman. There is adequate depth
among skaters, although top players are few and far between. Core
defenseman Vladimir Sicak has kept developing steadily but too
little and too late to sustain NHL hopes. The same can be said about
Tuukka Makela (BOS) who seeks third pairing minutes. Junior
national team defensemen Jarno Virkki, Toni Vahamaki and
Jussi Ruohola could be spotted in SM-Liiga this season as well.

Janne Laakkonen, 22, leads the offense with veteran winger
Jani Hassinen. Oliver Setzinger (NSH) carries a lot of
responsibility on his shoulders. He can be expected to put up 30-35 points on the
second line. Petteri Wirtanen, seen in the U18 World
Championships last spring, will probably split the season between juniors and
professional hockey. Two more NHL prospects could be seen in HPK uniform:
Jani Rita (EDM) has a contract in case of lockout and is
practicing with the team, while Joni Lindlof (WSH) is on tryout.

Ilves

The Ilves lineup was close to deteriorating altogether when the
organization hibernated during the hottest weeks of the offseason market.
It turned out there were still players available far into the summer,
Steve Kariya being the most notable acquisition. The team chases the top six with Juha Pitkamaki between the pipes. A prospect watcher should take a look at green backup Tuukka Rask, who
at the young age of 17 has yet to dress for an SM-Liiga game. Overplayed
already during the preseason, Rask was shelled in practice games behind
the weak defense. He can expect around 15 starts in the regular
season if Pitkamaki remains healthy, with conditioning appearances in
juniors whenever needed.

Cory Murphy broke out last season and became the most dangerous
offensive defenseman in the league. His sidekick Teemu Jaaskelainen
(CHI) gets his share of the danger when covering Murphy’s back. As a
core defenseman Jaaskelainen suffers no restraining limitations to his
role. Up front Jesse Niinimaki (EDM) catches people’s attention
with his wizardry. After a season ruined by a shoulder injury, he seeks
to emerge as a star player and excel at more aspects of the game.
Tommi Jaminki (CHI) still tries to get an SM-Liiga career going. U18 national team core players Sami-Petteri Sandell and Perttu
Lindgren
will remain in junior A. Chicago Blackhawks project Marko Anttila
has been with the team in preseason, but only time will tell whether he
will play in juniors.

Helsinki Jokerit

After getting pummeled last spring, Jokerit emptied their coffers
and built an expensive team. However, mistakes have been made in the past and they will continue to be made under the current management. Money hasn’t made them a leading contender this year, but it was enough for impressive depth. Joonas Hallikainen tries to make the World Junior
Championships from behind Tim Thomas and Pasi Hakkinen, who won’t give
the young goalie a single start if healthy. In front of the netminders
the Jokerit defense corps is very interesting. Markus Kankaanpera
(VAN), who finally broke out at the age of 23, is a core player and a
special teams expert at both ends. Offensive potential is distributed
among many blueliners, one of whom is Sami Lepisto (WAS). There
is a big role laid out in front of him, which is why many people set
unfair expectations of a second consecutive breakout season on the
youngster. Kevin Kantee (CHI) played himself into the top six last
spring for good. Mikko Kalteva (COL) has longed for ice time for two
seasons now but is still left battling for the seventh position on the
depth chart. Only so many inexperienced defensemen (Lepisto and Kantee)
can log good minutes on the same team. Niko Vainio (DAL) isn’t
SM-Liiga ready.

Down from around half a dozen in recent years, NHL prospects among
Jokerit forwards now number in three. Valtteri Filppula (DET)
tries to keep up the development he managed in his rookie season. He can’t
overthrow star Glen Metropolit from the middle of the first line,
so the second line is as far as he can go in 2004-05, a limit similar to his personal talent level. Tomek Valtonen (DET) plays with
Metropolit and Marko Jantunen on a line that has been set in stone ever since
first assembled in 2003. That is a dream job for Valtonen right now,
but should the line be broken he can no longer be guaranteed first line
ice time. Tomi Maki (CGY) has been kicked around the lineup and
injured reserve for ages and has now been dealt the strongest blow yet — with the depth Jokerit acquired, he might not even make the lineup.
World Junior Championship hopeful Roni Andersson returns to
juniors.

JYP

JYP retained their core from last season and with a few key
acquisitions they could best their rivals. Aleksis Ahlqvist, third on
the depth chart, will guard the net in juniors and attempt to make the
World Junior Championships. Jyri Marttinen (CGY) is part of the
defense core and gets to play as much as possible. Thus he can try
to become good enough eventually to be able to make the NHL. 2005
eligible Erkka Leppanen will split the season between SM-Liiga and juniors. Eero Hyvarinen, 19, also has a good chance at SM-Liiga
hockey in 2004-05.

The most important and versatile forward on the team is undoubtedly
Jarkko Immonen (NYR). With his trusty linemates Jaakko Uhlback
and Antti Virtanen still by his side, he can pick up where he left last
season. However, he has enjoyed two consecutive breakout seasons now,
so it is more than reasonable to expect him to slow down to catch his
breath in 2004-05. Immonen is by no means the only JYP forward with NHL
hopes. Ossi Louhivaara (OTT), an early favorite for the rookie of the year honors, could be poised for a breakout season. Tuomas
Mikkonen
(DAL) has a good amount of SM-Liiga experience under his belt,
and now he has to improve notably in order to reach the path of
becoming a physical NHL winger again. Nineteen-year-old centers Arsi
Piispanen
(CBS) and Valtteri Tenkanen (LA), both of them able to play wing as well and locks for the World Junior Championships squad, try to
get a professional career going. Both of them can contribute to the
team’s performance if they play up to their ability. 2005 prospect Miika
Lahti
is likely to be dressed for some SM-Liiga games.

Karpat

Hero of the postseason, starting goalie Niklas Backstrom is not in
optimal condition yet after a knee surgery. That will probably give
Pekka Rinne (NSH) some extra starts early in the season. The
reigning champions lost two core defensemen in the offseason and took their
time to fill the hole. Lasse Kukkonen (CHI) is with the team, returning home from Norfolk. He makes a good No. 1 defenseman.
Mikko Lehtonen (NSH) is still improving and could leave Karpat for the Predators one day. Oskari Korpikari (MTL) has made notable progress and reaches for a spot in the second pairing. Topi Jaakola
(FLA) isn’t that far yet and his career faces a crossroads. He could
play better even if still in the third pairing, so his role isn’t setting
him back. 2005 top prospect Risto Korhonen will be hard-pressed
to accumulate SM-Liiga experience as ex-juniors Mikko Palomaki and
Antti Ylonen appear intent on holding on to their positions in the fourth pairing of the depth chart.

Karpat are booming financially and has invested in new forwards.
Roughly four to five first line forwards supported by a similar bunch of second line quality account for immense firepower. Jari Viuhkola
(CHI) has little room to improve from his star status but decided to
stay in Oulu nonetheless. Jussi Jokinen (DAL) might find himself
as far down as the third offensive line and that would restrain his
potential somewhat. The same goes for Janne Pesonen (ANA) although
he hasn’t deserved as much responsibility as Jokinen has. Merely
maintaining one’s level for two years may not be enough as Henrik
Juntunen
(LA) could even fall off the lineup as he is the 12th forward at best
on a healthy depth chart. Juhamatti Aaltonen (STL) will probably
return to junior A, a move which would only hurt his development.
Karpat has cooperated actively with their second tier affiliate Hokki and
that is where Aaltonen should be headed. Mikko Alikoski, 18, has
trained with the pro team but still has things to learn in juniors.

Lukko Rauma

Lukko cleared some of their goalie logjam but still has two NHL
draftees in the organization. Mikael Vuorio (FLA) has improved but Petri Vehanen is far too strong for him to overthrow. Ville
Hostikka
(PHI) will play in junior A where he has yet to have a solid
season. Janne Niskala (NSH), as one of the league’s top defensemen, he need not worry about his role. A
familiar face in the third defensive pairing, Jaakko Harikkala
(BOS) is improving but missed the flight to North America long ago.
Otto Honkaheimo is set to play in the World Junior Championships.
However, he still struggles to gain SM-Liiga ice time. His peer Markus
Nordlund
, a notch below his level, will try the same. Ilkka
Heikkinen
appeared on CSB’s preliminary lists last season and must not be forgotten yet.

Martin Bartek (NSH) possesses huge offensive potential and
will not be set back by overly strong competition. Toni Koivisto
(FLA) will begin his fifth full SM-Liiga season, which is also the fifth season in which he is expected to break out. Hopefully experience will finally run its course and help him overcome his biggest problems with finishing and consistency. A freebie top line spot wouldn’t help him any unless he helps himself. Beyond Bartek and Koivisto, Lukko have
little in the way of forwards of interest to the NHL. Jaakko
Kauvosaari
, 20, was never a great prospect in his junior years but his development curve can rise steeply over the calendar year.

Pelicans

The Pelicans’ finances almost took the final blow last spring. The
organization keeps fighting on the verge of bankruptcy and heads into the season with a very weak team. Although the team has few interesting
prospects, that is not because the lineup is dull and thin. On the contrary, some have joined Pelicans hoping to prove themselves in
the SM-Liiga. The weak hockey culture in Lahti that hurts the organization financially doesn’t produce much talent either. Pelicans have two legitimate SM-Liiga goalies in Markus Helanen and Jaakko Suomalainen, which
means that Karri Ramo (TB) will play all season in juniors. Juuso Hietanen counts on pro experience in the Pelicans defense corps to
carry him to the World Junior Championships.

The offensive lines include more prospects. Daniel Widing
(NSH) has been labeled as an NHL bust, but is finally showing signs of a looming breakout. The team would surely welcome him to lead the
offense. The sky would have been the limit for Pasi Salonen (WSH) had
he not suffered a serious arm injury in preseason. He isn’t expected to
return until February. Jesse Saarinen and Tuomas
Santavuori
played in the U18 World Championships in 2003 and hope to rejoin the
national team in U20. Santavuori, a smallish winger but still bigger
than Saarinen, stands the greater chance of success in SM-Liiga, lion
jersey and the 2005 entry draft each.

SaiPa

SaiPa continue a journey near the bottom of the league. The 2004-05
roster features some interesting players but as a whole it is patchwork. Juha Kuokkanen, 22, will assume an ever larger role
between the pipes and prepares the team for the eventual retirement of
Jarmo Myllys. In 2003 the team had no NHL prospects among defensemen, now
there are four. Justin Forrest (CAR) has high expectations set
on him. Another import from the NCAA, Mike Gabinet (LA) earned a
contract through tryout. Olli Malmivaara (CHI) tries to pick up
where he left last spring, either in the second or third pairing.
Jussi Timonen (PHI) is now on a team weaker than TPS and has more room to grow into.

The offense relies on two marquee forwards, Frank Banham and Petr
Sachl. Beyond them there is a typical array of a few experienced checking
players and a whole lot of young talent with decent potential. Sophomore Petteri Nokelainen (NYI) is likely to
be moved from one line to another to support his teammates wherever
needed. A bold prediction of his development would view him as an
extremely important forward playing as much as he can both on even strength and
special teams. Another integral member of the U18 national team last
season, Janne Kolehmainen is taking his first steps in SM-Liiga.
Eetu Qvist, 21, will be an important offensive center for
SaiPa.

Tappara

Tappara, the reigning champions going into last season, are bound to bounce back in 2004-05. The roster looks strong
and balanced. Mika Lehto (PIT), 25, is a star goalie who could still leave for North America. The organization
has had to clear a logjam of fairly promising goalies growing out of
juniors, although there is basically no NHL potential to work with.
Ville Mantymaa (ANA) is still fighting for a spot along the blueline
due to two disappointing seasons. He must improve or soon find his
potential battered. Anssi Salmela, seen in the 2004 World Junior
Championships, is in a better situation having played up to his ability
last spring.

Up front Tappara have some young players with NHL potential. Sami
Venalainen
(PHX) got his career going with a breakout in 2003-04
and continues on a top line. Teemu Laine (NJ) finally left Jokerit
for a fresh base of development. Once again he seeks to answer the
question of how far he can go, probably starting from the third line.
Although Petri Kontiola (CHI) is highly thought of in the
organization so fond of local talent, he hasn’t been earmarked a role yet or even
set to play his natural position at center. Teemu Nurmi can’t be
sure of any ice time but heads for his second World Junior Championship
tournament trying to reach as high a level in Tappara as possible.

TPS

TPS suffered moderate damage in the offseason. Mikko Koivu and Mikko
Eloranta were realistically replaceable, but a total of six lost
players with their roots deep in the organization were part of its culture.
Typically a production line of goalies, TPS have had Jani Hurme, Miikka
Kiprusoff and Antero Niittymaki to guard the net since the
mid-90s. Now the job belongs to Teemu Lassila (NSH), who is constantly
challenged by Tuomo Karjalainen. It isn’t far-fetched for Lassila to
become a top 3 goalie in the league this season. TPS boast a top-notch
defense, although with hardly any NHL prospects. Markus Seikola
(TOR) performed admirably last postseason and continues firmly as a depth
defenseman. Matti Pinomaki, a spare defenseman in the U18 World
Championships, has no business with the pro team yet.

The TPS offense is in a rare situation. Usually SM-Liiga teams have
no trouble restocking their energy lines. With a third line average at
best last season, the ranks are thinner still after losing experienced
players. However, TPS have masses of young talent of decent quality
with bits of pro experience and can still afford to lose more fifth line
players. Among them is Lauri Korpikoski (NYR). He has yet to play a single SM-Liiga game but was already handed a notable role in
preseason, which hints of the organization’s dedication to his development. Things are normalizing now and a fourth line role is a realistic possibility. In a position more established than Korpikoski, 19-year-old power
forward Arttu Virtanen appears set to wreak havoc on the third
line. Reportedly he has improved his speed over the summer, which makes
him considerably more effective. Tuukka Pulliainen (LA) will be
hard-pressed to find a role in TPS and could be expected to return to
the second tier once more. Short and promising playmaker Jarmo
Jokila
will probably see SM-Liiga action at some point.

Assat

In the 1990’s Assat deteriorated badly as a developmental
organization. As a result the team has now missed the playoffs six years in a row. Things are now improving and heads turn to Pori in search of prospects once again, even though the organization still has few players
picked in the entry draft. Goaltender Scott Langkow’s condition is a constant cause for concern, so Assat acquired a capable backup in Tuomas Nissinen
(STL). Nissinen’s performance hasn’t warranted a starter’s job ever
since he wore down halfway through the 2002-03 season. The third goalie,
starter in junior A, Marko Tag was splendid in preseason despite
not having hinted of such ability before. He is young enough to play in
the World Junior Championships but is unlikely to get a chance to prove
himself.

Assat have a couple of former junior national team defensemen but no
draft picks. So far Mika Rontti, 20, is the only one who has
taken a leap forward. The mid-sized, unspectacular defenseman will play in the second pairing. Up front, fourth liner Juha-Pekka Ketola
(NYI) is a lost cause NHL-wise. With Matti Kuparinen slightly too old to play in the World Junior Championships and 2005 prospects Mika Halava and Jussi Peltomaa far from being SM-Liiga ready, Assat forwards are uninteresting with one glaring exception: Jesse Joensuu. He made his professional debut right before turning 16 last
fall and won’t be eligible for the entry draft until 2006. In 2004-05 the
winger with an excellent frame will get real ice time in SM-Liiga but
should concentrate on improving his offensive skills in junior A.

Mestis: second tier league

The semi-professional league features several NHL prospects every
season. Some of them are overaged juniors of SM-Liiga organizations, some are still with their native Mestis organization. Jan Blanar
(FLA) left Slovakia to join the Hermes defense. His role remains unclear.
Iivo Hokkanen of Jukurit is a small, mature forward who chases a
roster spot in the World Junior Championships propelled by his
experience of playing against men. Marko Ahosilta (NJ) and Ville
Hamalainen
(CGY) are stars in the KalPa powerhouse but can bury their NHL hopes at the age of 24 and 23, respectively.

Carl Grahn (LA) returns to KooKoo after an unsuccessful
season in SM-Liiga. He should regain his star goalie status in Mestis but the NHL is way too far for him now. In front of Grahn, Tuomas
Gardstrom
, 18, will regroup and aim for a draft pick again. Sport from Vaasa is a serious contender with prospects in limited roles: Small winger Kim Nabb is with the U20 national team for now, while at the other end of the size scale Oskar Osala still has plenty of time to develop until the 2006 draft. TuTo has a couple of promising forwards:
Jussi Makkonen, 19, and Miika Varjonen, 17, want to make
the World Championship tournaments of their respective age groups and
stand a decent chance at succeeding. Miikka Tuomainen (ATL) has
not improved from last season’s numbers in preseason, but the 2004
pick has time on his side.

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