The country of Finland has produced several top-notch goalies and a wealth of talented young forwards in the past few seasons. The same cannot be said of the defenseman position – though that could change with the upcoming draft.
Of the top 10 draft eligible prospects from Finland, four are defensemen. Another Finnish-trained defenseman, potential first round pick Olli Maatta, played for the OHL's London Knights this past season and is thus listed as a North American prospect.
This past season just six Finnish defensemen skated for NHL clubs – only one of whom was under the age of 26 (Nashville's Teemu Laakso played nine games). Three of those six defensemen – Sami Salo, Kimmo Timonen, and Tony Lydman – will be 35 or older next season.
The last Finnish defenseman selected in the first two rounds of the draft was the Carolina Hurricanes' Joni Pitkanen – the fourth overall pick by Philadelphia in 2002.
In 2011, Teemu Eronen (STL) and Jyrkki Jokipakka (DAL) were the only Finnish defensemen taken – both in the seventh round and both after having previously passed through the draft.
Since Pitkanen was drafted in 2002, only twice – in 2003 and 2005 – were there more than three Finnish defensemen selected. Of the four defensemen drafted in the third round since 2002, only Chicago's Sami Lepisto (drafted by Washington in 2004) has appeared in an NHL game.
Following Maatta, who is almost a sure-fire top 10 pick, and Jokerit forward Teuvo Teravainen, the next name likely to be called among the group of Finnish prospects is Karpat's Ville Pokka. Pokka is one of six Finnish defensemen listed among the top 30 European skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings.
While the defensive group is larger than usual this season there is an absence of top forwards.
Teravainen emerged as a top prospect with his play for Jokerit down the stretch and in the playoffs. Tappara Tampere's Aleksander Barkov skated for both the U18 and U20 teams for Finland and is arguably the next best forward prospect but he is not eligible until the 2013 Draft.
Goaltending, as always, features a handful of Finnish prospects. Korpisalo and Jean Auren were teammates on Finland's U18 team at the World Junior Championship. Goalies Sami Rajaniemi and Richard Ullberg excelled against pro competition in Mestis and the SM-Liiga respectively.
Like the talent pool in general for the 2012 NHL Draft, the group from Finland features a few prospects up top that are consensus early round picks – Teravainen, Pokka and Korpisalo – and then a pool of fifty or so players upon whom opinions vary widely.
Here are the top 10 Finnish players eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft:
1. Teuvo Teravainen, RW, Jokerit
5'11 165 9/11/94
Teravainen finished up the season with a flourish – skating for Jokerit in the SM-Liiga's Kanada Cup playoffs as the club won a bronze medal and then playing for Finland in the 2012 U18 World Junior Championship.
An offensively gifted player who plays a two-way game and is strong for a 17-year-old, Teravainen skated in 40 games for Jokerit – seeing increased ice time later in the year as Jokerit put things together after a slow start. In nine playoff games he scored 2 goals with 4 assists and was plus-six; averaging 15 minutes of ice time.
Teravainen is ranked second amongst European skaters in the CSS final rankings and is likely to be the third straight Finnish forward taken in the first round; following Mikael Granlund (Minnesota, 2010) and Joel Armia (Buffalo, 2011).
2. Ville Pokka, D, Karpat
6'0 200 6/3/94
Pokka competed for Karpat in the SM-Liiga as a 17-year-old and was one of two young defensemen who came up big for Finland's U20 team after Maatta suffered a concussion in the first game of the 2012 World Junior Championship; missing the rest of the tournament. Pokka also competed for Finland's U18 team at the end of the season.
A strong defense-first defender who is adept at moving the puck from his own end, Pokka has showed some offensive elements to his game in junior play. In the SM-Liiga, he has played a more conservative game – he had three assists and was minus-three in 35 regular season games and had three assists and was plus-one in nine playoff games. With the Finnish U18 team, he had six points in seven games with one goal and five assists.
Pokka is ranked seventh amongst European skaters in the CSS final rankings.
3. Joonas Korpisalo, G, Jokerit A Junior
6'2 170 4/28/94
Korpisalo was named the top goalie in Finnish junior hockey after an outstanding regular season for Jokerit. He was very impressive playing for Finland at the U18 World Junior Championship – finishing 3-3 with a 3.02 goals against and .902 save percentage.
The son of Jari Korpisalo, who was a forward for Assat Pori from the early 1990's until 2005, Korpisalo emerged as a prospect this season after playing 38 games for Jokerit – the most he's played in his junior career. Edmonton prospect Frans Tuohimaa handled the bulk of the goaltending for Jokerit in the playoffs but in four games Korpisalo was 3-1 with one shutout and had a minuscule 1.77 goals against.
Korpisalo was ranked third amongst European goaltenders in the CSS final rankings.
4. Mikko Vainonen, D, HIFK A Junior
6'3 205 4/11/94
Vainonen is one of several big, Finnish defensemen prospects that have suddenly emerged in the past few years. A captain for Finland's U18 squad a the 2012 World Junior Championship. Much like St. Louis Blues prospect Jani Hakanpaa, who played with Espoo this past season, Vainonen's skill level is still developing but his ideal size, work ethic, and willingness to defend are encouraging traits.
Vainonen made his SM-Liiga debut with HIFK – skating in eight games – and was part of HIFK's national champion A junior squad. In 38 regular season games for HIFK A juniors he scored 7 goals with 11 assists and was plus-seven with 44 penalty minutes. He had one assist with 12 penalty minutes in 10 playoff games.
Vainonen was ranked 11th amongst European skaters in the CSS final rankings prior to the NHL Draft.
5. Esa Lindell, D, Jokerit A Junior
6'2 190 5/23/94
Lindell, a teammate of Vainonen on the U18 team but a rival in the A junior finals while skating for Jokerit, has the same size of his HIFK rival but is more of an offensive defenseman.
Lindell was the leading scorer amongst defensemen in Finnish A juniors with 21 goals and 30 assists. His plus-23 plus/minus was third best amongst blueliners. At the U18 World Junior Championship, Lindell, Teravainen, and forward Henrik Haapala shared the team lead in assists with six.
Lindell was ranked 12th amongst European skaters in the CSS final rankings.
6. Henri Ikonen, F, KalPa A Junior
6'0 195 4/17/94
Ikonen, no relation to Espoo forward Jusso Ikonen (who is eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft and was a teammate of Ikonen's on Finland's U18 squad), was the second-leading scorer for KalPa's A junior team. Capable of playing both wing and center, he was in a lower line role for Finland at the WJC but scored two goals and was plus-three with four penalty minutes.
Ikonen appeared in eight games with KalPa's SM-Liiga squad, registering one assist, and led the KalPa A junior team with 8 goals in nine playoff games.
Ikonen was ranked 22nd among European skaters in the CSS final ratings.
7. Jean Auren, G, Vaasa Sport A Junior
6'2 205 3/20/94
After appearing in nine A junior games for Vaasa in 2011-12, Auren stepped into the starter's role and handled the bulk of goaltending for the west coast club. He also competed for Finland's U18 team in the 2012 World Junior Championship along with Korpisalo.
Another of the bigger goalies coming out of Finland of late, Auren was under siege for much of the season playing for a Sport team that finished 13th in the 16-team A juniors; which explains his somewhat pedestrian numbers in domestic play (3.49 goals against and .878 save percentage in 26 games). In his only start at the WJC he stopped 18 of 19 shots in a 5-1 win over Denmark.
Auren was rated fourth among European goalies by CSS in their final rankings.
8. Niklas Tikkinen, D, Espoo A Junior
5'11 170 6/1/94
Converted from forward to defense prior to the season, Tikkinen played well enough on the back end to be selected to Finland's U18 squad for the 2012 World Junior Championship. An assistant captain for Espoo's B junior team in 2010-11, he steadily improved as a defender while contributing to Assat's attack in his first season of A juniors.
In 39 games he scored eight goals with 15 assists and was minus-one with 14 penalty minutes. He had an assist with four penalty minutes in four playoff games. In seven games at the World Junior Championship, Tikkinen had two assists and was plus-one.
Tikkinen was rated 17th among European skaters in the final CSS rankings.
9. Miro Aaltonen, F, Espoo Blues
5'10 170 6/7/1993
Undrafted in 2011 despite a strong playoff run for Espoo in the A junior playoffs a year ago, Aaltonen appeared in 26 games for Espoo's SM-Liiga squad this past season and was a dominant scorer in A junior play. Aaltonen had a strong tournament playing on Finland's unheralded third line along with Barkov and Phoenix prospect Alexander Ruuttu at the 2012 U20 World Junior Championship. The line played a key role in Finland's run to the semifinals.
Though a bit light and not a particularly abrasive player, Aaltonen uses his speed and high skill level to play a strong two-way game.
Aaltonen was ranked 69th among European skaters by CSS a year ago but not drafted. He is ranked 33rd this year.
10. Sami Rajaniemi, G, JyP Akatemia (Mestis)
6'0 165 8/20/1992
A back-up during most of his time in junior hockey, Rajaniemi emerged as a starter in his first season as a pro for Jyp Akatemia in Mestis (Finland's second division) ahead of highly-regarded Samu Perhonen, a third round pick of Edmonton in 2011.
Given an opportunity to play in Jyvaskyla due to the money saving measures taken when the club transitioned from the former D-Team club, Rajaniemi made the most of his opportunity. Despite playing at the pro level for the first time, he played with confidence and finished 12-12 in 26 games with a a 3.14 goals against and .912 save percentage.
In his third season of draft eligibility, Rajaniemi has never been listed among the European goaltenders ranked by CSS.
Other draft eligibles (listed in alphabetical order by position):
Henri Kiviaho, KaPa A Juniors
6'3 185 2/26/94
One of the bigger goalies in the draft, Kiviaho was a workhorse for KalPa's A juniors – skating in 28 games (2.78 goals against) and starting all nine playoff games. He is not among the 11 European goalies in the final rankings by CSS.
Richard Ullberg, SaiPa
6'3 185 7/16/1993
After some issues in Helsinki with HIFK, Ullberg made the most of a fresh start with SaiPa. After starting the season in A juniors, he skated in 23 SM-Liiga games and had a 2.36 goals against and .901 save percentage. He was named to Finland's U20 team and ranked 10th amongst European goaltenders in the CSS final rankings.
Henri Auvinen, JyP Akatemia
6'2, 195 2/21/93
Not particularly offensively-inclined nor abrasive, Auvinen has the prototypical size and mindset of a shut-down defenseman. He played 40 games in Mestis as a teenager and is ranked 49th amongst European skaters by CSS after being ranked 55th in his first year of eligibility a year ago.
Miro Hovinen, Kiekko Vantaa (Mestis)/Jokerit A Junior
6'3, 210 4/29/92
The younger brother of goalie Niko Hovinen, a Flyers prospect, Hovinen has passed through two previous drafts without being selected. He split the 2011-12 season between Mestis and Jokerit A juniors. He was a key veteran presence both on Finland's U20 team at the 2012 World Junior Championship – finishing plus-five – and with Jokerit in the A junior playoffs.
Mikko Lehtonen, D, TPS A Junior
6'0 180 1/16/1994
One of the top play-making defensemen in A juniors, Lehtonen appeared in 12 SM-Liiga games for TPS and represented Finland at the 2012 U18 World Junior Championship. He was ranked 30th among European skaters in the final rankings by CSS.
Petteri Lindbohm, D, Jokerit A Junior
6'3 210 9/23/1993
A big defenseman who plays with some crash in his game, Lindbohm was plus-15 with 98 penalty minutes in his first season with Jokerit after playing for Espoo Blues a year ago. He was ranked 46th amongst European skaters in CSS final rankings.
Julius Nyqvist, D, Kiekko-Vantaa (Mestis)/HIFK A Junior
5'11 185 10/29/1992
Undrafted in two previous drafts, the 19-year-old Nyqvist skated in 31 games for Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis. In the A junior playoffs with HIFK he was plus-seven with three goals and six assists in ten playoff games as HIFK won the A junior championship.
Ahti Oksanen, D, Espoo A Junior
6'3 195 3/10/1993
In his second year of draft eligibility, Oksanen had a strong second half of the season and greatly improved his stock among the scouts – he was ranked 66th in CSS final rankings after not being on the mid-season list. Oksanen had the best plus/minus among A juniors defensemen (plus-42) and his 25 assists were third most.
Otso Rantakari, D, Jokerit A Junior
5'11 160 11/19/93
A light but offensively-gifted defensemen, Rantakari had 37 points in 43 games and was plus-21 in his first season with Jokerit after spending the two previous seasons in HIFK's organization. He was ranked 29th amongst European skaters in the final rankings by CSS.
Mikael Seppala, D, KalPa A Junior
6'1 175 3/8/1994
Seppala was plus-eight and had three assists in nine games during the A juniors playoffs after splitting the regular season between the A and B junior squads in Kuopio. Seppala steadily increased his role as he worked his way into a veteran defense corps with KalPa's A junior team and was plus-11 in 17 regular season games.
Tommi Finnila, D/F, Kiekko-Vantaa A Junior
6'0 180 7/14/1993
Not drafted in his first year of eligibility a year ago, Finnila skated in twelve games for Jokerit before moving to Kiekko Vantaa. He played both forward and defense and in 42 games between the two clubs scored four goals with 22 assists.
Henrik Haapala, RW, Tappara A Junior
5'8 145 2/28/1994
One of two undersized but highly-gifted forwards that skated for Finland's U18 team in the 2012 World Junior Championship, Haapala finished the tournament with a flourish – scoring two goals with two assists in the bronze medal game against Canada. Haapala is ranked 108th amongst the European skaters in the final rankings by CSS.
Teemu Henritius, RW, Jokerit A Junior
5'11 175 4/20/1993
Not selected in his first two years of eligibility for the draft – and not ranked by CSS this year – Henritius was one of the top playmakers for Jokerit's A junior team and appeared in nine SM-Liiga games; picking up an assist.
Toni Kallela, RW, KalPa A Junior
5'10 175 1/10/1993
Kallela was the leading scorer in Finnish junior A hockey, scoring 33 goals with 42 assists in 45 games and finishing plus-21. He had 17 points in 13 games for Team Finland's U20 squad but did not compete in the World Junior Championship. Undrafted in two previous drafts, Kallela is ranked 59th among European skaters in the final rankings by CSS.
Rasmus Kulmala, C, TPS A Junior
5'8 157 6/21/94
The third-leading scorer for Finland's U18 team at the 2012 World Junior Championship, Kulmala played in 25 SM-Liiga games for TPS despite his youth and small stature. In seven games with the national team at the WJC he scored 5 goals with 4 assists and was plus-four. Kulmala is ranked 27th amongst European skaters in the CSS final rankings.
Borna Rendulic, F, Assat A Junior
6'3 195 3/25/1992
Rendulic was the second-leading scorer for Assat's A junior team- and led Pori with 12 points in five playoff games – in his fourth season with Assat since coming to Finland from his native Croatia. He is in his third year of draft eligibility, and his game is still a work in progress but his size, strength and competitiveness make him an intriguing prospect.