SM-liiga 2012-13 Season Preview

By Tony Piscotta

Aleksandr Barkov - Finland

Photo: Finland's current top prospect for the 2013 NHL Draft, Aleksandr Barkov, will skate for Tappara Tampere of the SM-liiga in the 2012-13 season (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

The 2011-12 SM-Liiga season was one of opportunity for several young players – as the continued exodus of top flight veterans from the Finnish national league to the KHL or North America allowed some of the top Finnish juniors to make an impact with their respective clubs.

Once again this season, the majority of the players in Finland's SM-Liiga will be career minor league imports or older, second-tier native Finnish players. However, there are several promising younger players – including a handful of teenagers that will be eligible for the NHL Draft for the first time in 2013 – who could have an impact. A handful of SM-Liiga teams are already competing in the European Trophy tournament, and if it is any indication, several new names will emerge this season.

Here is a look at the upcoming season in terms of NHL prospects on each of the 14 clubs. The number in parenthesis indicates the number of NHL-protected players in that particular club, either with the SM-Liiga team or on the A Junior (U-20)  roster.

KalPa Kuopio (2)

KalPa finished first in the regular season a year ago before being upset by Espoo in the playoff quarterfinals. In that series KalPa defeated Espoo, 5-0, in Game 3 to take a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead but Espoo Blues came back to win four straight games.

Goalie Mikko Koskinen,  the New York Islanders second round pick at the 2009 NHL Draft,  joined KalPa in mid-season after seeing limited time with the Islanders' AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He handled the bulk of the goaltending for KalPa after arriving in Kuopio. While many will point to the one-game suspension Koskinen received in the playoff series with Espoo (following an altercation after he was run into by Espoo's Tommi Huhtala) as a turning point in the series, Koskinen played well and should be the starter this season once he returns from an off-season injury. Backup Juha Toivonen also returns for KalPa. Toivonen, 25, is the younger brother of former Boston Bruins' prospect Hannu Toivonen and spent two years with Odessa in the Central Hockey League. 18-year-old Henri Kiviaho was drafted by Dallas in the fifth round (144th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft and will likely play for the KalPa's U-20 team or in Mestis.

The KalPa defense corps has been re-tooled from the group that was on the ice in the playoffs last year but most of the additions are Finnish league veterans in their late 20's and early 30's. Twenty-year-old Simo-Pekka Riikola, who hails from Joensuu, appeared in 25 games a year ago including two playoff games.

Of the younger forwards looking to make their mark in what is a veteran group that includes one-time NHL player Sami Kapanen, winger Artturi Lehkonen is one of the 2013 NHL Draft-eligible youngsters who will be heavily scouted this season. Lehkonen appeared in 20 games for TPS last season before signing a two-year contract with KalPa. In addition to making his SM-Liiga debut last season, he was the leading scorer for Team Finland at the 2012 U-18 World Junior Championship, scoring seven goals with three assists. Sakari Salminen, 24, was the leading scorer for KalPa in his second season in Kuopio, finishing +17 with 47 points in 54 games. But he is a bit light and his game may be more suited for European hockey. In the seven game series with Espoo he scored one goal and had six assists with a +1 rating.

Henri Ikonen, 18, one of the top forwards for KalPa's U-20 team last season, competed for Finland at the 2012 U-18 World Junior Championship. However, he was drafted by Kingston in the 2012 CHL Import Draft and will play in the OHL this season.

Pelicans Lahti (0)

No team was a bigger surprise last season than the Pelicans – who went from 14th place and having to win in relegation to avoid being dropped in 2010-11 to finishing second and reaching the SM-Liiga's Kanada Cup finals last spring.

While many of the key players from that team are gone – including leading scorers Ryan Lasch and Justin Hodgman and starting goaltender Niko Hovinen – coach Kai Suikkanen returns and will once again try to mesh a group of SM-Liiga veterans with a few choice imports and a handful of  younger players from the Lahti area.

Goaltending-wise, Joonas Kuusela, 22, and 17-year-old Janne Juvonen both saw action in the playoff's last year as Hovinen was hindered by a nagging hip condition. With Hovinen, a Flyers' prospect, now in North America, the Pelicans signed veteran Jere Myllyniemi but both Kuusela and Juvonen should see some time. Juvonen is eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft and was one of the two Finnish goaltenders at the recent U-20 evaluation camp in Lake Placid.

Defensively, Pelicans must replace Joonas Jarvinen. One of several players Suikkanen brought to Lahti from TPS Turkku, Jarvinen was +28 while accumulating a career-high 125 penalty minutes and subsequently signed a two-year contract with Nashville. Joonas Hurri, a Lahti native, played alongside Jarvinen a few times a year ago and the 21-year-old could have a larger role after splitting last season between the SM-Liiga and Mestis. Juha-Pekka Pietila, 21, is another local who came up through Lahti youth hockey and could see time.

With Lasch and Hodgman no longer around (Lasch signed a two-year contract with Anaheim and Hodgman signed with Magnitogorsk in the KHL), the Pelicans signed a pair of former NHL first round picks. Angelo Esposito, selected by Pittsburgh in the first round (20th overall) in 2007, was in the Dallas organization last season but has struggled through injury and inconsistent play since playing for Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championship. Ryan O'Marra, 25, played in seven games for Edmonton and two with Ducks in 2011-12 but has spent the bulk of his pro career in the AHL. He was the 15th overall selection (by the Islanders) at the 2005 NHL Draft.

Among the younger forward prospects, Pekka Jormakka, 21, a highly-skilled but under-sized winger who showed promise in junior hockey with JyP,  skated in 42 regular season games in his first season in Lahti last year. In nine playoff games he was plus-four with one goal and two assists. Nineteen-year-old Kimi Koivisto hails from nearby Heinola and was one of the top scorers for the Pelicans U-20 team in 2011-12.

HIFK Helsinki (3)

HIFK, the defending Kanada Cup champions, finished third during the regular season but like KalPa were upset in the playoff quarterfinals; being swept by arch rival Jokerit. Coach Petri Matikainen, who led Espoo to the finals in 2010-11, was hired by the KHL's Avangard Omsk and assistant coach Pasi Sormunen takes over. Sormunen will be in his first season as an SM-Liiga head coach but is familiar with the HIFK prospects, having coached HIFK's U-20 team prior to joining Matikainen last year.

HIFK's lineup is primarily made up of Finnish league veterans but much of the team's success will be in the hands of 21-year-old goalie Joni Ortio, a Calgary Flames' prospect.

Ortio opened last season with Abbottsford in the AHL but with Leland Irving handling of the bulk of the goaltending  he was loaned to TPS to see more action. Returning to Turku, where he played his youth hockey and made his pro debut, Ortio played in 14 games and was  3-6-3 with two shutouts and had a 2.98 goals against and .906 save percentage. In the two-game playoff series with Karpat he was 0-1 with a 2.06 goals against and .946 save percentage. The spotlight will be much brighter as he moves to Helsinki this season.

Mika Norja, a veteran of the Finnish lower leagues, showed some promise in seven games with HIFK a year ago and returns. Ville Husso, who is eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft, has garnered some attention but will likely spend the season in junior hockey.

In terms of defense prospects, Mikko Vainonen was drafted by Nashville in the fifth round (118th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft but will spend the season in the OHL playing for the Kingston Frontenacs. One-time Penguins' prospect Daniel Fernholm was a key addition for HIFK last season after joining the team from the KHL early in the year but is currently a free agent. Ilari Melart, 23, is a tough, stay-at-home defender who was second on HIFK with 132 penalty minutes and could have a bigger role this season.

Mikael Granlund, HIFK's leading scorer a year ago is gone – the 20-year-old signed a three year contract with Minnesota in May, 2012 – but his younger brother Markus is one of three young HIFK forwards of whom North American fans may be familiar. 

Markus Granlund, who played on Finland's top line along with his brother Mikael and Detroit Red Wings prospect Teemu Pulkkinen at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship, was sixth in scoring for HIFK a year ago with 34 points in 47 games. A second round pick (45th overall) by Calgary at the 2011 NHL Draft, the younger Granlund is a creative playmaker with above average technical skills. IIro Pakarinen, taken as an over-age,  late-round flier by Florida in that same 2011 draft, joins HIFK after playing 54 games with KalPa a year ago. The prototypical "sand paper"-type player, Pakarinen, 21, is entering his third season in the SM-Liiga. Mika Partinen, 19, is back in Finland after playing the last two season with the OHL's Mississauga St. Michael's Majors.

JYP Jyvaskyla (1)

JyP, after finishing with the SM-Liiga's best record but then falling in the playoff semifinals in 2010-11, had a reversal of sorts last season. After finishing fourth in the regular season, JyP rolled through the playoffs – defeating Pelicans in the championship series to win the club's second Kanada Cup championship in four seasons.

While leading scorer Eric Perrin, now 36, is back in Jyvaskyla, JyP lost it's top offensive defenseman (Sami Vatanen) and top goaltender (Riku Helenius) to North America and will try to re-stock with a mixture of free agents and import signings.

Helenius, after splitting time with Joni Myllykoski during the regular season, was dominant in the playoffs, going 11-2 with a 1.73 goals against and .947 save percentage. A first-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2006, Helenius signed a two-year contract with the Lightning and will likely start the season with Syracuse (AHL).

Myllykoski will share the goaltending duties with one-time Northern Michigan University goalie Tuomas Tarkki. Tarkki, now 32, is back in Finland after playing in the KHL last year. Samu Perhonen, 19, a third round selection by Edmonton in 2011, had a bit of a lost season a year ago floating between JyP-Akatemia in Mestis and the JyP U-20 team after battling to get healthy at the start of the year. He is slated to start the season with JyP-Akatemia.

Vatanen signed a three-year contract with Anaheim in May, 2011 and after spending last season with JyP will be in North America with either the Ducks or their new AHL affiliate in Norfolk.

With veteran imports signed from the Russian, Swedish and Czech leagues respectively, there doesn't appear to be a lot of room for younger prospects on the JyP blue line. 

One exception is Kristian Nakyva, who showed glimpses of his potential when Vatanen was out due to injury late in the year. Pegged as highly-skilled but inconsistent coming out of the Espoo juniors, the 21-year-old scored 7 goals with 16 assists in 55 regular season games in his first season with JyP and was +10 with 5 assists in 13 playoff games.  Samuli Kankaanpera, 20, is the younger brother of Tappara's Markus Kankaanpera and has ideal size (6'3”, 192) and the disposition (75 penalty minutes in 37 games with JyP-Akatemia in Mestis) to be a shut-down defensemen.

JyP lost one forward to an NHL signing – 24-year-old Harri Pesonen signed a one-year contract with the New Jersey Devils. While few of the JyP forwards could be considered NHL prospects at this point, NHL fans are likely familiar with Max Warn, Ramzi Abid and Cory Quirk. Warn, 24, was a Dallas draft pick in 2006 when he played for HIFK's junior team and will be playing for his third team in three years after skating in Lahti last year. Abid, 32, played in 68 NHL games and last skated in the NHL with Nashville in 2006-07. He has been in Europe since then and played in Austria the past two seasons. Quirk, 26, was a team captain in his final college season at Massachusetts-Amherst in 2008-09. After two seasons in the AHL he put up 60 points in 47 games in the German second division a year ago and will be playing in Finland for the first time. 

Of the youngsters vying for the limited spots available, Miika Roine and Topi Nattinen skated in the European Trophy for JyP. Roine, 20, was the captain of JyP-Akatemia last season while Nattinen, 18, was one of the top scorers for JyP's U-20 team.

Assat Pori (1)

Assat Pori slipped to fifth place after finishing second a year earlier and was swept by JyP in the playoff quarterfinals.

Goalie Antti Raanta, a workhorse during his junior days in Rauma, proved capable of carrying the load in net in his first season with Assat after being acquired from Lukko. In 38 games he was 21-10-4 with two shutouts and had a 2.23 goals against and .933 save percentage. Like the rest of the team he struggled in the playoffs but at 23 years of age he may just be starting to reach his potential. Juha Jarvenpaa, 23, came up through the Assat organization and worked well in tandem with Raanta. 17-year-old Atte Tolvanen is likely to play for the Assat U-20 team and could get some draft consideration next June.

Assat's defense group lost two key players as former Detroit prospect Juho Mielonen signed with HPK and one-time Islanders draft pick Kristian Kudroc left for the KHL. Their  replacements are mostly older import players, including Canadian Shaun Heshka, a 27-year old who played eight games for Phoenix in 2009-10 and was in the AHL last season. 21-year-old Tommi Taimi was the only youngster to see considerable ice time last season; he skated in 57 games, including all four playoff games, and was +20 with three goals and 13 assists and had 51 penalty minutes. Patrik Parkkonen is back in Finland after two years with the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers but the 1993-born defender will likely spend much of the season with Assat's U-20 team or in Mestis. 

One-time Rangers and Ducks prospect Tomas Zaborsky led Assat in scoring in 2011-12 but is not back. Rather than facing the prospect of playing in the AHL in North America, he chose to sign with  Avangard Omsk in the KHL. In 52 games he scored 35 goals with 24 assists and was plus-22 with 41 penalty minutes before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in February.

19-year-old Joel Armia, Buffalo's first round pick in 2011, signed a three-year-entry level contract with the Buffalo Sabres in June, 2012 but is slated to play at least one more season in Pori before heading to North America. Armia was Assat's third-leading scorer a year ago and represented Finland at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship. One of the bigger forwards in the SM-Liiga, Armia is an opportunistic scorer who should continue to develop his athleticism and technical skills. Swedish forward Daniel Brodin, who was drafted by Toronto in 2010 but was never tendered a contract, is looking to earn a spot after playing in the Elitserien with Djurgardens the past two seasons.

Jokerit Helsinki (9)

Perhaps no team in the SM-Liiga has undergone as big of a cultural transformation over the past few years as has Jokerit. Arguably the league's most well-known franchise internationally, Jokerit traditionally featured a team full of high-priced veterans and import players – sometimes overlooking the development and growth of the junior players from the club's feeder program.

While Jokerit's lineup this season will feature some prominent veterans – most notably defenseman Ossi Vaananen, the team's captain, and former NHL agitator deluxe Jarkko Ruutu – the club has made a concerted effort to steadily develop their younger players and incorporate them into the lineup under current general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen.  That approach extends to the coaching staff. Tomi Lamsa, the SM-Liiga's youngest head coach at 32, was an assistant to Erkka Westerlund last season and like Westerlund comes to coaching from an academic background.

Goalie Frans Tuohimaa, a seventh round pick of Edmonton in 2011, is one of nine Jokerit players who have either been drafted and/or tendered an NHL contract. 

Tuohimaa, 21, appeared in 18 SM-Liiga games as a backup to starter Eero Kilpelainen, competed for Kiekko-Vantaa during the regular season and in the Mestis playoffs, and was outstanding for the Jokerit U-20 team in its playoff run to the U-20 SM-Liiga finals. Joonas Korpisalo, who played for Finland at the 2012 U-18 World Junior Championship, was a third round selection by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012. Though he was drafted by the Prince George Cougars (WHL) in the CHL Import Draft this summer, he will remain in Finland to continue to develop under Jokerit goaltending coach Markus Ketterer. Hungarian netminder Zoltan Hetenyi, who also served as a backup to Kilpelainen will play in North America this season. The 24-year-old signed a contract with Nashville's AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.

Teemu Eronen, a 21-year-old who was selected by the St. Louis  Blues in 2011 in his third year of draft eligibility,  was at times paired with Vaananen and showed steady improvement. A skilled, skating defenseman, he was +4 in 10 playoff games and had one goal with three assists. Nico Manelius, another 21-year-old, was never drafted but was +8 in 25 regular season games while also skating for Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis. Manelius appeared in three playoff games for Jokerit. A pair of 18-year-old defensemen, Petteri Lindbohm and Esa Lindell, were selected at the 2012 NHL Draft by Dallas and St. Louis, respectively, but are likely headed to either Mestis or the Jokerit's U-20 team.

Teemu Pulkkinen and Joonas Rask signed entry-level contracts with Detroit and Nashville,  respectively, but both will spend one more season playing in Finland. Pulkkinen was Jokerit's second-leading scorer during the regular season a year ago – finishing with 37 points in 56 games. But after a long season which included representing Finland in the 2012 World Junior Championship – the 20-year-old seemed worn down both physically and mentally by the end of the year. Despite his late season struggles Detroit signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract in May, 2012. Rask, 22, the younger brother of Boston goalie Tuukka Rask, was signed to a two-year deal by the Predators in March, 2012 and was obtained by Jokerit from Ilves over the summer. Injuries limited him to 32 games in his third season and  while he is not a prolific scorer with a big shot like Pulkkinen, Rask plays a positionally-sound, two-way game and has the skating ability to succeed at the pro level.

Perhaps no prospect came as far last season as Teuvo Teravainen. Opening the year with the Jokerit U-20 team, he steadily worked his way into the SM-Liiga lineup and was Jokerit's fourth-leading scorer in the playoffs with a team-best +6 rating.  Ranked second among European skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings after an impressive tournament at the 2012 U-18 World Junior Championship, Teravainen was taken by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft.

Alexander Ruuttu, a second-round pick of Phoenix in 2011,  represented Finland for the first time at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship. WIth Jokerit he had one goal in 13 SM-Liiga games and saw limited action in four playoff games. Seventeen-year-old Saku Salminen (no relation to KalPa's Sakari Salminen), is a 2013 draft-eligible and is already a large body (6'3", 200) but will likely spend most of the season with the Jokerit U-20 team.

Karpat Oulu (2)

Karpat again languished right in the middle of the SM-Liiga standings, finishing seventh. In the playoffs, Karpat swept TPS in a two-game preliminary series and took a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series with Pelicans but lost the final three games.

Johan Backlund, 31, joined Karpat mid-season last year on loan from the Philadelphia Flyers and heads into the upcoming season as the starting goaltender. Tomi Karhunen, 22, who played for the Sarnia Sting in the OHL in 2007-08, is the backup. 19-year-old Olli Kalkaja has the prototypical frame for a goaltending prospect (6'4”, 190) and had decent numbers for the Karpat U-20 team last season.

Defensemen Ville Pokka proved capable of playing on a full-time basis in the SM-Liiga as a 17-year-old and was selected by the Islanders in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft. Pokka opened eyes at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship, playing a solid, steady brand of defense after Finland's top defensemen Olli Maatta was lost due to injury in the first game of the tournament. Mikko Niemela, is a 21-year-old who grew up in Oulu, and could push for the defense spot vacated when veteran Jan Snopek signed to play in Kazakhstan.

Miikka Salomaki showed consistency and a physical edge in his second full season and represented Finland at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship. A second round selection of Nashvillie in 2011, he is a reliable two-way forward. Joonas Donskoi,  a teammate of  Salomaki's on the U-20 national team, was drafted by Florida in 2010 but was not tendered a contract in June and is an unrestricted free agent for NHL purposes. While Donskoi's offensive numbers appeared to stagnate in his second season with Karpat, he did score three goals with three assists in six playoff games playing alongside long-time NHL veteran Jozef Stumpel.  Smallish forward Joonas Komulainen, 22,  (5'7", 160) played in 57 games during the regular season a year ago and had six points in eight playoff games.

Blues Espoo (3)

Espoo finished eighth during the regular season but once again had a strong run in the playoffs, winning the league's bronze medal game after losing in the semi-finals to Pelicans. A year earlier, Blues reached the Finals after finishing ninth. In the past few seasons, Espoo has made the transition from a big budget club with high-priced imports to a team that relies primarily on sound team play and a core group of players who have come up through the club team.

20-year-old Lars Volden, a Bruins prospect, came to the Espoo junior program from his native Norway in 2010-11. He appeared in nine games last season as a back up to veterans Petri Koivisto and Patrik Galbraith and appears to be in line for the starting job this season. Volden was outstanding playing for Jokipojat in Mestis last season as the Joensuu club captured that league's silver medal. Jonathan Iilahti, a 20-year-old who was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 2010 but not tendered a contract, will open the season with Sport in Mestis. 

The Espoo defense will have a much different look this season.

Jani Hakanpaa, who played in 41 games for Espoo last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury, signed a three-year entry-level contract with the St. Louis Blues in May, 2012. The twenty-year-old, a fourth round pick in the 2010 draft, could play for Espoo on a loan basis this season.

Other than Hakanpaa, just one returnee is signed from last year – former Wild prospect Harri Ilvonen. While the big news was the signing of a pair of 32-year-old SM-Liiga veterans, there are a trio of teenagers who will push for ice time.

Niklas Tikkininen, 18, was a fifth-round pick of the Coyotes this past draft and skated for Finland in the 2012 U-18 World Junior Championship. Joonas Valkonen split the season between Espoo and KooKoo in Mestis and played in 13 playoff games last spring. Santeri Arousva, like Valkonen a 19-year-old, played for the Assat U-20 team last season.

The Espoo forward unit is a nondescript but productive group that does not feature any NHL drafted players. Last year's leading scorer, Swedish 36-year–old Joakim Eriksson, signed with HIFK in the off-season. Of the younger prospects, three players were with the Finnish U-20 team that skated in Lake Placid in August.

Miro Aaltonen, 19, is the most experienced of that group; he represented Finland at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship, skated in 26 SM-Liiga games for Espoo a year ago, and had 5 points in four games with Jokipojat in Mestis. Aaltonen was dominant skating with the Blues U-20 team. Juuso Ikonen, who is eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft, is an undersized 17-year-old but provided a spark for Espoo late in the season a year ago. He scored 4 goals with 5 assists in 20 regular season games and had 4 goals with 2 assists in 15 playoff contests. Nico Nyberg, a late 1993-born player who has not been drafted, was invited to the camp after playing for the Espoo U-20 team last season.

Lukko Rauma (1)

Lukko slipped to ninth place last season after finishing in the top four the two previous seasons. The western Finland-based club has traditionally relied on veteran players who are just a notch below NHL-calibre, such as last year's top two scorers, Perttu Lindgren and Kris Beech. Lindgren was one of the top players for Dallas' AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, in 2009-10 while Beech was the seventh player taken in the 1999 NHL Draft. Lauri Tukonen, another former first round pick (2004), also played for Lukko last season.

Once again, Lukko should be competitive in the SM-Liiga but doesn't appear to have any players that would be considered NHL prospects.

Danish goalie Simon Nielsen, 25, played in 13 games for Lukko a year ago – mostly at the end of the season – and is back this season. But Nielsen may again find himself in a backup role as Lukko signed veteran goaltender Petri Vehanen in April, 2012. Vehanen, 34, is arguably the top Finnish goalie not currently playing in the NHL. He was one of the KHL's top goalies playing for Ak Bars Kazan the past three seasons and was the goalie for Finland at the 2012 IIHF World Championship.

Lukko's defense corps features six players that are 27 or older – including imports Ryan Caldwell (31) and Matt Generous (27). Of the youngsters hoping to crack the lineup, 19-year-old Roni Viirlas has prototypical size for a defenseman (6'3, 210) while Jesse Virtanen, 21, appeared in two SM-Liiga games a year ago and played for LeKi in Mestis during the relegation playoffs.

The Lukko forward unit will have a very different look as Lindgren and Beech have headed to the KHL and Czech Extraliga, respectively. In terms of being NHL prospects, few of the Lukko regulars would seem to fit the bill; seven of the forwards on the current roster are 25-years-old or older, and only 24-year-old Justin Azevedo is on an NHL protected list (Azevedo was tendered a qualifying offer by the Kings in June, 2012 after four seasons with their AHL affiliate in Manchester).

Charles Bertrand, 21, had a solid rookie season a year ago and represented his native France at the 2012 IIHF World Championship. He has decent size (6'1”, 190) and has steadily improved since making his debut with the Lukko U-20 team in 2009-10. David Stach, 20,  played youth hockey for HC Kladno in the Czech Republic before coming to Rauma in 2010-11. In two seasons with the Lukko U-20 team he had 87 points in 87 games.

TPS Turku (1)

TPS showed some improvement after a 12-win season in 2010-11 but once again finished towards the bottom of the standings. The Turku club garnered the final playoff spot by finishing tenth and was swept by Karpat in two games in the qualifying round.

One bright spot for TPS was the play of two of its younger players – one of whom returns and one of whom earned himself a bigger contract with HIFK.

Goalie Joni Ortio has moved onto HIFK (see above) after joining TPS midway through the year. Veteran Marek Schwarz is gone as well, returning to his native Czech Republic, but TPS goalie guru Urpo Ylonen will have two prize pupils. Nashville prospect Atte Engren played 23 games for the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals a year ago and was signed in May, 2012. In August TPS announced that Turku native and long-time NHL goalie Antero Niittymaki would be returning home.

Defensively, Rasmus Ristolainen made his SM-Liiga debut as a 16-year-old last season and is one of the early favorites to be among the top Europeans taken in the 2013 NHL Draft. A large player for his age (6'3, 205), Riistolainen skated in 42 games for TPS a year ago (including both playoff games) and represented Finland at the 2012 U-20 and U-18 World Junior Championship tournaments.

In addition to Ristolainen, TPS figures to have several other young prospects on their defense corps as only one defenseman currently on the roster is over 25 years of age (former Rangers prospect Hannu Pikkarainen is 28).  Travis Ehrhardt, 23, was signed to a tryout contract after three years in the Detroit organization. Mikko Lehtonen (no relation to the former Bruins/Wild forward prospect that now plays in Russia nor the former Predators defenseman now playing in Karpat – both with the same name) is an 18-year-old who played in 12 SM-Liiga games last season and represented Finland at the 2012 U-18 World Junior Championship. Veli-Matti Vittasmaki, 22, is entering his third full season with TPS and is one of the team's assistant captains.  He may garner NHL attention as an unrestricted free agent next summer.

TPS biggest problem last year was scoring goals as only one player, team captain Ville Vahalahti, topped the 20-goal mark. Vahalahti, now 34, is back but former San Jose Shark Tomas Plihal, the team's second-leading scorer in 2011-12, is now with Karpat. TPS has signed a handful of veterans with experience in Europe and the AHL to bolster their attack but there is a lack of junior prospects coming up through the pipeline in Turku.

With Lehkonen now with KalPa, the two most exciting junior forwards for TPS are the undersized duo of 20-year-old Santtu Huhtala and 18-year-old Rasmus Kulmala. Huhtala saw limited ice time in 20 SM-Liiga games a year ago and both he and Kulmala were steady contributors for the TPS U-20 team.

Twenty-year-old Henri Tuominen joins TPS after two seasons playing for Ilves and is TPS' second biggest forward (6'4”) behind former Blackhawks' prospect Marko Anttila, who is 6'7”.

SaiPa Lappeenranta (0)

SaiPa missed the SM-Liiga playoffs for the sixth straight season, finishing in eleventh place and one point behind the tenth-place club for the second time in three seasons.  SaiPa showed gradual improvement once the club finally had all of their players in the lineup.

As is the case with most of the lower tier clubs in Finland, SaiPa will rely largely on cast-offs from the bigger clubs and minor league imports to try and compete.

In goal, for instance, a pair of players who came up through the HIFK junior program should provide solid goaltending for SaiPa.

19-year-old Richard Ullberg appeared in 23 SM-Liiga games a year ago and was with Finland at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship (Ullberg did not see any action as the third goalie behind NHL draftees Sami Aittokallio (Colorado) and Christopher Gibson (Los Angeles)). Ullberg was ranked 10th among European goalies by Central Scouting prior to the 2012 NHL Draft but was not selected in his second year of eligibility. Goalie Jani Nieminen, 25, played in a career-high 42 games for Tappara last season and was signed by SaiPa in May, 2012 after spending two seasons in Tampere.

SaiPa returns five veterans on defense, including 27-year-old Brian Salcido, who played two games for the Ducks in 2008-09, so opportunities are limited for the younger players. Twenty-year-old Jere Pulli is a homegrown product of Lappeenranta and played in 16 games a year ago. Samuli Piipponen, who grew up in Helsinki playing for HIFK, is an intriguing 19-year-old who is 6'3” and weighs 195 pounds.

Like TPS, SaiPa struggled to score goals last season. Twenty-year-old Jesse Mankinen was the team's third-leading scorer with 16 goals and 13 assists but is one of the SM-Liiga's smaller players (5'8”, 165). Roberts Jekimovs, 22, is a native of Latvia who successfully made the jump from Mestis to the SM-Liiga last year after playing for Jokipojat the previous season.  He skated in 43 games and was a respectable -3. Roope Hamalainen, 20, was a surprise selection to the Finland squad at at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship and opened some eyes with his high energy play in a checking line role. He is looking to make the jump to the SM-Liiga after skating for Jukurit in Mestis last year. His younger brother, Rasmus Hamalainen, 18, had 15 points in 28 games for the SaiPa U-18 team.

Tappara Tampere (0)

In what was otherwise another forgettable season in Tampere (Tappara finished 12th in the 14-team SM-Liiga),  2011-12 saw one of Finland's  top young talents make his SM-Liiga debut.

Tappara's Aleksandr Barkov, the son of former Russian national team forward Alexander Barkov, is expected to be one of the top forwards coming out of Europe for the 2013 NHL Draft. Barkov played in 32 games for Tappara as a 16-year-old and skated for Finland at the 2012 U-20 and U-18 World Junior Championship tournaments. Despite his youth, Barkov has prototypical size for an NHL forward (6'2", 205) and plays with an advanced sense of poise and vision.

Veteran goalie Pekka Tuokkola, who came up through the Tappara juniors and enjoyed success with JyP before playing in the KHL last season, should solidify the goaltending situation playing in tandem with former Lethbridge Hurricane, Juha Metsola. Metsola, 23, split the goaltending duties with Nieminen and played a career-high 26 games last season. Nineteen-year-old Mikael Edelmann showed promise with the Tappara U-20 team.

The Tappara defense group is one of the oldest in the SM-Liiga, with five players 31 or older, but 2013 NHL Draft-eligible Atte Makinen is another teenager who may have an opportunity to compete for a spot. Makinen skated in three games for Tappara last season and played for Finland at the 2012 U-18 World Junior Championship. Though only 17, he would already be one of the bigger players (6'3”, 200) in the Tappara lineup.

While Barkov is clearly the top prospect among the Tappara forwards, there are some sleepers worth keeping an eye on.

Two-time Boston University captain Chris Connolly, 25, makes his pro hockey debut. A bit undersized (5'9, 170), the Duluth, Minnesota native had 68 points  in 72 games for the Terriers over his final two seasons. Scouts are sometimes justifiably skeptical about big numbers put up by 20-year-old's in junior hockey, but Arttu Ilomaki does show some promise. In addition to his exploits with the Tappara U-20 team, Ilomaki has decent size and scored four goals with seven assists in 14 SM-Liiga games last season. Eighteen-year-old Henrik Haapala is one of the smaller forwards in Europe (5'8", 146) but scored four goals with six assists for Finland at the 2012 U-18 World Junior Championship and had three goals in his first four games during the European Trophy tournament.

Jonatan Tanus is another promising forward from the Tappara U-20 team but he will skate for the OHL's Peterborough Petes in 2012-13.

HPK Hameenlinna (0)

HPK struggled in 2011-12 finishing 13th but there is some promise for the future as the HPK U-20 team had a memorable season. After finishing seventh during the regular season under first-year head coach and Hameenlinna native Olli Salo, HPK reached the U-20 SM-Liiga playoff semifinals against Jokerit and defeated KalPa in the bronze medal game.

Goalies Mikko Tolvanen, 24, and Mika Jarvinen, 23 split the goaltending duties a year ago and both return. 22-year-old Anssi Pesonen, who came up through the HPK junior program and played for KooVee in Suomi-Sarja (the Finnish third league) last season is pushing to earn a spot. Juuso Saros, a 17-year-old who is eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft, was in net for the HPK U-20 team during their playoff run last spring.

HPK will have one of the oldest defense corps in the league – with five players on the current roster over 30 and one-time Red Wings prospect Juho Mielonen, 25, who was brought in to compete for a spot.  Among the younger defensemen pushing for a spot are a pair of 22-year-olds who saw action last year and two players that came up through the HPK junior program.

Santeri Alatalo, the son of Finnish coach Matti Alatalo, enters his third season with HPK while Aleksi Laakso came to Hameenlinna in the middle of last season on loan from Espoo Blues and played in 16 games. 21-one-year old Lauri Karmeniemi, who grew up in Hameenlinna, played 34 games last season and was with the HPK U-20 team during their playoff run. Petteri Nikkila, 20, was a key member of the HPK U-20 team providing both offense and physical play on the blue line.

The forward unit for HPK has undergone almost a complete transformation, with just three of the top twelve scorers returning. The bulk of the new additions are Finnish veterans, including three players that played for SaiPa last season and 31-year-old captain Ville Viitaluoma, who returns to HPK after playing in Sweden last year, but a handful of younger forwards also will compete for time.

Otto Paajanen, 19, was an effective checking line forward for Finland at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship and skated in 34 games for HPK a year ago. Paajanen showed an offensive touch with the HPK U-20 team – scoring seven goals in seven regular season games and leading the team in scoring during the playoffs with two goals and six assists in eight games.  20-year-old Teemu Rautianen, though undersized (5'7", 160), skated in 41 games for HPK last season. Jere Sallinen, 21, was drafted in 2009 by Minnesota but never signed a contract. He seemed to find his game last season with Jokipojat in Mestis and finished the season with HPK. Borna Rendulic, 20, is an intriguing prospect from Croatia with legitimate size (6'3", 194) who put up impressive scoring numbers for the Assat U-20 team last season.

Ilves Tampere (1)

Ilves had another bleak season, finishing last in the SM-Liiga for the second time in three seasons and undergoing a coaching change at mid-season. Ilves even lost a game to Mestis champion Vaasa Sport during the relegation playoffs before taking the series in five games.

One positive to come out of the lost season was that several young prospects had an opportunity to compete at the SM-Liiga. One-time NHL forward Raimo Helminen, who successfully coached Finland's U-20 team to a fourth-place finish last year, takes over as the head coach this season.

While veterans Miika Wiikman and Vesa Toskala made the bulk of the starts in net last season, Colorado Avalanche prospect Sami Aittokallio did get some experience, playing in 11 games. The 20-year-old, who played in five of seven games for Finland at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship, including a 55-save effort against Sweden in the semi-finals, signed an entry-level contract with the Avalanche in May, 2012 and will play for  either the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters or the CHL's Denver Cutthroats. 

Wiikman, the former Rangers and Coyotes prospect, is back this season while Toskala, who played with three NHL teams during his nine-year career, is currently a free agent. 19-year-old Ville Kolppanen,  who played briefly for the Lethbridge Hurricanes in 2009-10,  is back with Ilves after playing for Barys Astana's junior team in Russia's U-22 MHL last season.

The Ilves defense unit will have four players 30 or older. Twenty-one year old Jyrki Jokipakka was a regular last season but will not return after signing an entry-level contract with Dallas in June, 2012. 

There are two promising youngsters that will vie for ice time.

20-year-old's Konsta Makinen and Miro Hovinen skated for Finland's U-20 team at last year's World Junior Championship and both comported themselves well. Makinen, though undersized for a defensive defensemen (5'9”, 165), frequently found himself on the ice against the top opposition forwards. He played in 14 regular season games for Ilves last season and skated in all five games during the relegation series with Sport. Hovinen, the younger brother of goalie Niko Hovinen, has prototypical size for a shut-down defensemen (6'3”, 210) but does not play an overly aggressive game. He was an assistant captain for Jokerit's U-20 team and also played 20 games in Mestis with Kiekko-Vantaa last season.

Winger Toni Rajala, 21, signed an entry-level contract with Edmonton in 2010 but has yet to play pro hockey in North America. He was the second-leading scorer on an offensively-challenged Ilves squad last season – scoring 16 goals with 13 assists in 51 games ( Jesse Niinimaki, Edmonton's first round pick in 2002,  led Ilves with 36 points in 47 games).

Rajala had not re-signed with Ilves as of early August and his status is up in the air. Should he return this season, the top two lines would remain largely intact from the group that played in the relegation series with only Rask having moved on to Jokerit. Mikael Kuronen, 20, who was effective in a lower line role for Finland at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship, should play a similar role for Ilves this season after splitting the 2011-12 season between Ilves and Mestis' LeKi. One-time Lightning prospect Matias Sointu, 22, skated in a career-high 46 games for Ilves last season. 19-year-old Tomi Wilenius skated in six SM-Liiga games last season and had 35 points in 37 games for the Ilves U-20 team.