Finnish 2005 draft review

By Pekka Lampinen

Circumstances surrounding the 2005 NHL Entry Draft cut the number of Europeans selected dramatically, and Finland was not spared. There were a plethora of causes which were not necessarily related to the Finnish talent crop that struck simultaneously: organizations no longer want players they don’t expect to sign within two years due to the new rule on the retainment of rights, the eighth and ninth draft rounds of the draft were eliminated, scouting budgets were cut down on during the lockout (meanwhile Europe remains a more expensive area to scout), and locked out NHL players took away some of the chances for prospects to shine in the top men’s leagues.

The change in rules has caused uncertainty as far as European prospects are concerned. Players take in previous drafts may be passed on under the current circumstances, but players who might have been late-round picks in the new environment will eventually be in a situation where they may be desirable free agent signings. Overaged Europeans will not need to be drafted first going forward, but can sign freely with any team.

Nine Finns were picked in the 2005 draft, one the first round, none in the second and three in the third round. The group was somewhat more top-heavy than Europeans were in general, which helped Finland edge past Russia, Sweden and Slovakia for the fourth-best total behind Canada, the US, and the Czech Republic.

A curious piece of statistical data is the chronic lack of Finnish second round picks. Not taking the initial drafting of Masi Marjamäki into account, as his rank at 66th in 2003 is usually part of the third round, the last Finn to be picked in the second round was Tuomas Pihlman in 2001. In comparison, the five drafts have produced 11 first and eight third round picks.

Year-by-year starting from 2000, the number of Finnish top 230 picks goes 13-19-20-9-11-9. That doesn’t make 2005 a big dropoff. Under the new CBA, the record for Finnish picks set to 26 in 2002 (in nine rounds) is far out of reach, both because the draft is shorter, and because overagers no longer must be selected. In 2005, not one of the nine draftees was eligible to be picked in the previous draft, which has never happened before in modern times.

All in all, the 2005 Finnish draft crop is rather typical in terms of quality for the country, but the distribution by position isn’t. Tuukka Rask joins the other elite goalies in line, the two older forwards are headed for utility roles and the young attackers have high-risk, high-reward talent – at first glance none of the five are good bets for World Cup tournaments in the distant future. The bulk of the class consists of defensemen. The four basically re-create the entire pool of drafted Finnish defensive prospects by making up more than half of it on some levels.

Some of the NHL teams who selected Finns are a common sight, while others break their habits. Dallas has been very eager to pick Finns in the past, albeit not very early. Boston did not pick a Finn on the first day for the fourth time in six years. An occasional later pick aimed at Finland is typical of Ottawa and the Islanders have chosen a rate of one per year. Nashville has yet to develop a tendency, but a single third round pick would fit one starting from 2003 well.

On the other end of the spectrum, Toronto had picked only four Finns in history and never in the top 100. Pittsburgh spent their first pick since 1998 and the first top 200 pick in 15 years. Risto Korhonen became the fourth Finn picked by Carolina or Hartford, and the first this decade. Detroit has focused their scouting on Sweden, and it has made sense for them to balance the crop by keeping out of Finland. In hindsight it is surprisingly but nonetheless true that Detroit is the only one never to have dressed a Finn. Chances are that Juho Mielonen won’t beat their only other Finnish prospect Valtteri Filppula to be the first, however.

1. Tuukka Rask, G
Toronto Maple Leafs, 1st round, 21st overall from Ilves Jr A

Rask’s stock took somewhat of a hit over the 2004-05 season, losing his spot to the emergence of Carey Price. The 21st position was quite a suitable spot for him, where the Toronto Maple Leafs selected him. The organization had no goalie prospect destined for the NHL nor does the mother club have long-term solutions between the pipes right now.

The new CBA poses a challenge for the club and the somewhat immature goalie. Two years from now, will NHL teams sign prospects, who then continue to play in Europe? What role could Rask assume in the AHL?

2. Perttu Lindgren, C
Dallas Stars, 3rd round, 75th overall from Ilves Jr A

Of the four Finns pegged behind Rask, Lindgren was supposed to be the one in trouble because his game might not translate to the NHL. But if there is belief in the NHL’s rule changes affecting drafting behavior, the finesse center who is only fair in size and strength may be an example of change in thinking. The Stars picked an impressive package of potential.

There is a wide consensus that Lindgren’s pro career is now ready to begin in the Ilves jersey. It would greatly simplify his future if he became good enough to clearly seize a spot on the first two lines in the AHL in 2007, and to do that he can’t afford to delay his progress.

3. Teemu Laakso, D
Nashville Predators, 3rd round, 78th overall from HIFK Jr A

In the spring, Laakso was labelled as being not skilled enough offensively, and not big enough to defend. But Laakso is a hard-hitting, impeccable skater with a dangerous shot. As such, a defenseman of Laakso’s quality probably shouldn’t have lasted this far in the draft. With IFK’s pro team in rebuild mode, it may be soon that he shows people why this is.

A broken elbow and ankle would help explain why Laakso fell from the first round to the third over the course of the 2004-05 season. In the case of a player who hasn’t failed to recover from injuries to top form, judging proneness to injury is mostly based on gut feeling. Many may have drawn the conclusion that Laakso was better steered clear of.

The Predators were no doubt picking the best player available at 78th. Nashville is a tricky destination for Laakso, as the local defense corps is still fairly young and they have Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Ryan Parent and Kevin Klein still coming up. The eventual transition to North America won’t be particularly difficult, but is likely to still be a hurdle.

4. Mikko Lehtonen, RW
Boston Bruins, 3rd round, 83rd overall from Blues Jr A

Big, fast and skilled, Lehtonen is the kind of player about whom scouts could get ideas of grandeur. That didn’t happen, and he ended up at a position well in line with the other picks.

Boston isn’t different from the other environments he could have ended up in, and the developments most crucial for Lehtonen’s career this offseason have happened back home. The Blues pro team is stacked with new acquisitions up front, which leads to the situation that he gets to try to dominate in Jr A in 2005-06. Things may get problematic a year from now when Lehtonen really needs the space. The Bruins may yet fit in that picture one way or another.

5. Janne Kolehmainen, RW
Ottawa Senators, 4th round, 115th overall from SaiPa

Kolehmainen stood out in the 2004 U18 World Championships. He failed to opt in to that year’s draft but managed to keep the interest high in 2004-05. As an injury replacement he became one of the very few undrafted underaged Finns to play in the WJC, where he filled his shut-down role admirably.

The Senators were clearly among the admirers, and took him at the 115th position, surprisingly high for a player who had raised barely any talk at all. A positive side on him is that he need not be signed until the age of 21 unlike the most of the draft class. Around that time he could be quite a heavyweight utility player.

6. Tommi Leinonen, D
Pittsburgh Penguins, 4th round, 125th overall from Kärpät Jr A

Leinonen did not perform well in the U18 WC, but by that time the groundwork was already laid. Looking back to his past performances, he is actually a very competent defenseman all around. The Penguins picked him at a position that was relatively a far more positive outcome than those of fellow Finnish blueliners.

Right now the Penguins are undergoing massive change and it is impossible to predict what Leinonen’s role in the grand scheme of things will eventually be. Right now Leinonen must focus on forcing his way into the stacked defense corps of Kärpät.

7. Masi Marjamäki, RW
New York Islanders, 5th round, 144th overall from Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL

Marjamäki was originally drafted 66th overall in the 2003 draft by the Boston Bruins out of the WHL, but he failed to come to terms with the club this summer. His re-entry led to a fifth-round pick by the Islanders. During the time he was with Boston, he played in two WJC tournaments – one of them good, the other weak for him – and two seasons of WHL hockey, their continuity harmed by a trade and injuries. He did manage to improve through experience and training, as indicated by his captaincy and point totals.

This offseason, Marjamäki returned to his hometown Pori and began his military service nearby, a duty he can choose to suspend if he signs with the Isles. Although playing at home would make sense for a European prospect at this point, the Isles may look at things differently and want to sign a player fresh from the CHL immediately. The competition in New York is not much different from Massachusetts, and as a fairly versatile player Marjamäki can enter just about any role while still working his way up.

8. Risto Korhonen, D
Carolina Hurricanes, 5th round, 159th overall from Kärpät Jr A

Korhonen matured early and the big defenseman was already making a splash back in 2001. Since then, others have gradually caught up to him, but he seemed to have ended the trend in 2004. However, several people begged to differ on draft day, and a common observation was that because of his lacking mobility Korhonen kept on falling far below where he was projected. It may be that this one ability influenced the conclusions on his projection strongly.

The Hurricanes are restoring power to their blue line with Jack Johnson in the lead. Finnish defensemen have been hesitant to test their wings in North America early in their careers, but he may become an exception. It won’t be in 2005, though, as he moved to Southern Finland for more suitable competition for pro team roster spots.

9. Juho Mielonen, D
Detroit Red Wings, 6th round, 175th overall from Ilves Jr A

There was nothing dramatic involved with Mielonen’s selection this late. Being the last Finn to go may have been slightly disappointing, but it doesn’t appear as a deviation from the new draft environment. His impact isn’t projected to be neither immediate nor very strong, though he is a very capable player.

Mielonen’s native club Ilves is likely to open the gates to SM-Liiga for him when he is ready.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.