Puustinen adjusting well to WHL grind

By Glen Erickson

When the Kamloops Blazers made Juuso Puustinen (CGY) their first pick in the 2006 CHL Import Draft, they had a feeling the youngster from Finland could be an impact player. Drafted just a few weeks earlier by the Calgary Flames, Puustinen had already made it known he had a desire to play major junior hockey in Canada.

“I have been here before, when we played in the U17 championship in Lethbridge and I like it very much,” Puustinen said. “I found an agent, Simo Niiranen back home and he had some contacts here. I asked him to help me to find a place to play in Canada.”

According to Shane Zulyniak, the Blazers’ assistant general manager and assistant coach, the organization was confident Puustinen would be a committed player in Kamloops.

“Dean Clark (Blazers’ general manager) had talked with Randy Hansch, our director of player personnel and he said there was discussion that Juuso wanted to come over and play in the CHL,” Zulyniak explained during the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge game in Kamloops. “Juuso wanted to play in an environment where there is a rigorous schedule and more physical play.”

Growing up in Finland, Puustinen recalled that Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk were his favorite players. Their goal scoring ability caught his eye, especially Kovalchuk, who Puustinen says plays with such confidence, almost an arrogance he hopes to emulate. He enjoys watching how Kovalchuk shoots and scores goals.

When asked by Hockey’s Future to describe his biggest asset, Puustinen did not mince words.

“My shot,” he said. “It’s something I have worked on my entire life.”

His ability to shoot the puck has not been lost on the Blazers’ coaching staff.

“Juuso is a complete package,” Zulyniak said. “He’s a very intense guy and he brings a good effort every night. He’s got a great shot, a great release and he’s a good skater with pretty good size.

“He’s seen lot of work on special teams,” he continued. “We’ve had him playing on the right side with Brock Nixon for most of the year and their left winger has been bouncing around a bit.”

Through 29 games this season, Puustinen has scored 15 goals and 19 assists. His plus-12 ranking is second best on the team and he’s accumulated 31 penalty minutes. The Blazers have also benefited from Puustinen’s contributions on special teams. He’s scored eight times on the power play and has added three shorthanded goals.

Puustinen admits the activity level these days is pretty high compared to the demands last season in Finland. He is trying to adapt, making sure he eats properly and stays well rested. It’s all part of a busy lifestyle in the WHL.

“It’s been okay, I am getting used to it,” Puustinen confirmed. “We played seven games in 11 nights and after that I was just dead tired. Last year, I played 29 games and this year I have already played 29 games. We practice here sometimes for two hours and back home it was only an hour. But I think this is all very good for my development.”

Puustinen has aspirations of playing for his native Finland in the upcoming WJC. He has experience internationally from a Viking Cup appearance in Alberta and he represented Finland at the U18 World Championship.

“I think I might be on the team,” Puustinen said. “I am going to the training camp. I have seen it before and I don’t think they would fly me all the way there if they did not believe I would make the team.”

He has done all he could this season to continue making an impression on the Finnish brass. According to Zulyniak, Puustinen is getting a serious look.

“We’re told the Finns are down to about 25 players for their national junior team and apparently they’re looking at taking 22 to the tournament,” Zulyniak said. “So, they have three guys to cut. Juuso is a prime candidate for that team.”

Defenseman Keaton Ellerby (eligible 2007) is another highly-touted member of the Blazers. He has been invited to Canada’s WJC selection camp in Calgary. Like many teams across the CHL, Kamloops stands to lose the services of one or two top players for the next few weeks.

“If Puustinen leaves, he goes on Dec. 9 and we will probably be missing him for 10 or 11 games,” Zulyniak explained. “It’ll hurt us, but for his development, it’s very important. Right now he’s got a great chance to make that team and rightfully so, I think. He’s done a great job.”

Zulyniak, who played a total of 344 games in the WHL over five seasons with the Prince Albert Raiders, feels Puustinen has adjusted well to the city of Kamloops and the demands of major junior hockey.

“Juuso has been very good,” Zulyniak said. “We’ve just gone through a seven games in 11 nights stretch and all of our guys were beaten up a bit. Juuso performed well and he has been very consistent. As you get to know him, he’s a very intense guy on and off the ice. We kind of joke around with him a bit to get him to crack a smile. We’re trying to get him to lighten up a bit.”

Puustinen, who speaks very good English, is good friends with Niko Snellman (NAS) of the Regina Pats. The two did not grow up together, but they played some tournament hockey together, including the Viking Cup. In Kamloops, he continues to work on his English and has become good friends with Blazers’ veteran defenseman, Ray Macias (COL).

“We just hang out and we both like rap music,” Puustinen laughed. “Ray is a good guy. He’s shown me the city and really helps me when I need something.”

On the ice, consistency has been a strong suit for Puustinen this season. The 6’1, 185-pound native of Kuopio, Finland has responded well to the rigors of the WHL schedule.

“That’s a real important trait, consistency, especially when you play in this type of competition in a CHL environment,” Zulyniak said. “Consistency is what the scouts are looking for, you know, is a guy showing up every night and can he be consistent in doing the things you have to do to improve.

“Juuso has definitely done that here for us so far.”

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.