Finland 2013 draft review

By Tony Piscotta
Artturi Lehkonen - Montreal Canadiens

Photo: KalPa Kuopio forward Artturi Lehkonen is expected to eventually bring some offensive skill to the team that drafted him, the Montreal Canadiens (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

Forward Aleksander Barkov was the top-ranked prospect among skaters from Europe in the 2013 NHL Draft according to Central Scouting, so his being picked early in the draft did not come as a complete surprise.

But when Barkov was selected by the Florida Panthers with the second overall pick and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was selected by the Buffalo Sabres with the eighth overall pick a short time later, there was a lot of excitement in the Finnish hockey community.

"I was surprised and I was excited for that. It was a huge thing for Finland," said forward Arturri Lehkonen who would hear his own name called a short while later, going to the Montreal Canadians in the second round with the 55th pick overall.

"I was a little bit more nervous more about Rasmus than Aleksander. I was expecting Rasmus to go Top 15 but he went number eight and that was a huge thing."

In addition to the three players selected in the first two rounds, which mirrored the 2012 NHL Draft when Teuvo Teravainen (18th) and defenseman Olli Maatta (22nd) were taken in the first round and Ville Pokka went in the second (34th), there were ten players from Finland selected in this draft (Kingston's Henri Ikonen played for the Finnish junior team but is considered a North American skater for HF purposes).

The ten Finnish-trained players drafted matches the total from the 2009 NHL Draft.

Ironically, former Jokerit GM Jarmo Kekalainen, the first European GM of an NHL team, did not draft any Finnish players in his first draft with the Columbus Blue Jackets. But the Nashville Predators, whose scouting staff included Kekalainen's brother Janne until this past year, when he returned to Finland to work with KalPa Kuopio, led all NHL teams as the Predators selected three players from Finland.

Perhaps the most intriguing of those prospects is HPK Hameenlinna goalie Juuse Saros, who was taken by the Predators in the fourth round.

"He's a great goalie," said Lehkonen, shortly after being picked in the second round, before Saros had been taken. "I hope somebody drafts him because he's a great goalie and I can see him developing even more than he is now. The team that's going to draft him is going to have a great goalie."

Here is a bit of information on the ten Finnish players taken.

Aleksander Barkov, C, Tappara Tampere
6'2”, 205 lbs., 9/2/95
Tampere, Finland
First Round (2nd overall)
Florida Panthers

While much of the pre-draft conversation revolved around Halifax forward Nathan MacKinnon and American defenseman Seth Jones, some of the drama was removed earlier in the week when the Avalanche announced they would be drafting MacKinnon. However, while many in the Prudential Center assumed that meant Jones would be going to Florida, the Panthers snapped up Barkov instead.

"They told me yesterday (Saturday before the draft) that they are very interested in me and they maybe will take me and not wait. I'm very happy,"  said Barkov. "It means very much but that's not enough. I want to play in the NHL. This is the first step in my career."

When asked whether he would be making the move to North America this season, the tall forward proved he has just as much poise talking to reporters as he has shown on the ice.

"Maybe," he smiled.

As with the other top picks in this years draft, Barkov is widely expected to be capable of making the jump from junior hockey, or in his case the Finnish Elite League, directly to the NHL as a teenager.

"I played already two years against men in the Finnish Elite League. It's a very good league and has very good players. I think it helped me a lot," said Barkov.

One thing that could limit his ascension directly to the NHL is the recovery from the season-ending shoulder injury which kept him out of the 2013 U18 World Junior Championship. But he is confident that he will be ready to go when the Panthers' training camp starts.

Barkov also believes the presence of fellow Finnish player Sean Bergenheim in the Panthers lineup should help in making the transition from Finland to North America.

In addition to his size and high skill level, the thing that separates Barkov from some of the other top prospects in this year's draft is his ability to see plays and make the players around him better more successful. Not just a scorer, he prides himself in playing all over the ice.

"I'm a two-way center-forward, I can shoot the puck. I can play power-play, penalty killing, and take important face-offs," Barkov said.

Rasmus Ristolainen, D, TPS Turku
6'3”, 205 lbs., 10/27/94
Turku, Finland
First Round (8th overall)
Buffalo Sabres

Like Barkov, Ristolainen has been playing with older players – both in the Finnish SM-Liiga and with the Finnish U20 junior team – the past two seasons. And like the highly-skilled center, he has played a prominent role for his team.

A two-way defenseman with skill and an offensive component to his game, Ristolainen averaged over 21 minutes of ice time for TPS this past season and was counted on to play a large role for the U20 team in both the 2012 and 2013 U20 World Junior Championship tournaments.

"I think it helped me a lot. The SM-Liiga and NHL aren't the same but the men are as tough and as big and that maybe helps me," Ristolainen explained. "If I get a lot of ice time that means the coach trusts me and can put me on the ice. I can be a better player if I'm on the ice a lot."

With the Sabres in the process of overhauling their lineup, Ristolainen could have a chance to crack the Buffalo blueline. While he didn't know a whole lot about the players on the Sabres' roster, he will see at least one familiar face in training camp in forward Joel Armia, a teammate with the Finnish U20 team and Buffalo's first round pick in 2011.

"Armia's a good friend. I haven't talked to him in a couple of weeks (but) we played together last year at the World Juniors and we talked, " Ristolainen said. "He told me Buffalo's a good place and a very nice city," he said.

Artturi Lehkonen, W, KalPa Kuopio
5'10”, 155 lbs., 7/4/95
Piikkio, Finland
Second Round (55th overall)
Montreal Canadiens

Lehkonen, who was ranked ninth among European skaters by CSS, had to wait a bit longer than expected to hear his named called. But the fact that he was selected by the Montreal Canadiens was worth it.

"That's a huge thing for me. There's a long history in hockey and I'm really excited for this," he said, when asked about the tradition associated with the Canadians.
 
Lehkonen became the first Finnish-trained player drafted by the Canadiens since Joonas Nattinen was taken in the third round in 2009 (Nattinen skated for Montreal's AHL affiliate Hamilton in 2012-13 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in December).

"I think I'm a goal scorer and I'm good with the puck. I have a good hockey IQ and I like to shoot a lot so I think maybe they like the way I play and try to score goals,"  said Lehkonen, who skated on KalPa's top line last season and was the team's second-leading scorer.

He is one of several prospects to come out of the Kuopio junior program in recent years.

"They have good junior teams. They build a lot of good players there. It's a nice town and sporting is huge there," said Lehkonen. "I think everybody enjoys being there."

Lehkonen will return to KalPa for at least one more season before making the move over to North America.

Juuse Saros, G, HPK A Junior
5'10”, 180 lbs., 4/19/95
Hameenlinna, Finland
Fourth Round (99th overall)
Nashville Predators

Few teams have had as much success drafting players from Finland as the Predators have and General Manager David Poile felt grabbing Saros in the fourth round was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

Already with two Finnish goalies in their system, including NHL starter Pekka Rinne, the Predators felt that grabbing Saros in the fourth round was a no-brainer.

"First of all, he's the number one rated goalie by Central Scouting for European goalies. Number two, from outside our organization, I've had two or three people come up to me and say, "This guy is unbelievable." If he was two or three inches taller he may be a first round pick," Poile said. "That's how good he is. I know we're in an age of bigger goalies and we've been a big believer in that. But we thought with where we took him in the draft versus the ability he has, why not take a chance?"

The dominant goalie in Finnish junior hockey the past two seasons, leading HPK to the semifinals in 2011-12 and winning the SM-Liiga junior title this past season, Saros was outstanding for Finland at the 2013 U18 World Junior Championship in Sochi, Russia. He and Edmonton Oilers prospect Frans Tuohimaa are expected to challenge for the starting job with the HPK men's team this fall.

Saku Maenalanen, RW, Karpat Oulu A Junior
6'3", 175, 5/29/94
Tornio, Finland
Fifth Round (125th overall)
Nashville Predators

Staying in Finland for their next pick, the Predators went for a player described by Central Scouting's Head European scout Goran Stubb as "an offensive-minded, skilled winger who had his breakthrough season in the Finnish junior league in 2012-13."

Maenalanen, after being passed over in the 2012 NHL Draft in his first year of eligibility, steadily came on for Karpat's junior team and could challenge for a spot with the SM-Liiga club this upcoming season and possibly Finland's U20 team at the 2014 World Junior Championship.

He scored 23 goals with 35 assists in 45 regular season games and added 5 goals with 2 assists in seven playoff games.

While he has an ideal frame for an NHL forward, Maenalanen will have to add more bulk and strength to compete in the North American game. But Stubb sees potential in the 19-year-old.

"The skills are there. He can create scoring chances with fine moves in the offensive zone," said Stubb. "He's a bit of a late bloomer who had a very good international U19/20 tournament in Trnava in April."

Santeri Saari, D, Jokerit A Junior
6'2", 190, 10/18/94
Sixth Round (173rd overall)
St. Louis Blues

St. Louis, where Jarmo Kekalainen served as the Director of Scouting for several years before returning to Finland and taking over Jokerit's GM job, has drafted several Finnish players through the years, and for the fourth straight year drafted a defenseman from Finland.

The results have been mixed so far. 2010 pick Jani Hakanpaa spent part of the season with the Blues' AHL affiliate last year while 2011 pick Teemu Eronen was not signed and 2012 pick Petteri Lindbohm played 25 games in the SM-Liiga with Jokerit in his first pro season.

Saari made his pro hockey debut in 2012-13, appearing in two games for Jokerit and seven games with Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis. To this point, he would have to still be considered a long-range prospect.

"He's a tall, two-way d-man," said Stubb. "He moves surprisingly well for his size. Good size, strong. Fine understanding of the game, He makes good opening passes and has an OK shot. Smart in all three zones, likes to join the offensive rush. High overall skill level."

Like Maenalanen, he is a candidate for Finland's U20 team in 2014 and could make the jump from junior hockey to the SM-Liiga this fall.

Miro Aaltonen, F, Espoo Blues
5'10”, 165 lbs., 6/7/1993
Joensuu, Finland
Sixth Round (177th overall)
Anaheim Ducks

Aaltonen had a breakout season as a 19-year-old, scoring 11 goals in 32 SM-Liiga games and impressing in pre-tournament play for Finland's U20 team before suffering a horrific broken ankle in the first World Junior Championship game against Latvia. Remarkably, he returned to play for Espoo's junior team in the U20 playoffs.

Passed over in two previous NHL drafts, Aaltonen was ranked 22nd in Central Scouting's mid-term rankings amongst European skaters before falling to 40th in the final rankings after suffering the ankle injury.

Injuries, and perhaps questions about his ability to stand up to the rigors of the more physical NHL game, prevented Aaltonen from being drafted in 2011 and 2012.

But the Joensuu native began to show glimpses of dominance with Jokipojat in Mestis in 2011-12 and that play continued this year with Espoo in the SM-Liiga prior to the injury.

Aaltonen may fit in well with the Ducks organization, which has another under-sized but offensively-inclined player from Finland in its organization in defenseman Sami Vatanen, as well as Finnish legends Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. Vatanen appeared in eight NHL games last season after skating for the Ducks' AHL affiliate in Norfolk.

Aleksi Makela, Ilves Tampere/Ilves A Junior
6'2", 190 lbs., 2/8/95
Tampere, Finland
Seventh Round (182nd overall)
Dallas Stars

Once dubbed Helsinki South for the number of Finnish players on its roster, Dallas drafted its fourth player from Finland (and third defenseman) in the last three drafts, selecting Makela with the last of its eight picks.

While Makela's ascension to the SM-Liiga as an 18-year-old could partially be attributed to the struggles the Ilves club has had the past few years,  since he has seen only limited international competition for Finland's junior program thus far, there are some raw abilities that make him an intriguing prospect – particularly his frame and skating ability.

"He had a solid season with Ilves' junior team. He's a good skater, moves well, (and) has a good overall skill level," said Stubb. "He showed that there is potential in him. Plays a smart two-way game, good playmaker and passer."

Saku Salminen, W/C, Jokerit/Kiekko-Vantaa/Jokerit A Junior
6'3", 200 lbs., 10/20/94
Helsinki, Finland
Seventh Round (184th overall)
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was quite candid with reporters following the draft when asked about Salminen, admitting that he knew very little about the Salminen but that Tampa Bay's European scouts were impressed with the Jokerit forward.

According to Stubb, Salminen has the power and strength to play as a power forward in North America but will need to improve his skating if he is to compete at that level.

"He is a good stickhandler and smart player. He has the skills for playing in the (SM-Liiga) but needs to work a lot on acceleration, speed and overall quickness," Stubb said. "He has smooth hands, sees the ice well and has an OK shot."

Janne Juvonen, G, Pelicans Lahti/Peliitat Heinola (Mestis)
6'1”, 185 lbs., 10/3/94
Kiihtelysvaara, Finland
Seventh Round (203rd overall)

The Predators used their final pick to take their second Finnish goalie in the draft. And, as with Saros, the combination of being able to allow Juvonen to continue to develop in Finland without signing him and the potential he has shown thus far made him an attractive pick.

"Again it's a guy that didn't have as much exposure to a lot of people and scouts, what have you. We have a Finnish scout that thinks he's going to be really good," Poile said. "He's a little bit off the radar but the good news is, over there we don't have to sign players right away so we can have a look at him for a couple of years and see how he develops."

Juvonen played mostly at the men's level this past season, splitting the season between Pelicans and Peliitat in Mestis, and was also the second goalie for Finland's U20 team at the World Junior Championship. He had a 16-save shutout against Germany in his only game action at the 2013 WJC.

Juvonen also has the advantage of playing for Pelicans, where former NHL player Pasi Nurminen is part-owner of the team and also serves as the club's goalie coach. Current San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi and former Flyers and Oilers prospect Niko Hovinen both had success after playing in Lahti under Nurminen.