Finnish SM-liiga regular season review

By Pekka Lampinen

The 56-game regular season of the Finnish elite league, SM-liiga, ended in early March, and with it the seasons of three out of the league’s 14 teams. After the teams ranked seventh through tenth have qualified for the last two admissions to quarterfinals, the actual playoffs can actually begin. The names of the Finnish champions of 2007 will be known by April 16th.

Lehtonen establishes his presence among Blues pros

The Blues from Espoo had one of their best regular seasons, thanks to their foreign players. Bernd Brückler sealed the net and Ladislav Kohn bounced back to the top after a few weaker years, but most of all Martin Kariya was the lifeblood of the team. Perhaps the flashiest player in the league, the speedy forward led the league in points and proved to be a formidable offensive threat. Much thanks to Kariya, Blues enter the playoffs in the fifth position.

ont-family: Arial;”>Not without considerable meaning to the team, Mikko Lehtonen (BOS) played steady hockey most of the season. His season was interrupted by the WJC and later by a shoulder injury, but he played in 39 games and scored 15 points. The gifted puckhandler tallied most of them on the power play, as his even-strength ice time fluctuated a lot. As the lines were shuffled, Lehtonen at times found himself on the fourth line even though he was consistently worthy of a spot on a scoring line. Nonetheless, Lehtonen developed greatly from the previous season and is now ready for AHL hockey.

The Blues roster featured two more WJC players. Mikael Kurki showed regrettably little development in domestic rinks. The team had a plethora of veteran defensemen, but Kurki shouldn’t have had to spend half the season in the Junior A league. He dressed for 24 SM-liiga games with few statistical notes. The goalie Antti Härmä served as backup in some games but was eventually sent back to juniors for good after the acquisition of Mikko Strömberg. Performances in Jr A indicate that Härmä is ready to become a full-time backup in 2007-08.

HIFK’s Laakso and Petrell ready to cross the pond?

IFK from Helsinki had an uneven season, having fired the coach Bob Francis in December. Paul Baxter took over and IFK recovered, reaching the playoffs from the sixth position. Defenseman Cory Murphy was among the league’s elite in points per game (50 in 45), and he was awarded with the trophy for the most valuable player in the regular season. Murphy, 29, first came to Finland as a depth defenseman in 2002 and may now be looking to take a shot at the NHL as an SM-liiga superstar.

IFK was the first team to send a draftee of the 2007 class onto SM-liiga ice: Juuso Oinonen’s debut was brief and ugly as he came in for relief. The young goalie allowed four goals on 26 shots as the team took a severe beating. Also, Aleksis Ahlqvist, 20, attempted a breakout into the league between the pipes. The season wasn’t really a success for him; he played 15 games, many of them for HPK while on loan. IFK’s starter Jan Lundell was among the league’s best goalies and played in 50 out of 56 games, leaving little room for young talent.

Defense, on the other hand, was a position without a logjam. With injuries to key defensemen, the 19-year-old Teemu Laakso (NSH) started logging around 25 minutes a game in the fall season. He took strides in development which some had expected of him in 2005-06. Furthermore, Laakso was quite consistent and proved that he can make do largely on his hockey sense. He scored nine points in 50 games, missing some games while dominating the Finnish blueline in the WJC.

Having showed spark and flair aplenty in the last few years, Lennart Petrell (CLB) now became a core player for IFK. Playing aside the team’s best centers much of the time, he scored 19 goals and 11 assists in 53 games. More importantly, he deals loads of hits and is a force along the boards. His production was somewhat streaky, but so was the team’s entire offense. Three years after his drafting, Petrell is likely to sign with the Blue Jackets in the offseason.

On the lower lines, Pasi Salonen (WSH) sought to take big steps forward after injury-ridden years. Unfortunately, 12 points is nothing to celebrate. The well-rounded winger still has a way to go before he can dream of playing for the Capitals. At the age of 21, he should shake off the status of a depth player very soon.

Coming out of juniors halfway through the season, Janne Keränen proved a useful player for IFK. He was never a junior national team player, but has now blazed past many of his fellow Finns in the 1987-born age group. With vision, puck skills and great balance, Keränen scored four goals and two assists in 21 games and is now in the league to stay. A teammate from Jr A, Max Warn (DAL) wasn’t as fortunate and suffered from injuries throughout the season. Warn played only one SM-liiga game in 2006-07.

HPK still going strong

The defending champions lost some of the edge from their roster, but the acquisitions of core-level players rounded out the roster well. HPK fought for the top spots all the way, finally finishing third. The team’s biggest surprise was the 23-year-old smallish but physical defenseman Mikko Mäenpää. Coming out of a good but not remarkable season in the second tier league, preceded by years as an unsuccessful SM-liiga depth defenseman, Mäenpää scored a massive total of 40 points from the blueline. Also, in between smashing opponents against the glass, Antti Pihlström multiplied his career totals with 39 points. Pihlström turned 22 during the season.

HPK’s goaltending was in shambles early in the season due to numerous injuries. Among the hurt was Miika Wiikman, whom the Rangers attempted to sign in the 2006 offseason. Wiikman had to fulfill his contract and play for HPK another year. Injured also for the playoffs, he played only 18 games and not all that well as he did in 2005-06. With .908 of shots saved, he was outplayed by many of the league’s starters. Wiikman will now have a harder time pushing for the NHL.

Mäenpää wasn’t the only HPK defenseman breaking out. The WJC veteran Juuso Hietanen put it all together, scoring 21 points in 49 games. Even more, the quick, offensive blueliner solidified his defensive performance onto a good SM-liiga level. At 21 years of age, Hietanen can stand to develop for a good while still.

Risto Korhonen (CAR) also displayed progressed among HPK rearguards. Highly developed early in his teens, the big and mean defenseman had shown more problems than potential in the past two years. Now the situation was different and Korhonen is no longer far away from a solid defensive game. Unfortunately, he was out with an injury from October to January and played only 23 games, spending the end of the regular season helping the struggling Jr A team.

On a sadder note, Timo Seppänen’s (PIT) season was ended in an accident. After a season of ups and downs, Seppänen crashed his car while intoxicated late in the season. The repercussions leave Seppänen’s near future uncertain.

Rask lonely toiling for Ilves

Nowadays Ilves boasts the best prospects in Finland. With a squad loaded with young talent and a number of veterans, the team could go far but wouldn’t do so, at least under the coaching of Kari Eloranta. After a change of coaches, Ilves made it to the ninth place in the regular season.

Ilves headed into the year with a teenage goalie tandem Tuukka Rask (BOS) and Riku Helenius (TB). Helenius suffered a shoulder injury in practice early in the season before he got to play and the recovery took longer than anticipated, so he has yet to make his debut in SM-liiga. In turn, Rask had more than enough work to deal with. He played 49 games and faced the second most shots in the league, taking care of WJC duties on the side. Rask performed commendably, saving Ilves on many occasions by winning close games when the team couldn’t score. His GAA of 2.39 and the save percentage .928 were among the league’s finest. Rask streched a gap to the team’s second best player perhaps wider than in any other SM-liiga organisation.

It is unfortunate that Juho Mielonen’s (DET) shoulder injuries persist. He was recovering on opening night and only got to play eight Jr A games before he was injured again, now for the season. The health issues may be in a position to jeopardize his career.

Elsewhere in the defense corps, Mikko Kuukka, 21, had another fine season and was the team’s most solid defenseman in many games. Five points in 54 games indicate that he is never going to reach many headlines, but that isn’t what is expected of stay-at-home defensemen. Joonas Lehtivuori (PHI) continued his march into the league, appearing in 40 games. He often got to play in the top six, but still the offensively talented Lehtivuori managed to stay off of scoring records for the entire season. It wasn’t as though he could ever have strengthened the team considerably, however.

In the offense, all eyes were on the center Perttu Lindgren (DAL). People expected a point per game after he returned from camp in Dallas, but the conscript had been stretched too thin between Ilves, the Stars and the Finnish defense forces. It took Lindgren 18 games and a recovery from an ankle injury to score his first goal. A fruitful WJC tournament picked up his play after New Year, but his production still didn’t follow quite as fast. In Lindgren’s defense, his lines didn’t work in his favor offensively, as he was often left out of the action in the wingers’ stead. Lindgren scored 26 points in 43 games, significantly below his pace in the spring of 2006. In the playoffs Lindgren would do well to redeem himself and carry the team, as successful performances would greatly help him again at the Stars’ camp next fall.

The Ilves roster featured numerous other 19-year-old players. Ville Korhonen and Tommi Huhtala repeated their 2005-06 campaign with a full season and some stray points. Sami Sandell, coming from the WHL, was no answer to Ilves’ offensive woes just yet. Sandell scored ten points in 50 games.

Before the season got underway, it seemed like Marko Anttila (CHI) could break out, hurting opponents with his hulking frame and providing very solid plays both ways. Unfortunately, he faded away as the season got started and often found himself on the fourth line. A total of four points and a weak –13 rating showed a clear regression from last season, while a project like him would have needed something entirely different in order to sustain NHL hopes.

Beyond the prospects listed above, Ilves is ready to bring in new 18-year-old talent also familiar to Finnish junior national teams. Jan-Mikael Järvinen dressed for three games, Olli Palola for six, Juuso Antonen for 13 and Jaakko Näppilä for 17. All went scoreless for now, but that won’t be the case in 2007-08.

Jokerit find solidity

Jokerit desperately needed to rebound from a catastrophic 2005-06 season. The team was built for more consistent play, and the strategy bore fruit. Jokerit remained close to the top of the league all season and ultimately finished second.

Much of the success was due to the top line. The veteran Petri Varis had his best season in ages, but that was much thanks to Jani Rita and Kim Hirschovits. Hirschovits, formerly a prospect of the Rangers, continued his breakout and fought for the league’s scoring title until the last rounds. Rita recovered from his North American escapades and led the league in goals, now with 32 goals and 20 assists.

The defenseman Sami Lepistö (WSH) broke his collarbone at the eve of the season and nursed the injury until halfway through the season. The recovery took its time and Lepistö wasn’t quite the player as he was hoped to be after the injury. He tallied ten points in 29 games, while before the injury he had potential to be the league’s top offensive defenseman. The only thing to make of Lepistö’s regular season is that he took no steps forward over the year.

Perhaps the most refreshing surprise among Jokerit was Jori Lehterä coming out of juniors. The gifted center terrorized the Jr A league, winning the scoring title while missing several games, and he scored 12 points in 28 games in SM-liiga. The games near the end of the season showed that he is no game breaker at pro level yet, but with proper attention to strength and mobility, he could play in the NHL one day. He is the most significant overaged Finnish player in the 2007 draft.

Finally, Niko Hovinen (MIN) debuted guarding the Jokerit net in his only pro game of the season. The towering goalie made several good saves but was also surprised by two easy goals, which spoke of his lack of experience and incomplete technique. Hovinen has the potential to go far and should be the backup for Jokerit in 2007-08.

Hopes of JYP prospects fading

Prior to the season it was predicted that the drafted prospects of JYP must break out this season or fall too far below the development path needed for the NHL. The team itself was also in a make or break situation, finishing a rebuild meant to propel JYP to the top half of the league. The project failed, and the small-budget, small-name squad missed the playoffs.

And the prospects? They fared no better. Arsi Piispanen (CLB) regressed considerably as he struggled and marked only six points in 36 games. The tall, awkward center saw all his weaknesses become an issue again, and with confidence all else was lost as well. Piispanen was injured in early January and missed the remainder of the season.

The center Valtteri Tenkanen (LA) went from playing through injury-plagued seasons before 2006 to an injury-ridden season in 2006-07. He missed a considerable amount of games, but at least he got to play longer near his full strength than in previous years. Still, 13 points in 34 games was nowhere near the full potential of the versatile forward. Completing the trilogy of the injury log, Ossi Louhivaara (OTT) also played 34 games, missing action in three periods of time. The speedster is becoming a penalty killing and two-way specialist, as he has missed three seasons’ worth of opportunities for a breakout in the offense.

On the positive side, Jyri Marttinen (to whom the Flames lost their rights in 2006) became a real leader and was the team’s highest scorer from the blue line for a long while. Marttinen has always had some skill to go with his big heart, but in 2006-07 his potential was fulfilled. Before the end of the season, JYP released him to play in the Swedish league in exchange for monetary compensation.

KalPa remains the bottom feeder

Also in the second offseason following their promotion to SM-liiga, KalPa faced the harsh realities of the level of play and headed into the season with too few quality players. The team finished last again, seeing little change from 2005-06 in the prospect department either.

Tuomas Kiiskinen, 20, had the worst plus/minus rating on the team (-20), but his 22 points were a positive surprise. The diminutive forward scored often thanks to feistiness, but the attitude didn’t always carry over to all aspects of the game. Perhaps the most promising young talent to appear on the team this year was the 19-year-old stay-at-home defenseman Mikko Kukkonen. He played only eight games but can expect a lot more next season, as he fights for a chance to play in the WJC.

Pesonen seizes the scoring lead among Kärpät

A powerhouse of recent years, Kärpät eventually took hold of the lead in standings, leaving Jokerit and HPK behind to win the regular season and securing a home ice advantage all the way. Partially due to injuries, the Kärpät roster had ample space in 2006-07 for young talent to show their quality. However, because of transfers to North America and a couple of less impressive age groups of juniors, there weren’t that many prospects to answer the call.

The defense corps was ultimately reinforced by Ross Lupaschuk and Josef Boumedienne to clog the core of the line-up, but before that Oskari Korpikari (MTL) had received enough ice time to improve from last season. Korpikari scored more points than in his earlier career in total (still only six points) and took a step closer to being a genuine defensive stalwart. Tommi Leinonen (PIT) wasn’t as fortunate with the progression of his season, often being the last man cut. The junior league didn’t offer him enough challenge needed to develop. Leinonen played only 13 games, having trouble to find his game in the spring season.

With long-term injuries to first-liners Jari Viuhkola and Hannes Hyvönen early in the season, Kärpät needed someone to step up. Janne Pesonen (ANA) took the challenge after two quiet seasons. Already a speedy player, Pesonen found one extra gear and the puckhandling skills to go with it, humiliating opponents all the way through the season. He scored a point per game, also excelling as a finisher in tougher international competition. Pesonen hasn’t become a complete player, though, as he remains too soft to win physical battles.

Also on the top lines, Juhamatti Aaltonen (STL) was expected to enjoy quick development even after a breakout season in 2005-06. The super-skilled scorer put up numbers in the fall season that surely satisfied even some of the most optimistic expectations, but the Christmas break did him no good. He went without scoring a goal until late February, being unimpressive overall. It may be happening that he turn the tide again in the final games of the season, which would be most welcome for his development. Aaltonen scored 32 points in 53 games, the majority of which on the power play.

Lukko still waiting for new prospects

Coming from a small market, Lukko hit the jackpot with many of its acquisitions and finished in the middle of the pack. Josef Straka was the centerpiece of the team’s offense, being the runner-up of the scoring race, and around him others reached career high numbers as well. The most impressive breakout was by Juha-Pekka Haataja, who scored 27 goals and 32 assists for 59 points. Haataja’s hustle and all-around ability also made a national team player out of the winger who turned 24 during the season.

Petri Lammassaari, 21, picked up where he left in 2006. Small, speedy and anxious to lay hits, he now had more experience to support his raw talent. 13 goals and 26 points in 2006-07 included a hat trick in January, and he stands to improve from that yet again in 2007-08.

Also outside the top line, Miikka Tuomainen (ATL) was again a little better than in the previous season. He was often among the team’s finest in difficult games but could never keep it up for long periods. In the end, 14 points were still no breakout. The huge power forward could also be a little better by playing a meaner game. It is still to be noted that 2006-07 was his first full season in the league.

The next junior players to join the Lukko roster are likely the 1988-born Juhani Jasu and Nico Aaltonen, who both play center or wing. Jasu and Aaltonen got their SM-liiga debuts out of the way in 2006-07.

Pelicans restore dignity

A small-market team with no history of glory days, Pelicans needed the help of the renowned coach Hannu Aravirta to challenge the mid-sized organisations. That they did, entering the playoff qualifications as a cohesive team. Still, the squad featured no more young talent than on most years.

The 1985-born Tuomas Santavuori and Jesse Saarinen have been scoring at a remarkably similar pace for two years now. In 2006-07, however, the pace didn’t improve from the previous season. With a production of some 30 points, the finesse forwards are a still a long way from international level. The WJC veteran Henri Heino enjoyed a highly consistent season with 17 points and sound defensive play in the middle of the third line.

With four participants, Pelicans sent the most players to the WJC of all Finnish teams. Joonas Jalvanti debuted successfully in SM-liiga and would have earned more than just seven appearances in the league. He proved his hockey sense worthy of the professional game at a young age, keeping his name in the minds of NHL scouts. Leo Komarov (TOR) finished his first season in the organisation, meeting expectations with 12 points, an above average plus/minus rating and effective agitation of opponents. Fellow forwards Vili Sopanen and Marko Pöyhönen weren’t as fortunate: Seven games each didn’t help them break into the league just yet.

SaiPa couldn’t quite endure losses

Having built a small team with minimal resources for the 2005-06 season, SaiPa lost its core players and wasn’t in a situation to rebuild on short term. Without big names in the roster, even a sound team game wouldn’t carry the team from Lappeenranta to the postseason.

Injuries to the starting goalie Rob Zepp gave room also to the young, tall goalie Ville Hostikka (PHI). Since his drafting, Hostikka hasn’t progressed very fast, only now breaking out of the lower leagues. In the six games he played, Hostikka had his share of problems but reached an excellent performance on average, as indicated by a GAA of 1.08 and .952 of all shots saved.

The second drafted prospect in the SaiPa ranks is Janne Kolehmainen (OTT). The big, bruising winger improved on some of his smallish flaws in mobility and managed a modest increase in his point totals, scoring nine points during the season. More importantly, he showed leadership and helped the team with his intangible abilities. The Senators’ rights to him will expire in June, so it is possible that he continue his career in the AHL.

Tappara builds around Kontiola

The league’s leader in assists in 2005-06, Petri Kontiola (CHI) was a fitting young player to build a team around. A team with a mid-sized market, Tappara has achieved results with few star players but plenty of depth all the way down to the fourth line. The strategy yielded results again, as Tappara gained a home ice advantage for the quarterfinals by finishing fourth in the regular season.

Kontiola wasn’t exactly searing hot in the first rounds of SM-liiga, but in international tournaments he proved capable of becoming one of the best players in Europe. Armed with superb stickhandling, vision and creativity, Kontiola pulled stunts that no one in the league could repeat. However, he failed to climb as high in the scoring table as last year. Kontiola improved his defensive performance and rounded up his game overall, but some consistency and focus was missing. 47 points in 51 is still nothing to scoff at, and Kontiola remains a strong candidate for the World Championships in May.

Jonas Enlund (ATL) fully embraced his role as a checking player in his rookie SM-liiga season, although partially against his will, as he went for much more offense than his three points in 46 games would indicate. Enlund was often in an unfavorable situation in the team’s line-up mix, receiving little ice time when performing well and at times playing with underachieving linemates.

In his fourth year with the Tappara pros, defenseman Ville Mäntymaa (ANA) missed a breakout once again. Unable to reach a top six status, Mäntymaa is gravely stalled in development. His decision-making has taken only baby steps forward, and without any special skills, Mäntymaa can’t make up for it in other aspects. He probably needs a change of scenery, although a contract offer from the Ducks isn’t likely.

Two of the top Finnish players for the 2007 entry draft, Niclas Lucenius and Harri Ilvonen, debuted in SM-liiga this season. Lucenius played five games and Ilvonen seven without making any headlines in either good or bad.

TPS working around lack of youth

The power of the TPS organisation has waned as a crucial source of talent, their junior system, has failed to produce new stars. In 2006-07 the TPS squad was comprised out of many veteran players among others, being balanced on paper but failing to look good on the ice. TPS finished seventh in the regular season, facing issues with its team play in the final rounds.

One remedy to the problems with youth was Tuomas Suominen, a TPS junior alumnus returning from time in the men’s second tier league. Suominen, 23, played a balanced game and is a favorite for the rookie of the year award with 26 points in 46 games.

Among defensemen, Juho Jokinen, 20, was the prime representative of young talent. After a season of injuries, Jokinen appeared in 51 games. Six points wasn’t much for the puck-carrying defenseman, and he did keep having trouble in the defensive end too. The most important thing for Jokinen at this point was to get a full season under his belt, though.

Teemu Ramstedt, 19, failed to impress in his first TPS season. The finesse player was too soft for pro hockey for now, and he mostly sat on the bench as the 13th forward. He dressed for 36 games but hardly got on the ice, especially as the season progressed.

TPS did offer a glimpse of sunlight in the horizon, bringing up the 17-year-old Lassi Kokkala and Niko Kluuskeri for their first professional games in January. It isn’t likely for them to play the majority of the 2007-08 season with men, but the two are progressing early and fast.

Ässät hung over after Cinderella season

Silver medalists of the 2005-06 season, Ässät reached a new league record by losing 11 ranks from the previous season’s finish. The team changed coaches during the season but had to fight to avoid the last position until the end.

It wasn’t easy being a goalie for Ässät in 2006-07, which Eero Kilpeläinen (DAL) had to find out for himself. He beat Matti Kaltiainen for the starter’s job but took beatings every now and then. Kilpeläinen showed raw ability during the season, lacking in composure. In 36 games, he allowed 3.27 goals a game, saving .907 of all shots.

Tero Konttinen, 21, dazzled early in the season, especially offensively. Later on as the team struggled, he lost some of the confidence that helped him overcome his questionable defensive abilities. A total of 27 points is excellent for a rookie defenseman, but he was dead last in the league with a plus/minus of –22, which also showed on the ice. Time will tell whether Konttinen can become a complete enough player to reach the international stage. Elsewhere in the defense corps, Eetu Heikkinen, 18, had a fine season altogether despite not making the WJC. He got the first goal of his career over with and can look forward to being a solid player at pro level in 2007-08 while still junior-aged.

Labeled awkward by poise and an uncut diamond overall, Jesse Joensuu (NYI) reached results early on in the season. He met all expectations by scoring over half a point per game in the fall season. After a hot November, Joensuu’s effort died down in the WJC, where his performance was poor. That carried over to the domestic spring season as he continued to play apathetic much of the time. Joensuu was also sent down to Jr A to help the struggling team there. He did keep his average at exactly half a point per game in the end, but the play later in the season was nothing to build on in the future.

Another WJC player Tuomas Huhtanen had earned his spot in the tournament with solid play in SM-liiga. The spring season was unimpressive for him as his offensive production took a downturn, but the checking player managed more consistency than many of his teammates. Peter Aston (FLA) on the other hand had to face that his play coming out of Canadian juniors wasn’t good enough for the league, and he had to leave after 21 games, upon disappointments at both ends of the ice.

An affiliate of the Dallas Stars, Ässät seeks to bring in economical players from the Stars’ system. With the most hopes set on him, Brandon Crombeen (DAL) got to center the second line. The physical Canadian had enough talent to be a strong scorer for periods of time, but the flip side of the coin was inconsistency mostly due to disability to read plays. He had an unimpressive start, heated up soon after and ultimately disappointed at the end of the season. Crombeen did score 13 goals and 22 points in 55 games.

Tom Wandell (DAL) came from Sweden with hardly any pro experience. The skilled Swede was the team’s best player in some games, but his total of 12 points in 50 games reveals that those games weren’t many. Wandell could sometimes create scoring opportunities by himself but faded away when the team struggled. It isn’t out of the question for him to enjoy a breakout next season, though.

Out of the Russian leagues for the first time, Alexander Naurov (DAL) wasn’t as lucky. The forward suffered from injuries, and when he appeared in 11 games, he didn’t prove himself good enough for a foreign player. Before Naurov left Ässät and Finland, he was caught DUI.

Johan Fransson (DAL) paid a French visit to Ässät, having not received much ice time in Frölunda. Fransson could have had enough skill to be a strong player on the team, but he didn’t achieve much, posting one assist and –5 in six games. David Bararuk’s (DAL) time in Finland was even shorter: Both Ässät and Ilves gave him a chance, but it became immediately clear that Bararuk’s performance was rather hopeless. Far too soft a player, he basically lost all battles for the puck and was unfit for the league.

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.