SM-liiga 2013-14 season preview, part 1

By Tony Piscotta
Juuse Saros - Finland

Photo: Nashville Predators goaltending prospect Juuse Saros, shown here competing at the 2013 USA Hockey Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, NY, will be part of young and talented group of goaltenders playing for HPK Hameenlinna in the SM-liiga in 2013-14 (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

The 2012-13 season in Finland's SM-Liiga was interesting, to say the least.

With an influx of NHL players early in the season due to the NHL lockout, the level of play was higher than in recent years. When those players returned to their NHL clubs, the remainder of the season saw several teams which had not had much success recently in the thick of things.

Jokerit, thanks to a fast start with players like Erik Karlsson and Valtteri Filppula in the lineup, had the league's best record in the regular season but was eliminated in its first playoff series. Tappara Tampere finished second after missing the playoffs the two previous seasons and reached the Kanada Cup finals for the first time since it won the championship in 2002-03. Lahti Pelicans, after reaching the finals the previous season, missed the playoffs in 2012-13 while SaiPa Lapeenranta made the playoffs for only the second time since 1998-99.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Assat Pori, which captured the league championship after finishing fourth in the regular season.

Assat's leading scorer, Stephen Dixon, left Pori late in the season to play in the KHL but behind a balanced attack (nine players scoring six or more points in the playoffs), strong team defense, and Antti Raanta's outstanding goaltending, Assat reached the finals and defeated defending champion JyP Jyvaskyla in the finals.

Raanta played for Finland in the 2013 IIHF World Championship and subsequently signed a contract with the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. He will likely start the 2013-14 season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs.

Much of the talk about hockey in Finland this summer has focused on the pending move of Jokerit from the SM-Liiga to the KHL, which will take place in 2014-15. But before that move happens, this season appears set to be one of the better ones in recent memory.

While a handful of younger players have either signed contracts or chosen to play junior hockey in Canada or the USA, several talented veteran players have decided to return to the domestic league. The league has also seen an influx of AHL veterans and recently-graduated college players looking to further their careers.

Here is a look at the SM-Liiga for the 2013-14 season with an emphasis on the NHL prospects for each club (number in parentheses indicates number of players whose rights are held by an NHL team).

Assat Pori (0)

The last time Assat reached the finals (2005-06), there was a mass exodus following the season and the club missed the playoffs the next four seasons. That shouldn't be the case this time around as Assat has been among the league's top five teams the last three seasons and should once again be in the thick of things.

While Raanta is now with Chicago and Joel Armia, Buffalo's first round pick in 2011, signed an NHL contract with the Sabres, Assat's lineup looks like it will be competitive. In terms of NHL prospects, there are no young players that stand out at this point but there is a nice mix of experience and youth.

36-year-old veteran Juuso Riksman, who was in net during the f]playoff run in 2005-06, was signed to replace Raanta. Riksman played 35 games last season with the Espoo Blues. Rasmus Rinne, 23, is a big goalie (6'5") who has spent the past two seasons in Mestis, while 20-year-old Niklas Kekki has been impressive in net for Assat's U20 team but is considered small (5'9") by NHL goaltender standards.

Goalie Atte Tolvanen was bypassed in the 2013 NHL Draft but could hear his name called next June. The big goaltender, who turns 19 in November, was edged out for a spot on Finland's U18 team by NHL draft picks Joonas Korpisalo (CBJ '12) and Janne Juvonen (NSH '13) but played well for the Assat U20 team the past two seasons.

Assat's defensive group lost just one player from the group of six that played in the playoffs, that player being former Phoenix Coyote Shaun Heshka, who signed with Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL. Colby Cohen, 24, a second round pick of Colorado in 2007, was signed over the summer so opportunities for youngsters may be limited.

Tommi Taimi, 22, skated in all 16 playoff games for Assat a year ago and shows promise. Patrik Parkkonen, who played two seasons with the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers, skated in 15 regular season games and two playoff contests a year ago, splitting the year between the junior and men's teams. He played six games for Finland's U20 team but was not on the roster at the 2013 WJC.

Assat's forward unit will have a different look as four of the top six forwards, including Armia, have capitalized on last season's success, signing large contracts elsewhere.

One-time NHL forwards Niklas Hagman and Kamil Kreps were signed in the off-season.  Eero Elo, 23, a 2008 fifth-round pick who was never signed by the Minnesota Wild, scored 10 goals in 31 games after being brought over from Lukko in mid-season last year and added six goals in 16 playoff games.

The three are among a bevy of veterans in Pori so opportunities will be limited for players trying to crack the lineup out of juniors.

Jarno Karki turns 19 in October and was the third-leading scorer for Assat's junior team. He is an intriguing prospect at 6'4" and 205 pounds. 18-year-old Niko Ojamaki played a two-way forward role for Finland at the 2013 U18 World Junior Championship while 19-year-old Pori native Ville Ahlgren returns to try and make his SM-Liiga debut after two seasons with the Espoo Blues U20 team.

Jokerit Helsinki (6)

Jokerit's first season under coach Tomi Lamsa was a bit of a roller coaster. The club dominated during the regular season but was upset by tenth-place Lukko Rauma in a quarterfinal playoff series.

No club has more NHL draft picks on its roster than Jokerit but with several veterans in the lineup, most of those players will likely be skating with Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis  (Finland's second league) or with the Jokerit junior team, at least to start the year.

One exception could be in goal, where 19-year-old Joonas Korpisalo could push veterans Leland Irving and Eero Kilpelainen for playing time.

Irving played six games with Calgary last year. He was signed in August after Kilpelainen, last year's starter, suffered an injury that may keep him out up to six weeks. Kilpelainen had a goals-against under 2.00 (1.98) in 48 regular season games but received criticism (fairly or unfairly) after the loss to Lukko.

Frans Tuohimaa, Kilpelainen's backup last season, is with HPK Hameenlinna where he will compete for the starting job.

Korpisalo split last season between Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis and Jokerit's U20 team and was the starting goaltender for Finland at the 2013 World Junior Championship. The 19-year-old was a third round pick (62nd overall) of Columbus in the 2012 NHL Draft. He was drafted by the Prince George Cougars (WHL) in the 2012 CHL Import Draft but stayed in Finland to work with Jokerit goaltending coach Markus Ketterer.

Teemu Eronen, 22, spent much of the time skating alongside veteran Ossi Vaananen on Jokerit's top defensive pairing, especially after Karlsson departed. Eronen finished a career-best +13 with 26 points in 55 games. Despite his offensive numbers he was not signed by St. Louis, who drafted him in 2011.

Jokerit's lineup contains three defensemen whose rights are held by NHL teams. But, with veteran Mikko Kousa signed in April after he spent last year in Russia and Sweden, those three will have a difficult time cracking the lineup.

Petteri Lindbohm, who turns 20 in September, was a sixth round pick of St. Louis in 2012 and saw the most action a year ago, playing in 35 games. He was Finland's captain at the 2013 World Junior Championship and his mobility for a big man is impressive. Esa Lindell, 19, was a third round selection (74th overall) by Dallas in the 2012 draft. He split the season between Jokerit (19 games) and Kiekko-Vantaa (22 games) and was a captain for Finland's U19 team.

Santeri Saari, who will be 19 in October , was selected by St. Louis in the sixth round (173rd overall) in 2013. He made great strides last year with the Jokerit U20 team and has an outside shot at playing for Jokerit this season. He was with Finland's U20 team at the evaluation camp in Lake Placid, NY in August.

Much of the attention in terms of prospects in Jokerit's final SM-Liiga season figures to be on Chicago 2012 first round pick Teuvo Teravainen, who recently signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Blackhawks.

With the influx of NHL players, Teravainen got off to a slow start a year ago but picked things up as the year went on, finishing with 13 goals and 18 assists in 44 regular season games and 1 goal and 1 assist in the series with Lukko. Teravainen, who turns 19 in September, will be counted on to provide some of the offense lost with the departures of Teemu Pulkkinen and 2012-13 leading scorer Ilari Filppula, who left for the KHL.

Both Pulkkinen and Joonas Rask will be in North America this season, with Detroit and Nashville, respectively, while veteran Ben Eaves will not play this year, opening three spots in the forward group.

Jokerit's top returning scorers are former UNH winger Steve Moses and Denmark native Nichlas Hardt. Moses, 24, led Jokerit with 22 goals as a rookie last season but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in February. Hardt was Jokerit's leading scorer with 16 goals and 25 assists in 53 games in 2011-12 but was limited to 32 games last season. He finished with six goals and four assists in the regular season and had four assists in six playoff games. Both Moses and Hardt are undersized by NHL standards.

Jokerit signed Moses' former UNH teammate Philip DeSimone in August after losing Eaves. Now 26, DeSimone spent the past two seasons in the AHL.

Antti Tyrvainen, 24, is back in Finland after two years with Edmonton's AHL affiliate Oklahoma City. His younger brother Juhani Tyrvainen, 22, is in his third season with Jokerit.

The other draftee on the Jokerit pre-season roster is Saku Salminen, who was selected by Tampa Bay in the seventh round (184th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft. He will be 19-years-old in October and split last season between Jokerit (13 games, 1 goal, 1 assist) and Kiekko-Vantaa and played for Finland in the 2013 World Junior Championship. Salminen's calling card is his size and two-way game.

Tappara Tampere (1)

Kanada Cup finalist Tappara was easily the biggest surprise of the 2012-13 season, finishing second after being 12th in the 14-team league the year before. Tappara took a 2-1 lead in the SM-Liiga finals before losing three straight games and falling to Assat in six games.

The Tampere club's top two scorers were one of the SM-Liiga's oldest players and one of its youngest.

Ville Nieminen, who played for the Calgary Flames' team that competed for the Stanley Cup in 2003-04, finished with 50 points and 132 penalty minutes (both team highs) in 57 games while 17-year-old Aleksander Barkov scored 21 goals and 27 assists in 53 regular season games and had five assists in five playoff games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

Barkov was the second overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft and will likely be skating for the Florida Panthers this fall. Nieminen, 36, is back with Tappara, as is former Boston University Terrier Chris Connolly. The 26-year-old Connolly scored 19 goals with 22 assists in 57 games last season. Like Moses, his size (5'9") appears more suited to the larger rinks in Europe (though Connolly did have 40 points in 38 games in his final season at BU).

The core of the forward group in Tampere this season figures to consist of SM-Liiga veterans and players who would no longer be considered NHL prospects, but the club did sign one player with NHL ties, St. Louis prospect Philip McRae.

A second round pick of the Blues in 2008, McRae played in 15 games for the Blues in 2010-11. He was in the AHL with Peoria the past two seasons and played just 45 games last year due to injury. He was tendered an offer by St. Louis in June and is a restricted free agent.

Henrik Haapala, 19, is another small forward (5'9”, 154) who has been a big scorer for Finland in junior tournaments. He played in 32 games for Tapppara last season and should push for a spot on Finland's U20 team at the World Junior Championship. Pekka Jormakka, 22, is also undersized but was the leading scorer for Pelicans last season.

Tappara prefers to play veterans on defense – all six defensemen in last year's playoffs were 30 or older. Five defensemen on the club's pre-season roster are 33 or older.

23-year-old Nick Bailen, who graduated from RPI in 2013, was signed over the summer after playing in 12 AHL games at the end of last season and should have a big role in Tampere. He lacks prototypical size for a defenseman but plays with a nasty disposition (Bailen topped 90 penalty minutes in three of  four seasons in junior hockey).

19-year-old Victor Westermarck skated for the Espoo Blues junior program and was seeing ice time at the European Trophy tournament.

In net, former Lethbridge Hurricane Juha Metsola, 24, returns as the starter.  He backstopped Tappara in the playoffs after playing 46 regular season games last year. He will be joined by 25-year-old Zoltan Hetenyi. A native of Hungary, Hetenyi was signed to a one-year contract by Nashville last year and spent the season in the ECHL.  Dominik Hrachovina, 19, will likely be the goalie for Tappara's U20 team while 20-year-old Mikael Edelmann, Tappara's junior goalie last season, is now with Jokipojat in Mestis.

JYP Jyvaskyla (0)

Once an afterthought when it came to the post-season, JyP has been one of the SM-Liiga's dominant clubs the past five seasons, reaching the playoff semifinals each year and winning championships in 2008-09 and 2011-12. JyP defeated Lukko Rauma, 2-0, in the SM-Liiga bronze medal game last Spring.

JyP's winning formula consists of a strong team concept which includes play-making defensemen, a handful of North American imports, and solid veteran goaltending. There aren't many players who jump out as NHL prospects but JyP should once again be near the top of the standings.
 
Marko Virtanen, a captain for JyP in the 1990's who has coached in the organization the past five seasons, takes over as head coach with Jyrki Aho now with the Espoo Blues.

Two forwards NHL fans may be familiar with are Eric Perrin and Ramzi Abid. Perrin, JyP's 37-year-old captain, was a college teammate of Martin St. Louis and Tim Thomas at the University of Vermont and played for Tampa Bay. He led JyP in scoring for the second straight season in 2012-13. Abid, now 33 years old, last played in the NHL with Nashville in 2006-07 and was  JyP's second-leading scorer last season.

With the bulk of the forward corps returning, and two more Finnish veteran players added, opportunities for young players are limited.

Mikko Salmio, 22, split last season between JyP and its Mestis team last season, appearing in 28 regular season games and 11 playoff contests. At 6'4" and 185 pounds, he is an intriguing two-way prospect. Markus Nenonen, who will be 21 in October, came up through the JyP junior program and has impressed in the pre-season.

18-year-old Joose Antonen scored four goals for Finland's U18 team at the 2013 World Junior Championship. He was ranked 51st amongst European skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings prior to the 2013 NHL Draft but was not selected. Samu Markkula, 19, was selected to the Finland U20 squad for the Lake Placid evaluation camp.

On defense, the group in Jyvaskyla will have some new faces but for the most part they've signed older domestic players. Kristian Nakyva, 22, took up some of the offensive slack for the loss of Sami Vatanen (Anaheim). In his second season with JyP, the former Espoo junior was second behind Perrin with 22 assists.

Henri Auvinen, 20, played for JyP-Akatemia in Mestis last season and skated for Finland at the 2013 World Junior Championship. Samuli Kankaanpera's size (6'3” , 200) makes him an intriguing , but the 21-year-old missed most of last season due to injury. Aleksi Salonen is another 20-year-old seeing time in the European Trophy pre-season games.

17-year-old Julius Honka, one of the top 2014 NHL Draft-eligible defensemen in Finland, was impressive playing for the JyP U20 team and with Finland's U18 team but was drafted in the CHL Import Draft and will play for the WHL's Swift Current Broncos.

Last year's goaltending tandem of veterans Tuomas Tarkki and Joni Myllykoski figures to return for another season. Sami Rajaniemi, 21, has been impressive playing for JyP-Akatemia the past two seasons, overshadowing Edmonton 2011 third round pick, Samu Perhonen.

Perhonen, 20, was not tendered a contract by the Oilers and is not signed to a contract in Finland at this point. He was selected by Indiana in the recent USHL Entry Draft and will compete for a spot with the Ice.

KalPa Kuopio (2)

One year after finishing with the SM-Liiga's best record in the regular season, KalPa slipped to fifth in 2012-13 and lost in the playoff quarterfinals. One of the highlights for the Kuopio-based club was the play of 17-year-old rookie Artturi Lehkonen.

Signed by KalPa after making his SM-Liiga debut with TPS in 2011-12, Lehknonen scored 14 goals with 16 assists in 45 regular season games and had two goals and one assist in four playoff games. He played in both the U20 and U18 World Junior Championship tournaments and was selected by Montreal in the second round (55th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft. Lehkonen will play in Kuopio for at least one more season before heading to North America.

KalPa will feature another teenage forward this season and like Lehkonen he should hear his name called on draft day next June. Kasperi Kapanen, the son of former NHL forward Sami Kapanen, skated in 13 regular season games and all four playoff games last season as a 16-year-old, at times playing on the same line as his father. He was one of the top forwards for Finland's bronze medal-winning U18 team, finishing with five goals and three assists in seven games.

Both Lehkonen and Kapanen were with Finland's U20 team at the Lake Placid camp.

KalPa's forward group returns largely intact, with the exception of leading scorer Sakari Salminen, who will play in the KHL.

One new face will be former Flyers and Hurricanes prospect Luke Pither. Signed to a three-year contract by the Flyers following an outstanding over-age season with the OHL's Barrie Colts, the 24-year-old split most of the past two seasons between the AHL and ECHL. Heikki Liedes, 20, spent the past two seasons with the USHL's Tri-City Storm and is looking to make his SM-Liiga debut this season.

KalPa's defense corps figures to be a veteran group with four players 30 or older.

Juuso Riikola turns 20 in November and is the younger brother of one-time KalPa defensemen Simo-Pekka Riikola (now with SaiPa). Riikola appeared in 20 games last season and played for Finland's U20 team in the 2013 World Junior Championship. Former RPI defenseman Jeff Foss, 24, is in Kuopio on a tryout contract.

Mikko Koskinen, who was a second round pick of the New York Islanders in 2009 and was tendered a qualifying offer in June 2012 before returning to Finland, was a workhorse in net last season but signed with the Espoo Blues this summer.

Veteran Pekka Tuokkola, a backup in Tappara and with KalPa last season, is the leading candidate to start and had some success with JyP from 2006 to 2010.

The top young prospect is 19-year-old Henri Kiviaho, a product of the SaiPa junior program who has been impressive with the KalPa U20 team the past two seasons. Kiviaho was selected by Dallas in the fifth round (144th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft. At 6'4", he has the prototypical size for NHL clubs .

HPK Hameenlinna (1)

Much like JyP, HPK is one of the smaller clubs in Finland and does not have the ability to sign many big contracts. But unlike JyP, which has been among the top teams the past few seasons, HPK has generally been in the middle of the pack during the regular season. After a disappointing season in 2011-12, the Hameenlinna-based club had a bounce back season last year, finishing sixth before falling to JyP in the playoff quarterfinals.

The success of the HPK junior team the last two seasons – including an SM-Liiga A juniors championship in 2012-13 – has been a cause for some excitement.

Much of that excitement in the central Finland region revolves around 18-year-old goalie Juuse Saros. Rated as the top European goalie in Central Scouting's final rankings heading into the 2013 NHL Draft, Saros was selected by Nashville in the fourth round (99th overall).

Frans Tuohimaa, 22, signed a two-year, entry-level contract with Edmonton in April 2013 but will spend one more season in Finland. The trio of Tuohimaa, Saros, and 20-year-old Timo Niemi gives HPK one of the youngest and most talented goaltending corps in Finland.

Niemi split last season in Joensuu with Jokipojat's Mestis and U20 teams.

While it is a big jump from juniors to pro hockey, Saros is highly-regarded and joined Korpisalo playing for Finland at the U20 evaluation camp in Lake Placid.

One of the bigger challenges for head coach Kai Rautio in his second season is rebuilding the HPK defense corps.

Last season, HPK used 12 different players on the blue line. Aleksi Laakso, 23, is the top returner, point-wise. A bit undersized by NHL standards, he is the type of skating, creative defender that Rautio likes.

The club has signed a pair of SM-Liiga veterans but there could be opportunities for younger players — particularly 22-year-old Lauri Karmeniemi and Pekka Nikkila, 21 — both of whom came up through the HPK junior program. Karmeniemi played in Mestis last season with TuTo while Nikkila was a teammate of Saros' on the HPK U20 championship team.

Jyri Niemi, 23, played for the HPK junior team before spending three seasons in the WHL and playing in the Islanders and Rangers systems the past three years. Selected by the Islanders in the third round in 2008, he shuttled between the AHL and ECHL, finishing last season with Greenville. Craig Shira, 25, spent three seasons in the AHL before playing in Norway last season and will get a look.

HPK returns the bulk of its forward group from last year, including leading scorers Ville Viitaluoma, Jere Sallinen, and Tuomas Santavuori.

Sallinen was one of the top junior scorers in Finland when he was selected by the Wild in the 6th round in 2009. He endured a series of injuries and limited ice time in his first two SM-Liiga seasons in Espoo and was not tendered a contract by Minnesota. Obtained by HPK in mid-season in 2011-12, Sallinen, who will be 23 in October, had a breakout season in a first line role last season, finishing +26 with 15 goals and 27 assists in 57 regular season games. He had a goal and an assist in five playoff games.

21-year-old Otto Paajanen is a responsible two-way forward who was the only player to appear in all 60 games for HPK last year. Paajanen's defensive play was a big part of Finland's fourth place finish in the 2012 World Junior Championship.

Karpat Oulu (2)

Karpat, isolated in northwest Finland, languished in the middle of the SM-Liiga standings for a fourth straight season after a string of six finals appearances in seven years between 2002-03 and 2008-09. The club was seventh in the regular season and was defeated by tenth-place Lukko in the playoff qualifying round.

Once able to sign high-priced free agents and imports, Karpat has relied more on players from the local Karpat and Laser junior teams in recent years and older players returning to finish their careers with their home club.

Swedish goalie Johan Backlund and former Sarnia Sting goalie Tomi Karhunen split the goaltending for Karpat last season. Backlund signed a KHL contract over the summer but Karhunen, 23, is back.

Jussi Rynnas returns to Finland after spending three seasons in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, mostly with the AHL's Toronto Marlies. Now 26, Rynnas appeared in three NHL games the past two seasons. 18-year-old Toni Eskelin showed promise with the Karpat U20 team in 2012-13.

Defensemen Ville Pokka, a second round pick of the Islanders (34th overall) in 2012, continued to develop, playing in 50 games for Karpat a year ago (including three playoff games). He was one of the top defenders for Finland's U20 team in an otherwise disappointing 2013 World Junior Championship. Still only 19 years old, Pokka will spend at least one more season in Finland before heading to North America.

The defense corps that new coach Lauri Marjamaki puts on the ice this season will have a far different look as veteran Josef Boumedienne has retired and his partner on the team's top pair, Swedish 24-year-old Oscar Eklund, signed with HIFK.

Mikko Lehtonen (35), Ari Vallin (35) and captain Lasse Kukkonen (31) figure to see much of the time at defense. Czech-born 21-year-old Vladimir Eminger appeared in 36 regular season games and two playoff contests last season after playing for the Karpat U20 team in 2011-12. Markus Nutivaara, a 19-year-old from Oulu, was also seeing action in the European Trophy tournament.

Juha-Pekka Haataja, the team's leading scorer in 2012-13 signed a KHL contract with Atlant Mytischi but most of the top forwards are back.

Like the defensemen, most are older veterans, such as former Boston Bruin Ivan Huml (31) and Ben Maxwell, 25, Montreal's second round pick in 2006. Signed in August, Maxwell played for the AHL's St. John Ice Caps last year after playing 47 NHL games with three different teams over four seasons.

Julius Juntilla, 22, was fourth on the team last year with 15 goals while 21-year-old Joonas Donskoi, a fourth round pick by Florida in 2010 (never signed by the Panthers), played 31 regular season games and three playoff games. 19-year-old's Saku Maenalanen and Ville-Valtteri Leskinen were the top two scorers in Finnish juniors playing for Karpat's U20 team.

Maenalanen was selected by Nashville in the fifth round (125th overall) in 2013, while Leskinen skated for Finland's U20 team at the evaluation camp in Lake Placid.

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