SM-liiga 2013-14 season preview, part 2

By Tony Piscotta
Miro Aaltonen - Finland

Photo: Anaheim Ducks prospect Miro Aaltonen suffered a borken ankle at the 2013 WJC, but managed to return for playoff action with Espoo’s U20 squad where he picked up 13 points in eight games (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

In the first part of this preview, HF looked at seven of the 14 teams that are competing in Finland's SM-liiga for the 2013-14 season. In this second part, we look at the remaining seven teams taking part in Finland's top hockey league 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).

HIFK Helsinki (0)

Since winning the Kanada Cup championship two years ago, things have been tumultuous for the Helsinki-based club, though talk of a new arena has caused some excitement. Plans call for the new arena to be completed by 2016. Always one of the more talented teams in the SM-Liiga, HIFK is hoping things come together on the ice before then.

The club slipped into the playoffs, finishing eighth, and defeated SaiPa in the preliminary round before falling to Tappara in the quarterfinals.

One bright spot for HIFK last season was the play of goalie Joni Ortio.

HIFK signed Ortio following the 2011-12 season, when he returned to Finland and ended the year on loan to TPS from Calgary after skating for the Flames' AHL affiliate in Abbotsford.  Ortio appeared in a league-high 54 games and was 23-20-9 with four shutouts and had a 2.42 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. In eight playoff games he was 3-5 with a 2.49 goals-against and a .922 save percentage. Ortio played for Finland at the 2013 IIHF World Championship and had a 1.98 goals-against in three games.

Ortio's play last season improved his stock in the Calgary organization, so he has been in camp with the Flames to this point. The Flames goaltending picture is a crowded one now that Miikka Kiprusoff has retired, with another Finnish goalie, former Lightning prospect Karri Ramo, also vying with AHL veteran Joey MacDonald for the job. Ramo has been one of the KHL's top goalies the past four seasons with Avangard Omsk.

With Ortio in North America, HIFK signed one-time Penguins prospect Brad Thiessen and 33-year-old Antti Ore. Thiessen, 27, appeared in five games with Pittsburgh in 2011-12 and spent four seasons with the Penguins AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, after leaving Northeastern University in 2008-09. Ore appeared in 22 games for Espoo last season and has spent most of his career in the Finnish lower leagues and in Norway.

Ville Husso was ranked sixth amongst European goalies in Central Scouting's final rankings prior to the 2013 NHL Draft but was not selected. The 19-year-old played 41 games for HIFK's junior team last year and figures to start the season either in Mestis or back in Junior A.

HIFK lost top scorer Mikael Granlund to the NHL last season and took another hit this summer when a pair of players signed NHL deals. Defenseman Ilari Melart, 24, signed a free agent contract with Columbus while Markus Granlund, Mikael's younger brother, signed a three-year entry-level contract with Calgary in April. He was a second round pick of the Flames in the 2011 draft.

As is usually the case with HIFK, the club will go with big-name veterans, leaving little room for youngsters to make their mark (Markus Granlund, the team's second leading scorer a year ago, and 24-year-old Roope Talaja were the only players under 26 amongst HIFK's top ten scorers in 2012-13).

Names like Ville Peltonen, the team's 40-year-old captain, and Rico Fata and possibly Juuso Puustinen are familiar to NHL fans but their presence leaves little opportunity for future prospects to assume top roles.

Iiro Pakarinen, an overage draft pick of Florida in 2011, appeared in 33 games last season in his first year with HIFK after three seasons with KalPa. The 21-year-old was not tendered a contract by the Panthers and is back with HIFK. Thomas Nykopp, 20, played for the USHL's Tri-City Storm in 2011-12 and split last season between HIFK's men's team and U20 team. In 34 SM-Liiga games, including two playoff games, he had four assists and was -4 with 28 penalty minutes. Nykopp skated for FInland at the 2013 World Junior Championship.

Hoping to have the same success as Jokerit did with Moses, HIFK signed 2013 UNH graduate Austin Block over the summer. Block, 23, scored 15 goals in 39 games for the Wildcats last season.

The club also dipped into the college hockey ranks to sign 23-year-old defenseman Braden Birch from Cornell. Birch, selected by Chicago in the sixth round of the 2008 draft but not tendered a contract, played in 128 games for the Big Red in his four year career. The club also signed 27-year-old Jason DeSantis, a 2008 graduate of Ohio State who played the last three seasons in the AHL.

Of the defensemen coming out of the HIFK junior program, Julius Nyqvist is offensively gifted and was a big part of HIFK's U20 championship in 2011-12. He played three SM-Liiga games as a 20-year-old, spending most of the season with KooKoo in Mestis. Nyqvist scored five goals with one assist in 14 Mestis regular season games and had three goals with five assists in 11 playoff games.

SaiPa Lappeenranta (0)

SaiPa made the playoffs for just the fourth time since gaining promotion from Mestis in 1996-97. The eastern-most club in Finland, SaiPa was ninth in the regular season and lost to HIFK in a best-of-three qualifying series.

SaiPa's biggest challenge is maintaining continuity, as home-grown players who have success usually move on while others have spent one year with the club to try and re-build reputations before pursuing greener pastures.

In goal, Jani Nieminen, 26, a product of the HIFK junior system, had a bounce-back year after two seasons with Tappara, going 15-10-10 in 36 games with a 2.61 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Nieminen left SaiPa late in the season to play for Ak Bars Kazan and was replaced by veteran Miika Wiikman, who played 13 games and started all three playoff games.

Neither are with the club, which is set to start the 2013-14 season with 38-year-old Jussi Markanen, who grew up in nearby Imatra, as its starter. Markanen played  for Edmonton and the New York Rangers in the NHL and has been with Zug in Switzerland the last four seasons.

Andreas Bernard, 23, won a championship in Mestis last year with Jukurit and played for Italy's national team. Bernard spent two years in the SaiPa junior program after coming over from Italy and played six SM-Liiga games for SaiPa in 2011-12.

Former Maple Leafs and Lightning prospect Stefano Giliati led SaiPa in scoring and penalty minutes in his first season in Finland after a year in Italy. He is back for a second season but long-time AHL veteran Brad Moran, who joined the team in mid-season, is signed to play in Austria. Patrick Davis, who played eight games with the Devils in 2009-10, was signed in July after spending one season in Germany and last season with CSKA in the KHL.

In terms of NHL prospects, the top young forwards for SaiPa, Jesse Mankinen and Jesper Piitulainen, are undersized though they do have offensive skill. One player to watch in the future is 16-year-old Joonas Jaaskelainen. While it is likely he will spend the season with SaiPa's U20 team, Jaaskelainen skated for Finland's U18 team at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

One-time Anaheim Duck Brian Salcido was SaiPa's top offensive defenseman for the second straight season, but his success allowed him to sign a KHL contract with Amur Khabarovsk.

20-year-old Samuli Piipponen is 6'3 and 195 pounds. He missed most of last season but had nine points in six games for SaiPa's U20 team and skated for champion Jukurit in the Mestis playoffs and in the relegation series against Ilves.

Lukko Rauma (0)

Lukko's season was a bit of a roller coaster in 2012-13. The team got off to a fast start as Danish NHL players Mikkel Boedker, Philip Larsen, and Frans Nielsen skated for the club during the NHL lockout. When the lockout ended, the team struggled, slipping to tenth place, three points ahead of Pelicans for the final playoff spot. In the SM-Liiga playoffs, Lukko knocked off Karpat and first-place Jokerit before being swept by Tappara in the semifinals.

Like other small market clubs in Finland, the bulk of Rauma's team is composed of targeted veteran imports and older Finnish players who are back in Finland after having success elsewhere.

Much of Lukko's success last season could be attributed to veteran goalie Petri Vehanen, who returned to Lukko after two seasons with Ak Bars in Russia. Vehanen, 36, will return to the KHL this season, skating for HC Lev in Prague.

Former Mercyhurst College goalie Ryan Zapolski, who was one of the ECHL's top goalies last season, was signed over the summer. The 26-year-old was 25-11-2 in 38 games for South Carolina last season. The Stingrays were swept by Gwinnett in a three-game playoff series with Zapolski posting a 3.34 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. Oskari Setanen, 19, played 55 games for Lukko's U20 team last season, including 10 playoff games, and was impressive with Finland's U19 team.

Lukko's defense corps will once again be a veteran unit with limited opportunities for younger players. The Rauma club returns five of the six starting defensemen from last season's playoffs and added three players who were 34 or older, including long-time Finnish national team member Petteri Nummelin. The offensively gifted Nummelin turns 41 in November and spent three seasons in the NHL (one with Columbus, two with the WIld).

One intriguing youngster is 20-year-old Roni Viirlas. At 6'3, 210 pounds, he has the size teams seek. Viirlas split last season between Lukko, appearing in 18 regular season games and 14 playoff contests, and SaPko in Mestis. He also finished with 3 goals and 22 assists in 28 games for the Lukko U20 team.

Former Kings' prospect Justin Azevedo was Lukko's leading scorer last season but will be in Prague with Vehanen in the KHL.  In his place Lukko signed 26-year-old Steven Zalewski, who spent the past two seasons in the Devils organization and played seven games for New Jersey in 2011-12.

One young prospect who was gaining notice in the pre-season was 16-year-old Aleksi Saarela. Not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2015, he scored the game-winning goal in Lukko's pre-season contest against KHL club Novosibirsk.

19-year-old Joni Nikko is 6'2 and 190 pounds, and is hoping to make the jump from juniors to the SM-Liiga. Nikko was with Finland's U20 team at the evaluation camp in Lake Placid.

Pelicans Lahti (1)

Coming off the most successful season in club history, Pelicans failed to follow up that success, finishing 11th in the 14-team league and missing the playoffs for the seventh time in the last 11 seasons. The signing of former NHL first round picks Ryan O'Marra and Angelo Esposito did not work out as planned as both eventually left to play in Italy with O'Marra finishing the season in Norway.

Hannu Aravirta, who spent three seasons in Lahti from 2006-07 to 2008-09, will be back behind the bench for Pelicans after three seasons with Karpat. Aravirta has a reputation as a strong teacher for younger players. He has his work cut out for him with the limited budget in Lahti.

In goal, veteran Jere Myllyniemi returns for his second season after playing 36 games a year ago. Overshadowed by NHL netminders Ondrej Pavelec and one-time Pelican Antti Niemi, who played in Lahti during the lockout, the 30-year-old Myllyniemi was 15-13-6 with one shutout and had a 2.66 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Joonas Kuusela, Myllyniemi's back up a year ago, will start the season in Mestis and all eyes are on Janne Juvonen, who turns 19 in October.

Juvonen, selected by Nashville in the seventh round (203rd overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft, backed up Joonas Korpisalo with Team Finland at the U20 World Junior Championship last year. He appeared in four games for Pelicans last year while splitting the season between Peliitat in Mestis and the Pelicans U20 team.

Defensively, Pelicans have re-configured their core group but figure to use predominantly SM-Liiga veterans. Oskari Korpikari, a late round pick by Montreal in 2003, never made it over to North America but was a fixture during Karpat's run of finals appearances last decade. Now 29, he is back for his second season with Pelicans.

Among the younger defensemen, 22-year-old Joonas Hurri grew up in Lahti and played a career-high 35 SM-Liiga games last season. Stepan Jenik, 20, was signed after playing for Karpat's U20 team last season. Jenik also skated for the Czech Republic at the 2013 World Junior Championship. Juha-Pekka Pietila, 22, is from nearby Hollola and is the largest player (6'3"  200) on the Pelicans blue line.

Pekka Jormakka, who scored 19 goals with 16 assists in 54 games  to lead Pelicans in scoring in 2012-13, is now in Tampere, but much of the Pelicans forward corps returns intact. Other than Janne Tavi, who is now with SaiPa, Jormakka was the only player among Lahti's top ten scorers under the age of 25, so opportunities for youngsters may be limited.

The Pelicans offense will be boosted by the return of a healthy Vili Sopanan. A sixth round pick of New Jersey in 2007, Sopanen is a big forward who scored 21 goals during Pelicans second-place season two years ago. He was limited to 33 games last season due to some nagging injuries and finished with 3 goals and 15 assists.

Roope Elimaki scored 21 goals with 28 assists in 49 games and was the captain for Pelicans U20 team in 2012-13. The 20-year-old is currently the youngest forward on Pelicans' roster.

Espoo Blues (3)

Espoo Blues' junior program has produced some of the better prospects in FInland the past few years, particularly on defense, but that success has not translated to regular season success at the SM-Liiga level — though the club reached the playoff semifinals in 2011-12 and 2012-13 after finishing ninth and eighth respectively.

Things bottomed out in Espoo last season as the club missed the playoffs for the first time since 2004-05, finishing in 12th place.

Jyrki Aho, a long-time assistant to Risto Dufva with JyP before ascending to the head coaching job for that club in mid-season in 2011-12, takes over in Espoo replacing Lauri Marjamaki. The 39-year-old Aho has his work cut out for him.

With former AHL/NHL prospect Mark Lee currently a free agent, Espoo is the only SM-Liiga team with no North American imports currently on the roster. Espoo will feature one of the youngest forward groups in Finland, with eight forwards 23 or younger currently on the roster.

If there was a bright side to last year's struggles,  it was that Espoo managed to get many of its young players experience, particularly teenage forwards Juuso Ikonen and Miro Aaltonen.

While NHL teams likely shied away from Ikonen in the 2013 NHL Draft due to his lack of size (5'8", 170) and limited physical game (he had just four penalty minutes in 57 games), the 18-year-old was Espoo's fifth-leading scorer with 13 goals and 13 assists and was a consistent offensive threat in international play with Finland's U18 team.

Aaltonen, who turned 20 in June, was drafted by the Ducks in the 2013 NHL Draft in his third year of eligibility. Like Ikonen he is a bit light and undersized but he was one of the top forwards for Finland's U20 team before suffering a horrific ankle injury in the team's opening game against Latvia. Aaltonen scored 11 goals in 32 games for Espoo before the injury and was able to return to the club's U20 team for the playoffs, where he finished with 13 points in eight games.

One interesting "import" is Estonian forward Robert Rooba. The 19-year-old has played five seasons in Espoo's junior program and appeared in two SM-Liiga games last season. He has ideal size and played for Estonia's men's and U20 teams last season.

The other NHL draftee playing for Espoo is defenseman Niklas Tikkinen. Selected by Phoenix in the fifth round (148th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft, the 19-year-old skated in 25 SM-Liiga games last season (1 goal, 7 assists, 12 penalty minutes) and also played in Mestis and with the Espoo U20 team.

Both Tikkinen and Ikonen skated for Finland's U20 team at the evaluation camp in Lake Placid in August.

The Blues will have one of the SM-Liiga's younger goaltending tandems in Mikko Koskinen (25) and Norwegian 21-year-old Lars Volden, but that may not be a bad thing.

Like Koskinen, Volden is a former NHL draft pick, selected by Boston in the sixth round (181st overall) in 2011. Unlike Koskinen, who received a tender offer from the Islanders and is a restricted free agent, Volden was not tendered an offer by the Bruins and is currently an unrestricted NHL free agent. Volden had decent numbers last season splitting the year between Espoo and Mestis and also played for Norway at the 2013 IIHF World Championship.

TPS Turku (0)

It's hard to imagine that TPS won the league's Kanada Cup in 2009-10 after the club finished next-to-last in the league for the second time in three seasons. In an effort to reverse that trend, TPS hired former Pelicans coach Kai Sukkanen and unsuccessfully negotiated with one of the heroes from that 2009-10 team, American defenseman Lee Sweatt.

Sukkanen engineered a similar turnaround while in Lahti, taking Pelicans from 13th to second place and the SM-Liiga finals in one season. Sweatt, who signed a contract with the Canucks following the championship, has not played hockey the past two seasons and has yet to sign with TPS.

One-time Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Fredrik Norrena, originally signed to be the team's goaltending coach for 2013-14, will play one more season. Norrena will be 40 in November and spent the past three seasons in Sweden after three seasons with Columbus between 2006 and 2009. Norrena's return marks the second time in as many years that a former national team goaltender returned to Turku to finish his career. Former Philadelphia Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki played 14 games last season before announcing his retirement.

One-time Nashville prospect Atte Engren, who appeared in 47 of 60 games for TPS last season, has moved on to the KHL but former Flyers' prospect Ville Hostikka returns.

TPS has produced a steady stream of outstanding young goalies under the watchful eye of goalie coach Urpo Ylonen but a true blue-chip prospect has yet to emerge from the half dozen goaltenders in the Turku junior program.

Defensively, Rasmus Ristolainen was arguably the club's top defensemen as a 17-year-old and was the eighth player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft. He signed a three-year, entry-level contract with Buffalo in July and will have an opportunity to make the Sabres in training camp but could return for one more year in Turku.

Ristolainen, averaged 21:40 of ice time per game last season, second only to Veli-Matti Viitasmaki (21:40) amongst defensemen who spent the full season with TPS. Vittasmaki, 23, was one of four TPS players (and the only defenseman) to skate in all 60 games last season.

The TPS blueline will be among the SM-Liiga's youngest. Adding to that youth, Turku recently signed 2013 Michigan Tech graduate Steven Seigo. The 23-year-old was an assistant captain for the Huskies and played nine games with the AHL's Abbotsford Heat last spring after completing his senior season.

As in the 2011-12 season, TPS struggled to score goals as the team finished with 144 goals in 60 games, topping only last-place Ilves (124).  Former Chicago Blackhawks prospect Marko Anttila and long-time NHL forward Brian Willsie were the top two scorers for TPS last season. Both were originally headed to the KHL for 2013-14 but Willsie was back with TPS during the European Trophy tournament and will be back in Turku.

Tero Koskiranta, 29, is the only other returning player to score more than eight goals last season; he had 12 along with 21 assists in 60 games.

TPS played with just nine forwards at times last season due to injuries and a short roster. That shouldn't be the case this year as the club brought in several young forwards, including five teenagers.

Dan Sexton, who played 48 games with the Ducks in 2010-11, was signed after spending the past two seasons in the AHL. TPS also added Francis Pare, who spent four seasons in the Red Wings organization. Both Sexton and Pare are 26.

Another intriguing signee is 22-year-old Lithuanian Tadas Kumeliauskas. The center was signed to a tryout contract after playing in Kazakhstan last year. Kumeliauskas was skating on a line with one-time Tampa Bay prospect Matias Sointu at the European Trophy tournament. Sointu, now 23, led Ilves in scoring a year ago and was added over the summer.

Rasmus Kulmala, 19, skated in 49 games a year ago. He scored 3 goals with 5 assists and this summer was invited to the U20 team evaluation camp in Lake Placid. Three forwards from TPS' junior team – Teemu Lamsa, Manu Honkanen, and Mikko Rantanen — played for Finland's U18 team in the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

Ilves Tampere (1)

The struggles continued for Ilves — which was forced to face a Mestis champion in the  relegation series to maintain a spot in the SM-Liiga for the third time in four seasons. While the club was successful, defeating Jukurit four games to one in a best-of-seven series, there is plenty of work to be done if Ilves is going to return to respectability.

Head coach Tuomas Tuokkola, who took over for Raimo Helminan at mid-season a year ago, begins his first full season in Tampere. LIke Aho, Tuokkola spent several seasons coaching in the JyP program. Tuokkola was the head coach for KalPa for one season in 2011-12 and was relieved of his duties last year just before the season started.

One bright spot for Ilves was the emergence of one-time Lethbridge Hurricane Ville Kolppanen in net. After sharing time early in the year and backing up Tampa Bay Lighting goalie Anders Lindback during the NHL lockout, Kolppanen took over the reigns for Ilves as a 20-year-old in the second half of the season. In 30 games he was 7-17-3 with a 3.24 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage. Kolppanen started four of five games against Jukurit and was 3-1 with a 1.91 goals-against and a .927 save percentage.

Juha Jarvenpaa, who grew playing junior hockey in Pori and was a backup to Antti Raanta with Assat last season, will vie with Kolppanen for the starting spot. He appeared in 18 games and was 6-10-2 with two shutouts, posting a 2.56 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.

22-year-old Jyrki Jokipakka signed a three-year entry-level contract with Dallas in June 2012 but was loaned to Ilves by the Stars last season. In 59 games he scored 5 goals with 13 assists and was -29; averaging 23:43 minutes of ice time. Jokipakka will likely be with the AHL's Texas Stars this season.

As feeble as the Ilves offense was,  the Tampere club gave up a league-high 193 goals against in 2102-13.

Ilves' top defenseman a year ago, former Predator and Panther Ville Koistinen, will play for Davos in Switzerland this year but 37-year-old veteran Martti Jarventie returns after spending part of last season with HIFK.

The club signed two import defensemen, recent Union College graduate Greg Coburn and former Toronto Marlie Simon Gysbers. Coburn, 24, skated in 153 games for the Dutchmen during his four year career while the 26-year-old Gysbers spent the past three seasons with the Marlies.

Among the younger defensemen for Ilves, 23-year-old Niko Peltola had 3 goals with 7 assists in 45 games in his third season and Konsta Makinen, 21, played in 42 games in his first full SM-Liiga season.

Dallas selected another Ilves defenseman in the most recent NHL Draft, picking 18-year-old Aleksi Makela in the seventh round (182nd overall). Makela played for Ilves' U20 and U18 teams a year ago and made his SM-Liiga debut. He played seven regular season games and three contests in the relegation series with Jukurit. Makela will likely start the season either in Mestis or with the Ilves U20 team.

As mentioned above, Ilves' scored a league-low 124 goals and 14 of those goals were scored by the departed Matias Sointu.

Former St. Louis Blues forward Daniel Corso, now 35, spent the last three seasons in the KHL. He had 52 points in 41 games for Karpat in 2008-09 so Ilves is hoping there is something left in the tank.

Among the younger forwards, 24-year-old Michael Keranen was Ilves' second-leading scorer a year ago in his third SM-Liiga season. He scored 13 goals with 14 assists in 56 games. Kai Kantola, who played college hockey at Bowling Green, also had his best offensive season in his third year, finishing with 11 goals and 11 assists in 37 games.

One player looking to establish himself in his second SM-Liiga season is 20-year-old Alexander Ruuttu. The 51st player taken in the 2011 NHL Draft when he was selected by Phoenix, Ruuttu started the 2012-13 season with Jokerit but after four games was loaned to Mestis' Kiekko-Vantaa and ended up with Ilves in January.

In 22 SM-Liiga games, Ruuttu had six assists and was +1 with 52 penalty minutes and he was scoreless in four games during the relegation series against Jukurit. Ruutu had a bit more offensive success in Mestis, scoring 9 goals with 17 assists in 35 games but was not tendered a contract by the Coyotes. Ruuttu re-entered the 2013 NHL Draft but was not selected.