Finland 2007 draft review

By Pekka Lampinen

The 2007 NHL Entry Draft was the worst for Finland in ages. Only four Finnish players were picked, none of them in the top 100.

The most recent draft that looked this bleak was either 1989, 1985 or as far in the past as 1979, depending on the criteria. For purposes of comparison, the table below shows the overall positions in which the Finns were picked in each of the four weak drafts. Whether the 2007 draft was the worst in 18, 22 or 28 years is a matter of opinion.

Pick

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2007

1989

1985

1979

1st

115

50

101

2nd

170

111

140

3rd

177

130

197

4th

204

249

A rare if not unique occurrence, a country outside of the established top seven had a better draft than Finland in absolute terms: Germany got each of their four picks in before Finland, which has come crashing down from its record number of 26 draftees in 2002. A more viable comparison is the 2006 draft held under the current rules, where Finland managed 14 picks. That is the number the country should continue to strive for in order to remain competitive.

So what was it that went wrong? The draft was generally a disappointment; the judgment of the NHL organizations was even harsher than what was thought of the prospects prior to the draft. The commentary around the draft implied that the new drafting rules (rights on Europeans now expire in two years, transfer fees are more stifling) didn’t fully alter drafting habits upon their imposing in 2005, but that NHL organizations have just now learned to prefer North Americans. Hence, it was more difficult for a Finn to get drafted in 2007 than in 2006.

Beaten by Switzerland and Slovakia to the medal round, the Finnish team in the U18 World Championships was disappointing. Only one member of that team, Niclas Lucenius, was picked, as others (and even he) failed to make a strong impression of themselves in the most important games of the year.

The highest-ranking Finns left undrafted were center Lassi Kokkala and goalie Juha Metsola. Such prospects lasting through the whole draft is generally unheard of. Kokkala had dominated international rinks for a full year and the characteristics of his game spoke of high potential as well. Apparently teams wanted to make their final call in the U18 WC, a tournament which Kokkala botched completely. Metsola on the other hand had a strong tournament there, but he still became the first Finnish U18 WC starting goalie to go undrafted in his first draft year since 1993.

1. Niklas Lucenius, C

Atlanta Thrashers, 4th round, 115th overall from Tappara Jr A

The talented center Niclas Lucenius was Atlanta’s second pick out of four in the draft, so he is considered a key part among those acquired in the 2007 draft.

Lucenius’ stock remained steadily elevated throughout his teen years. At first, his draft year seemed nothing out of the ordinary in either good or bad until a brief upswing in a Five Nations tournament in December, where Lucenius led the tournament with four goals and four assists in four games. At the end of the season, he played mildly hurt in the U18 WC. Failing at a cohesive team game, Lucenius and Team Finland both went down in the tournament.

As a result, the solid prospect took a short fall to the fourth round of the draft. At the 115th position, the Thrashers got a well-rounded, gritty player, typical of the organization. Picking Lucenius was a logical continuation of Atlanta’s drafting habits. They have spent late picks on Finns every few years, now going slightly higher to get Lucenius.

2. Harri Ilvonen, D

Minnesota Wild, 6th round, 170th overall from Tappara Jr A

Followers of Finnish hockey had to wait for the second pick of the draft until the sixth round, when Harri Ilvonen turned out to be one of the Wild’s five choices. Ilvonen’s breakout season in 2006-07 got to a good start early on, so despite the fact that he had no major international tournament to play in as U19, he could be scouted extensively throughout the season.

Dominating the Finnish Jr A league, Ilvonen assumed a two-way role, posting a strong total of 30 points in 39 games. His abilities are better suited for a more defensive game, though, so once he takes on professional opponents in the years to come, the Wild will be looking forward to the aid of a more conservative blueliner.

Minnesota has not targeted Finns regularly in the past. Ilvonen is only the fourth player and first defenseman ever chosen out of Finland by the Wild.

3. Vili Sopanen, RW

New Jersey Devils, 6th round, 177th overall from Pelicans Jr A

The choice of Vili Sopanen came soon after Ilvonen. With it the Devils went slightly off the board of Finnish prospects. Until 2006-07, Sopanen wasn’t a mainstay on junior national teams, and as a result he accumulated less international experience than most European draftees. Despite his size, he never moved to older junior levels prematurely.

In the past season, Sopanen made more of a name for himself in international rinks, eventually making it to the WJC. Playing the smallest role of all 13 Finnish forwards there, he didn’t showcase himself much other than scoring a goal against Canada in a practice game. Sopanen’s domestic season was stronger, as he led U20 Pelicans with 39 points in 33 games in the regular season, followed by 18 points in the 15 games of a victorious playoff campaign. The championship title was an important experience for Sopanen.

A big but somewhat finesse-oriented winger, Sopanen combines skating ability and puck skills for an impressive potential the Devils liked. Whether his decision-making abilities are up to the challenge, Sopanen could beat the odds to make it to New Jersey.

Curiously, Sopanen is the only late Finnish pick by the Devils in the past 10 years. Upon bad experiences with Mikko Jokela (1998), Teemu Laine (2000) and Tuomas Pihlman (2001), the organization has shied away from Finns in the top 100 as well since then. With each of the four picks, they have drafted for size.

4. Atte Engren, G

Nashville Predators, 7th round, 204th overall from Lukko Jr A

The last Finnish pick of the draft, Atte Engren didn’t get an international career going until late in his U18 year in 2005-06. He went on a hot streak in the spring season and playoffs of the Finnish Jr A league, making the U18 WC tournament as a backup. He bowed to receive a silver medal, having played just half a minute in the tournament. Engren was passed over in the 2006 entry draft. As U19 in 2006-07, he appeared in just two international games, posting solid numbers against Belarus. Still, it was this year that the Predators had scouted Engren sufficiently to pick him in the seventh round.

The Predators have been one of the most eager teams to hoard Finns, with seven picks in the last seven drafts topped with two prospects signed as free agents. Having spent only an eighth-round pick in 2004 to get Pekka Rinne close to the NHL, no doubt the Predators are looking to repeat that with another Finnish goalie.

A hybrid butterfly goalie, Engren can only thrive on excellent technique, which he must continue to hone. Engren will continue with Lukko in 2007-08, battling for the backup’s post while getting most of his minutes at Jr A level.

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