The Wild continue to grow a little stronger and a little deeper with Chuck Fletcher leading the way, but the organization still lacks the kind of elite skill players other teams have in their pipelines. Though the Wild moved to address its weak pool along the wings, outside of Mikael Granlund, there is still a lack of blue-chip prospects at forward. The defensive pool is pretty good as far as shutdown guys, but could use more high-end offensive skill. The goaltending prospects are progressing pretty well, and represent the area of least concern. It’s no surprise that the same types of players can be found through the organization, but whether that represents the best chance for success remains a dubious proposition.
The difficult conditions that have affected the worldwide economy have leveled the competitive playing field in the SM-Liiga. In 2009-10, with the top Finnish players heading towards more lucrative deals in North America or elsewhere, the bigger clubs could no longer dominate by simply signing high-priced talent and import players to win a championship.
JyP, which has historically relied on a system that gets the most out of solid, fundamentally sound team play, won the regular season title. In the playoffs, Turku-based TPS, an also-ran for several years, used a balanced attack and solid goaltending from the combination of 21-year-old Atte Engren and American David Leggio to capture the Canada Cup. Conversely, big budget clubs like Espoo Blues, Jokerit, and Karpat finished in the middle of the pack or lower and weren’t much of a factor in the post-season.
Once again this season the SM-Liiga race figures to be wide open as several top players have left the league for big contracts elsewhere. Ironically, the struggles of a year ago are proving beneficial to some of the clubs that were lower in the standings – as they had an opportunity to gain experience for their younger players.
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher and his team did a targeted reload at the 2010 Entry Draft, specifically adding skill players who can play along the wings. This strategy, along with some free agent prospect signings, gives the Wild’s Top 20 a greatly renovated look from last March. With a lot of new youth, and a lot of players about to start their seasons in brand new leagues, the Wild’s depth chart compares favorably with other teams around the league.
Top 20 at a glance:
The performance of Team Finland at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver was a window into the state of Finnish hockey. With a veteran-laden lineup, Finland captured a surprising bronze medal with a comeback win over Slovakia after being overwhelmed by a youthful Team USA in the semifinals.
The result was both a testament to, and perhaps a curtain call for, the greatest generation of Finnish hockey players like Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. At the same time, the lack of high-level young players on the squad, particularly when compared to the Americans, amplified the whispers of the past few years that the new generation of Finnish players may not equal the previous one.
The lack of high-end prospects is especially noticeable in the SM-Liiga. With the exodus of young players to North American juniors and other top players moving to Sweden, Russia and other European countries, Finland’s national league is a haven for older players who are just below NHL-caliber or who simply wish to play at home.
Of the 15 NHL-protected, drafted forwards, not more than two or three appear to be serious candidates to one day play in the NHL.
Top five wingers at a glance
After making the astute selection of Mikko Koivu out of TPS Turku at sixth overall in 2001, the Wild have not had much success with their European scouting. They have European-born players such as Erik Haula and Alexander Fallstrom playing in North America, however.
Sallinen is a decent sized left wing (6’0 183) now playing with the Espoo Blues of the SM-Liiga. Sallinen took a crushing blueline check at the 2010 World Juniors from Russia‘s Evgeny Timkin and missed the remainder of that tournament. Sallinen returned to his team, none too much the worse for the wear. Noted for a physical style of game, Sallinen will have to learn to protect himself to succeed at this level and the next.