Pokka top NHL defensive property playing in Finland

By Tony Piscotta

Esa Lindell - Team Finland

Photo: Jokerit defenseman and Dallas Stars prospect Esa Lindell (R) scored the first goal of the game in Finland’s 3-2 gold medal win over Sweden at the 2014 World Junior Championship (courtesy of LUDVIG THUNMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

With the wealth of talented young defensemen coming out of Finland's junior hockey program lately, it's hard to imagine that just three years ago there was a serious dearth of prospects.

Unfortunately, that success has many of the top defenders — either juniors like Mikko Vainonen (NSH/Kingston) and Julius Honka (2014 draft-eligible/Swift Current), or young pros like Olli Maatta (PIT) and Rasmus Ristolainen (BUF/Rochester (AHL)) — heading to North America.

As a result, the number of defensive prospects still playing in Finland are limited to late-round picks and/or potential unrestricted free agents.

Two exceptions are Karpat's Ville Pokka (NYI) and Esa Lindell of Jokerit (DAL) — both of whom played key roles for Finland's gold medal-winning squad at the 2014 World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden.

Pokka has been one of the top defensemen in Finland's Liiga in his third pro season and is still just 19 years old.

Lindell's goal in the opening minutes of the gold medal game against Sweden, while not as memorable as Ristolainen's game winner in overtime, set the stage for his team's win. In domestic play, he has steadily seen more ice time with a Jokerit squad that normally relies on a veteran defense corps, and he has also skated for Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis.

1. Ville Pokka, 19, Karpat Oulu
Drafted by the New York Islanders
2nd round (34th overall), 2012

The Islanders suddenly have a glut of young defensemen in their prospect pipeline, so it remains to be seen where Pokka ends up in 2014-15. But the young defenseman has continued to progress and develop into a consistent defender with the ability to contribute to the attack.

Pressed into a larger role than expected in his first two WJC appearances due to injury, Pokka rose to the occasion in this, his third WJC tournament. He and Lindell were Finland's top pairing for most of the games.

Playing a key role for one of Liiga's top clubs, Karpat, he was +20 in his first 36 games and has a career-high 15 points (five goals, 10 assists).

2. Esa Lindell, 19, Jokerit Helsinki/Kiekko-Vantaa (Mestis)
Drafted by the Dallas Stars
3rd round (74th overall), 2012

Easily the biggest difference between Finland's seventh place finish in the 2013 World Junior Championship and this year's gold medal squad was the improved play of the defense corps with Lindell being a key addition. One of the final players cut from the 2013 squad, Lindell went on to captain Finland's U19 team in international play last year.

In this year's tournament, all seven defensemen for Finland had points and Lindell was in the middle of things, finishing +6 with two goals and three assists in seven games.

Not an overly physical defender, he uses his skating ability and size to play a strong positional game and is able to start the transition with his speed and passing ability. Like the rest of the Finnish squad in Malmo, he also did a nice job of getting in front of passes and shots when needed.

3. Petteri Lindbohm, 20, Jokerit/Kiekko-Vantaa (Mestis)
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
6th Round (176th overall), 2012

Things are less certain after Pokka and Lindell, with Lindbohm being a perfect example.

The captain of Finland's 2013 World Junior Championship squad in Ufa, Russia, the hulking defender was a sixth round selection of St. Louis, who have taken a defenseman from Finland in each of the last four drafts.

While Jani Hakanpaa, a fourth round pick in 2010, was signed to an entry-level deal in 2012 and is currently skating for the AHL's Chicago Wolves, St. Louis did not sign 2011 seventh round pick Teemu Eronen and the jury is still out on Lindbohm.

With a crowd of veterans in the lineup for Jokerit, Lindbohm began the season in Mestis with Kiekko-Vantaa before being loaned to Assat Pori, skating in 19 games for the defending champions.

Since returning to Jokerit he has seen his most extensive Liiga action to date, averaging almost 22 minutes of ice time in 11 games. Whether he has shown enough maturation to earn a contract with the Blues remains to be seen, however.

4. Santeri Saari, 19, Kiekko-Vantaa (Mestis)/Jokerit A Junior
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
6th round (173rd overall), 2013

A playmaker from the blueline in junior hockey, Saari was taken by the Blues in the most recent NHL Draft after appearing in two games with Jokerit in 2012-13 as an 18-year-old and playing seven games in Mestis.

Skating primarily in Mestis this season, Saari's game has been more focused on the defensive end with little of the attacking elements that he displayed in junior hockey. In 22 games for Kiekko-Vantaa he was +2 with no points and 10 penalty minutes.

Long-term, he appears to have the size, skating ability, and technical skills to be an NHL defenseman. Whether he can put those elements together will be a challenge, though.

5. Aleksi Makela, 18, Ilves Tampere A Junior
Drafted by the Dallas Stars
7th round (182nd overall), 2011

Like the Stars, Dallas has made a habit of taking defensemen from Finland recently, taking defensemen from Ilves in the final round in both 2011 and 2013.

Jyrki Jokipakka, taken 195th overall in 2011 and signed to a contract the following year, is currently in his first season with the Stars' AHL affiliate in Texas.

One of the youngest players taken at the 2013 NHL Draft, Makela had the chance to appear in 10 games with Ilves' men's team last year due in part to the club's lack of depth. After missing time earlier this season due to a wrist injury he is back in A juniors and has also appeared in three Mestis games with LeKi.

Typical of most late round picks, Makela's game is still developing and his long-term prospects are difficult to predict. In terms of Liiga play, Makela is part of a nice mix of young defensemen that should keep Ilves competitive for the next few years. Whether he is capable of playing at a higher level than Liiga remains to be seen, though.

6. Tommi Kivisto, 20, Ilves Tampere
Drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes
5th round (131st overall), 2010

The lone defenseman on this list currently signed to a contract with an NHL club, Kivisto signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Hurricanes in June of 2011. After spending parts of three seasons with Jokerit he played in North America last year, splitting the season between Carolina's AHL affiliate in Charlotte and the Florida Everblades (ECHL).

Loaned to Ilves this season, he has been a big part of the club's turnaround after consecutive seasons in last place. A sound defenseman in all areas of the game, Kivisto's skating game may be more suited to the big ice game in Europe and possibly the KHL.

His success this year is encouraging,but with a crowded defense corps in Carolina, including the recent addition of Brown University prospect Dennis Robertson, it is hard to see how Kivisto still fits in with the Hurricanes' plans.

7. Tommi Taimi,  23, Assat Pori
Never Drafted
Unrestricted Free Agent

The epitome of a late bloomer, Taimi had an impressive rookie season two years ago for Assat after playing in Mestis as a 20-year-old the previous year. Limited to 28 games during the regular season in 2012-13 due to injury, Taimi was a big part of Assat's playoff championship run.

Healthy once again this season, he is the leading scorer for Assat defensemen with five goals and 13 assists in 38 games and is +10 with 30 penalty minutes on a team that is battling for a playoff spot.

While slightly undersized for pro hockey, the right-handed defenseman has never been shy about playing a physical game and could be valuable in power-play situations for an NHL club looking for that type of player.

8. Teemu Eronen, 23, Jokerit
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
7th round (192nd overall), 2011
Never Signed — Unrestricted Free Agent

Eronen was drafted by the Blues as a 21-year-old after his rookie season with Jokerit. But despite some impressive offensive play, particularly when Ottawa's Erik Karlsson was with the club during the lockout, he was not signed to a contract.

A bit too small and light for a prototypical NHL defenseman, Eronen is Jokerit's top offensive defenseman and is sixth among Liiga defensemen with 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 35 games.

While at this point it would seem Eronen's game is more suited to either Liiga or the KHL, like Taimi, Eronen provides an interesting offensive package for a team looking to create from the blueline.

9. Niklas Tikkinen, 19, Espoo Blues/Espoo Blues A Junior
Drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes
5th round (148th overall), 2012

Converted from forward to defense during his junior hockey days, Tikkinen has skated for five different teams this season, not counting Finland's national U20 team (he skated in 10 pre-tournament games but was not part of the squad in Malmo).

He has been an offensive threat in Mestis play and with Espoo's A junior team but in nine Liiga games (including three on loan to JyP) he had a pair of assists and was +3.

Like the other players drafted in 2012, Tikkinen must be signed by Phoenix prior to the 2014 NHL Draft or the Coyotes lose his rights. At this point, a case can be made either way.

10. Nick Bailen, 24, Tappara Tampere
Never Drafted
Unrestricted Free Agent

In all likelihood the 2013 graduate of RPI will spend most of his career playing in Europe or the American Hockey League due to his size (5'9”, 185). But his toughness, character and offensive instincts make him an intriguing, Torey Krug-type prospect.

A two-time captain of the Indiana Ice during his junior hockey days, he topped 90 penalty minutes in all three of his USHL seasons. After finishing with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) in 35 games as a senior at RPI last season he skated in 12 AHL games with Rochester — including three playoff games — before signing a contract to play in Finland this year.

After reaching the Kanada Cup finals a year ago, Tappara is again at the top of the standings — currently in second place behind Karpat — and Bailen has been a big part of that success. Averaging 17:37 minutes of ice time as a rookie he has scored five goals with 14 assists and is -3 in 39 games.

Bailen also skated for the USA's gold medal-winning team at the 2013 Deutschland Cup tournament in November.