Finland as a nation has produced several young defensemen in recent years. With many of those players now beginning to make their way in North America, including Dallas Stars‘ rookie Jyrki Jokipakka and St. Louis Blues prospect Petteri Lindbohm, the number of those players still plying their trade in the domestic Liiga has dwindled.
Of the six defensemen playing in Finland who have either been drafted or signed by an NHL club — a seventh, New York Rangers prospect Petr Zamorsky began the year with the Espoo Blues before signing with Orebro in Sweden’s Allsvenskan — only Assat Pori’s Esa Lindell appears to be on a certain course to one day play at the NHL level.
Joonas Lyytinen, a fifth round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2014, is a bit undersized to play in the NHL but has impressed both in Liiga and with the Finland U20 team and bears watching. Other than Lyytinen and Lindell, the future for the other three prospects is a bit more uncertain. Two of them — Aleksi Makela of Ilves and recent HPK addition Santeri Saari – have yet to sign NHL contracts and could re-enter the 2015 NHL Draft. SaiPa’s Mikko Vainonen is in the first year of a three-year contract with Nashville but was playing in the ECHL most of the season before returning to Finland in January.
One other drafted defenseman, Dallas 2014 sixth round pick Miro Karjalainen, is currently with the HIFK U20 team but has missed much of the season due to illness and injury.
1. Esa Lindell, 20, Assat Pori
Drafted by the Dallas Stars, 3rd round (74th overall), 2012
Signed to a three-year, entry-level contract by the Stars last spring, the 20-year-old is the leading scorer among defensemen for Assat and is a key reason the team is in the hunt for a playoff spot. After playing for the Jokerit organization he has remained in Finland rather than competing in the KHL and has built off of his strong final season of junior hockey, when he won a gold medal with Finland at the 2014 World Junior Championship.
While Lindell’s size suggests a punishing, physical defender, he has speed and skating ability not often associated with a large player. His positional play and anticipatory skills in his own end make him effective in taking away passing and shooting lanes and the real strength of his game is his ability to start the attack off of the transition.
Long-term he should fit in well with John Klingberg, Patrik Nemeth and some of the other young players in Dallas. In 44 games, Lindell has scored eight goals with 16 assists and is +4 with 14 penalty minutes.
2. Joonas Lyytinen, 19, KalPa Kuopio
Drafted by the Nashville Predators, 5th Round (132nd overall), 2014
Lyytinen flew under the radar heading into the 2014 NHL Draft — ranked 94th among European skaters in Central Scouting’s final draft rankings — but drew the attention of the Predators’ scouts with his play late in the season for last-place KalPa.
With a much-improved team this year, Kuopio is in the midst of the playoff chase and Lyytinen has been right in the middle of things. While his lack of size and bulk will be a challenge when he makes the jump to North America, his awareness, competitive nature and high level of conditioning allow him to play consistent minutes on a nightly basis.
Lyytinen is responsible in his own end and has also contributed to the KalPa offensive attack at times. In 41 games, he has scored seven goals with seven assists and is among the team leaders at +13 while averaging 18:40 minutes of ice time per game.
3. Santeri Saari, 20, HPK Hameenlinna
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues, 6th Round (173rd overall), 2013
Saari, like Lindbohm, was a sixth round pick of the Blues out of the Jokerit junior program. Unlike some of the players coming up from that junior program who moved to other clubs in Finland, he was with Jokerit in the KHL to start the season.
Both Saari and Lindbohm were impressive in the Jokerit summer camp according to head coach Erkka Westerlund. But when the club added several veterans just prior to the season, neither had a significant role. Lindbohm was loaned to Vaasa Sport before eventually joining the AHL’s Chicago Wolves while Saari saw limited ice time in nine KHL games and was subsequently loaned to Bofors IK in Sweden’s Allsvenksan.
Signed by HPK in early February, he has skated in two games with the club, averaging 20 minutes of ice time. Saari’s lack of game action this season has been a challenge but his play down the stretch as HPK competes with Ilves for the final playoff spot should provide insight into his long-term potential, likely determining if he’ll be offered a contract by the Blues.
4. Aleksi Makela, 20, Ilves Tampere/Leki (Mestis)
Drafted by the Dallas Stars, 7th round (182nd overall), 2013
Makela has steadily assumed a larger role for Ilves in his first Liiga season after seeing limited time early in the year. Makela also briefly spent time in Mestis, the Finnish second league. Viewed as a long-range prospect with the prototypical size and approach of a shutdown defender but with several areas of his game that needed refining when he was drafted late in the 2014 draft, Makela has shown improvement. Whether he has progressed enough to earn an entry-level contract has yet to be determined.
Frequently paired with Lyytinen during the 2015 World Junior Championship in Canada, he and Lyytinen were two of the few bright spots as Makela finished +3 in five games with one assist and four penalty minutes.
Unlike some of the skating, offensive defensemen coming out of Europe, Makela plays more of a North American, stay-at-home positional defensive game. In 29 games with Ilves he has six assists and is +1 with 20 penalty minutes.
5. Mikko Vainonen, 20, SaiPa Lappeenranta
Drafted by the Nashville Predators, 4th round (118th overall), 2012
Signed by the Predators to a three-year, entry-level contract in May of 2013 following his first year of junior hockey with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, Vainonen, in his first pro season, began the year in the ECHL with the Cincinnati Cyclones before being loaned to SaiPa in last month.
Vainonen was one of the heroes for Finland’s U20 team at the 2014 World Juniors and provided both physical toughness and some offensive elements in his two years of junior hockey with Kingston. With minor league veterans Joe Piskula and Michael Liambas as well as several players with AHL experience in the lineup for Nashville’s affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, Vainonen was assigned to Cincinnati in his first pro season.
He played in 31 games with the Cyclones and was -8 while recording five assists with 16 penalty minutes. In nine games for SaiPa since returning to Finland he is +1 with no points and six penalty minutes. SaiPa is headed to its second straight playoff appearance and Vainonen should fit in well with North American veterans Brian Salcido and Sam Lomquist.
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