Mikael Granlund one of seven Finnish players drafted in 2010

By Tony Piscotta
Photo: Ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft Mikael Granlund highlights Finland‘s 2010 draft class. (Photo Courtesy of www.webtvfinland.fi)

Forward Mikael Granlund was the first Finnish skater selected in the first round since the pre-NHL strike 2004 Draft and one of seven players from Finland to be selected in the 2010 NHL draft.

Granlund was selected ninth overall by the Minnesota Wild and is the first player from Finland drafted in the first round since goalie Riku Helenius was taken by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the 21st pick overall in 2006. Finland last had a forward taken in the 2004 draft when Lauri Tukonen, Petteri Nokelainen, and Lauri Korpikoski were all selected – the most Finns ever selected in the first round. Finland has not had a defenseman selected in the first round since 2002 when Joni Pitkanen was selected fourth overall by the Flyers (coincidentally the 26 players from Finland selected in that draft were the most ever).

While Granlund’s selection was welcome news – the draft again reflected the continued downward trend in the number of top-end prospects coming out of Finland. For the third time in the last four drafts, less than ten Finnish players were selected – including just one defenseman. And while other European countries had multiple players selected in the first three rounds, Finland had just one other player taken in the first 100 picks (Joonas Donskoi, 99th overall in the fourth round by Florida). Prior to Granlund, only one other Finnish skater has been taken in the first two rounds since 2004 (Jesse Joensuu, NY Islanders, 2nd round, 2006).

Mikael Granlund, C – HIFK
5-10 180 2/26/92
First Round (9th overall)
Minnesota Wild

Few players have been more closely scrutinized than Granlund; who has been perceived as the next great player in Finland since his days as a bantam. Granlund dominated Finnish junior hockey while playing for Karpat Oulu and his SM-Liiga debut this season was much anticipated. He did not disappoint and was the top rookie in Finland’s SM-Liiga for fourth-place HIFK. Centering the second line, Granlund scored 13 goals with 27 assists and was plus-12 in 43 games. He added 1 goal with 5 assists in six playoff games. Granlund represented Finland at both the U-18 and U-20 WJC tournaments. He scored one goal with six assists in six games at the U-20 WJC and had four goals with nine assists for the bronze-medal winning U-18 team. In addition to his outstanding stick handling, skating and passing skills, what separates Granlund from the other forward prospects is his strong two-way awareness and an ability to make the players around him better. He does not play a physical game but has the size to be effective and will go into high traffic areas to create a scoring chance.

Granlund will be back with HIFK to complete the second year of his SM-Liiga contract but some feel he could be playing alongside countrymen Mikko Koivu and Antti Miettinen in Minnesota as early as 2011-12.

Joonas Donskoi, C – Karpat Oulu
6-0 180 4/13/92
Fourth Round (99th overall)
Florida Panthers

New Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon loaded up on draft picks in an effort to re-make the franchise. He was pleased to see Donskoi still available in the fourth round and selected him. Donskoi was the sixth of eight forwards drafted by the Panthers. He has the blend of skill, speed and size that Tallon was seeking.

The 18-year-old was a teammate of Granlund’s during their junior days in Oulu and the two were re-united on Finland’s U-18 team. Like Granlund, Donskoi is not a pure goal scorer but is a playmaker with a strong understanding of the game and makes the players around him better. Compared to Granlund, Donskoi did not see as much ice time in the SM-Liiga, with Karpat being a veteran-dominated team, but he comported himself well in 18 games and did not look overwhelmed against older players. He scored two goals and had two assists and was minus-one with four penalty minutes playing mostly in a fourth-line role. Donskoi was a dominant scorer for Karpat’s junior team. At the WJC U-18 tournament, he scored one goal with seven assists in six games.

Donskoi will return to Oulu for the 2010-11 but is optimistic about one day playing in South Florida. "It’s nice being drafted by Florida. It’s a great team and a great warm city." he said. "I have no idea what their expectations are for me. (I’m going to) try to work hard and some day play for the Panthers."

Jani Hakanpaa, D – Kiekko Vantaa Midget (B Junior)
6-5 220 3/31/92
Fourth Round (104th overall)
St. Louis Blues

Hakanpaa was not on many scouting lists prior to the start of the season since he played at the B junior level and was not as highly-skilled or polished as some of the other young defensemen his age. Hakanpaa, however, has the prototypical size that scouts look for in a stay-at-home defenseman and played well for Finland at the WJC U-18 tournament.

Though Hakanpaa’s skating ability, stick handling and puck skills are still not as developed as they need to be, he has impressed with his work ethic and competitiveness. He will play for Espoo Blues in the SM-Liiga junior league this season and should improve with the higher level of competition. With Kiekko-Vantaa’s B junior team last season, Hakanpaa scored three goals with 17 assists and 71 PIM in 35 regular season games and added an assist with four PIM in three playoff games. At the WJC U-18 tournament, he had one goal and one assist and was plus-three with six PIM in six games for bronze medal-winning Finland. Hakanpaa was one of eight defensemen playing for the Finnish U-20 team in Lake Placid in August.

Sami Aittokallio, G – Ilves A Junior
6-1 170 8/6/92
Fourth Round (107th overall)
Colorado Avalanche

Aittokallio was the top ranked European goalie according to Central Scouting heading into the 2010 NHL Draft but his selection by the Colorado Avalanche was a bit surprising. Earlier in the draft, the Avalanche selected Seattle Thunderbirds goalie Calvin Pickard with their second round pick.

Aittokallio is considered the most mature and developed of the young Finnish goaltending prospects – he has an extremely steady demeanor and relies on excellent technique and positioning. He is a big goalie but is very athletic and uses his size to advantage. Aittokallio played for Finland’s WJC U-20 team during their pre-tournament tour during 2009-10 but was not on the final team. He was slated to be the starter for Team Finland at the WJC U-18 tournament but suffered a leg injury prior to the tournament and could not play. In the domestic season, he split time between Ilves’ A and B (midget) junior teams. In 23 games for Ilves’ A junior team, he had a 3.20 GAA and .899 save percentage. Aittokallio was at his best in the playoffs, as Ilves won the SM-Liiga junior championship. In nine playoff games he had a 2.26 GAA and .925 save percentage. Aittokallio may spend time with Ilves’ SM-Liiga club this season behind former NHL goalie Jani Hurme and will likely be the starter for the A junior team.

Teemu Pulkkinen, – Jokerit
5-10 180 1/2/92
Fourth Round (111th overall)
Detroit Red Wings

If one player turns out to be a mid-round steal in the 2010 NHL draft it could be Pulkkinen. Like Granlund, he has been much-heralded since his bantam days due to his high skill level and ability to seemingly score at will in junior hockey. Pulkkinen, however, did not make the jump from juniors to pro hockey as smoothly as expected (nagging injuries were a factor) and as a result slipped in the draft. He is a bit smaller than Granlund and doesn’t have as strong a two-way game but Pulkkinen may be a better pure goal scorer. Much of the pre-season hype last season revolved around him and Granlund being the top rookie forwards in the SM-Liiga but he played just 12 games and had one goal with two assists. After returning from an injury, he spent most of the season with Jokerit’s A junior team – scoring 20 goals with 21 assists in just 17 games. Pulkkinen was also the top goal scorer at the WJC U-18 tournament. Playing on a line with Donskoi and Granlund, he scored 10 goals with five assists in six games. Jokerit, after a disappointing 10th place finish in 2009-10, is placing a premium on infusing young talent into the lineup so Pulkkinen could have an increased role this season. The Detroit Red Wings have been successful drafting European players late in the draft and are hopeful that Pulkkinen can develop the other facets of his game to compliment his scoring skill.

Jonathan Iilahti, G – Espoo Blues A Junior
6-1 175 4/27/92
Sixth Round (175th overall)
Vancouver Canucks

Iilahti was a relative unknown heading to the 2010 WJC U-18 tournament but made the most of his opportunity filling in for the injured Aittokallio. Playing every minute of the tournament for Finland, Iilahti was 5-1 with a 2.79 GAA and .893 save percentage in six games including a 5-1 win over Russia in the bronze medal game. In the Espoo Blues junior program, he played alongside Erno Suomalainen, a member of Team Finland’s WJC U-18 team in 2009, and both players improved while competing for playing time. Like Aittokallio, Iilahti is a big goalie and relies on sound fundamental techniques. He is a bit more frenzied than Aittokallio at times and may have a bit more quickness and athleticism. Iilahti played for Espoo’s A junior and B junior (midget) squads in 2009-10 and posted a 2.67 GAA with a .904 save percentage in 14 games for the junior club. In ten B junior playoff games, he had a 2.57 GAA and .921 save percentage. Iilahti will be joined by Norwegian 18-year-old Lars Volden in Espoo this season and will again have to compete for playing time.

Being selected by the Canucks, Iilahti could have an opportunity to play fairly soon. Cory Schneider, a 2004 first-round pick, is expected to back up Roberto Luongo in Vancouver but beyond that the Canucks have only one young prospect (Merrimack College’s Joe Cannata) and signed a pair of free agents over the summer – one an AHL veteran (Tyler Weiman) and the other a Swedish Elite League backup (Eddie Lack).

Joonas Rask, C – Ilves
5-11 170 3/24/90
Seventh Round (198th overall)
Nashville Predators

Perhaps due to the presence of European scout Janne Kekalainen, no NHL team drafted more Finnish players than Nashville during the past decade. The Predators have drafted players from Finland in eight of the last 10 NHL drafts. Only the Wild (six) have drafted more players from Finland than Nashville (five) since 2005. The Predators spent a late-round pick on Rask, who spent most of last season in the SM-Liiga.

Rask is the younger brother of Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask and was a bit of a surprise pick, having been passed over in both the 2008 and 2009 drafts. He is a highly skilled player but is fairly light and undersized. Like Pulkkinen, the strength of Rask’s game is his offensive play and technical skills. Due to his size and style of play, there are concerns about his defensive game and ability to compete in small areas. In 43 SM-Liiga games last season, he scored 10 goals with nine assists for an Ilves team that finished last in the league. In the post-season relegation series with Mestis champion Jokipojat, he scored three goals in five games. Rask played for Team Finland in the last two WJC U-20 tournaments and in 12 games he scored three goals with three assists.

Rask is signed with Ilves through this season and will be back in the SM-Liiga in 2010-11 for his second full season. “I was surprised and couldn’t believe that I got drafted,” said Rask. “But I’m very happy about that (and) feel I’m developing everyday as a player.”