2011 Finnish draft pick season preview

By Tony Piscotta
Photo: Joel Armia was the highest drafted Finn in the 2011 NHL draft. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

Much was made of the large number of players from Sweden who were taken in the early rounds of the 2011 NHL Draft. But the draft was also a bonanza for their Eastern neighbors as a record number of Finns were taken in the first two rounds.

The five Finnish-trained players (including Chicoutimi goalie Christopher Gibson, a product of the Espoo youth program) were the most taken in the drafts first two rounds since five Finns were selected in the first round in 2002. In only one other draft (1999) were there as many as four Finnish players drafted in the first two rounds – when Edmonton used their first and second round selections on forwards Jani Rita and Tony Salmelainen, the Devils selected goalie Ari Ahonen in the first round, and the Ottawa Senators chose center Teemu Sainomaa with their second round pick.

For the second straight year, a Finnish forward was chosen in the first round as Assat’s Joel Armia was selected by Buffalo with the sixteenth overall pick (Mikael Granlund was the ninth overall pick in 2010). Granlund’s younger brother Markus was the second Finnish player taken following Armia when he went to the Flames in the second round (45th overall).

Gibson was the third goalie drafted when he was selected by the Kings with the 49th pick and forwards Alexander Ruuttu (51st Coyotes) and Miikka Salomaki (52nd Predators) were the other players taken in the top two rounds.

Goalie Samu Perhonen was the lone third rounder – taken by Edmonton with the 62nd pick. Lars Volden, a native of Oslo who has played in Espoo the last two seasons, was selected in the sixth round by the Boston Bruins. In the seventh round, four teams used picks on players from Finland who had previously been overlooked in the draft. The ten players from Finland taken matched the number drafted in 2009 – and is tied for second-most since the draft was reduced to seven rounds in 2005 (14 Finnish players were drafted in 2006).

With the exception of Gibson, here are bios for the ten players who played in Finland last season.

Joel Armia, RW – Assat Pori
6’3 185 5/31/93
1st round (16th overall)
Buffalo Sabres

Armia was inserted into Assat’s SM-Liiga lineup early in the season and made the most of his opportunity. Placed in a top line role by coach Pekka Rautakallio despite his young age (17 at the time), Armia did well – using his size and strength to create scoring chances while scoring 18 goals (second-most on the team). Armia also played for Finland at the World Junior U18 and U20 championships – and was especially dominant at the U18 event.

While his size and strength have allowed him to dominate at the junior levels and in the domestic level in Finland, Armia should find the tighter checking nature of North American hockey with bigger, faster, and stronger defenders a challenge. He has very good stick handling and passing skills which compliment his determination and drive.

Armia will spend at least one more season with Assat Pori in 2011-12 before challenging for a spot in the Sabres organization. He will also represent Finland at the World Junior U20 championship tournament in Alberta.

Markus Granlund, C – HIFK Juniors
5’10 170 4/16/93
2nd Round (45th overall)
Calgary Flames

While comparisons to his older brother are unfair, Mikael has proven capable of dominating at the SM-Liiga at times while Markus to date has been a high-scoring junior player, the younger Granlund is a highly-skilled, yet slightly under-sized playmaker. Markus Granlund plays with a high degree of confidence and likes to handle the puck – playing to his strengths as a stick handler and passer.

Granlund should continue to refine the other areas of his game – recognizing situations and playing a more consistent two-way game – as well as adding the increased bulk and strength necessary to succeed at the pro level. Like many players who have dominated offensively at the junior level, Granlund is a work in progress but the Flames’ see enough in his high skill level to feel he can one day be a major contributor to their attack.

Granlund is back in Finland and will try to crack what should be a veteran SM-Liiga lineup for HIFK in 2011-12. Calgary fans could get a glimpse of Granlund at the World Junior U20 Championships as he is expected to be on Finland’s team.

Alexander Ruuttu, C/W – Jokerit Junior
6’2 175 12/9/92
2nd Round (51st overall)
Phoenix Coyotes

Born in Chicago when his father Christian Ruuttu was playing for the Blackhawks, the younger Ruuttu is a bit of a mystery at this point in terms of his long-range potential. Growing up in the Helsinki area, Ruuttu played youth hockey in the HIFK and Jokerit clubs but showed flashes with the latter’s junior club over the second half of the 2011-12 season; finishing with 19 goals in 47 games (including playoffs).

While critics might see Ruuttu’s selection as a bit of a "hometown" pick (Christian has been with the Coyotes as a scout since 2005 and is currently their Head European Scout), the younger Ruuttu has an intriguing skill set and the ideal frame for a two-way forward at the NHL level. He should continue to develop under the tutelage of Jokerit coach Erkka Westerlund – who is well-known for his cerebral approach to the game and teaching ability.

After seeing action in three games for Jokerit during the European Trophy tournament over the summer, as well as attending the U20 Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, Ruuttu started the 2011-12 season with Jokerit’s junior club. He will likely spend at least two more seasons in Finland before challenging for a spot in the Coyotes organization.

Miikka Salomaki, W – Karpat Oulu
5’11 200 3/9/93
2nd Round (52nd overall)
Nashville Predators

Like Armia, Salomaki spent the 2010-11 season competing in the SM-Liiga as well as representing Finland at the World Junior U18 and U20 tournaments. He may be the most advanced amongst the drafted forwards from Finland in the 2011 Draft.

While he did not put up the impressive scoring totals of some of the other forward prospects, and does not have high-end offensive ability, Salomaki is a strong skater who plays an outstanding two-way game and can play in all situations. There is also a physical component to his game not often associated with players from Finland – though he sometimes lacks discipline. Salomaki’s two-way game should fit well with the Predators’ style.

Like the other Finnish prospects, he will once again play in Finland in 2011-12; returning to Oulu for a second season with Karpat. Somewhat surprisingly, he showed a goal scoring touch in the summer European Tournament – scoring five goals in six games. He also participated in the summer evaluation camp for the U20 team along with fellow 2011 draftees Granlund, Armia, Ruuttu, and Gibson and should once again represent Finland at the 2012 tournament in Alberta.

Samu Perhonen, – JyP Juniors
6’5 185 3/7/93
3rd Round (62nd overall)
Edmonton Oilers

Perhonen is a tall goaltender who backstopped JyPs junior team to a Finnish championship in 2010-11 as well as starting for Finland’s U18 team at the World Junior championships in Germany last spring. Despite a sub-par tournament, possibly due to the unusually long season, the Oilers saw enough potential in him to select him.

Physically, he is still developing and will need to add some strength before he can compete at the pro level. Like the other top Finnish goaltending prospects, Perhonen employs a "less is more" style, relying on his size and sound positioning to prevent or take away scoring chances as opposed to acrobatic, flashy movements.

Perhonen attended the Oilers’ prospect camp but will spend at least one more season in Finland – splitting time between JyP’s junior team and JyP Akatemia in Mestis in 2011-12. He could also see time with JyP’s SM-Liiga squad should the tandem of Joni Myllykoski and Riku Helenius (TB) need relief.

Lars Volden, – Espoo Blues Juniors
6’3 190 7/26/92
6th Round (181st overall)
Boston Bruins

The Bruins have turned Finland into their own goaltending pipeline of sorts – Stanley Cup playoffs’ MVP Tim Thomas spent parts of four seasons in Finland before establishing himself as an NHL goaltender while backup Tuukka Rask is a highly-regarded young netminder. Volden, who moved to Finland from his native Norway to face a higher level of competition in 2010-11, shows a great deal of promise. While his numbers haven’t been pretty when playing with Team Norway in top division international contests, much of that can be due to the talent gap between the Norwegian team and some of the top hockey countries.

Playing under goaltending coach Marko Torenius in Espoo, Volden plays the same calm, patient style that other Espoo-trained prospects such as Mikko Koskinen (NYI) and Jonathan Iilahti (VAN) play. Volden is still developing both physically and technically but has the mental toughness necessary to one day be a top goaltender.

Volden made a positive first impression at Bruins prospect camp and is back in Finland for the 2011-12 season where he will likely split time between Espoo’s junior team and Mestis. Volden and Capitals prospect Steffen Soberg are likely to be in net for Team Norway at the World Junior Division I A U20 championships in Germany.

Frans Tuohimaa, G – Jokerit Juniors
6’2 180 8/19/91
7th Round (182nd overall)
Edmonton Oilers

Bypassed in his first year of draft eligibility, Tuohimaa gained the attention of Oilers’ scouts with his play at the junior level in Finland – where he was arguably the top goalie in the league. Tuohimaa and Perhonen faced each other in a memorable quarterfinal series in the junior SM-Liiga semifinal series and while Perhonen’s JyP team came out on top, Tuohimaa had an impressive series. He was particularly impressive in the series’ final game, stopping 41 shots in an overtime loss.

Like Perhonen, Tuohimaa is a tall goalie who plays a conservative style – relying on positioning and controlling the puck – particularly with his glove hand. Tuohimaa’s steadiness and composure are also assets.

After impressing in a couple of European Trophy appearances with Jokerit during the summer, Tuohimaa began the 2011-12 season playing for Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis. While veteran Eero Kilpelainen appears to be set as the starter for Helsinki-based Jokerit, Tuohimaa could see SM-Liiga time during the season.

Iiro Pakarinen, W – KalPa Kuopio
6-1 195 8/25/91
Seventh Round (184th overall)
Florida Panthers

It is likely that few players from Finland have garnered more attention than Pakarinen has over the past two seasons. And while he went undrafted in the 2010 NHL draft, there is no denying his skill level and skating ability. Pakarinen plays what scouts like to call a "sand paper" game and is frequently on the edge between being tough and being undisciplined. After splitting time between KalPa’s SM-Liiga and junior squads the prior season, Pakarinen had a full-time role in 2010-11, scoring seven goals with three assists and accumulating 34 penalty minutes in 46 games. Pakarinen was an assistant captain for Finland at the World Junior U20 championship tournament.

Pakarinen will spend the season in Kuopio completing his last year of his contract in 2011-12 before challenging for a spot in a now crowded Panthers’ organization. While he may not score at the point-per-game rate he did during his midget hockey days, he is certain to make an impression.

Teemu Eronen, D – Jokerit
5-10 195 11/22/90
Seventh Round (192nd overall)
St. Louis Blues

Like Pakarinen, Eronen split the 2009-10 season between the SM-Liiga and junior hockey before securing a full-time slot with the top club last season. Other than that, and the fact that both are fairly skilled and very good skaters, there is little similarity between the way the two players play the game. The most advanced of the three 20-year-old defensemen who have come up through the Jokerit system at this point, Eronen is an offensive defenseman who uses his skating and passing skills to create scoring chances. Not overly strong or active in physical play, Eronen’s above average offensive talents are his calling card; he’s particularly effective on the power play.

Eronen will spend at least one more season in Helsinki with Jokerit where, perhaps not coincidentally, former Blues Head of Scouting Jarmo Kekalainen is now the General Manager. While any late round pick is a reach – and St. Louis has several young defensemen in their pipeline – Eronen’s unique offensive skill set bear watching through the next couple of years.

Jyrki Jokipakka D, – Ilves Tampere
6-3 200 8/20/91
Seventh Round (195th overall)
Dallas Stars

Once dubbed "Helsinki South" for the number of Finnish players on the Stars roster, Dallas had just one Finnish player on the roster last year (goalie Kari Lehtonen). Draft-wise, prior to selecting Jokipakka the Stars had not selected a player from Finland since taking current Pelicans forward Max Warn in the fifth round of the 2006 Draft.

Jokipakka, overlooked in the 2010 NHL Draft despite prototypical size for a shut-down, stay-at-home defenseman, made his case as a prospect with a strong showing at the World Junior U20 tournament in Buffalo. Had he not been selected by the Stars, there was a good chance that he would have been pursued as a free agent next season. While his offensive game is limited (one goal, eight assists in 53 games including playoffs for Ilves), Jokipakka is steady on the back line and saw significant ice time as an SM-Liiga rookie for Ilves.

Jokipakka will remain in Finland in 2011-12 but may have a more limited, if any, SM-Liiga role this season. Ilves added two defensemen with NHL experience in the off-season – Ville Koistinen and Martti Jarventie – so he may have to fight for ice-time or spend time at either the junior level or in Mestis.