Finland was the center of the junior hockey world when it hosted the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, with the gold medal the home team won in Helsinki not soon to be forgotten.
For 2016 NHL Draft potential first round picks Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine the games were a coming out party as the two were part of the team’s dominant “Kid Line” — teaming with Puljujarvi’s Karpat teammate Sebastian Aho (CAR) to lead the tournament in scoring.
Puljujarvi was one of the few bright spots for Finland’s seventh-place U20 team at last year’s WJC, impressing scouts as a 16-year-old with his willingness to get involved in the play in all three zones. He took his game to another level this year, leading all scorers with five goals and a tournament-high 12 assists in seven games.
Laine, who was one point behind Aho for third in the tournament with 13 points, tied USA’s Auston Matthews for the most goals in the tournament with seven.
Both Puljujarvi and Laine are playing in Liiga this season — with Karpat Oulu and Tappara Tampere respectively — and both are among the leading scorers on their teams.
Depending on the scout you ask either Laine or Puljujarvi is all but certain to be the first player from Finland selected next June in Buffalo and, barring any major surprises, both will go early in the first round.
After those two, things are less certain. Once again, several of Finland’s top prospects for the 2016 draft — such as defenseman Olli Juolevi of the London Knights, and Halifax Mooseheads’ forward Otto Somppi — are skating in North America and thus not included in this list.
Among the prospects featured here, the group largely consists of skilled forwards, along with two goalies who have passed through previous drafts without being selected. What makes this group of forwards unique is that, unlike past year’s when there were some fleet but undersized players on this list, all seven of the group here are 6’1″ or taller.
KalPa Kuopio’s Walterri Ruuskanen, who was not selected in the 2015 NHL Draft after being slowed by injuries during his junior career, is the lone defenseman on our list. Two of the top defense prospects in Finland, Robin Salo and Urho Vaakkanainen, are not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2017.
Below are the Top 10 Finnish players eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft.
1. Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Karpat Oulu
6’3″, 205 lbs., 5/7/98
Unlike many of the offensively skilled forwards to come out of Finland in recent years, Puljujarvi has the ideal size of a power forward and likes to drive to the net or go into hard areas to make plays.
Karpat is the two-time defending champion in Liiga and generally relies on veteran players rather than giving opportunities to youngsters. Puljujarvi has been an exception, averaging over 14 minutes of ice time. His offensive production has been limited to this point — eight goals and 12 assists in his first 41 games — but his two-way ability and willingness to use his size and skating ability to advantage suggests he can be a complete player at the NHL level one day.
2. Patrik Laine, RW, Tappara Tampere
6’4″, 210 lbs., 2/3/98
Laine, like Puljujarvi, skated for Finland’s U18 team that captured a silver medal at the World Juniors last spring. He finished as the team’s leading scorer in that tournament with eight goals and three assists in seven games.
Few prospects in the 2015 NHL Draft class are as pure a goal scorer as Laine (pronounced Lie-nay), who has a lethal, heavy shot that rivals that of many NHL players. What has surprised about his play in his rookie Liiga season is the strides he has made in his skating and in the other areas of his game.
His combination of size and determination suggests a game similar to that of current New York Rangers forward Rick Nash — though he should continue to develop in terms of mobility and positional play as he continues to mature and puts his technical and physical abilities together.
In 35 Liiga games for Tappara he has scored 13 goals with 14 assists and is averaging 16 minutes of ice time on one of the league’s top teams.
3. Henrik Borgstrom, C, HIFK U20
6’3″, 170 lbs., 8/6/97
The first of five players in this group who were eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft but not selected, opinions vary widely on Borgstrom. On the plus side, his size and offensive skill set suggests he can play in the men’s league. At the same time, there are some that view his game as more flash than substance and production.
He is skating at the A Juniors level in 2015-16 to maintain his NCAA eligibility in hopes of playing college hockey in the United States, and has been fairly dominant in his first U20 season. In 23 games for HIFK he has scored 18 goals with 19 assists and is +16 with 12 penalty minutes. The tall forward was limited to 21 regular season games with the HIFK U18 team due to back problems during his draft year last season but was one of the team’s top scorers in the playoffs during the run to the B Juniors finals.
Tall but a bit wiry, Borgstrom has the frame to suggest that he could handle the rigors of the pro game with some added mass. He should have time to develop during his college career and, with his technical skills and mobility, could be a long-range option.
4. Joona Koppanen, C, Tampere Ilves U20
6’5″, 195 lbs., 2/25/98
The gap between Laine and Puljujarvi and the rest of the forwards from Finland who are eligible for the draft for the first time this year is significant. While Koppanen has areas of his game that are not yet developed, there is a lot to like about his raw physical ability and hockey instincts.
One of the bigger players in his age group, Koppanen scored just one goal in six games for Finland’s U18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament in August and was overshadowed by players like leading scorer Janne Kuokkanen, Otto Makinen and Eetu Tuulola in terms of offensive production.
What places him ahead of some of those players in our rankings is his all-around awareness and the ability to use his substantial physical tools to advantage.
While he does not play an abrasive style at this point, his stature and willingness to play in tight areas suggest he can become a power forward at the NHL level. Koppanen has scored five goals with 11 assists and is +10 with 10 penalty minutes in his first 23 games for Ilves this season.
5. Otto Makinen, C/RW, Tappara Tampere U20
6’1″, 180 lbs., 5/21/98
Makinen plays in Finland’s junior league and is another offensively-inclined forward with the skills and skating ability to put pressure on opposing defenders.
While his offensive numbers pale compared to fellow Tappara and Finland U18 teammate Aapeli Rasanen in domestic league play, he was Finland’s second-leading scorer at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament and led the club in scoring at the Five Nations Tournament in Switzerland in November.
Makinen will need added size and strength to compete at the pro level, but the strength of his game is his playmaking ability. His overall game is a work in progress but he could be a worthwhile late-round selection. In 27 games for the Tappara U20 team he has scored six goals with 10 assists and is -1 with six penalty minutes.
6. Eetu Tuulola, RW, HPK Hameenlinna
6’2″, 225 lbs., 3/17/98
The son of Marko Tuulola, the second-leading career scorer in HPK history, and brother of Finland U20 team’s Joni Tuulola, a 2015 sixth-round selection of the Chicago Blackhawks — both defensemen — Eetu Tuulola generates a wide range of opinions in terms of his long-term potential.
A powerfully-built forward, he has been a goal scorer more than a playmaker at the junior level with a willingness to go to the net to make plays. He has a hard, accurate shot. Like many young prospects his size the key concern is whether Tuulola will have enough mobility and skate well enough to keep up at the pro level.
Tuulola has appeared in six games with the HPK men’s team in Liiga play — with no points — while spending most of the season with the club’s U20 squad. He also played for Finland’s U18 team at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August, scoring two goals with one assist in five games. In 17 games for the HPK U20 team he has scored seven goals with three assists and is -2 with 16 penalty minutes.
7. Emil Larmi, G, Peliitat Heinola (Mestis)
6’0″, 185 lbs., 9/28/96
Overshadowed at times by fellow Lahti native Joonas Harald during his junior days in the Pelicans program, Larmi has come into his own as a 19-year-old. He was the third goalie for Finland’s U20 team at the WJC but did not see any action behind Veini Vehvilainen and Minnesota Wild prospect Kaapo Kahkonen.
After seizing the starter’s role for the Pelicans’ Mestis affiliate in his first pro season, he has been one of the top goalies in the Finnish second league. In 19 games prior to joining Team Finland he had a 2.37 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.
“Emil had a chance to play Mestis in Heinola and has been playing really well,” said Peliitat head of coaching Markus Juurikkala. “He is a guy with a great attitude and is a real competitor, always wanting to win.”
The Pelicans system has had some success producing goalies in recent years. Antti Niemi of the Dallas Stars, Calgary’s Karri Ramo, and Nashville Predators‘ prospect Janne Juvonen (the team’s current starter) have all come through the organization, benefiting from the coaching of former NHL goalie Pasi Nurminen.