Top Five Finnish Defensemen

By Tony Piscotta
Photo: Finnish Defenseman Sami Vatanen (ANA) is one of the more offensively gifted blueliners currently playing in the SM-Liiga. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

After a couple of years in where there were few defensive prospects coming out of Finland, it looks like there are some pretty talented young players that will be garnering attention at upcoming NHL drafts. At the present time, there are six drafted prospects whose rights are held by NHL clubs competing in Finland‘s SM-Liiga.

JyP’s Sami Vatanen (ANA), currently out of the lineup with a broken finger, continues to be the top offensive defenseman in the SM-Liiga. But it is Espoo Blues’ 18-year-old Jani Hakanpaa (STL), who recently returned from serving as assistant captain for Team Finland at the 2012 U20 World Junior Championship, whose size and all around play make him the top NHL prospect.

Dallas prospect John Klingberg, who played in the Frolunda club in his native Sweden, is skating on loan with Jokerit along with two other drafted young defensemen – Teemu Eronen (STL) and Tommi Kivisto (CAR).

Jyrki Jokipakka, drafted by Dallas in the seventh round as a 19-year-old in 2011, is the third-leading scorer amongst defensemen for Ilves Tampere.

1. Jani Hakanpaa, 19, Espoo Blues
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
Drafted 4th round, 104th overall, 2010

A bit of a long shot when selected by the Blues – drafted primarily because of his size and potential – Hakanpaa has taken a large step forward this season in his first SM-Liiga season and was one of the team leaders for fourth-place Finland at the 2012 WJC.

Hakanpaa has made great strides in his two years with the Espoo Blues after being drafted out of the Kiekko-Vaantaa club. In his first year at the U20 level in 2010-11, he showed steady improvement skills-wise and in his positional play and played a key role in the team’s silver medal finish in the U20 SM-Liiga.

That progress has continued this season as he’s not only played a solid defensive game, but also shows a willingness to join the attack and is not afraid to handle the puck in high traffic areas; with the skill level to do so effectively.

Hakanpaa has five goals with six assists in 33 SM-Liiga games.

2. Sami Vatanen, 21, JyP
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks
4th round, 106th overall, 2009

While questions will exist about Vatanen’s size and durability until he makes the eventual jump to North America, his talent level and offensive instincts make him an intriguing prospect.

Signed to a three-year, entry-level contract by the Ducks in May 2011, Vatanen returned to JyP in hopes of furthering his development and possibly concluding his career in Finland with an SM-Liiga championship.

Vatanen was selected to Finland’s gold medal-winning squad at the 2011 IIHF World Championship but missed the tournament after suffering a knee injury in the SM-Liiga playoffs last spring. He has skated in 35 games for JyP this season and has 23 points (eight goals and 15 assists).

3. John Klingberg, 19, Jokerit/Kiekko-Vantaa
Drafted by the Dallas Stars
5th round, 131st overall, 2010

Klingberg signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Stars in May 2011 and was loaned to Jokerit for the 2011-12 season. Klingberg skated in 20 games for Jokerit this season and is currently playing with Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis (Finland’s second league). Klingberg also represented Sweden for the second straight year at the U20 World Junior Championship.

After scoring one goal with two assists for Jokerit, Klingberg has one goal with four assists in six games for Kiekko-Vantaa. In six games with the gold medal-winning Sweden squad, he had three assists and was plus-one.

Klingberg is an offensive defenseman who skates well and plays with a high skill level. He is tall but fairly light but should add bulk and strength as he continues to train and mature.

Klingberg joined SEL team Skelleftea HC in late January where he has since played in two games, registering zero points.

4. Teemu Eronen, 21, Jokerit
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
7th round, 192nd overall, 2011

Taken with a late-round flier by the Blues as a 21-year-old after a strong rookie season in the SM-Liiga a year ago, Eronen is now in his second season with Jokerit (Jokerit GM Jarmo Kekalainen was previously St. Louis’ director of amateur scouting).

Eronen is the leading scorer amongst defensemen for Jokerit with five goals and 12 assists and is plus-one in 33 games.

While he is a bit undersized and light for an NHL defenseman, Eronen is a strong skater with a willingness to join the attack and has the playmaking ability to start the transition from defense to offense.

Any seventh-round pick is a long shot, but Eronen has significant offensive skills and could be valuable on a team’s power play.

5. Tommi Kivisto, 20, Jokerit/Kiekko-Vantaa
Drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes
5th round, 131st overall, 2010

Kivisto signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Hurricanes in June after playing in 38 SM-Liiga games with Jokerit in 2010-11. He skated in 24 games for Jokerit earlier this season but with a veteran defense corps for the Helsinki-based club he is currently with Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis.

Though he showed flashes of offensive instincts early in his junior career, and spent the 2008-09 season with the WHL‘s Red Deer Rebels, he’s played a more conservative role in his limited time at the SM-Liiga level. In 15 games with Kiekko-Vantaa this season he’s scored four goals with six assists and 12 penalty minutes.

The top defensemen in Finland among the 1991-born players during his junior days, Kivisto is still developing his overall game. While he may not reach the level of offensive production of which it seems he is capable, he plays a solid positional game and skates well.

Others to watch

In addition to the five players listed above, there are several young defensemen who can be considered prospects and may one day be either drafted or signed as an unrestricted free agent.

Jyrki Jokipakka, 20, is the only other prospect in Finland that currently has ties to an NHL organization – he was drafted by Dallas in 2011. Like Eronen, he was drafted after skating a full season in the SM-Liiga in 2010-11. He also competed for Finland at the 2011 WJC. Since he is older than most draftees, his upside may not be as high but the Stars can be more certain of his ability having seen him play at the pro level. In his second season with Ilves, he has five goals with six assists in 37 games.

Viktor Ekbom, 22, was selected by the Penguins in the sixth round of the 2009 NHL Draft and skated in three games with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate last season but was never signed to an NHL contract. The Swedish defenseman signed with Tappara this season. In 30 games he has two assists and 30 penalty minutes. A big defender with a decent skill set, he is not overly physical nor does he have much of an offensive component to his game.

Ville Pokka, 17, is a product of the Karpat Oulu club and was one of two 17-year-olds who played on defense for Finland at the recent 2012 U20 World Junior Tournament. He is ranked 5th amongst European skaters in Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings for the 2012 NHL Draft. After skating in two SM-Liiga games last year, he has played in 20 games for Karpat with three assists and eight penalty minutes and was also playing for Kiekko-Laser in Mestis before that team folded.

Rasmus Ristolainen was just 16-years-old when the season started but has skated a regular shift all season for TPS. He is not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2013 but skated for Finland’s U20 team and fit right in playing with 19-year-olds. He has prototypical size for a defenseman and is a fluid skater for such a big player. He plays with confidence and is willing to join the attack.

Konsta Makinen, who turned 20 in January 2011, was one of three 19-year-olds that represented Finland for the first time in the recently concluded U20 World Junior Championship. Despite being under-sized for a North American defensive defenseman (5’9, 165), Makinen plays with an edge to his game and uses his skating ability and positioning to advantage. He has played five games for Ilves this year and has spent most of the season with LeKi in Mestis.

Mikka Lehtonen, 18, has skated in 11 SM-Liiga games for TPS and has five goals with 14 assists in 26 games for TPS’ U20 team. Lehtonen is ranked 25th amongst European skaters in Central Scouting’s mid-season rankings for the 2012 NHL Draft.