If there was a theme to the season in Liiga in 2015-16 it can best be described by the old adage, “Youth shall be served.”
Much of the attention focused on 17-year-olds Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi — who barring any major surprises will be among the top three players picked in the 2016 NHL Draft. In terms of drafted forward prospects, three of their teammates on the gold medal champion U20 team also had big seasons and could be signing NHL contracts in the near future.
Assat Pori’s Aleksi Saarela, who assisted on Kasperi Kapanen’s game-winning overtime goal in the gold medal game against Russia, is the only natural center in the group of seven drafted forwards. Saarela was drafted by the New York Rangers in the third round last June but his rights were acquired by Carolina in February as part of the trade for center Eric Staal.
Sebastian Aho is another Carolina Hurricanes prospect. Capable of playing both left wing and center, Aho was Karpat Oulu’s leading scorer during the regular season and had 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 14 playoff games. Aho played with veteran center Mika Niemi and right wing Julius Junttila on Karpat’s top line during the playoffs. At the 2016 World Junior Championship he often centered the “Kid Line” with Puljujarvi and Laine, finishing second to Puljujarvi amongst all scorers at the tournament.
Roope Hintz (DAL), like Aho, can play center and wing. He was drafted by the Stars in the second round in 2015 and skated in 33 games for first-place HIFK. Injured prior to the season, he managed to return in time to join the Finland U20 team and was one of the squad’s key two-way forwards.
The potential for the other four drafted forwards that skated in Finland in 2015-16 is far less certain.
KalPa Kuopio’s Jonne Tammela (TBL) was one of the final players cut from the Finland U20 team but is the only player currently signed to an NHL entry-level contract, signing with the Lightning in April 2016 and skating in three games with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch following KalPa’s season.
Aho’s Karpat teammate, Saku Maenalanen (NSH), one of the heroes for the Finland U20 team when that squad won a gold medal in 2014, was selected by the Predators in the fifth round of the 2013 NHL Draft. The 21-year-old had career highs in goals (six) and assists (10) in a lower-line role for Karpat but remains a project.
One player who made big strides — at least in terms of scoring — was Detroit Red Wings‘ 2014 sixth round pick Julius Vahatalo. After scoring one goal in 36 games for TPS Turku in 2014-15, the big winger had nine goals in 49 games as TPS finished seventh after finishing 13th out of 14 teams the prior year.
Saku Salminen, a seventh round pick by Tampa Bay in 2013, played in Finland but not in Liiga. Salminen played nine games with Jokerit in the KHL and was loaned to TuTo in Mestis for seven games where he suffered a season-ending injury that wiped out most of his season. Salminen has the ideal size of an NHL power forward (6’3″, 205 lbs.) but does not play a particularly punishing style nor score consistently. The 21-year-old has seen limited ice time so his long-term potential is tough to gauge.
Here are the top five NHL-affiliated forwards in Finland from the 2015-16 season.
1. Sebastian Aho, 18, LW/C, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes
Drafted in the second round, 35th overall, in 2015
For a number of years there was a perception that players in the Karpat juniors enjoyed success based on the club’s system, with technical skills not being developed, which was thought to limit players’ long-term potential. With the success of prospects like Puljujarvi and Aho, as well as current San Jose Sharks‘ rookie Joonas Donskoi, that image is changing.
Not as big or powerful as the dominant Puljujarvi, Aho is a skilled playmaker with an acute sense of timing as to when and where to appear on the ice. A cerebral player capable of handling myriad roles, Aho will be challenged by the strength and physicality of the players in North American pro hockey, but his hockey instincts suggest he will learn to adapt his game.
In his second season in Liiga, Aho scored 20 goals with 25 assist in 45 regular season games and was +16 with two penalty minutes. Karpat finished second to HIFK in the regular season and lost to eventual Kanada Cup champion Tappara Tampere in a thrilling seven-game series in the semifinals. An assistant captain for Finland at this year’s WJC, Aho scored five goals with nine assists and was +9 with four penalty minutes in seven games.
2. Roope Hintz, 19, LW/C , HIFK Helsinki
NHL Rights: Dallas Stars
Drafted in the second round, 49th overall, in 2015
The 2015-16 season had an ominous start for Roope Hintz as he injured his back while training and was not able to make his season debut with HIFK until November. In his first season with that club after playing in the Ilves junior system, he steadily worked his way back into form.
Another tall forward (6’3″) who can control the play in all three zones with his reach and positioning, Hintz does not have the pure scoring instincts and constant offensive drive of Puljujarvi nor the big shot of Laine. Rather, he is a versatile player who can play a variety of roles.
The second line center for HIFK behind leading scorer Teemu Ramstedt, Hintz scored eight goals with 12 assists and was +15 with four penalty minutes. He scored two goals with four assists and was +2 with two penalty minutes in 18 playoff games. Hintz scored three goals with one assist and was -4 with two penalty minutes in seven games at the WJC.
3. Aleksi Saarela, 19, C, Assat Pori
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes
Drafted in the third round (89th overall), by New York Rangers
Acquired by Carolina in a trade, February 2016
No Finnish player has a more diverse set of offensive skills nor has been more scrutinized than Aleksi Saarela has over the past few seasons. Signed to play for Assat rival Lukko Rauma and new head coach Juha Vuori next season, the 19-year-old quieted many of his critics with his play in 2015-16, especially at the World Juniors.
Assat struggled as a team, missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons after winning the Kanada Cup in 2012-13. Saarela was part of the team’s top line with 20-year-olds Jarno Karki and Niko Ojamaki.
Like Aho, Saarela does not have the big frame of some of the other top forward prospects but his playmaking instincts and hard, accurate shot compare favorably with most young scorers.
Saarela led Pori with 20 goals and had 13 assists, finishing +4 with 14 penalty minutes in 51 regular season games. In seven games at the 2016 WJC for Finland, he scored four goals with three assists and was +2 with four penalty minutes.
4. Jonne Tammela, 18, LW, KalPa Kuopio
NHL Rights: Tampa Bay Lightning
Drafted in the fourth round, 118th overall, in 2015
Jonne Tammela played in 37 games for KalPa in his second Liiga season, struggling to stay healthy at times but showing steady progress. Part of the Finland U18 team that won a silver medal last spring, he will likely play in the 2017 World Junior Championship.
Tammela has an advanced understanding of positional play and plays a responsible game in all three zones; posssessing significant skating and technical skills. Signed through 2018-19 with KalPa, he was also selected by the OHL’s Peterborough Petes in the 2015 CHL Import Draft and is young enough to play for the Petes next season.
Tammela held his own during his three-game AHL stint with Syracuse as a teenager and should only improve as he gains experience and physical stature. He scored five goals with eight assists and was +10 with 16 penalty minutes in the regular season for KalPa and scored two goals with three assists and was -2 with six penalty minutes in eight playoff games before signing with the Lightning.
5. Saku Maenalanen, 21, LW, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted in the fifth round, 125th overall, in 2013
Saku Maenalanen established himself as a solid, if not dominant Liiga forward in his second season with Karpat. Playing for one of the league’s top teams, he provided supplementary scoring while playing more consistently in all three zones in a lower-line role.
Not a physically punishing player despite his large frame (6’3″, 185 lbs.), Maenalanen is not likely to put up the big scoring numbers he did during his junior career but can be a two-way forward. He enters the final year of his contract with Karpat in 2016-17, so his play next season should go a long way in determining his eventual NHL potential.
In 46 regular season games for Karpat he scored six goals with 10 assists and was +9 with 14 penalty minutes. Maenalanen scored three goals with one assist and was +6 with four penalty minutes in 13 playoff games.