Top 10 Finnish Forwards

By Tony Piscotta
Photo: Minnesota Wild prospect Mikael Granlund is the top NHL prospect currently playing in Finland. Granlund is widely considered one of the top players in the world not playing in North America. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Muzik/Icon SMI)

Two centers and nine wingers currently comprise the contingent of forwards with NHL ties that skated in Finland's SM-Liiga this past season. The mix of forwards skating in Finland is a wide range offers a wide range of skill sets – with a few players that were high scorers in the junior level and others who are solid two-way players.

With the exception of HIFK's Mikael Granlund, who will skate for Finland at the upcoming IIHF World Championship and figures to make a strong push for a spot with the Wild this summer, most are not expected to make an impact at the NHL level until 2013-14 at the earliest.

1. Mikael Granlund, HIFK Helsinki
NHL Rights: Minnesota Wild
Drafted 1st round, 9th overall, 2010

Granlund was the leading scorer for second-place HIFK despite appearing in just 45 games – missing time mid-season while he competed for Finland at the 2012 U20 WJC tournament and then at the end of the year when he suffered a flu-like ailment. In 45 games he scored 20 goals with 31 assists.

The center was able to return for the seven-game playoff series with Helsinki rival Jokerit, but was still trying to regain his strength. In four playoff contests he had two assists and was minus-two, spending much of the series with HIFK's third line.

Granlund is penciled in to play for Finland when they co-host this year's World Championship tournament with Sweden and it is hoped that a few weeks rest will allow him to regain his strength.

A highly-skilled forward, the strength of his game is his play-making ability and an uncanny knack he has of identifying opportunities and setting up teammates. One area of concern moving forward is how his game will translate to the more defensive and competitive style played in North America. While he has always put up big points playing for Finland's junior programs, many of the bigger countries such as Canada, Sweden, and the United States have been able to contain him.

That being said, of the forward prospects coming out of Finland he appears to be the most NHL-ready.

2. Joel Armia, Assat Pori
NHL Rights: Buffalo Sabres
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2011

One of the larger forwards playing in the SM-Liiga, Armia had another solid season in his second season playing in Assat with high-scoring Tomas Zaborsky. Like Granlund, Armia skated for Team Finland's U20 squad as it finished fourth at the 2012 WJC in January.

Armia is an opportunistic sniper who is effective in the small areas with his size and stick handling ability. In 54 games for fifth-place Assat he scored 18 goals with 20 assists and was plus-12 with 64 penalty minutes. He injured his knee during the playoffs and will not be able to get back on the ice for six weeks.

The forward had an impressive performance at the WJC playing on a line with the Karpat duo of Mikko Salomaki (NSH) and Joonas Donskoi (FLA). Armia scored five goals, including what looked like it would be the game-winner against Sweden in the semifinals (Sweden scored late in the game and then won in the shootout). Armia was the only Finnish skater to beat Sweden's Johan Gustafsson (MIN) in the shootout.

The 18-year-old projects as a power-forward with some goal scoring capability. He is still developing physically and does not turn 19 until the end of May. He is slated to return to Assat for one more season in 2012-13. His progress should dictate whether he is able to crack the Buffalo lineup the following year or will need further development at the AHL level.

3. Joonas Donskoi, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Florida Panthers
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2010

Donskoi, who recently turned 20-years-old, did not put up the big goal scoring numbers of some of the other young prospects but it can be argued that his game is much more pro-hockey friendly at this point.

Skating primarily in a second and third line role for Karpat during the year, Donskoi scored eight goals during the regular season after scoring 16 in 2010-11. However, he had a career-high 17 assists and was often counted on to compete against some of the top opposing forwards in the league. Playing alongside long-time NHLer Jozef Stumpel in the playoffs, Donskoi scored three goals with three assists in six games.

At the WJC he played on what was arguably Finland's most effective line alongside Armia and Salomaki. Donskoi scored two goals at the tournament but it was his consistent two-way play that contributed to the team's success as Finland reached the semifinals.

Like Armia, Donskoi is slated to return to the SM-Liiga for at least one more season in 2012-13. Depending on how things go with Karpat, he could be in North America as soon as 2013-14.

4. Iiro Pakarinen, KalPa Kuopio
NHL Rights: Florida Panthers
Drafted 7th round, 184th overall, 2011

Taken with a late round flier by the Panthers after passing through the 2010 NHL Draft a year earlier, Pakarinen epitomizes Florida's philosophy of being tough to play against.

Playing on a KalPa team that featured a balanced offensive attack and finished in first place in the regular season, Pakarinen embraced the role of a lower line forward while scoring 10 goals in 54 games.

Unlike many of the stereotypical forwards to come out of Europe in the past, Pakarinen prefers a meat-and-potatoes game. Despite seeing limited ice-time with KalPa (13:37 minutes per game), Pakarinen was fourth on the team with 171 shots on goal and enjoys playing in tight spaces. At the same time, his skating and stick handling skills are above average.

In KalPa's seven-game playoff series with Espoo Blues he scored two goals with two assists and was minus-two while drawing no penalties.

Published rumors in February 2012 had Pakarinen moving to HIFK next season but it will be interesting to see how he performs in the Panthers' camp this summer. While his lack of true high-end offensive skills may preclude him from ever being a top-line forward, he plays the type of game that fits in with the grittier game currently played in the NHL.

5. Miikka Salomaki, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2011

Though he put up some big numbers in junior hockey, Salomaki is not expected to be a big scorer in pro hockey. Rather, he is a strong two-way player with a physical component to his game.

Salomaki skated in 40 games for Karpat, missing time in January while recovering from a ruptured spleen. He played for Finland at the 2012 U20 World Junior Championships.

In his second season with Karpat, Salomaki averaged 16 minutes of ice-time per game as an 18-year-old and was plus-nine with 12 goals and nine assists. He skated in seven of nine playoff games for Karpat – drawing a suspension for "bumping" an official and then being disciplined for a borderline hit on Pelicans Justin Hodgman. He finished the playoffs plus-three with one assist and 56 penalty minutes.

Salomaki played on a line with Donskoi and Armia at the WJC tournament and in addition to scoring three goals with three assists was a strong presence in the defensive zone.

He is signed with Karpat for the 2012-13 season and could be ready to make the move to North America as soon as the following year.

6. Teemu Pulkkinen, Jokerit Helsinki
NHL Rights: Detroit Red Wings
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2010

Big things were expected of Pulkkinen this season, both in SM-Liiga play and at the 2012 U20 World Junior Championships. Coming off a rookie season where he had nearly a point-per-game and was plus-23 in 55 games, Pulkkinen was expected to continue to establish himself as a can't-miss prospect with Jokerit and combine with the Granlunds to lead Finland to a medal.

While the expectations may have been unrealistically high, the lack of effectiveness and production, particularly in the second half of the year, raised some concerns.

A nagging ankle injury and inconsistency limited Pulkkinen's effectiveness but according to a scout who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Pulkkinen did not handle things as well as he could have.

Jokerit played its best hockey down the stretch but with Danish import Nichlas Hardt and veterans Ben Eaves and Ilari Filppula handling the top line duties, Pulkkinen mostly played in the third and fourth lines.

"His game was not on a good level. I also think he will bounce back but he had a terrible last third of the season," said the anonymous scout.

In the WJC tournament, Pulkkinen was one of Finland's leading scorers but was kept in check by the tougher squads from Canada and Sweden, giving fuel to those who feel his big junior numbers may not necessarily translate to pro hockey.

Struggles for 20-year-olds making the adjustment to pro hockey are nothing new and Pulkkinen's offensive tools, particularly his explosive shot, are top rate. He will be challenged to get things back on track with Jokerit in 2012-13.

7. Joonas Rask, Ilves Tampere
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted 7th round, 198th overall, 2010

Rask, like Pakarinen, was drafted as an overage player, passing through two drafts before the Predators selected him in 2010.

Unlike Pakarinen, Rask plays a more polished style of hockey – relying on his speed and high skill level to be effective on both ends of the ice. In March 2012 he was signed to a two-year, entry-level contract by Nashville.

The 2011-12 season, Rask's fourth with Ilves in the SM-Liiga, was frustrating, both personally and team-wise.

Due to a series of injuries early in the year he did not play his first game until November 5th. In his ninth game back he suffered a knee injury that kept him out for almost a month. Ilves finished last in the 14-team SM-Liiga and had to defeat Mestis champion Vaasa Sport in a relegation series to keep their spot in the league.

Following the season, Rask was signed by Jokerit GM Jarmo Kekalainen for 2012-13 and should flourish in the limelight in Helsinki according to the anonymous scout HF consulted.

"This year the team was bad, the off-season was bad. Pretty much everything went wrong for him. He was also struggling with his scoring and his confidence. He must've hit the post about 20 times. He is a great two-way player with good scoring ability."

While not a pure scorer, Rask's attention to detail on both ends of the ice fit in with the Predators' style of play.

8. Markus Granlund, HIFK Helsinki
NHL Rights: Calgary Flames
Drafted 2nd round, 45th overall, 2011

Granlund spent his first full season in he SM-Liiga as an 18-year-old after skating in two games with HIFK the previous year. He was also a teammate of brother Mikael on Team Finland at the 2012 U20 World Championship, where the team finished fourth.

In 47 games with HIFK during the regular season he scored 15 goals with 19 assists and was plus-19 with 18 penalty minutes. Though he is a bit undersized and can be muscled off the play at times, Granlund is a legitimate prospect due to his playmaking and passing skills and an uncanny ability to get into scoring areas. He appeared in three games during HIFK's four-game playoff series with Jokerit. HIFK and Jokerit's U20 teams also met in the finals at that level and Granlund scored a goal in his only game in that series (won by HIFK).

At the WJC, Granlund skated on Finland's top line with his brother Mikael and Jokerit's Pulkkinen. While Finland failed to capture a medal, losing to Canada in the bronze medal game, Granlund was impressive in his first trip to Western Canada and Flames' fans got their first look at the young forward.

The young forward will spend at least one more season with HIFK in 2012-13. While skeptics have often attributed his success to playing alongside his brother, he was the leading scorer for HIFK's U20 team in 2010-11, when his older brother had already moved up to the SM-Liiga team.

While he will likely need more bulk and strength before heading to North America, the younger Granlund does have the playmaking ability and offensive instinct to be a consistent scorer.

9. Alexander Ruuttu, Jokerit/Kiekko Vantaa (Mestis)/Jokerit U20
NHL Rights: Phoenix Coyotes
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2011

More than a few draft "experts" went scurrying for their notes when Ruuttu was selected by the Coyotes in the second round of the 2011 NHL draft. Up to that time, the lanky forward had never played for Finland's national team in a junior world championship tournament and was considered a long-range prospect.

While he has not yet cracked the veteran Jokerit SM-Liiga lineup (he averaged under eight minutes of ice time and had one goal in 13 games), the 19-year-old has shown signs that he can be an effective two-way forward. He also skated in 24 pro games (including four playoff contests) for Mestis' Kiekko-Vantaa and played for the Jokerit A Junior team that was the national runner-up at that level.

In addition to his play domestically, Ruuttu more than held his own playing for Finland at the 2012 U20 World Junior Championship. Skating on a line with Miro Aaltonen and 16-year-old phenom Alexander Barkov, Ruuttu proved to be a solid two-way player and was at his best against the biggest opponents – scoring two of his three goals against Canada and Sweden.

Ruuttu has quite a bit of development ahead if he is to justify his lofty draft status. And skeptics will always claim that his father Christian's status as a former NHLer and European Scout (Christian now works for the Kings but was with Phoenix prior to Alexander's being selected) gave him an unfair advantage.

In the 2011-12 season, Ruuttu's solid play and steady improvement did a lot to keep many of his critics at bay. He will challenge for a regular spot in the Jokerit lineup next season; that will give an indication of his career path in the future.

10. (tie) Toni Rajala, Ilves Tampere
NHL Rights: Edmonton Oilers
Drafted 4th round, 101st overall, 2009

Somewhat of a celebrity during his junior hockey days, Rajala was signed to an entry-level contract by the Oilers as an 18-year-old in July 2009. After a season with the Memorial Cup runner-up Brandon Wheat Kings in 2009-10, he returned to Finland to start his pro career with Ilves.

It was hoped that he would crack the lineup for AHL Oklahoma City in 2011-12 but after being one of the first cuts in training camp he returned to Ilves for his second SM-Liiga season.

To his credit, Rajala was one of the few offensive threats on a team that finished last in the SM-Liiga. Rajala's 16 goals were tops on Ilves and his 288 shots on goal were by far the most on the team.

At this point, Rajala's prospects appear to be uncertain. While he is a talented, if under-sized offensive force, it remains to be seen if he can match the prolific numbers of his junior days in the more competitive North American hockey. Another obstacle is the number of high-level forwards that Edmonton has added to its system since drafting him.

10. (tie) Milan Kytnar, HPK Hameenlinna
NHL Rights: Edmonton Oilers
Drafted 5th round, 127th overall, 2007

Like Rajala, Kytnar's status as a prospect in the Edmonton organization appears tenuous due to the large number of young forwards in the Oilers system.

A hard-working, popular player, Kytnar is a sound defensive forward but his limited offensive production and lack of punishing physical game limit his role.

After playing full-time for the AHL affiliate Oklahoma City Oil Barons in 2010-11 he saw 13 games with the Oil Barons and spent time with the ECHL's Stockton Thunder. Kytnar made his NHL debut in January with the Oilers short handed, skating five minutes with no points or penalties in one game. He was loaned to HPK shortly thereafter.

Skating in 16 games for HPK in February and March, Kytnar averaged over 16 minutes of ice time and was minus-three with three assists. He is among the players competing for a spot on his native Slovakia's roster for the upcoming 2012 IIHF World Championship.

Long-term, Kytnar's ceiling is fairly low – he projects as a defense-line, checking lower line forward. Now 22-years-old, he has one year left on the original three-year entry-level contract he signed with Edmonton so he may see time in the AHL with an occasional call-up in 2012-13. Anything higher than that would be a bonus.