Eligible once again

By Pekka Lampinen

Mikko Luoma

Defenseman, shoots left
6’4″, 210 lbs.
Born 6/22/76

2000-01 Tappara 56 GP, 10 G, 11 A, 21 P, +16, 72 PIM
2001-02 Tappara 56 GP, 11 G, 18 A, 29 P, +12, 74 PIM

Two years ago Luoma was still unknown to the public. An inexperienced depth player in the JYP organisation, he signed with Tappara, looking for a new stepping stone. As the season progressed, the tower in the team’s defense corps accumulated more and more points, ending up with an impressive total. Still, he wasn’t touted as a rising star yet after the season had ended with a defeat in the finals.

The time for breakthrough was last fall. After being Finland’s best defenseman in the first Euro Hockey Tour tournament, Ceska Pojistovna, Luoma started the SM-Liiga season with red lights flashing and opponents crumbling, earning the player of the month award in September. His production slowed down later in the season, but he had taken his game to a whole new level. The speed of international games didn’t make him dizzy: He was the only defenseman in the team to retain his normal level in the Sweden Hockey Games. However, in the Karjala Tournament prior to the world championships, he was overshadowed by other players and failed to make the WC squad.

The demand for big, puck-moving defensemen is sky-high, and despite Luoma missing the season’s biggest opportunity to impress the scouts, they should still be all over him next weekend. He is very confident with the puck, reads the game well and makes innovative decisions. For a big guy, Luoma is an agile skater as well. His notable weaknesses are the lack of sharpness and the relatively passive defensive game. Even though he can take a smaller opponent out of the play when the need arises, he doesn’t use his frame as effectively as most NHL defensemen. All in all, if the transition to the North American game goes well, he could be a welcome addition to any team.

Joonas Vihko

Left wing, shoots right
5’9″, 175 lbs.
Born 4/6/81

2000-01 HIFK (Jr.A) 27 GP, 24 G, 16 A, 40 P, 85 PIM
2001-02 HIFK 48 GP, 13 G, 11 A, 24 P, -2, 89 PIM

Last summer when HIFK was rebuilding the team, they knew they could rely on their own junior players more than ever, with their U-20 team swarming with high-scoring forwards. Among them, but not first and foremost, was Joonas Vihko. The young speedster managed to earn a spot in the team, but he was known to the public only for his two suspensions until the last quarter of the season. The team had recovered from their struggles and made a push for the playoffs with Vihko in the first line. They failed, but Vihko’s efforts were enough to win the SM-Liiga rookie of the year award.

In December I wondered whether Vihko could be a candidate for the draft as a pest, who throws opponents off balance and creates havoc in a checking line. At that time, he had amassed only marginal points. However, with Alpo Suhonen as the team’s new coach, it was as if Vihko simply decided that he can play. He challenged defensemen with great confidence, and more importantly, now managed to end his rushes with a dangerous shot or a smart pass.

Right now, Vihko is a skilled stickhandler with a quick and accurate wrist shot. He uses his great speed well both with and without the puck, and doesn’t hesitate to hit anything that moves. His size sets more than just a few restrictions, though, and it is hard to imagine a role where he could use his abilities the best. Furthermore, he is still leaps away from NHL level, but the potential is probably too great to miss.

Tom Koivisto

Defenseman, shoots right
5’10”, 190 lbs.
Born 6/4/74

2000-01 Jokerit 47 GP, 8 G, 15 A, 23 P, +13, 34 PIM
2001-02 Jokerit 43 GP, 8 G, 14 A, 22 P, +22, 30 PIM

Koivisto must have not gone completely unnoticed in the scouts’ eyes in the past year either. He has been regularly knocking on the national team’s gates ever since his breakthrough in HPK five years ago. The offensive defenseman used to be known for his booming slapshot, but recently also for smart passes and efficient rushes with the puck. This year he finally took one more step with his game and won the SM-Liiga defenseman of the year award after scoring three goals and assisting eight in twelve postseason games. He wasn’t done yet, and made the world championships squad after a strong showing the Karjala Tournament.

As you might expect after taking a glance at Koivisto’s size, many have doubted his ability to play defensive game at international level. That question mark shrunk several font sizes in Gothenburg, where he stood on par with his NHL counterparts in Team Finland’s defense corps. His offensive game didn’t suffer a bit, only the role had changed, but gritty wrestling and a low stance kept the opponents at bay in the defensive zone, no matter what their size. The physical game of the NHL is still one level higher, but if he can take the step, it will most certainly pay off.

Marko Tuulola

Defenseman, shoots left
6’0″, 205 lbs.
Born 2/7/71

2000-01 Brynäs (SEL) 44 GP, 8 G, 14 A, 22 P, 95 PIM
2001-02 HPK 55 GP, 6 G, 34 A, 40 P, +36, 40 PIM

Draftees don’t really come as seasoned as Tuulola. He has played in the Finnish and Swedish elite leagues for over ten years now, winning two championships in Jokerit. Last summer he returned to his roots in HPK and, at personal level, hit the jackpot. The team had high expectations in SM-Liiga playoffs but had to settle with bronze. Behind the efficient HPK forwards (the team scored four goals per game) Tuulola gathered points with the support he gave by carrying the puck or dealing sharp opening passes, and he earned a place in the first SM-Liiga all-stars.

After recovering from the postseason, Tuulola joined the national team and earned one of the three roster spots reserved for European-based defensemen. Although he had a smallish role in the team, the tournament was a success: he played just as solid against skilled opponents as he had played all the season.

Tuulola is an all-round defenseman with no weaknesses. His calmness with the puck is exemplary and he hardly makes any mistakes, even when the going gets tough. At NHL level it is doubtful that he would put up over twenty points, though. At the age of 31, he isn’t going to get any better, but provided that there would be no glitches in adapting to the North American game, he would make a fine addition to some team’s blueline for a couple of years.

Petri Pakaslahti

Center, shoots left
6’2″, 205 lbs.
Born 1/22/76

2000-01 Lukko 45 GP, 8 G, 18 A, 26 P, 24 PIM
2001-02 Jokerit 51 GP, 13 G, 22 A, 35 P, +28, 22 PIM

It took longer for the big center to develop than for most of his peers, and his defensive style of play required rather experience than talent. In 2000 Pakaslahti played his first games in the national team, and during the season he became known for his ability to win faceoffs. Last summer he left Lukko behind and signed with Jokerit, a team with a need for just the kind of player Pakaslahti is. It didn’t take long for him to leave Antti Aalto and Tuomo Ruutu behind in the team’s center hierarchy, so he spent most of the season centering the team’s most skilled wingers.

In April Pakaslahti’s season had come to a pleasant end with Jokerit winning the championship. Even though he didn’t play in the world championships, his whereabouts on the ice were surely noted by scouts. He is extremely solid in the defense, and wins important faceoffs as well as kills penalties. Pakaslahti isn’t a particularly strong player, but he can fend for himself. He is a decent playmaker, but despite a successful showing in the first line last season, his skills aren’t good enough to play offensive game in the NHL. Nevertheless, if a team is looking for depth, they would do well to consider drafting the solid center.