Finnish overagers for the 2004 draft

By Pekka Lampinen

Niklas Backstrom, G
6’0″, 195 lbs
Born: 2/13/1978


2000-01 SaiPa, SM-LiigaG4928262.550.924212432
2001-02 AIK, ElitserienG4021863.050.897132251
2002-03 Karpat, SM-LiigaG3621362.160.92916984
2003-04 Karpat, SM-LiigaG4325722.030.93624897

Backstrom was Mika Noronen’s backup on the Finnish team that won the
World Junior Championship in 1998. Originally a junior player of the HIFK
organization, he wasn’t quite brought up properly there and left to
seek success elsewhere. He soon broke out with SaiPa in 2000-01, facing
numerous shots behind the weak team. A move to Stockholm and AIK turned
out to be a disappointment, as the club crashed and burned under new
Finnish management. Backstrom did what he could, but AIK was relegated to
the second tier league. When given a decent chance to become a starter
in Karpat, he took the opportunity and doesn’t need to regret it.

In 2002-03 they nearly made it all the way and Backstrom put up a decent
fight for the goalie of the year award. The 2003-04 season looked even
more promising until a teammate fell on him in a national team game in
February and Backstrom was diagnosed with a serious knee injury. Karpat
staggered without a proven goalie, but he returned for the playoffs after
a minor surgery. Despite some setbacks the team would not lose a series again. Once the season was over and Karpat was
celebrating the championship, it was revealed that Backstrom was rushed back and
he played the entire campaign with a torn ACL. Later he was awarded
as the goalie of the year and the playoff MVP.

Backstrom has slowly but surely altered his style and developed his
technique over the years. Once primarily a stand-up goalie, he has
integrated more and more butterfly aspects into his game, although he still
clearly plays a hybrid style favored by many Finnish goalie coaches. The
five-hole used to be a problem for him, but with improved quickness he
has patched up his weaknesses. Effortless saves indicate good
positioning. His arms are quick enough to guard the net from high shots, and he
can often make the big save when needed. All in all, he is now a
complete goalie.

For some reason Backstrom’s performances in national team games have
always been sub-par. Whether this is a combination of a couple of
consequences or an alarming sign of vulnerability against greater opposition
remains a mystery. If he stays in Europe, he will surely be given more
time to become Finland’s top European-based goalie, until the end of
days if need be. Backstrom’s situation much resembles that of Pasi
Nurminen three years ago: the same age, roughly the same level of talent and
still a long conditioning period to go through. That didn’t stop
Nurminen from crossing the pond and it won’t stop Backstrom either if an NHL
organization has enough desire to welcome him. Teams have less need for
goalies now than back then, but if a European veteran looks like a good
option, he is the man.

Janne Niskala, D
6’0″, 198 lbs
Born: 9/22/1981


2000-01Lukko, SM-LiigaD18000-20
2000-01Manchester Storm, BISLD100118
2001-02Lukko, SM-LiigaD5571320-2581
2002-03Lukko, SM-LiigaD46459+540
2003-04Lukko, SM-LiigaD55211536+1373

Niskala has represented Lukko throughout his career in Finland. His
road to become an SM-Liiga regular was bumpy as he couldn’t lay a solid
foundation for his game due to being a defensive liability. In 2000 he
moved temporarily to England for some fresh air with the Manchester
Storm. Once back in Finland, he had more maturity to help him develop.
Despite promising numbers in 2001-02, he couldn’t get it all together until
2003-04. Suddenly he was a valuable asset even in the defensive zone.
Offensively the speedy defenseman took the largest step as his
contribution elevated the team’s power play to a higher level. He never
hesitated to draw and fire a slapshot, and that shows in the statistics. The
bottom line, he developed into a top ten defenseman in SM-Liiga.

Niskala’s athletism is extremely impressive. He has the strength to
wrestle with bigger opponents in explosive pulses and the stamina to keep
it up throughout the game with lots of ice time. The necessary tools of
an offensive defenseman are there, puck poise and impeccable skating.
With a killer slapshot and a powerful wrist shot, he boasts more
firepower than any other defenseman in the league. Despite his vision and
hockey sense not being anything special, he still gets close to an ideal
power play quarterback. However, you can only become so solid in one year.
Niskala’s defensive and neutral zone play is still questionable,
especially when planning a jump onto a higher level. At the age of 22 there
is still time for him to mature. He doesn’t have to be considered an
immediate addition if and when drafted. Niskala can eventually reach his
peak as the artillery piece of a second power play unit.

Toni Soderholm, D
6’2″, 190 lbs
Born: 4/14/1978


2000-01UMass-Am, NCAAD2417823
2001-02UMass-Am, NCAAD332151728
2002-03HIFK, SM-LiigaD5281523+749
2003-04HIFK, SM-LiigaD56162137+2172

Let it first be known that Soderholm doesn’t need to be drafted in
order to sign him thanks to his NCAA career. It is still possible that a
team could still pick him to secure his rights and contract negotiations,
and prospect-wise his status doesn’t make a difference. The
cosmopolitan native of the capital city area has spent a total of six seasons in
North America, not appearing in spotlights until after four years in the
University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He quickly worked his way from the
third pairing all the way to the first with HIFK in his rookie season
in 2002-03, earning the Jarmo Wasama Memorial Trophy as the SM-Liiga
rookie of the year. After the season Soderholm was expected to sign with
an NHL team, but he decided to stay in Helsinki. Later he stated that he
felt like owning HIFK at least another season for giving him a chance –
a season in which the sophomore would wear the C on his chest. He
developed still and got his name on an even nicer trophy, the defenseman of
the year.

Soderholm is a surprisingly flashy player for someone with such a calm
and well-rounded style and no skills that stand high above the rest. If
successful, he could resemble Toni Lydman on NHL level: A two-way
defenseman with shifty offensive and defensive biases. He is simply adept at
many aspects of the game, but his smooth skating deserves a mention.
However, his physical play is a notable question mark. During his two
years in Finland he hasn’t added any mass and he didn’t have the strength
to always succeed in what he wanted to accomplish, namely taking the
body, which he does like to do. In the NHL this would naturally be even
more of a problem. How much he can still improve is a mystery.
Nevertheless, Soderholm seems bound to sign an NHL contract when the time is

Elitserien statistics contributed by Johan Nilsson.