Top 30 Finnish prospects

By Pekka Lampinen

The lockout kept most Finnish prospects at home in 2004-05, but the vast majority of Finnish top prospects now reside in North America. The best three domestic-based prospects are ranked sixth, ninth and 13th on this list of 30.

The players have shown indication of their talent in NHL preseason games and in Finland even in the regular season already. However, these early results haven’t been relied on in the rankings. There are players who will be clearing heading up or down in the ranking, but how far if anywhere can’t be said just yet.

Tuomo Ruutu, Joni Pitkänen, Antero Niittymäki, Jani Rita and Ari Ahonen are other players on the rise whose significance to Finnish hockey is similar to that of the ranked players, but they no longer qualify as prospects.

Top 30 at a Glance

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
2. Hannu Toivonen, G
3. Petteri Nokelainen, F
4. Mikko Koivu, C
5. Lauri Tukonen, RW
6. Tuukka Rask, G
7. Jussi Jokinen, F
8. Valtteri Filppula, C
9. Teemu Laakso, D
10. Antti Miettinen, LW
11. Jarkko Immonen, C
12. Sean Bergenheim, RW
13. Lauri Korpikoski, RW
14. Mikko Lehtonen, RW
15. Sami Lepistö, D
16. Perttu Lindgren, C
17. Risto Korhonen, D
18. Karri Rämö, G
19. Aki Seitsonen, C
20. Tommi Leinonen, D
21. Masi Marjamäki, RW
22. Petri Kontiola, C
23. Juho Mielonen, D
24. Teemu Lassila, G
25. Hannu Pikkarainen, D
26. Lasse Kukkonen, D
27. Arsi Piispanen, C
28. Oskari Korpikari, D
29. Olli Malmivaara, D
30. Miika Wiikman, G

1. Kari Lehtonen – G – ATL
Age 21, Style comparison: Patrick Roy

Three years since his drafting, Lehtonen is included on a list of NHL prospects for nearly the last time. His talent and achievements have earned him such a high status among young goalies throughout the world that he may be the best Finnish prospect of all time, unmatched by his countrymen in relation to rival talent in their respective positions and eras.

Lehtonen heads into the season as the starting goalie of the Atlanta Thrashers. This phrase may depict the case for years to come, but it is a monumental step. The goalie who has so far managed enter all levels of play as a dominant force is taking his last step of the kind.

2. Hannu Toivonen – G – BOS
Age 21, Style comparison: Martin Brodeur

Ever since Toivonen had his talent evaluated in the AHL and the WJC, there has been little disagreement over his future — he will go far. He is best described as a flawless butterfly goalie without weaknesses or perhaps even mediocre qualities. Add to that a great person outside the rink as well, the only thing left to ask is why he wasn’t a better player before his breakout in 2002.

Toivonen’s role in 2005-06 is being reconsidered now that Tim Thomas entered the picture during Andrew Raycroft’s contract negotiations in Boston. Whether Toivonen will still see AHL action in his third year remains to be seen. It is also hard to say what the optimal available combination of ice time and a high level of play is for him.

3. Petteri Nokelainen – F – NYI
Age 19, Style comparison: Patrice Bergeron

Nokelainen’s offense has him rather equally matched with other skaters on this list, but his two-way ability makes him the most promising of the pack. He is particularly good at the transition game. He positions himself correctly for neutral zone defense and scoring opportunities, and is very strong in the corners as well.

In the 2005 offseason, Nokelainen first left his hometown for the capital city area but didn’t stick with Espoo Blues either. As a solid player he has been able to crack lineups relatively early, and things may be no different on Long Island. If the Islanders choose to make him a utility player, will he spend enough of his youth developing his puck skills?

4. Mikko Koivu – C – MIN
Age 22, Style comparison: Patrik Štefan

When drafted, Koivu himself said that growing to his height hurt his skating and he also deliberately left weight training to an older age. After having played a couple of years in the distant Finland with varying success, the sixth overall pick received few kind words. However, he did improve on the mentioned flaws and him emerging as a complete player in Houston silenced his critics.

In his first game in North America Koivu was already a World Cup veteran at the age of 21. Thanks to a good goal total in the AHL, the playmaker now goes for an NHL roster spot as a player with few weaknesses.

5. Lauri Tukonen – RW – LA
Age 19, Style comparison: Richard Zedník

Tukonen’s first coming was witnessed in Finland’s second tier league as he turned only 15. Back then, he was an eager puckhandler also poised to become a good athlete. Two years later he entered a professional career in SM-Liiga, now a swift and strong winger with budding sniper skills. Maturing didn’t turn him into a superstar in the making, as it turns out in hindsight that his hockey sense was never quite on par with his skills.

It’s still good enough, however, as indicated by the rookie max for which he signed before even his 19th birthday. What Tukonen needs right now is to tally points. Whether that would have happened easier back home than in a new environment in the AHL is anybody’s guess.

6. Tuukka Rask – G – TOR
Age 18, Style comparison: Mika Noronen

Rask developed a game-breaking ability early on as he honed his mobility to an impressive level typical of Finnish goalies. Correspondingly, his stamina remains lacking, so ever since first scouted at the age of 15, he has hinted of great potential without ever showing what he is like as an athlete on a consistent basis. He is still likely to reach good results before conclusions can be drawn, which makes him a frustrating prospect.

Rask is the highest-ranked prospect on this list to stay in Finland this season. His goals for the season include grabbing as many starts in SM-Liiga as possible, perhaps all the way to starting goalie status, and playing a solid WJC tournament.

7. Jussi Jokinen – F – DAL
Age 22, Style comparison: Henrik Zetterberg

Since the turn of the decade, Jokinen has been a remarkably prolific scorer, never failing to meet the expectations in any of the five regular seasons nor in roughly the same number of notable tournaments. In fact, only top 20 draft picks have managed to match some of his production in modern Finnish hockey.

Jokinen started his professional career with great intensity and straightforward play, but those qualities seemed to wane as his skill level increased. The situation aggravated in 2004-05 when he amassed great point totals but would sometimes just hunt for carefully set up plays. The World Championships turned out to be relieving, as the team’s youngest player seemed oblivious to its anemic play and performed with hustle, also proving that he can carry the puck well in tight spots.

Jokinen signed with the Dallas Stars and will battle Antti Miettinen for playing time at camp, but even if losing, he could establish himself as the next best option for offense.

8. Valtteri Filppula – C – DET
Age 21, Style comparison: Pavel Datsyuk

In their lack of high-end talent, Finns have wondered where to find new Saku Koivus. Other kinds of forwards have proven more promising than Filppula, but style-wise he gets closer to Koivu’s rarer qualities than any Finn in the past ten years. Filppula tears the opposing defense apart by carrying the puck and with open dekes, taking a decisive pass or shot just as he runs out of space. The finesse center plans his moves well and doesn’t get stuck in the perimeter.

Despite WJC all-star honors and developing with the pace and consistency of a blue chipper, as a third-round pick Filppula has only enjoyed a moderate status as a prospect. He has been assigned to Grand Rapids to start the year by the Red Wings.

9. Teemu Laakso – D – NSH
Age 18, Style comparison: Brad Stuart

Laakso is a divisive prospect. At times he has produced in spite of apparently lacking the necessary vision, likes to hit without having the strength and plays mature defense but has been criticized for inconsistency. The youngster appears that he could break out any day to play like a top prospect once he puts some of the understandable issues aside.

Laakso started the season true to his hardship by suffering two injuries in the offseason. However, he was in the lineup on opening night for IFK, a team whose defense has weakened since last season and where Laakso can get any realistic role as long as he earns it.

10. Antti Miettinen – LW – DAL
Age 25, Style comparison: Ladislav Nagy

Miettinen is the oldest player on the list at 25. The late-round pick broke out at the age of 21, then finished two seasons in Finland before signing with the Stars and later missed a chance at two seasons of NHL hockey, hampered by shoulder injuries and the lockout.

A bit on the finesse side, Miettinen is an extremely well-rounded player and that has been noticed by the Stars, who seem to be grooming him for a scoring line role. When you skate, score and pass as skillfully and defend as smart as Miettinen, you find a way into the lineup.

11. Jarkko Immonen – C – NYR
Age 23, Style comparison: Andrew Cassels

Immonen enjoyed a spectacular breakout from late 2001-02 to early 2003-04, turning from a spare guy into a franchise player in SM-Liiga. The top scorer is now trying to make it in the NHL. His main obstacle and challenge is that he isn’t the swiftest of forwards and that could hurt him as he runs out of time and space on a high level of play. Immonen is very good in faceoffs, but much of his two-way game stopped developing as he adopted an offensive role a couple of years back.

It was now high time for Immonen to move from Finland to North America. Immonen will likely play with the Hartford Wolfpack.

12. Sean Bergenheim – RW – NYI
Age 21, Style comparison: Shawn Bates

A stocky five-star skater with tremendous lower body strength sure has his uses, especially if the player was already a mature and talented enough player to score in juniors. Bergenheim made a drastic career move in 2003 when he left the fourth line of Jokerit behind to join the Islanders in a similar role. He did return for the spring season.

The only constraint to Bergenheim’s possible roles is the number of points he can produce. The only question is at what point he will learn to score effectively in the NHL, a talent most desirable for the player he is projected to become.

13. Lauri Korpikoski – RW – NYR
Age 19, Style comparison: Jamie Langenbrunner

It is well known how Korpikoski rose from obscurity over a single spring season to a prize in the 2004 draft. His excellent production in international games was an impressive feat. Back home in Finnish Jr A, the inexperienced winger was unable to reach star-like numbers, and understandably so. His development was still so fast that by last fall junior hockey wasn’t the right place for him.

Korpikoski went through his rookie professional season with marginal, insignificant production. In his sophomore season, realistic expectations project his point totals at moderate, still developmental levels. A prospect of his quality has to reach major production eventually. Fortunately, his on-ice performances indicate that he can prevail.

14. Mikko Lehtonen – RW – BOS
Age 18, Style comparison: Alexander Frolov

Lehtonen was drafted in 2005 as a highly skilled and unconventional big winger who was incomplete physically and lacking in tactical ability – a long-term project, that is. He seems to be wasting no time to improve from that and even to break out, as he seeks to fill a roster spot left empty by Lauri Tukonen crossing the pond. Lehtonen is certainly off to a good start.

His readiness for professional hockey is supported by better concentration in the transitions of two-way hockey as well as improved physique. He challenges opponents with such skill, swiftness and power that he has the potential to become Finland’s best puckhandler in traffic and with that a fearsome offensive force.

15. Sami Lepistö – D – WSH
Age 21, Style comparison: John-Michael Liles

It may seem surprising that this far down Finland’s and the Capitals’ rankings could be found a prospect who is inferior to only one, maybe three rearguard prospects in offensive ability. Lepistö’s dominant WJC performance in 2004 was no fluke, but a consistent continuation of his development among professionals. Now he skates swiftly in all directions, makes sharp plays when he gets the puck and makes use of open space on the ice.

Lepistö’s skill is a result of extreme confidence. In Jokerit he has been given permission to use his skills freely, and so he takes numerous risks on the ice. He isn’t bad at playing defense per se, as indicated by what he accomplished as Finland’s top defenseman in the WJC when mistakes couldn’t be afforded. Before he can run an NHL team’s power play, he must go cold turkey from developing his offense in risky ways.

Lepistö starts the season as the premier blueliner of Jokerit. Continuing to develop like a top prospect for the third consecutive year, much is expected of him. The Capitals will retain his rights until 2008, so the new CBA will not hurry Lepistö anywhere.

16. Perttu Lindgren – C – DAL
Age 18, Style comparison: Alexander Semin

Lindgren is a finesse center in the mold of the early 90’s. His career progress has been fairly unspectacular. Now past his draft year, he has taken a place among Finnish prospects worthy of an age group’s top center and source of production.

Lindgren has risen from the status of a Jr A newcomer to that of a professional player over the calendar years 2004 and 2005 quickly and early for a player of only normal maturity. It should take some time before his dekes, passes, shots and especially tactical ability will become fully of SM-Liiga quality, but nonetheless he has already been entrusted with the third line of Ilves. His main challenge in 2005-06 will be to make consistent use of those minutes.

17. Risto Korhonen – D – CAR
Age 18, Style comparison: Daniil Markov

The best of the big and tough Finnish defensemen tend to develop new qualities to their game before they can specialize, and that is why players like Korhonen are a bit rare in the north. He has remained true to his style, also due to the limitations his talent has set.

Kärpät is a dominant organization which, amidst its championship runs, has spared few opportunities to its developing junior defensemen. Korhonen wanted more and left his home when his time to enter professional hockey came. He joined HPK in Hämeenlinna and started the season as the seventh defenseman. The team is still looking to acquire a blueliner, so Korhonen may still bounce back and forth between Jr A and SM-Liiga in case of injuries. He would do well to prepare himself for the AHL by the time the Canes’ rights on him expire in 2007.

18. Karri Rämö – G – TB
Age 19, Style comparison: Brian Boucher

In 2003-04 Rämö was fighting for spare national team minutes. In 2004-05 the incomplete goalie improved drastically, having become better at reading the game. His butterfly tools carried him through a strong spell in the spring season. All in all, Rämö started to look like a real goalie who found the means to develop consistently.

In 2005-06 with HPK, he need not fear the same beatings as previously behind the bottom feeder Pelicans. However, there he will share the starts with another young and dynamic goalie Miika Wiikman. He will attempt to challenge Tuukka Rask for the privilege to be the starting goalie in the World Junior Championships.

19. Aki Seitsonen – C – CGY
Age 19, Style comparison: Jochen Hecht

Today’s culture of Finnish exports into the CHL has been the same since 2002, with roughly two players making the jump each year. All those players are – or would be – still considered NHL prospects, and it is Seitsonen for whom the future holds the most promise.

Over his WHL career, Seitsonen has acquainted himself with scoring, playmaking, defense, grinding and more. It fits the picture that the versatile player has played all forward positions and even defenseman on power play in the WJC. Also preparing to return to said tournament, Seitsonen is beginning his final season in the WHL. The 2005-06 season may prove the most important in his career for the development of his offensive skills.

20. Tommi Leinonen – D – PIT
Age 18, Style comparison: Marcus Ragnarsson

Leinonen remained in relative obscurity up to the age of 17. He then emerged ready to play international hockey. His development continued in natural ways: In Finnish Jr A the two-way defenseman joined rushes and controlled the puck, against tougher competition on international ice he focused on defense.

Leinonen’s play elicited positive comments in the preseason when he was still with the Kärpät pro squad. Even the team’s seventh defenseman is beginning his fourth pro season, so Leinonen stood no realistic chance of being on the opening night lineup. Young defensemen in the organization have starved for ice time in recent years. Leinonen will eventually need to advance in his career and may need to explore alternative options like the former teammate Risto Korhonen did.

21. Masi Marjamäki – RW – NYI
Age 20, Style comparison: Peter Schaefer

This summer, Marjamäki became the first Finn to gain an NHL contract out of the CHL. It was not for granted, as the Bruins let go of their rights to him. But the Isles offered him a similar opportunity. The season will begin for him in Bridgeport, as will possibly the next one, but Marjamäki appears motivated to pursue his dream persistently.

Marjamäki began his CHL career as a rather mature player. With the physical play under control, he was poised to improve his offensive game. The way he challenges opponents with the puck is straightforward, swift and almost shameless, which gives the impression of great, budding ability. However, he can’t read plays properly or in time and often misses the best decisions. Marjamäki’s NHL prospects depend on whether experience will work for him the way it should.

22. Petri Kontiola – C – CHI
Age 21, Style comparison: Esa Pirnes

Kontiola didn’t enjoy a particularly spectacular junior career. He had only modest point totals behind him when he succeeded at making Tappara’s pro team. He started out as a defensive forward, but eventually came the playmaking and then the scoring — he became the skill player his nature intended him to be.

Kontiola makes things happen on the ice, but the downside is that Kontiola can’t lead his unit to NHL-style attacks and his decisions may sideline the action from a rush toward the net. Also in his newer offensive role he fails to backcheck cohesively with his linemates. He still has a plethora of things to learn, but possesses more talent than most.

23. Juho Mielonen – D – DET
Age 18, Style comparison: Daniel Tjärnqvist

Mielonen has earned his status as a prospect with consistent services for the junior national teams over a long period of time. While he challenges for the fringes of the turbulent roster of Ilves in the domestic league, his most interesting short-term prospects perhaps lie again with the national team.

Mielonen has spent much of the season so far touring with the U20 team as they prepare for the WJC tournament. He is looking to be a mainstay despite his underaged status, and this is exactly how he could hope to make it in the NHL — focus on making oneself useful in the defensive end early and consistently.

24. Teemu Lassila – D – NSH
Age 22, Style comparison: Andrew Raycroft

The second-generation Helsinki-born goalie moved to Turku in his later teens. There Lassila trained under renowned goalie coaching and he started to distinguish himself with TPS Jr A in 2001. Still virtually without international appearances, he was promoted to the pro team in 2002-03 and enjoyed immediate success, becoming a full-fledged NHL prospect with his drafting after the season.

Lassila’s sophomore season was made difficult by injuries, but he at least accumulated valuable experience in the finals. In 2004-05 he managed a full season at his normal level of play, but over the two years he could only raise that level very little. Lassila moved to Stockholm for the 2005-06 season and will need a bit of a breakout season eventually if he wishes to progress toward the NHL. The pessimistic prediction that this will never happen can also fit in the picture, though.

25. Hannu Pikkarainen – D – NYR
Age 21, Style comparison: Jordan Leopold

Players with the same story as Pikkarainen have been seen by the dozens — dominant in domestic juniors but without international fame, talented but not quite putting it all together, not quite established on the organization’s pro team when junior eligibility runs out. With a breakout in 2004-05, Pikkarainen proved that a lagging development curve doesn’t have to mean a low ceiling for potential.

Pikkarainen skates well and plays sound defense, being especially capable on one-on-ones. His strengths still lie in the offensive end where he uses creativity and confidence to set up plays and a powerful shot to make the decisive move himself at times. Twenty-two years of age by the end of the year 2005, Pikkarainen could be signed by the Rangers without drafting – or could have been, had they not missed the transfer deadline. He will spend another season with IFK, where he can use the current momentum of his progress to further develop his strengths.

26. Lasse Kukkonen – D – CHI
Age 23, Style comparison: Brad Lukowich

Despite a WJC appearance in 2001, Kukkonen needed until 2003 and a splendid SM-Liiga season before his name would be called on draft day. He left to pursue an NHL career and made his first appearance, but returned home to Oulu after just one season. The reasons behind the decision were unclear.

While playing in Europe, Kukkonen hasn’t been all out of touch with NHL hockey, at least symbolically, as his physical ability was used to counter the opposing team’s biggest stars. This led to some memorable duels with Ilya Kovalchuk in Euro Hockey Tour games and gave reminders that he could still one day redeem himself in North America, should he find the drive to do so.

27. Arsi Piispanen – C – CBJ
Age 20, Style comparison: Lasse Pirjetä

Piispanen was not blessed with the optimal genes for a hockey player. When nature intended you to stand at 6’3 but carry only 160 pounds at the age of 18, there are bound to be some problems. In 2004-05 this stunted Piispanen’s effectiveness at higher levels of play, the WJC and SM-Liiga, hinting that he may never be cut out for NHL hockey.

For the 2005-06 season Piispanen had gone through another year of physical training, and he is making steady progress. Having more strength has also helped his mobility, which used to be a threshold preventing the use of his skills. A sniper on one day and a playmaker on another, Piispanen can now get the job done even among seasoned professionals, possibly even among the best of them eventually.

28. Oskari Korpikari – D – MTL
Age 21, Style comparison: Karlis Skrastins

Ever since he made the Kärpät roster in the spring of 2003, Korpikari has been getting nowhere fast. The team that was stopped in the finals that year moved on to win gold in 2004 and 2005. The champions’ lineups were naturally strong, and that means strong enough to knock the inexperienced defenseman off the roster regularly.

Korpikari was poised to break out in 2003-04, but suffered a difficult shoulder injury in the WJC. Even though the arm should be fine, Korpikari hasn’t quite caught up to the pace since. In 2005-06 he is set in the team’s top seven, finally poised for regular ice time. He must now shake off the hardship and move on to manhandle quality opponents.

29. Olli Malmivaara – D – CHI
Age 23, Style comparison: Filip Kuba

It takes time to grow as tall as Malmivaara, and it takes even more time to become a solid 6’5 defenseman on professional level. A change of scenery in early 2004 immediately initiated a steady progress, which has so far culminated in Malmivaara becoming SaiPa’s No. 1 defenseman.

Malmivaara’s size has been put to use in front of both nets and on international ice. He isn’t a very mean player, but that is something that just has to be lived with. Five years after his drafting it may seem that his last straws as an NHL prospect should already be grasped, but now he is finally good enough to stand a chance of making it to the show right away.

30. Miika Wiikman – G – undrafted
Age 20, Style comparison: Martin Gerber

Swedish-born and of Finnish descent, Wiikman moved to Finland for good in 2003, taking the career path of a young Finnish goalie. However, he is too small to play optimal butterfly and too green to be in the typical Finnish goaltender mold. He maintains a cool composure until the moment action is needed, when he displays athleticism and technique sufficient for domination.

His style isn’t a typical package, so it appears there is still plenty of room for improvement, perhaps enough to reach the NHL. Wiikman went undrafted in 2005. That was the last year of eligibility for the goalie about to turn 21, and his next possible dealing with an NHL organization would be signing as a free agent.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.