SM-liiga prospects season review

By Pekka Lampinen

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Over 56 rounds, 14 teams chased two qualification lines in the Finnish elite league, SM-liiga. The top six teams reached the quarterfinals directly and the teams that finished seventh through tenth played for the last two spots in playoff qualifications. Even after numerous signings by NHL teams at the end of the lockout, there were 52 drafted prospects to play professional hockey in SM-liiga in 2005-06.

Lehtonen’s breakout in Blues jersey cut short

Even though the 2006-07 season witnessed more surprises in SM-liiga standings than in ages, one thing could be trusted not to change: the Espoo Blues built a decent roster but were left far from challenging the top teams. The goalie Neil Little regressed brutally over the course of the season and had to go. The responsibility of guarding the net was left to former prospects Bernd Brückler and Matti Kaltiainen. The offense also slumped in the winter, not properly supported by defensemen. The Blues entered playoff qualifications from the seventh place.

The only drafted player featured among Blues defensemen was Tero Määttä (SJ). Once again he took steps forward and the cycles of his inconsistency increased in length, but the NHL is out of reach for the 23-year-old. His career will continue in Sweden. The 18-year-old Mikael Kurki was called up for 21 games and he didn’t disappoint. Next season he will be better prepared for professional hockey and may also play in the World Junior Championships.

As the season began, the spotlight was focused on Mikko Lehtonen (BOS). He had performed well in preseason and dazzled with his exceptional puckhandling ability. He kept the pace up in regular season, scoring four goals early on. However, that was as far as he would get. The incomplete winger wasn’t expected to be ready for SM-liiga this soon after being drafted and Lehtonen was benched in November. It took quite a while for him to regain form in Jr A. The 25 pro games he played will help him in the near future, though.

The ex-King Esa Pirnes had another solid season with 33 points in 44 games. As he signed with HV-71 of the Swedish elite league after the season, it was said that he is still looking to sign an NHL contract. Tomas Sinisalo, 19, moved to Blues mid-season after expressing his dissatisfaction with his role in SaiPa. He won bronze with Team Finland in the WJC’s, but one goal in 14 SM-liiga games shouldn’t be enough to sway any NHL organization into drafting him.

Long-shot prospects blossom in HIFK

IFK Helsinki made a substantial financial loss in 2004-05 and has a more modest roster for the 2005-06 season. True to their recent tradition, IFK built a top-notch first line. Tony Salmelainen led the league in scoring, Janne Hauhtonen finished fifth and Arttu Luttinen (OTT) eighth. Also thanks to other players overachieving, the team surprised positively and headed into the postseason from the second place.

Hannu Pikkarainen tried to sign with the New York Rangers last summer, but missed the transfer deadline. Not forced to, IFK didn’t waive his contract. That must not have done wonders for Pikkarainen’s motivation, and his game was seen to regress from what it was a year ago. Pikkarainen would have done well to deliver, as a productive season would have helped him improve further with the Rangers organization in 2006-07.

Teemu Laakso (NSH), an 18-year-old defenseman, wasn’t really in a position to challenge for the title of the rookie of the year. Instead, he had to settle with trying to establish his position in SM-liiga. Things were quite turbulent in the IFK defense corps and Laakso himself wasn’t that consistent, but he was with the team pretty much all season. He had three points in 47 games and will likely play regular shifts throughout next season. Another WJC defenseman of Laakso’s age, Timo Seppänen, surprised after New Year by forcing his way to the IFK roster. On occasion he would be given a larger role than Laakso, although he dressed for only 21 games. He exceeded expectations with dependable play.

Tony Salmelainen, formerly with the Oilers organization and with some NHL games under his belt, returned to Finland for a fresh start. It was known that he would make his way to scoring opportunities better than anyone in the league, but that he would also capitalize on them was a positive surprise. Fifty-five points in 53 games was enough to win the scoring title, and impeccable effort secured the award for the league’s best player in regular season. The super-fast winger drew vast amounts of penalties and had a brighter aura of star player than anyone in the league. The Blackhawks acquired his NHL rights in the middle of the season, no doubt planning to sign him.

Often seen on the line with Salmelainen, Arttu Luttinen improved as much as practically possible from last season. He plays a Canadian-style straightforward game, scoring from close range. The Senators’ rights to Luttinen are now expiring, and his 44 points in 56 games are rumored to propel his way to North America for the 2006-07 season.

Perhaps the most interesting overachiever still was Kim Hirschovits (NYR). After failing to fulfil his potential year after another, his talent finally materialized as production. He heated up toward the end of the season and ended up tallying 40 points in 53 games, the 14th highest total in the league. It was certainly a breakout season for Hirschovits, although his offense still resembles tinkering too much to be effective in the NHL.

Lennart Petrell (CBJ) managed another year of solid improvement. The hard-hitting winger scored 12 goals and eight assists in 51 games and is also expected to pursue a career across the pond. For a time it looked like Pasi Salonen (WSH) would challenge for the rookie of the year award, but in the end his pace wasn’t nearly enough. The performance behind his 14 points in 49 games was respectable coming off a season missed due to injury.

Born in late 1987, the Czech forward Peter Freiberg appeared in two games out of IFK juniors. Unfortunately he doesn’t have enough skill to go with his 6’5 frame. The organization also has several Finnish forwards for the 2006 draft: Teemu Ramstedt made his debut in his only pro game this season, but the first appearances of Robert Nyholm, Jonas Enlund, Max Wärn and Nico Aaltonen will still have to wait.

HPK’s Sprukts steamrolls his way to the spotlight

With only the resources of a small organization available, HPK has built yet another talented team. The tactical focus was more defensive this year, as skilled players are scarce in the market. HPK finished third in the regular season.

This wasn’t the first year HPK headed into the season with young goaltenders. Miika Wiikman, 21, had a strong debut with the team last season and Karri Rämö (TB), 19, had broken out with Pelicans. Rämö started out impressive but was sidelined with a knee injury for a month in October when leading the league in save percentage. As expected, Wiikman and Rämö both got the majority of starts in short periods over the season. They both had a good season: Rämö had 2.16 GAA and .929 save percentage in 24 games. Wiikman played 34 games with 2.09 GAA and .929 SPCT0, and he clinched the starter’s post for the playoffs. The team’s third goalie Juha Toivonen filled in a few times. He hopes to make the WJC’s next year.

Risto Korhonen (CAR) was the only NHL prospect among the team’s defensemen. It was his first professional season in a new organization. He assumed the role of a depth defenseman when filling in for injured players, which was often, as he dressed for 22 games. He needs to learn to read the pro game better in order to become a more useful player. The ability to play physical is already there.

Janis Sprukts (FLA) had impressed in the 2005 World Championships and the 23-year-old Latvian picked up where he left. He filled the hole in the role of a power forward left by Jani Rita, and no one questioned his ability to push through or deke around defensemen to score a goal. Unfortunately Sprukts missed several games due to injury. He totalled 18 goals and 10 assists for 28 points in 35 games. He has his NHL hopes up again, rightfully so.

HPK’s fourth line Jari SailioPetteri Wirtanen – Joni Lappalainen was in headlines regularly, playing effective defense and scoring more than their share of goals. The youngest two, Sailio and Wirtanen, also won bronze in the World Junior Championships. Especially Wirtanen was blazing hot toward the end of the season, as the rookie played matured hockey and scored regularly. The 19-year-old finished with eight goals and three assists as well as a +9 rating in 50 games. He can expect to be picked in the NHL Entry Draft this summer.

Lindgren and Rask lead Ilves in spring season

Ilves didn’t have the most solid starting point for the season. It turned out that the roster needed three major acquisitions mid-season, but the team managed an upward trend and made the playoffs directly by finishing sixth.

The pecking order at the goalie position expectedly went through changes over the course of the season. Tuukka Rask (TOR) with his very limited experience wasn’t ready to take over Juha Pitkämäki at first. The fall season was about backup duties, but once Rask returned from the WJC’s, he excelled in a couple of games. Soon it became apparent that he wasn’t just riding a hot streak but given a start after another, quietly taking over the starter’s position. He finished with a strong 2.09 GAA and .926 save percentage.

After a short-lived reign of the inconsistent Jyrki Lumme, the 23-year-old puck-moving defenseman Ville Koistinen took over as No. 1, had a career season and scored 34 points. Teemu Jääskeläinen (CHI) mostly played in front of Rask this season as he missed the first half of regular season due to a shoulder injury. He tallied five points in 22 games. Juho Mielonen (DET) also suffered a shoulder injury in November and was out until February. The rookie still played the majority of his season with professionals, 17 games. Also among the defensemen, the 2006 draftee Joonas Lehtivuori was the youngest player to dress for game in the league this season and the former CHL player Mikko Kuukka, 20, showed considerable development.

If we focus on the negative conditions, being a physically immature center with zero games of SM-liiga experience and barely past his 18th birthday didn’t bode well for Perttu Lindgren (DAL) at the start of the season. He still clinched a third line spot out of camp and earned the role night in, night out, never benched nor sidelined. When injuries struck the team’s centers around new year, Lindgren was placed in the middle of the first line. He went scoreless in the first two games after his return from the WJC’s, but then he caught fire and scored 22 points in the last 18 games. After the Olympic break he was likely the best centerman in the whole league. He will have great momentum for a sophomore season in SM-liiga and his new label of a star player will be an important mental challenge to face.

Toni Koivisto (FLA) played his best season yet once placed aside Lindgren and the team’s top scorer Jussi Pesonen. He scored 19 goals and 13 assists, but that may not be enough development for the 23-year-old winger to reach the NHL. Marko Anttila (CHI) played alongside Lindgren on the third line and was with the team all year, scoring seven points while playing smart two-way hockey. The giant is still far too gentle to make full use of his size. Henrik Juntunen (LA), 22, finally left Kärpät to look for a fresh start. He bounced from one role to another in Ilves as well and showed no improvement with his lacking hockey sense. He finished with eight points in 43 games.

The 18-year-old wingers Ville Korhonen and Tommi Huhtala turned out to be ready for a surprisingly big leap out of juniors and played pro hockey nearly all season. Korhonen scored five points in 47 games, Huhtala three points in 42 games. Ilves has an incredibly deep 1988-born age group coming up, so the mass influx of junior players is far from over.

Jokerit sink, Lepistö survives

Jokerit boast the best resources in SM-liiga, but first of all, the NHL still has more and secondly, resources alone may not necessarily be of any use in saving the team. Three forwards waived their contracts to leave for the NHL in the summer, and the team went through preseason with just half a roster due to an empty market. The league MVP Tim Thomas was signed by Boston one day before the start of regular season. Under a rookie coach the team was in chaos, never shaking off the mental lock nor implementing a successful game plan. The organization tried to fix the roster with acquisitions. Ten players had to go mid-season, but the ones to stay disappointed as well. Jokerit finished 11th and even missed the playoffs.

Jokerit started the season with the 2005 WJC goalie Joonas Hallikainen in nets and later went through three North American acquisitions. The 2006 draftee Niko Hovinen served as a backup in some games but never got on the ice.

Sami Lepistö (WSH) was expected to be the leading defenseman, and that he managed to do. In previous seasons, Lepistö had developed stunning offensive skills while taking risks in the own end and now needed to solidify his game. The problem was, with a severely troubled team around him the young defenseman could very well have crashed and burned. He still put up a decent performance and scored 29 points in 56 games, showing improved offensive skills on even strength among other things. Lepistö is expected to sign with the Capitals in the offseason.

Kevin Kantee (CHI) took steps backwards with the rest of the team and drifted too far from a career path to the NHL. Another defenseman Mikko Kalteva (COL) had an inconsistent season, which however was somewhat of a positive thing considering the decline his career had suffered lately. Both Kantee and Kalteva could continue as depth defensemen in SM-liiga.

Up front, Jokerit had a handful of ex-NHL prospects: Tommi Santala, Toni Dahlman, Tomek Valtonen and Justin Mapletoft to name the youngest ones. The organization’s top Jr A scorers weren’t ready to play at professional level just yet. Jesse Niinimäki (EDM) started the season with Jokerit but after weak performances moved on to JYP, where he rediscovered his game.

JYP helps Niinimäki save his career

One of the smallest clubs in the league, JYP overachieved for a longer time than usual, amassing enough points that a slump in the spring season didn’t jeopardize their spot in playoff qualifications. The team owes much of its success to the veteran goalie Sinuhe Wallinheimo, who was one of the very best in the league this season. When injured, he was backed up by the 19-year-old Aleksis Ahlqvist, who played through six starts with a magnificent GAA of 1.38 and a save percentage of .951.

Defenseman Jyri Marttinen (CGY) finally managed to keep injuries to a minimum and enjoyed a career season, scoring 11 goals and eight assists in 50 games while logging big minutes. Erkka Leppänen made the WJC defense corps, but a regular shift with JYP’s pro team has to wait until the future.

As the man of god-given talent, Jesse Niinimäki (EDM), moved to JYP from Jokerit in January, he got a clean slate of expectations and a new role. Before he joined JYP it looked like he would be continuing his career in one of the minor pro leagues of Europe, but he pushed his career back on track. Niinimäki became a successful power play specialist, scoring 14 points in his 19 games with JYP. His near future is still uncertain and not just because he doesn’t have a contract for next season yet: The unprofessionalism that plagues him didn’t shake off just like that, and he can still only dream of being a complete hockey player.

JYP also had two other 22-year-old forward prospects. Ossi Louhivaara (OTT) didn’t improve much from his rookie season and finished with 18 points. Tuomas Mikkonen (DAL) suffered from injuries and scored eight points in 36 games. The 20-year-old center Arsi Piispanen (CBJ) is still far from having the body of an adult and it shows. He started the season performing well on the first line, then suffered from exhaustion and ended up being benched. Nine goals and eight assists are a moderate improvement from his rookie numbers in 2004-05.

KalPa is back in SM-liiga but without NHL prospects

KalPa was promoted to SM-liiga in 2005 after winning the second tier league championship. The first season was difficult for the team which couldn’t improve its roster in the empty offseason market. KalPa won only 11 out of 56 games, the former NHL prospect Tomas Kurka being their lone star with 23 goals.

KalPa is known for developing great players such as Sami Kapanen, Kimmo Timonen and Olli Jokinen but now they have no NHL prospects in their system. The closest thing to a rising star was the diminutive 19-year-old forward Tuomas Kiiskinen, who scored three points in 25 games. The 2006 draft hopeful, forward Juuso Puustinen, hasn’t make his professional debut yet.

Aaltonen the next gem of Kärpät

In the offseason, Kärpät watched the NHL ravage the rosters of their toughest competition while surviving the signing period with minimal losses. The defending champion moved on to win the regular season with a considerable margin. Between the pipes Niklas Bäckström, 27, had another great season, possibly entering NHL contract negotiations in the summer again.

Last season Lasse Kukkonen (CHI) was just one of the best in a strong defense core. This season he didn’t settle with any mediocrity, scored 27 points and led the league for the second time in his young career with a rating of +30. Having already left the Hawks behind once in 2004, he may now get a second shot at sticking in the NHL.

Topi Jaakola (FLA) and Oskari Korpikari (MTL) took some steps forward. Jaakola finally made the defense’s top 6 without exceptions, scored eight points and played more consistently than ever before. Korpikari played in all regular season games and scored his first career SM-liiga goal. Tommi Leinonen (PIT) dressed for only three games this season, as the Kärpät defense corps is traditionally a tough nut to crack.

Jari Viuhkola was the centerpiece of the offense just like in seasons past (39 points in 46 games), and once again the rumors of the 25-year-old center signing with the Hawks are circulating. The Ducks pick Janne Pesonen had a fairly solid season, but 22 points in 53 games is a smaller total than last year. This pace will not take the ninth-round pick to the NHL.

The Kärpät roster features a ninth-round investment better than Pesonen: Juhamatti Aaltonen (STL) absolutely dazzled all spectators with dekes, spins and wrist shots of surgical precision. It took quite long for the 20-year-old finesse player to become a professional hockey player, but this season he forced his way onto the roster. Kärpät had capable players throughout the line-up and Aaltonen could score on any line he played, from second to fourth. He competed for the league’s rookie of the year award until Ilves’s Perttu Lindgren caught fire in February. Thirteen goals and 12 assists would have won him the award on some years. On the downside, Aaltonen was caught twice with his head down and suffered two mild concussions in the fall season. The complete pro game is still something he must work on before pursuing an NHL career.

Tuomainen showing development again with Lukko

Lukko had a fairly competitive roster at the start of the season, but injuries to key defensemen and underachieving performances by forwards crippled the team, which miserably finished second last in the league.

Tuukka Mäkelä (BOS) was one of the injured. Coming off a career season with HPK, there were high expectations placed on him. There wasn’t much he could do for Lukko in 34 games, though. He scored three points and is surely looking to rebound next year. In the absence of more experience defensemen, Ilkka Heikkinen, 21, established himself as a core defenseman and played both physical and skilled hockey.

Miikka Tuomainen (ATL) had stagnated in the second tier league and his chances of success in SM-liiga were in question prior to the season. He started out strong, put up points and was a dangerous opponent in general. The big winger then cooled down and was even sent down to Jr A, finishing with a small point total of four in 33 SM-liiga games. Still, this season was a jump start for his career, and he showed decent potential early in the season.

Ville-Vesa Vainiola, 20, had big expectations placed on him after absolutely dominating the Jr A league in 2004-05. He didn’t do much, but his linemate Petri Lammassaari was positive surprise. The super-slick winger was a constant threat to the opposing defense and he also dished out hits despite his lack of strength at this point. Seven goals and four assists are a respectable total for a 20-year-old rookie coming out of the blue.

Pelicans’ Paulsson dazzles and disappears

Pelicans just barely avoided insolvency last spring and headed into the season with limited resources. The Lahti-based team suffered a defeat after another in the fall, and the best news of the year was signing the experienced Hannu Aravirta to coach the team after he would be done with the WJC’s. Aravirta restored the team’s dignity and more, leading them just a win or two away from fighting for playoff spots, against all expectations.

Marcus Paulsson (NYI) was in the spotlight early in the season. Thanks to magical stickhandling skills he went on long scoring streaks and tallied points, but the moody and incomplete player would also disappear regularly. Eventually he regressed and slumped so badly that when TPS expressed its interest near the transfer deadline, Pelicans released their top scorer. After Paulsson was done with TPS, his statistics showed 16 goals and seven assists in 55 games.

In the end, the Pelicans offense was led by the dynamic duo of Tuomas Santavuori and Jesse Saarinen, both of them 20 years old. Santavuori picked up his pace in early December and finished with 31 points. Saarinen, another small finesse player, scored one point less. Neither of them possesses enough explosiveness to be destined for the NHL, though.

On an interesting prospect note, Pelicans had the infamous Oilers pick Jason Bonsignore on tryout around New Year. He did tally five points in seven games when given all the power play time he could take, but his obvious deficiencies when it comes to effort, consistency and two-way hockey sent him packing at the end of the evaluation period.

SaiPa proving to be a stepping stone toward the NHL

Fans in Lappeenranta had reasons to celebrate for a change. Despite having had to build the team out of spare parts, SaiPa fought its way to the playoffs while playing good hockey. The former Canes prospect Rob Zepp was acquired to guard the net at the last minute. Zepp improved his play over the course of the season and the team wouldn’t have done as well without him. Another invaluable occurrence was the breakout of Ville Viitaluoma. The 24-year-old center scored 45 points in 51 games.

The signing of the defenseman Kristian Kudroc was also a bull’s eye. He was a positive surprise early in the season and then improved some more to play on all-star level. The only negative about his season was missing games due to minor suspensions. In the 48 games he got to play in, he amassed 10 goals, 12 assists and 227 penalty minutes. Kudroc has signed with Ilves for the 2006-07 season but an NHL contract isn’t out of the question.

Another 6’6 defenseman Olli Malmivaara (CHI) teamed up with Kudroc to form an intimidating pairing. Malmivaara, formerly thought a bust, has taken huge strides forward with SaiPa in the past two years. He scored 11 goals and nine assists in 54 games and is predicted to sign an NHL contract in the offseason. The SaiPa defense corps featured many overachievers, and when Jussi Timonen (PHI) wasn’t among the biggest of them, he still had to settle with a limited role, no less than he has earned. He improved his consistency some and tallied seven assists in 52 games.

Jarkko A. Immonen (DAL) got regular shifts as a center for the first time in his career. He had a mediocre season with 13 points in 54 games, but that isn’t enough for the NHL. Janne Kolehmainen (OTT) was his usual, strong self in 36 games where he managed two assists. His biggest obstacle was that Teemu Paakkarinen, three years more experienced, played a similar agitating role. Kolehmainen could move to the AHL either now or next year at the deadline of the Senators’ retainment of his draft rights.

Tappara paves Kontiola’s way to fame

Tappara formed a solid, functional team this year and left much of their struggling opposition behind in the regular season. They fought for the second place finish until the end, but had to settle with the fourth place.

Tappara looked to improve their defense corps still in the middle of the season. They did have youngsters like Ville Mäntymaa (ANA) coming up, but Mäntymaa isn’t one the team had much faith in. His breakout is still waiting to happen after three years of toiling at the fringes of the line-up. He appeared in 32 games and scored one goal.

The face of this year’s Tappara was undoubtedly Petri Kontiola (CHI), 21. The team had centers in abundance and Kontiola was moved off his natural position onto the right wing of the first line. He flourished there as well and was arguably the league’s best playmaker on power play. He scored nine goals and 35 assists (league high) for 44 points (team high) in 56 games. Kontiola’s next challenge is to find ways to produce in less time and space so that he could enjoy an NHL career one day.

Teemu Laine (NJ) started out strong with nine points in the first 10 games, only to disappear once again. The checking speedster was pushed back to the lower lines and finished with 17 points in 55 games.

Korpikoski fails to thrive with the apathetic TPS

A six-time champion coach and a veteran core to build around sounded like a solid foundation for success, but this year’s TPS wasn’t cut out for glory. The most successful organization of the professional era suffered a number of injuries and regressed into apathy. In the end, the team just didn’t find a fighting spirit or a positive, relaxed feeling. They still secured a place in the playoff qualifications in the last round of regular season.

The original goaltending plan didn’t quite work out and Joni Puurula (MTL) was acquired to help the team out. He was still widely discredited for a seemingly inconsistent style of play, but he posted a respectable 2.13 GAA and .920 save percentage, being the team’s MVP at times.

Markus Seikola (TOR) never managed to shake off his depth defenseman status. After a long career in TPS, in the spring season he was released to Sweden and the Frölunda Indians, where he immediately caught fire and brought his points-per-game pace to nearly one. The puck-moving WJC defenseman Juho Jokinen was acquired from TuTo to fill in for Seikola, but he was stricken with injury and appeared in just 10 games. He will be at his most useful to TPS in the future.

Lauri Korpikoski (NYR) had second and third-line ice time next to veterans, yet the team’s problems offset the positive things about the environment. Korpikoski was by no means a part of the solution, though. He does still play an energetic, flashy game and regularly distinguishes himself from the rest of the squad, but it doesn’t show on the scoresheet. The 19-year-old forward doesn’t quite have the experience and vision to make the last moves toward scoring a goal. With only seven points this season, he finished 14th in points among TPS forwards, so he must take much of the blame to himself. After TPS was eliminated, Korpikoski left to play AHL playoffs with the Hartford Wolf Pack and signed with the Rangers.

TPS specialized in Swedish forwards this season. Daniel Widing (NSH) had somewhat of a breakout year with Pelicans in 2004-05 and was recruited to a bigger team. However, after gross inconsistency and 12 points in 38 games, he was released home to Sweden. The same fate befell Andreas Jämtin (DET) whose highly-touted physical game wasn’t all that effective in SM-liiga. A downward trend in his total of 15 points in 37 games made him expendable as well. Marcus Paulsson (NYI) was acquired from Pelicans when he needed a new boost to find his magical scoring touch again, but that never happened. He signed with his native Malmö IF after the season.

Twenty-year-old center Jussi Makkonen had an even better rookie season than 16 points (third among rookies) in 55 games would indicate. The big all-around player created offense all by himself. If he keeps the pace up, an NHL contract isn’t out of the question in the future. Tuukka Pulliainen (LA) hasn’t developed the way the Kings would have hoped, but 11 points in 56 games mark by far the best season he has had.

Ässät overachieve, Joensuu does not

The outlook wasn’t too good for Ässät prior to the season. The roster looked worse on paper than in the previous seven seasons, in all of which the team had missed the quarterfinals. They had a positive start to the season, but Ässät was notorious for playing well in October and totally losing the spell later on. This time, however, that didn’t happen and the team from Pori fought its way straight to the top six, much thanks to the career years of the goalie Juuso Riksman, 28, and wingers Marko Kivenmäki, 30, and Kristian Kuusela, 22. Riksman overshadowed Tuomas Nissinen (STL), who can all but forget about his NHL hopes.

The Ässät defense found the missing part of the puzzle with the acquisition of Matt Nickerson (DAL) who arrived in Pori thanks to collaboration with the Dallas Stars. Nickerson came to SM-liiga to take a break from brawls and learn to move the puck, but he engaged in both. Whenever he was on the ice, he played capable defense with few mistakes and supported the offense with simple, smart passes. Whenever he wasn’t, it was due to fights and undisciplined stunts. The 25-minute penalty minute totals for game misconducts earned him an SM-liiga record, 236 minutes in 36 games.

Ässät also played the defenseman Eetu Heikkinen, 17, in nine games. Heikkinen is among Finland’s top ten prospects for the 2006 Entry Draft. On a sadder note, Niko Vainio (DAL) was forced to retire from hockey early this season due to back problems.

The top 2006 prospect Jesse Joensuu had a promising start to his season and was just some finishing short of an impact player. However, the missing finish never appeared and Joensuu lost other parts of his game along the way. He was benched at times and had a disappointing spring season while he should have shown progress with his deficiencies in order to become a franchise prospect. Still, 12 points in one’s draft year is nothing to sneer at and matched only by a select few.

Nickerson wasn’t the only North American in Finland looking for a career boost. Rob Hisey tallied 25 points in 46 games, Michael Ramsay got five in 20. They are both 21-year-old free agents. Hisey will long be remembered for a beautiful Mike Legg style goal he scored. The forward Leo Komarov, 18, won bronze in the WJC, much thanks to surprisingly making the Ässät pro team at the beginning of the season.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.