Finnish Top 15 prospects for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft

By Pekka Lampinen

The new agreements on collective bargaining and player transfer have changed the draft environment for European players for years to come. The effects of the new environment already showed in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft when only eight Finns were picked, down from a record of 26 in 2002, even though the draft class was decent. In 2006, the Finnish pool of potential draftees is fairly deep, but that isn’t going to ensure selection for many players.

Approximately half of the draft class was with Finland’s national team in the U18 World Championships, which got the country its first medal in five years. The team had success thanks to teamwork and a well-rounded roster without the help of superstars, and that is also the face of the draft class. The talent is rather evenly distributed among all positions.

Outside of this group, there is one more notable fully Finnish prospect entering the draft. Oskar Osala played in the Ontario Hockey League in 2005-06 and would contend for the fourth position on this list.

1. Jesse Joensuu, LW
Height: 6’4, Weight: 207 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1987-10-05

The hockey world doesn’t witness many players develop earlier than Joensuu did. He grew to full height early and generally played with older players, even making his professional debut before reaching the age of 16 in 2003. His development has been slightly slower since and he hasn’t been a big star in games against his age group internationally, although he has held his own and played solid two-way hockey against men. As Joensuu enters the draft, he already has two WJC tournaments and 110 pro games behind him, including the 2006 final series of the Finnish SM-liiga.

At the time of the 2001 Entry Draft, there was a young center by the name of Mikko Koivu (MIN) entering Finnish pro hockey. He was a top player for the junior national teams but struggled to score against pros. He was slow and awkward in his movements, neither yet accustomed to his big body nor far along in weight training. Despite the hardship, he made plays typical of star players only and showed potential that really took its time to manifest itself even after his draft year. All this more or less applies to the winger Joensuu. Koivu’s athletic commitment is making him a strong defensive and a good offensive player in the NHL. The same attitude is projected to take Joensuu as far but with more of an offensive bias.

Because of Joensuu’s early development, he has gained more attention and praise than his potential warrants, and so he has been falling steadily in rankings. A look at the big picture reveals that it doesn’t reflect the momentum of his development. Joensuu projects to a good second liner in the NHL.

2. Riku Helenius, G
Height: 6’3, Weight: 202 lbs
Catches left, Born: 1988-03-01

A star was born in the U18 World Championships. Up until then, Helenius was one of the two talented split starters of the Finnish team, but a silver medal and being named the best goalie of the tournament changed all that. He used the best opportunity available to him to showcase his talent. Naturally his ability didn’t change notably over the course of the two weeks, but given performance under pressure on a big stage, he shot up the rankings. Fortunately for Helenius, he was certainly more underappreciated before the tournament than overestimated after it.

Helenius isn’t the first Finnish goalie who could be propelled to the 20th-30th range in the draft by a personal U18 WC title. Mika Noronen and Ari Ahonen haven’t proven themselves worth a first round pick, but the hockey world has changed a lot since the days of the two. Also, the mental abilities of the calm Helenius differ a lot from theirs.

Helenius is a big, conventional butterfly goalie. He has excellent movement in all directions, which grants him strong game-breaking abilities. Finnish goalies have been all the rage in the hockey world as of late, and Helenius boasts the same strengths as his countrymen. Can prospects actually have seals of quality like this, or will Helenius be overrated based on the environment?

Helenius is surely rated the best goalie in the draft by some teams, and the best Finn by even more of them.

3. Jan-Mikael Juutilainen, C
Height: 5’11, Weight: 183 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1988-01-05

Juutilainen was a national team key player from the start, leading the country in international scoring in U17 in 2004-05. He has advanced through the junior ranks of Jokerit where his development in domestic rinks hasn’t been very fast. His 2005-06 season was a disappointment in terms of points, but he ended the season on a very positive note as the captain of Finland’s silver medal team in the U18 World Championships. He started out very strongly in the tournament, although the overall picture of the rest of the games was rather just good play than high production. Juutilainen showed strong leadership and was the face of Finland’s units on the ice.

Juutilainen is a traditional finesse center. He can make and receive difficult passes and is rather adept at handling the puck in small spaces. His offensive instinct is undeniable, but at this point he is lacking in some aspects of skating, defense and especially physical strength. In another day and age, that would be enough to label him as unsuitable for North American rinks. However, Finnish centers roughly of Juutilainen’s style and ability at draft age (Jarkko Immonen NYR, Valtteri Filppula DET, Perttu Lindgren DAL) are indicating that these days all forwards are developing what it takes to play in the new NHL as far as style of play goes. If the trend holds true, so many question marks around Juutilainen will be dispelled that he is to be considered a top prospect.

4. Robert Nyholm, RW
Height: 6’1, Weight: 194 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1988-03-07

The Swedish-speaking Finn moved from his native western coast to Helsinki to play hockey in his teens. He has truly impressed in some key international tournaments and domestic Jr A games, but the story of Nyholm’s career so far is being very dominant at times and suffering scoreless streaks at others. His first strong performance was his U18 debut in Ann Arbor, Michigan in November 2004. He scored a goal and an assist in four games both in that tournament and in the Four Nations Cup a month later. He went scoreless in the U18 World Championships at the end of the season as an underager.

Nyholm has the heart of a true power forward. As a strong skater, he blasts his way past defensemen, uses his strength well in corners and can hit fiercely at best. Explosiveness is his greatest asset and he has the speed and skillset to go with it. Although a good passer as well, he has a hockey sense that isn’t quite on par with the rest of his abilities. NHL forwards can maintain a smart game more consistently than Nyholm, so he still has a lot of experience to gain in order to overcome this obstacle in the way of his NHL hopes.

Nyholm’s inconsistency doesn’t show on the score sheet in the long run. His stock may vary a lot depending on the scout based on which games were seen, and with that Nyholm’s draft position.

5. Niko Hovinen, G
Height: 6’6, Weight: 200 lbs
Catches left, Born: 1988-03-16

Kari Lehtonen (ATL, 6’3), Hannu Toivonen (BOS, 6’2) and Riku Helenius (6’3) are examples of big butterfly goalies developed in Finland. Compared to them, Hovinen (6’6) goes off the chart. He is a towering presence even in butterfly stance and the biggest Finnish goalie of his generation yet still its typical member as far as movement is concerned. Thanks to that, he has tremendous potential setback by technical flaws such as a timid style of play so far.

Hovinen is truly a challenge for a coaching staff. The tools for his development are great, and numerous things have to be addressed before his potential is realized. The challenge is especially great back home in Finland, since if and when an NHL organization wants his rights, there is only two years to work with Hovinen before he must be signed.

Hovinen had a starting point similar to Helenius’ around New Year. His spring took a completely different direction, though, and whereas Helenius shined in the U18 WC, Hovinen didn’t make it there. Despite this lack of talent showcase, some NHL organization will want to take on the project that he is for sure.

6. Petteri Wirtanen, C
Height: 6’1, Weight: 195 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1986-05-28

Wirtanen went undrafted in 2004 despite being a part of Finland’s victorious Viking Cup team and the U18 WC squad. He needed to dominate Finnish Jr A for a season before being ready for the pros and a breakout in 2005-06. He played fantastic two-way hockey throughout the season and captained Finland to a WJC bronze. The Finnish defensemen had struggled with personal battles all along in the tournament, but Wirtanen joined the battered defense corps in the bronze game, playing splendidly and displaying great leadership in a foreign position. He was named one of the team’s best three players despite tallying just one assist in the tournament, which hints of the magnitude of his total contribution.

Wirtanen is a rather typical Finnish player, a two-way center with limited offensive upside. He leads his unit to control the play in all zones, his excellent two-way smarts complemented by strong leadership and exceptional penalty-killing skills. He can both shoot and pass, but only to the extent of putting up lower-line points when facing challenging opposition.

A player like Wirtanen would be a welcome addition to any NHL organization. He need not be waited for very long, as he could already play productively in the AHL.

7. Joonas Lehtivuori, D
Height: 6’0, Weight: 170 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1988-07-19

Lehtivuori is among the youngest players in the draft at 17 years of age, yet he is a veteran in the Ilves organization with over 12 years of experience. The years with Ilves have granted him experience in learning how to win. He has Finnish Jr C gold from the year 2004 and Jr B gold from 2006. The rise of his stock happened with very strong national team performances in 2005-06, from junior Euro Hockey Tour to the Viking Cup and the U18 WC, from which Lehtivuori returned with a silver medal.

Lehtivuori is at his best while carrying the puck. Some offensive defensemen are largely power play quarterbacks, whereas Lehtivuori represents the true value of the puck-moving defenseman in the neutral zone and the early stages of a rush. Tactics-wise, that is exactly what a team needs when it is lacking puck skills among defensemen; players like Lehtivuori are needed to play modern two-way hockey with all units. He has the tools in the fields of skating and stickhandling to keep developing his skills onto a strong NHL level, although he is very behind in physical training at this point. It will take quite a while for Lehtivuori to make the NHL, but some team will pay a decent draft pick to get to undertake the project.

8. Timo Seppänen, D
Height: 6’0, Weight: 207 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1988-07-22

Seppänen has won both the Jr C and Jr B Finnish championship titles with IFK Helsinki. He went undrafted after being a positive surprise at times and inconsistent at others in the U18 WC of 2005. He moved right on to the U20 national team and made the 2006 WJC squad against early expectations. His best hockey was still yet to come, as in the spring of 2006 Seppänen was very strong in an international tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia and no worse with the IFK pro squad.

Seppänen struggled against ferocious forecheckers alongside shaky teammates in the WJC, but SM-liiga pros played with calmer tactics and his teammates could provide more support for him, so curiously Seppänen performed better against far more talented opposition in 2005-06. His play in the spring season had some rating him very highly as a prospect, but he needs to learn to clear tough situations and start rushes better before he can plan on vying for a spot in the NHL.

9. Max Wärn, RW
Height: 6’2, Weight: 195 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1988-06-10

Wärn has never been the top gun in the Finnish junior leagues, but he played on the U18 national team as an underager and was extremely solid there. In 2005-06 he was another step better and one of Finland’s core players in the age group’s World Championships. Wärn displayed great versatility over the course of the season by playing each position, including defenseman.

Above all, Wärn’s team is hoping to get an elite checking player out of him. Although he can play all positions, he is best suited to speed up and down the wing, dealing hits on a regular basis and taking care of defensive duties exceptionally well. Specialists like Wärn are now in relatively high demand, and he is definitely one of the best choices in his field.

10.Jonas Enlund, C
Height: 6’0, Weight: 185 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1987-11-03

Enlund made a name for himself early by reaching for scoring records in the Finnish Jr C playoffs in 2003, in which he won gold with IFK Helsinki. He has been one of the best and earliest developed players of his age group, in the 2005 U18 World Championships he was Finland’s leading centerman. Due to his tricky birthdate Enlund was left without a major international appearance in his draft year, but he finished third with 42 points in 37 games in the Finnish Jr A league. His achievements so far make him one of the better offensive players the country has to offer.

Enlund is very well-rounded with all the puck skills necessary for a scoring player and decent strength for player of his size. His two-way game is impressive as well, as are his consistency and work ethic. Unfortunately world-class scorers need top speed and Enlund doesn’t quite have that. He can still develop his speed through physical training or find ways to score with the motorics he currently possesses, though. He is more likely than not to fail at becoming a scoring player in the NHL and doesn’t really project to a checking player, but that is the case also with several other prospects who are worthy developmental projects.

11.Eetu Heikkinen, D
Height: 6’1, Weight: 185 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1988-07-08

Heikkinen moved from his hometown Kajaani in the distant northeast to Pori on Finland’s western coast to play hockey in his early teens. In 2004-05 he played the most Jr A games of all defensemen in his U17 age group, and in 2005-06 he did the same on professional level. As an early developer he has always been a part of the junior national team core, including a solid U18 WC tournament in 2006.

On the ice Heikkinen doesn’t stand out as a flashy player, and the obvious conclusion is that he thrives on his hockey sense. He is a well-rounded defenseman also with solid puck skills, but he still has stay-at-home tendencies. Heikkinen is very sound positionally and has no weaknesses in his skating. Physical contact is the problematic part of his defensive game as he often ends up obstructing opponents. All in all, Heikkinen needs to develop a style or a strength to make him a desirable option as far as the NHL is concerned. His talent is appreciated but difficult to project onto NHL level.

12.Leo Komarov, LW
Height: 5’10, Weight: 187 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1987-01-23

Komarov was born in Estonia but moved to Finland at a young age. He was still in the relative obscurity of a lower line role in Finnish Jr A in 2004-05 and therefore surprised when he broke into the pros in 2005-06. The success also carried him to the World Junior Championships that year, where he won bronze and made himself known to the international audience.

Komarov is above all an infurierating opponent. The small and speedy forward gets under the skin, plays dirty and hits with force. He also likes to work with the puck, make plays and push to the crease whenever his skill level is up for the task. Although he has played all forward positions, he can’t read the play well enough to lead the offense from the center position; the wing is where he should build his career. As an agitator Komarov is neither cold-blooded nor calculating, and unfortunately he takes more than his fair share of penalties. The young and brash checking player must learn to control his emotion.

Komarov has done everything possible to draw attention this year, including dropping the gloves. His talent has surely left scouts divided on the evaluation of his usefulness to an NHL team in the future.

13.Joonas Kemppainen, RW
Height: 6’2, Weight: 204 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1988-04-07

Kemppainen also moved from Kajaani to Pori together with his friend Heikkinen. Kemppainen has been a key player in Ässät juniors and one of the few underaged players to make the U18 World Championships in 2005. Despite a high status among his peers, he has never really dominated games and that showed in his return to the tournament in 2006 when he was “only” a good second liner.

Kemppainen is a fairly big winger with good skating abilities. He is able to play mature hockey and sound defense, setting up plays even when wrestling in the corners. Kemppainen is well-rounded, but the problem is that the strong points of his game aren’t impressive enough and his puck skills are limited to the level of good. A player with Kemppainen’s upside could be pictured playing in the NHL, but he will fall behind several risky alternatives on draft day.

14.Teemu Ramstedt, RW
Height: 5’10, Weight: 185 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1987-12-09

Ramstedt has developed in the juniors of IFK Helsinki where he has played with numerous Finnish national team forwards. In 2004-05 Ramstedt didn’t stand out of the pack that much: His spot on the national team wasn’t written in stone and the smallish forward settled with dominating the Jr B league instead of playing with the older guys. His career got strong momentum in the 2005 U18 World Championships where he was one of Finland’s very best players with four points in six games.

In 2005-06 the pace continued. Ramstedt led the Jr A league in points, playing with Jonas Enlund and Robert Nyholm. He was still to young to make it to the World Junior Championships. A very skilled sniper and playmaker, Ramstedt is an elite finesse player with fair physical ability to fend for himself. His talent is unquestionable and in principle very desirable from an NHL standpoint, but unfortunately his speed is only good, not exceptional, which a player like him would need to be truly dangerous at NHL level. His NHL hopes are still alive, though, they just need to manifest themselves as a conquest of obstacles along the path of development.

15.Miika Lahti, C
Height: 6’1, Weight: 197 lbs
Shoots left, Born: 1987-02-06

Lahti matured early and played regularly in Jr A already as U17. He was one of only two forwards to join the 1986-born age group for the U18 WC in 2004 and was automatically expected to assume more offensive responsibility in 2005. The 2004-05 season didn’t pave his way to stardom but instead reinforced his role as a checking center and left him without a draft pick.

Lahti is in a familiar environment in the corners where he can both break and create plays, although his puck skills are nothing too special. It was known that the well-rounded center would make his way to the pros before long, but it happened earlier than expected in 2005-06. Lahti enjoyed a very solid season between Finnish Jr A and SM-liiga. He was arguably the best Finnish prospect left unpicked in 2005 and now he has raised his stock a little, but on the other hand the U19 player had no major international appearances. He would make a solid addition to the prospect pool of an NHL team, but was this the season to push his stock over the drafting threshold?

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