Finland 2006 draft review

By Pekka Lampinen

A total of 14 Finns were picked in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, 1-1-0-3-4-4-1 by round. The number of top 230 picks was the highest for Finland since 2002. Even though Finland came in tied for fifth with the smaller but more top-heavy Czech crop, the outcome of the draft was a positive result. There were no surprises, as indicated by the fact that the entire top ten of Hockey’s Future’s rankings were chosen.

Once again the first Finn picked was a goalie. The country needs more quality at skater positions, but none of the forwards can be called a blue-chip prospect. For the fourth consecutive year, no sure-fire NHL defenseman came out of Finland. Quantity will have to make up for the mediocrity: At least one of the 12 players picked in the later rounds is bound to break out.

Being selected wasn’t the only thing that happened to Finnish prospects during the draft weekend. The Maple Leafs traded the goalie Tuukka Rask to Boston straight up for a new starter in Andrew Raycroft. Instead of being the crown prince of goalies in Toronto, Rask is now faced with an organization with different needs and strengths. Above all, a fellow Finn Hannu Toivonen is expected to be a strong starter with many years ahead of him in the Bruins jersey by the time Rask can compete for playing time in the NHL. Curiously, Finnish goalies are being packed in the same organizations. The three teams (Boston, Tampa Bay and Minnesota) that acquired a Finnish goalie prospect in the 2006 draft all had at least one Finnish goalie signed already.

No NHL team picked multiple Finns in the draft and nearly all of the selections were mid-to-late-round picks. The Lightning obviously found Riku Helenius to be a fitting crown jewel for its pool of up-and-coming goalies, whereas Jesse Joensuu is already the fourth physical Finnish forward picked early by the Islanders in the last five drafts. Washington prefers Finns mostly out of the CHL (Oskar Osala), Nashville likes its Finnish projects (Niko Snellman follows goalie Pekka Rinne and defensemaen Ville Koistinen and Teemu Laakso) and Dallas needs only late picks to hoard Finnish talent (Max Wärn). The Blackhawks and their Finnish scout Sakari Pietilä dip in the country’s talent pool almost yearly (Jan-Mikael Juutilainen).

The club team of Ilves from Tampere is now boasting the best crop of junior players reaching adulthood in Finland. In the 2005 draft the first, second and ninth Finnish picks were out of Ilves and now its players were taken first, fourth and fifth among Finns. IFK Helsinki is also strong in the age groups of the 2006 draft class, seeing four of its players picked in the later rounds. The two organizations will certainly draw a good number of scouts to their domestic junior games over the next seasons.

1. Riku Helenius, G
Tampa Bay Lightning, 1st round, 15th overall from Ilves Jr A

So it happened that Helenius’ all-star performance in the U18 World Championships was enough to push him to the top half of the first round. Goalies were in high demand early on. Teams were ready to take the chance of unpredictable development at the most important position of the game. Helenius ended up at a suitable rank, second among all goalies.

The 2006-07 season will be an interesting one for Finland’s only first-round pick of the year. Ilves has one of the youngest and the most gifted goaltending tandems in history with Helenius as the backup of the 19-year-old Rask. If everything goes as planned, Helenius will get the right amount of starts for a rookie. There is also a good chance that the same duo will be seen playing for Finland in the World Junior Championships.

2. Jesse Joensuu, LW
New York Islanders, 2nd round, 60th overall from Ässät

Joensuu’s long descent in the rankings continued on draft day, as the 60th position was still somewhat lower than expected. Finally the Islanders had Joensuu join their long line of physical forward prospects. In the end, there were too many question marks around the gifted winger with a awkward appearances on the ice.

Ässät already had a scoring line position for Joensuu in 2005-06. The situation will be the same in 2006-07, although now he will be more ready for what is to come. Along with gathering experience and poise, the next few years will be spent refining his coordination. Joensuu must now take his time to develop, something the forward who debuted in the pro league at the age of 15 hasn’t done so far.

3. Oskar Osala, LW
Washington Capitals, 4th round, 97th overall from Mississauga Ice Dogs (OHL)

Osala grew tall and large at an early age, being one of the first in the age group to draw attention. As expected, things progressed more slowly since, but Osala sought to gain new momentum in his draft year by moving to the OHL. He was enthusiastic about the new environment, yet he had a slow start to his season. As months passed, he started to reach positive results, showing both that the early season was just an adaptability issue and that he is developing at a nice pace. That was enough to prove him worthy of a top 100 pick.

Because of his tricky birthdate, Osala may have only one more season of junior hockey ahead of him, but that should be enough to make him AHL ready. The big and versatile forward should have a fairly straightforward path of development toward the NHL. Osala is an interesting prospect from the point of view of Finnish hockey, as he is the country’s best bet to develop NHL-level skills and has the ability to take care of enforcing duties.

4. Joonas Lehtivuori, D
Philadelphia Flyers, 4th round, 101st overall from Ilves Jr A

Lehtivuori was mediocre in his season finale in the U18 World Championships, but by that time he had already convinced most everyone of his talent. Dominant puck-carrying ability combined with defensive smarts was a valuable commodity on draft day, and the Flyers no doubt saw traces of Joni Pitkänen in Lehtivuori’s game. The 101st position was not a surprise.

Lehtivuori has challenging opportunities laid out for him for the 2006-07 season. Ilves has suffered losses in their defense core, so there is a big role available for a breakout player in SM-liiga. On the downside, the team has a lot of depth defensemen, so Lehtivuori has big incentives to perform very well, not just adequately. There are even more physical rigors available to be endured in the short and intense WJC tournament, for which Finland would need a young defenseman like him.

5. Niko Snellman, RW
Nashville Predators, 4th round, 105th overall from Ilves Jr A

Snellman was the Finnish surprise pick of the year. He played in only one international tournament this season, tallying no points but 32 penalty minutes in four games in the Viking Cup. That hard-nosed play alone earned him a draft pick. Finland built its ultimate U18 team around finesse and had had problems with penalties before, so Snellman wasn’t considered for the World Championships.

Snellman is above all a human wrecking ball and agitator. He will never develop the skills to score notable numbers in the NHL, but that isn’t what is wanted of him. There are plenty of players looking to make it to the show with assets like his, though. Snellman has some development ahead of him.

Snellman had four goals and four assists for eight points as well as 74 penalty minutes in 23 games in the Finnish Jr A league in 2005-06. He was picked 41st overall in the CHL import draft by the Regina Pats and is expected to move to the WHL for the upcoming season.

6. Robert Nyholm, RW
Columbus Blue Jackets, 5th round, 129th overall from HIFK Jr A

Nyholm is a prospect who could have gone earlier in the draft – but never proved himself worthy of it. Flashes of brilliance and periods of mediocrity was how he handled himself when showcased in his draft year. Three points in five U18 World Championship games was merely a decent performance. In the end, the power forward fell to the Blue Jackets at No. 129 overall.

The Kingston Frontenacs picked Nyholm 42nd overall in the CHL import draft. A move to Ontario would make him the biggest name among Finnish rookies in major juniors. Nyholm will likely feel at home with the style of play of the OHL.

7. Niko Hovinen, G
Minnesota Wild, 5th round, 132nd overall from Jokerit Jr A

Hovinen enjoyed no breakout season in his draft year and was picked as a project, not a top prospect. He was facing 40 shots per game behind the Jokerit Jr A defense and didn’t have much to base a solid season on. In the Wild system, he has mainly Josh Harding ahead of him in the long run, but in the case of a fifth-round pick his main worry is not the competition for an NHL starter’s post, it is how he will fare against himself.

Hovinen will continue to play against U20 players in Finland in 2006-07. There is no big event coming up for him over the season, so he can focus on refining his technique and working toward the long-term goals of the 2008 WJC and a transfer to the AHL in the 2008 offseason.

8. Juuso Puustinen, RW
Calgary Flames, 5th round, 149th overall from KalPa Jr A

In the 2006 draft, the Flames chose a finesse focus. A lone scorer in KalPa juniors for years, Puustinen has been a regular in international tournaments as a sniper. He played in the two major tournaments of the Finnish U18, scoring three goals in four Viking Cup games and three points in six games in the World Championships.

Puustinen’s pick was somewhat surprising since he is a longshot to make the NHL. He does have some of the versatility and tactical adaptability typical of Finnish players, but beyond that he is not an option for a checking role and would have to make the NHL as a scorer. The problem is that there are several more hopefuls better than him than there are open spots for those roles, which is normal of a fifth-round pick, though.

Puustinen has a good frame to grow into and impressive puck skills, but he doesn’t maintain a consistent high-energy game. That is something he could work on in the Western Hockey League; Puustinen was the first Finn to be picked in the CHL import draft, 29th overall by the Kamloops Blazers.

9. Max Wärn, RW
Dallas Stars, 5th round, 150th overall from HIFK Jr A

Although a key player for Finnish junior national teams, Wärn couldn’t be certain of being picked. A defensive all-around player, he can stay out of the action on the ice for long periods in order to keep the unit intact, which doesn’t always look good in people’s eyes. However, the Stars with their extensive Finnish scouting wanted Wärn and got him in the fifth round.

As it looks now, Wärn will be the only one of IFK’s numerous quality forwards of the draft class to stay with the organization for 2006-07. This can help him reach SM-liiga by making him the best option available out of juniors. Hence, he can start accumulating the precious pro experience a player like him needs in order to fight for NHL roster spots in the future.

10. Jan-Mikael Juutilainen, C
Chicago Blackhawks, 6th round, 156th overall from Jokerit Jr A

Juutilainen, the centerpiece of the Finnish U18 team in 2005-06, was the biggest faller in the Finnish draft crop relative to expectations. He scored only three goals and 12 assists for 15 points in 36 games in the Finnish Jr A league, which showed that he isn’t far long in development yet. That likely scared NHL teams more than his technical qualities did, so the Blackhawks got themselves a bargain for a sixth-round pick.

Juutilainen has made a commitment to the University of Nebraska-Omaha for the 2007-08 season. In 2006-07 he must finish school in Finland and continue to play in the U20 league – not only because it is the right level of play for him, but a longer visit to the professional league would leave him ineligible for college hockey. Juutilainen would become the first drafted Finn ever to move to the NCAA.

11. Jonas Enlund, C
Atlanta Thrashers, 6th round, 165th overall from HIFK Jr A

Enlund, too old of U18, had no major tournament to play in this season. He did play ten games for the Finnish U20 team in the fall but could only make the reserves of the WJC squad. Other than that, his dominant play and high production in the domestic league kept him in the mind of scouts. He earned the sixth-round pick of the Thrashers, a team that had never before drafted a Finnish skater in the top 200.

The Finnish organization Tappara expressed its interest in the young pivot in the offseason, which was enough to pry Enlund out of his hometown Helsinki. Although the Tappara pro team line-up is fairly deep, he has a decent chance of making it to SM-liiga. He can be expected to be an important player for Team Finland in the 2007 WJC.

12. Petteri Wirtanen, C
Anaheim Ducks, 6th round, 175th overall from HPK

With the draft pick, Wirtanen got what he deserved after giving his best effort over the years as a junior player. The captaincy of the WJC bronze medal team and the SM-liiga championship got him the showcase needed to draw the attention of an NHL team. He joins numerous other well-rounded and hard-working forwards in the Ducks system.

At the age of 20 and with a professional league championship title to his name, Wirtanen is one of the prime candidates of the draft class to receive an NHL contract offer. He does have solid momentum to develop back home with HPK, so either option, SM-liiga or the AHL, is a good one for his development.

13. Leo Komarov, LW
Toronto Maple Leafs, 6th round, 182nd overall from Ässät

Looking back to the 2005-06 season, Komarov truly fought himself a draft pick. After his natural draft year, his effort earned him a spot with the Ässät pros even though he was no star player in Jr A in the previous season. The same attitude carried him to the WJC as well as to the SM-liiga finals and impressed scouts, which was enough in spite of his limited skill and size.

Komarov follows his U20 national team coach to the SM-liiga organization of Pelicans, which isn’t a big change of environment for him. There is no major breakout in sight for a checking player like him, he must simply learn from experience and develop steadily in order to reach the NHL one day.

14. Timo Seppänen, D
Pittsburgh Penguins, 7th round, 185th overall from HIFK

After a strong spring season, Central Scouting ranked Seppänen first amongst Finnish skaters, but he ended up being the last. The NHL teams’ evaluation of him is closer to reality, which is not, however, a disappointing assessment of someone who was passed up in his first draft year. The Penguins are getting very nice potential for a seventh round pick.

Seppänen is in the fortunate situation that he showed enough in his first half a season of pro hockey to step right back into the line-up in the fall, but not so much that he wouldn’t be seriously challenged and pushed forward by other young defensemen. He needs some more seasoning with IFK in Helsinki before he can start working his way toward the ultimate goal via the AHL.

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