2006-07 Finnish SM-liiga prospects preview

By Pekka Lampinen

At the beginning of the 56-game regular season of SM-liiga, the Finnish elite league, the rigors of the hockey season as a whole are already taxing the players. Eleven months with the team, interrupted by international games on several occasions, may mean 100 games a season for young players. U20 national team players are under an especially heavy schedule. The last round of the SM-liiga regular season will be played on March 6th and the postseason will be over by April 16th.

SM-liiga teams continue to compete at odds with the finest in Europe, although the league has been gradually losing ground in the fight for the best players in the continent. In 2005-06, highly skill young players are springing up around the league and the league is moving toward more advanced offensive tactics. This is facilitated by the league’s decision to weed out obstruction, for which the successful zero-tolerance approach of the NHL lends credibility. The number of goals scored may be increasing significantly.

There are now 37 drafted NHL prospects in the league. The number is in decline due to the change in draft rules of the new CBA, and the total will shrink further still until 2008, when there will be no more than two draft classes worth of prospects in European leagues. This has little effect on the amount of young talent in SM-liiga, however, as better and better players remain undrafted and many of them become unrestricted free agents in the year they turn 22 years of age.

Things are the same old in Espoo

For years, the Blues have built above average rosters only good enough for first round eliminations each spring. This year may be no different. Ari Ahonen and Bernd Brückler, no longer aiming directly for the NHL, make a strong goaltending tandem. Among defensemen quantity is making up for quality and injuries, whereas the offense looks weaker than the one that struggled last year. There are no completely new NHL prospects in the roster. Antti Härmä guards the net of the Finnish U20 team in the fall but can’t get SM-liiga starts behind Ahonen and Brückler.

Three defensemen have long-term injuries on opening night. To deal with this, the team has 11 capable defensemen under contract and Mikael Kurki can’t fit into the line-up. Things will get only worse for Kurki, who was promising playing parts of the season with the pros in 2005-06, as the injury situation improves. He hopes to make the WJC but is in a very wrong place right now.

Like Kurki, Mikko Lehtonen (BOS) is also in a situation where he joins the pro team for the second time but not with the advantage of having been a regular the season before. Lehtonen, a gifted puckhandler, does bring more special skills to the table and can reach a bigger role in 2006-07. If he does well, he could play on the scoring lines consistently. It is consistency that has been his main problem so far. He would do well to improve in that area, in order to both be in a good playing condition in the WJC tournament (which he couldn’t do in 2005-06) and prepare himself for the foreign environment of the AHL.

On paper, the Blues forwards are capable of getting the job done even when battered, but the team still decided to rent Patrik Valcak (BOS) from TPS for a month. Valcak will reinforce the lower lines until the arrival of Kent Manderville in October.

IFK prospects flock away in droves

In the offseason, IFK Helsinki didn’t commit to their most talented junior players enough, and as a result lost several of them to other teams: Jonas Enlund (ATL) to Tappara, Teemu Ramstedt to TPS, Nico Aaltonen to Lukko and Robert Nyholm (CBJ) to Kingston, OHL. The loss of talent was worse still, as IFK lost four players to the NHL. Some youngsters still remain, though, and train under the management of Bob Francis, his first year in Europe.

In 1999, IFK snagged the talent 18-year-old goalie Ari Ahonen out of JYP, and a breakout quickly ensued. Now they have landed another catch from the same organization with Aleksis Ahlqvist, 20. Few talented Finnish goalie prospects fall through the cracks in the NHL draft anymore, but Ahlqvist may be the best to have done so despite consistent progress. He has played but a couple of games in the league yet and the veteran Jan Lundell is still the starter, so he has to earn every one of his minutes. Ahlqvist will begin the season on loan in HPK.

On a top quality defense core are Teemu Laakso (NSH) and Timo Seppänen (PIT). The defense lines are the part of the team that can carry it far, so the two can’t be guaranteed good minutes among strong competition. They couldn’t make the team in every game last season, so they will have to fight a couple of other defensemen for regular top six minutes. At best Laakso and Seppänen have been most promising and up for the challenge.

IFK has consistently kept at least half a dozen young forwards in line-up this decade. Now the team features three NHL prospects: Lennart Petrell (CBJ), Max Wärn (DAL) and Pasi Salonen (WSH). The draft rights of each player are valid through 2008, so decisions need not be rushed on them based on their performances this season. Still, Petrell is already looking across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, he suffered injuries in the offseason and couldn’t attend the Blue Jackets’ prospect camp. The beginning of the regular season is looking happier for him, as Francis wants the big and aggressive winger on a scoring line. Petrell may enjoy a real breakout season at least as far as production is concerned.

In reference to the exodus of young talent, in 2004-05 IFK had as many as six national team forwards of the 2006 draft class in the organization. Now Wärn is the only one who remains. The sole rookie among all the team’s NHL prospects, he has yet to earn any kind of spurs in the pros. As a responsible player Wärn could very well center the fourth line, but he isn’t as far as to win the spot from other youngsters for sure. He will likely be seen regularly in juniors.

Salonen has been suffering from injuries in the past seasons. A solid player otherwise, he can be a solid third line player for IFK, but his breakout is still not in sight. Barring that and injuries to other forwards, he isn’t quite fit for a scoring role yet and has to settle with average point production. The roster also includes some other interesting forwards, most of whom haven’t developed that early or otherwise fast enough for the NHL. One of them is Tony’s younger brother and second-generation IFK forward Tobias Salmelainen, who has skill and speed but hasn’t put it together yet at the age of 21. He appeared in 27 games in 2005-06 and still has to fight for ice time, but in the long run he could go rather far in his development.

Wiikman, Seydoux, Korhonen face challenging situations in HPK ranks

HPK heads into the season as the reigning champions for the first time. This hasn’t affected the way the team is built in the small market of Hämeenlinna, though. Many of the top scorers are gone, and the replacements are developing players who would be a bargain in case of a strong season. Forwards Joonas Vihko, Antti Pihlström, Jonas Andersson and the more established Aki Uusikartano fit this bill. The team is set to contend for another championship.

The playoff MVP Miika Wiikman, 21, wasn’t completely focused on a new season in Finland. An illegal transfer to the AHL and the Rangers organization didn’t come to be, and now he is fulfilling a renegotiated contract with HPK. Wiikman’s partner between the pipes, Karri Rämö, is gone to Tampa, and Wiikman has to handle at least 70 percent of the starts. The hybrid goalie has both the team’s hopes of success and his own NHL hopes resting on his shoulders. Juha Toivonen, 19, and Mikko Tolvanen, 18, have a lot of potential but can’t seem to support the team just yet. Injuries to Wiikman and the backup Eero Väre prompted them to rent Aleksis Ahlqvist from IFK for the early rounds of the season.

Behind the strong core, there are four youngsters fighting for ice time among defensemen. Juuso Hietanen, 21, is already established and Jussi Ruohola, 20, doesn’t bring many special skills to the table. Between them lie Risto Korhonen (CAR) and Philippe Seydoux (OTT). Both have been developing slowly over the past few years and are a year from the expiry of their draft rights. Korhonen is still the same big, mean and slow defenseman as before, which may however be what HPK needs. When his strength is needed, he may get good minutes, but any underachievement will likely push him out of the lineup. The Swiss Seydoux has struggled in preseason games and his job may be in jeopardy, although the team is patient with the 21-year-old. He needs to either improve his weaknesses on defense or show more of his offensive skills to earn his place in SM-liiga.

The HPK offense doesn’t feature much in the way of NHL potential. A veteran of last season’s WJC Jari Sailio has had his best showcase for a draft pick and Joona Karevaara will likely not make the 2007 tournament, while he can crack the HPK roster for good. Ville Leino, 22, is the team’s most important forward. Gifted with skill and poise, Leino could soon become one of the finest centers in Europe, although his career so far has been marked with gross inconsistency and questionable all-around ability. That didn’t change completely with one breakout season and his weaknesses may keep him out of the NHL, but a player of his age and caliber will get a closer look.

Rask and Helenius to backstop Ilves

Goalie Riku Helenius was drafted 15th overall by Tampa Bay in 2006. Tuukka Rask (BOS) had to wait six turns longer the year before, but developed so much over 2006-07 that Helenius stands little chance of dethroning him. Watching the two compete, the Ilves staff can but smile gleefully, knowing they have the most gifted goaltending tandem seen in Ilves and the league since the days of Jarmo Myllys and Jukka Tammi over 20 years ago.

The lightning-fast butterfly Rask has the potential to be the best goalie in the league already in 2006-07. On the flipside, his ongoing military service poses a challenge for his conditioning, which has been one of his weak sides. Rask faces a large workload, as he is still young enough to appear in the WJC for the third time.

Helenius had difficulty at times in preseason. The team didn’t make things easy for him, but the performances weren’t good for Helenius himself either. He has already played in two international tournaments this fall: Finland’s U20 team lost all their games in Lake Placid, as Team USA crushed the Finnish defenses and Helenius with them. In a tournament of four nations in Sweden, however, he played two splendid games. His overall level of play reflects that of a typical SM-liiga backup, which isn’t bad considering that he has yet to play a game in the league.

The teenagers Rask and Helenius also compose a very young duo, and counting on youth bears its risks. In the face of hardship, a veteran presence could solve issues that the two could not. Ilves will face a tough situation around New Year when the Finnish U20 team may want both goalies for the WJC tournament. It remains to be seen if Ilves will negotiate to keep Helenius in Finland. Four or five starts against professionals could even be beneficial for Helenius as opposed to sitting on the bench in games against juniors.

As impressive and important as Rask can be, it may still be Perttu Lindgren (DAL) whom Ilves fans revere as their young savior. After cracking a point-per-game pace late in 2005-06, Lindgren signed with the Stars but returned as planned upon his expected failure to make the Stars’ line-up. Before moving on to Dallas, Lindgren was dominant with Ilves in preseason. Like Rask, he also has the military service to complicate things, but he can challenge any player in the league in terms of stardom.

Lindgren’s old linemate Sami-Petteri Sandell returns to Ilves after two years in the WHL. Sandell is now SM-liiga ready, although preseason suggests that he is not a fitting sniper for Lindgren right now, such has been the playmaker’s development after their common years in U18. A lot can still be expected to Sandell in the near future. Another import from the WHL is Lauris Darzins (NSH). Despite an advantage in age over Sandell and experience from the Latvian men’s national team, Darzins hasn’t been quite as impressive yet as foreign players need to be. Nothing will be free for him in Ilves, so he has to pick up the pace himself and work his way toward the top lines.

Ilves acquired Kristian Kudroc to lead the defense, but with the loss of Ville Koistinen to Nashville, the next best guy isn’t that great. There is considerable depth, however, enough to have potentially kept Juho Mielonen (DET) out of the top six even without an injury. Mielonen made the team in 2005-06, but his season was incomplete because of a shoulder injury. Now his shoulder is hurt again, which will keep him out of the rinks until November. Mikko Kuukka, 20, can challenge for a big role in the defense corps. He will be an unrestricted free agent in June 2007, and solid stay-at-home defense can earn him an NHL contract one day.

Joonas Lehtivuori (PHI) is another defenseman who doesn’t have it easy among the team’s plethora of able defensemen. Barely 18 years of age, he starts out with a small role and spare minutes. Lehtivuori is still inexperienced overall and not too much can be expected of him in 2006-07. Making the Finnish WJC squad could be his most important goal for the season.

The 1987-born forwards Ville Korhonen and Tommi Huhtala pick up where they left off last season. Making the team was already a reach for them in 2006-07, so their accomplishments beyond that naturally weren’t much. They start the season from the lower lines and try to improve gradually. The progress of the two quick and versatile players has been steady enough for them to keep up their NHL hopes. Ilves has even more junior national team players coming up from Jr A, but they are too numerous to adopt all at once. Jarkko Näppilä, Juuso Antonen, Jan-Mikael Järvinen and others will have to wait.

The giant of a forward Marko Anttila (CHI) has been the team’s most positive surprise in preseason. Now armed with more experience and offensive wits, the 6’7 winger has scored regularly while playing solid defense. He can go far in this year’s Ilves, although to go as far as the NHL one day he will need a lot more meanness. For now Anttila isn’t making much use of his last half a foot of height. That won’t stop him from getting results in SM-liiga in 2006-07, though.

Shedden to coach Jokerit players

The hockey community was shaken in Helsinki when Jokerit signed the coach of the rival IFK after a successful 2005-06 season. Doug Shedden, previously with the St. John’s Leafs in the AHL, did a good job pushing young IFK players to career seasons, and similar success is wished of him in Jokerit. Shedden is pushing a heavily North American way of hockey and demands that the players take responsibility of their own careers, which is generally helpful with prospects who aren’t that well-rounded.

Jokerit acquired two ex-prospects to lead the offense. Kim Hirschovits, 24, followed Shedden from IFK after a breakout season. The former Rangers draft pick, Hirschovits can easily take one more step in Finnish rinks and become a star, which could rejuvenate his NHL hopes. Things aren’t that simple for Jani Rita, 25, who has already had two chances in North America. A positive performance could make his career very interesting again but perhaps, like in the past, in vain?

Shedden is intent on making a strong backup out of Niko Hovinen (MIN) soon. A goalie with loads of potential but also with problems largely caused by his towering stature, Hovinen is coming off a broken season and needs to rebound. He is bouncing between the Jokerit pros and juniors as well as Finland’s U20 national team, but in August and September he has been very impressive in each. He is easy to demote to juniors if room is needed for another backup. Still, Hovinen could be in SM-liiga to stay in the near future.

Sami Lepistö (WSH) has gradually developed the skills to reach the very top of Europe in offensive abilities for a defenseman. He could round out his defensive and physical play this season, but unfortunately his collarbone was broken in preseason and will be lucky to return in November. When he returns, he will get to play as much as he can without wearing down as well as to fight for a spot in the World Championships.

Jokerit no longer have hordes of drafted players in their ranks as they did a couple of years back, and the team is no longer struggling to find spots for all of its junior national team players. The rookies trying to crack the roster in 2006-07 have moderate potential. The career of Roni Andersson, 21, was thought to be in jeopardy when he couldn’t move on to the pro roster right away after graduating from juniors. A year later he is making a comeback, and is fighting for the rookie of the year award, at least based on preseason performance. The 18-year-old duo of Jori Lehterä and Kim Strömberg needs to get out of Jr A quickly, but a spot in SM-liiga isn’t secure for them.

JYP prospects in dire need of breakout

JYP heads into the season with yet another cheap roster with no star power besides the goalie Sinuhe Wallinheimo. They retain the NHL prospects they had in 2006-07, all of whom need results fast. Arsi Piispanen (CBJ) went from 12 to 17 points over the previous seasons and could get much higher if his development is favorable. Ossi Louhivaara (OTT), who is two years older, has a history of similar numbers. Louhivaara begins the season injured, which doesn’t help the technically solid winger to develop new strengths and his scoring touch. Unlike Piispanen and Louhivaara, Valtteri Tenkanen (LA) won’t see his draft rights expire in 2007 yet, so he has a year more to impress the Kings, which he sorely needs. Having had his previous seasons shortened by injuries, he hasn’t had a chance to improve much over that time. Any player can achieve any role in JYP, but all three seemed limited in their abilities to become a key player.

The hardship of the forwards mentioned above may make Miika Lahti the team’s best prospect. Lahti cracked the pro team’s line-up early and now has notable experience backing him as he tries to make the WJCs. Perhaps not very far away from being drafted in 2005 or 2006, he could develop impressive enough two-way skills to attract attention from the NHL.

KalPa loses Puustinen, must wait for new talent

Looking to move up from a last place finish in 2005-06, KalPa could only make marginal improvements to the roster on paper. The team is led by Martin Sonnenberg, who was sensationally made captain without a single offense game in Finland to date, while the language barrier had kept SM-liiga teams from naming a foreign captain under any conditions so far.

KalPa’s anticipation of the organization’s top prospect Juuso Puustinen (CGY) making the move to SM-liiga ended in disappointment yet quiet pride as Puustinen chose to move to the WHL. The transfer leaves KalPa without an NHL prospect for another year. Furthermore, the youngsters Tomi Tuomainen and Joonas Riekkinen seem to be missing their chance to make the WJC tournament, and neither did they begin the season with the pro squad.

Kärpät defense lines decimated by NHL transfers

The powerhouse of the 2000’s has had a highly-talented and young team year after year, yet until 2006 they suffered only pluggable holes to the roster as players moved to the NHL. This all changed as the impact of transfers was centralized to the defense core this offseason: The loss of a dominant starting goalie and defensemen No. 1, 2 and 3 left only smoking ruins in the far northern shores of the Baltic Sea. Inevitably their replacements made an inferior solution and now the situation for young defensive players like a whole different world.

Despite the revolutionized pecking order, Oskari Korpikari (MTL) hasn’t had the momentum to move to the top. The defenseman with a solid style of play has been a fringe player for the championship-winning Kärpät teams, much due to injuries. Now Korpikari is relatively healthy but can’t seem to move up to the top two pairings. The Canadiens have their hopes up because of impressive showings in rookie camps, which doesn’t change the fact that Korpikari’s progress back home has been rather sad. Tommi Leinonen (PIT) is in a much earlier career stage than Korpikari but moving steadily forward. He begins the season with the pro team and can hope to play the majority of the games in SM-liiga this season. That is all that can be expected of a rookie, though.

Kärpät also have the defenseman Joni Liljeblad under contract. Recently turned 17, Liljeblad will not be at the NHL draft until 2008, and the talented blueliner doesn’t have business in SM-liiga either in 2006-07 yet. The 20-year forward Veikko Karppinen has been carrying the Kärpät Jr A team recently and is now being groomed for a pro career, but he can’t beat healthy regulars in the competition for ice time. In the past, some Kärpät young like Karppinen have proven able to pursue an NHL career after a late breakout.

Also among forwards, Janne Pesonen (ANA) needs to stop the decline, albeit marginal, of his point totals. Still, fact is that he needs a whole lot more than just solid if he wants to play in the NHL one day. Kärpät is the right setting for Pesonen as long as he is up to the challenge himself. One way or the other, Juhamatti Aaltonen (STL) is still likely to steal the spotlight. Even though the wizard of a stickhandler may not get to be part of the top line Mika Pyörälä – Jari Viuhkola – Hannes Hyvönen, Aaltonen will receive plenty of power play minutes and the linemates he needs to score – and scores he does. People expect much of the highly entertaining winger, and league-wide stardom isn’t out of the question.

Lukko acquires talented youth

Rauma is the smallest town to be home to an SM-liiga organization. The population base prevents Lukko from grooming the best young talent in the country, so the organization has to be active in the market and hire youth from other teams. Furthermore, corporate support provides Lukko with the ability to make acquisitions to their core as well, so the team is on the rise after a rather miserable 2005-06 season.

Jan Platil (OTT) planned a temporary return from North America. The physical defenseman needs the bigger rinks to improve his finesse. Platil may not have it easy to cope with the crackdown on obstruction, so his status among Lukko defensemen is still a mystery. His development toward the NHL hasn’t been very successful, and a fellow Czech newcomer Jiri Hunkes, 22, may have the momentum to outplay Platil. The puck-carrying defenseman vied for a spot in the World Championships in 2006, which not many players in the league did, but he still has to get used to the scarce time and space of the Finnish league. Hopefully, Hunkes could become a top defenseman by the end of the season and still continue to develop from that.

The 18-year-old forward Nico Aaltonen is a new name in Lukko. As expected, he wasn’t able to go from scoring half a point per game in HIFK Jr A to making the Lukko pro squad, but he has dominated as an underaged player in international U20 games. Given this pace, the agile multi-purpose forward has to be given a shot at SM-liiga soon.

Miikka Tuomainen (ATL) and Petri Lammassaari begin their second season in SM-liiga. Tuomainen showed improvement in the fall of 2005, but trailed off toward the end of the season. Big, athletic and good technically, he now needs to contribute consistently and make life difficult for opponents. The sparkplug Lammassaari was the most positive surprise last season and is now set to play real minutes throughout the season, which could bring his point totals to the 20s. Both of the two start roughly with a third-line role, which isn’t the case for Lammassaari’s old linemate Ville-Vesa Vainiola, 21. The former Jr A MVP has struggled to make the four lines for good, which is a pity, since he has the raw talent to go far in SM-liiga, perhaps even further.

Pelicans look forward to a solid season

After a brush with death by bankruptcy, Pelicans are back on their feet and ready to take off. The coach Hannu Aravirta has brought in a winning game plan and the core is intact from last season. The roster is still that of a small team, so young prospects aren’t limited to a smallish role if they break out.

Jani Forsström, 20, has been somewhat sidetracked from optimal development since 2005-06 when he failed to make Finland’s WJC roster. Now a more successful youth national team defenseman Joonas Jalvanti, 18, is blazing past him. After a good U18 WC tournament, the blueliner lacking in explosiveness and the sharpest of moves was left undrafted, but now he is going after a pro career. Jalvanti has already serviced the Finnish U20 team well early this season, though he still has to wait to become a permanent fixture with the men’s team of Pelicans.

The offense continues to be led by the 21-year-old duo of Jesse Saarinen and Tuomas Santavuori. They both broke out last fall, although the former junior national team player Santavuori has the most potential of the two. Saarinen, small and relatively one-dimensional, isn’t quite as interesting to watch as the highly-talented Santavuori.

Leo Komarov (TOR) is a new player coming from a total breakout season in Ässät. A spot on the third line in SM-liiga and the second line in the WJC was a reach for him in 2005-06, so he can’t be expected to gain much higher a status in 2006-07. The team rolls fairly equally talented lines, so Komarov’s production depends on his linemates. He can provide a chippy game regardless of the environment.

Vili Sopanen and Marko Pöyhönen are part of Finland’s U20 camp roster and also on the fringes of the Pelicans lineup. Like most rookies, they aren’t expected to do much in SM-liiga, but especially Sopanen is worth watching. He can already tear up the Jr A league and at 6’3 and 213 pounds, his physique won’t limit his potential.

Kolehmainen an important player for SaiPa

The small SaiPa organization saw several players enjoy a breakout season and carry the team to the playoffs in 2005-06, but now they are all gone. Only Rob Zepp remains as the team’s MVP, and the skaters have no stars among them.

Beaconing a relatively smallish base of hockey-playing children in the area, SaiPa doesn’t have a lot of young talent moving up to the roster either. Janne Kolehmainen (OTT) is now the organization’s only NHL prospect. The strong and mean forechecking specialist has only put up a few random points so far and could stand to improve from that significantly. It is somewhat of a lottery trying to end up on a line that catches a hot streak and assumes the responsibility of scoring for SaiPa, so Kolehmainen may not reach immediate results.

Eetu Holma, 23, could be an important player for the team. It has been natural for the hulking power forward to develop late, and continuing progress could take him to the league’s top for good. On the outside looking in, Jonne Virtanen (18 years, 6’6 and 257 pounds) was acquired for the Jr A team, and he is hoped to make the pro squad eventually.

Kontiola rules the Tappara roost

Tappara has been practising an aggressive approach on the market as of late, filling all four lines with experienced players and acquiring young talent from other organizations’ Jr A teams (Harri Säteri from HPK, Antti Hölli from Ilves, Jonas Enlund (ATL) from HIFK). This hasn’t been all good news for the players involved. Enlund left Helsinki seeking ice time and the team’s commitment, but he starts the season in juniors due to Tappara’s logjam of centers whereas IFK turns out not to have much beyond the second line. Enlund was already a star in Jr A in 2005-06, so the juniors are a very wrong place for him.

In preseason Enlund formed a youth line with Hölli and the 17-year-old Niclas Lucenius. Hölli showed great improvement in Jr A last year and quickly became an option for Finland’s WJC squad in 2007. It was a good preseason for the skilled right wing, but not as good as to keep him in SM-liiga yet. Lucenius is Finland’s top prospect for the 2007 draft and the youngest player to try to make the league this fall. Expectedly, he failed, but the time of the Turku native will come, even if it isn’t in 2006-07.

At the other end of the pecking order, the older NHL prospect Petri Kontiola (CHI) is the team’s MVP. Kontiola has gradually developed puck skills that make him one of the best in Europe, as recent Euro Hockey Tour indicate. Kontiola can do most anything in the offensive zone and is a good bet to lead the entire league in points in 2006-07. Teemu Nurmi, 21, has been made Kontiola’s sniper. After two years of sluggish development, the WJC veteran could finally become an offensive force in SM-liiga this season.

Säteri is Tappara’s third goalie at a mere 16 years of age, so essentially he is the starter in Jr A. If the pro squad were actually to need a spare goalie, it is unlikely Säteri would be given a chance yet. In front of the goalies, the defense corps features Ville Mäntymaa (ANA). Once the best defenseman of his age group in the country, Mäntymaa is seeing his NHL hopes and his draft pick go to ruin. Still not a part of Tappara’s top four in his fourth year, the development of the solid yet unimpressive stay-at-home defenseman continues to be slow. In fact, Tappara may have higher hopes for the younger WJC veteran Matti Koistinen. Koistinen begins the season as a depth defenseman, but his performances have been such both internationally and home that his potential could also take him to international pro level one day.

Old powerhouse TPS stagnant in talent development

Having sent players like Saku Koivu and Miikka Kiprusoff to the NHL in the 1990’s, TPS no longer keeps up with the best to produce NHL prospects. The team’s only drafted prospect isn’t their own graduate from juniors, and the Czech Patrik Valcak (BOS) doesn’t have that bright a future in front of him either. Years after being drafted, Valcak is now toiling in the lower lines. He was loaned to Blues to make room in the foreign player quota for Tomas Duba, who fills in for the injured goalie Jani Hurme early in the season.

TPS is facing a problem with their aging veteran core and needs new talent quickly. Juho Jokinen, 20, was injured yet again before the season began. He could become an important puck-moving defenseman already this season, but not until he can stay healthy. Henrik Maunula has a decent shot at the WJC tournament and has been playing solid for TPS Junior A, but the coach has been hesitant to call him up despite injuries to other defensemen.

Jussi Makkonen, 21, is already an important center for TPS. Standing at 6’4 but possessing enough skill and speed to produce consistently, he is the second line center behind Layne Ulmer or Ivan Huml. A prospect of his quality should be kept an eye on. Makkonen will be an unrestricted free agent in June 2007.

Teemu Ramstedt, an important player for the Finnish U20 team, is a most intriguing rookie in TPS. The highly skilled center/winger is still timid in his style of play, but if he can shake it off, there are few limits to his potential. Ramstedt doesn’t start the season with much of a role in the TPS roster, but he is expected to climb the ladder over the course of the season.

Ässät continue their cooperation with Stars

Over the past few years, Ässät have developed their unofficial affiliation with the Dallas Stars, much with the effort of Kari Takko, a legendary Ässät goalie and now a scout for the Stars. In 2005-06, the Stars sent Matt Nickerson to develop the finesse-oriented qualities of his game. Nickerson provided Ässät with a whole lot of bang for buck, while he seemed to improve in the areas he was supposed to. The transatlantic cooperation appears fruitful and Ässät was looking to add two players from the Stars’ camp for young players but couldn’t find a defenseman on whose transfer all three parties would have come to agreement. Despite that, for the first time a Finnish team’s quota on foreign players is filled with NHL prospects only.

Brandon Crombeen is the team’s only Stars prospect coming from North America, and he has been most impressive in preseason. Crombeen’s strong and straightforward play is working great in Finnish rinks. If he isn’t quite up to playing with the team’s star forwards Marko Kivenmäki and Kristian Kuusela, he could at least be a good second line player in the small-name Ässät line-up.

Tom Wandell is a Stars prospect whose transfer from his native Sweden was announced early. Still basically without pro experience, Wandell can’t do much for Ässät in 2006-07, but he is expected to play in SM-liiga all season instead of Ässät juniors. His set of skills is still so strong that his appearance on a scoring line is likely at some point along the season. Late in the offseason Alexander Naurov, also a Stars pick, was acquired from the Russian second tier High League. Naurov won’t be a core player by default but may amount to one over the season. His recent scoring totals don’t bode well alone, and a breakout season would be in order for the smooth-skating forward.

Goaltender Eero Kilpeläinen (DAL) is now with Ässät for real after a season on loan in the second tier league. It is a key year for Kilpeläinen, whose rights the Stars will lose in June 2007, as it is his best chance to earn an NHL contract. The mid-sized goalie has some game-breaking ability, and it would be important for the team that he seize the starter’s job from Matti Kaltiainen. In any case, Kilpeläinen getting under 20 starts is highly unlikely.

Peter Aston (FLA) found his way to Pori without the influence of the Stars. Coming off a great season in Peterborough and Windsor, he is looking to round out his game by adapting to a new environment. With only major junior experience to his name, Aston is still a long way from becoming a key player in SM-liiga as preseason games have shown. Still, the top four of the defense corps is easy to crack and Aston is certain to get power play minutes. His natural talent is definitely good enough to put up points in the league. In competition with Aston is Tero Konttinen, a recent graduate from Jokerit juniors and a rookie in the league. He truly impressed in his tryout period with his puck skills and smooth moves also on defense, earning a two-year contract. He can challenge for the league’s rookie of the year award. Finally, 18-year-old Eetu Heikkinen is looking for third-pairing minutes in SM-liiga, which could propel him to Finland’s WJC squad. For the youngster who still stands a good chance of being picked in the NHL draft, any solid and complete season with the pros would be a good achievement.

Wingers Joonas Kemppainen, 18, Jussi Peltomaa, 19, and Tuomas Huhtanen, 19, are with Finland’s U20 national team. In Ässät they can’t all make it, but one of them is likely to establish his presence in SM-liiga for good. Especially the well-rounded players Kemppainen and Peltomaa still have hopes for the WJC, and in the long run, the NHL.

Lastly, but the most significantly, there is Jesse Joensuu (NYI). The 18-year-old winger is already beginning his third season in the league and many expect a breakout from him. Joensuu is a very capable scoring line player for Ässät on any decent day, but patience is needed with the awkward teenager. Development in motor coordination must come first, not until then should people expect over half a point per game. Joensuu injured his shoulder in Lake Placid and early August, but begins the SM-liiga season in shape.

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