Top 10 Finland prospects for the 2007 draft

By Pekka Lampinen

The age group of 1989-born Finns was known to be a bad one for hockey ever since the players were assembled into an U16 national team back in 2004. Also, the players born after Sept. 15 in 1989 are a stronger group than those born a year earlier, further weakening the 2007 draft class coming out of Finland.

The 2006 draft was a deep draft for Finns. Fourteen picks is something that won’t be repeated this year — the number of picks will likely drop back to near the 2005 level of eight. However, the 2007 crop doesn’t even have the star power of the 2005 class.

1. Niclas Lucenius, C

A leader among Finnish 1989-born players, Lucenius became a top player in the age group early but failed to make more of a breakout prior to the NHL draft in 2007. Facing ups and downs in his draft year, Lucenius’ final test in the U18 World Championships was a disappointment. Lucenius was healthy for only four games, in which he was left alone and tallied only two points. His best showcase of the season was a Five Nations tournament in December, when he scored four goals and four assists in four games.

An aggressive center also able to play wing, Lucenius is well-rounded enough to make the most out of the pivot position. With an eagerness to hit and challenge defensemen with the puck, Lucenius can be flashy but also solid, thanks to his ample strength and decision-making skills. Crashing the net is what he does best. However, he lacks some vision, which limits his potential to a lesser NHL scoring line player, as he fails to use his linemates to full extent.

Scouts may be divided on which Finn should go first, but Lucenius is the least likely to fall very far in the draft.

2. Lassi Kokkala, C

Kokkala had a fairly straightforward rise through the ranks of TPS juniors. He hadn’t established himself as a strong prospect until 2006, when he improved greatly on his previous year’s numbers. Things seemed to go great for him as one successful performance followed another, until the U18 WC turned out a total disaster. Starting out as the first line center, Kokkala was soon benched. He kept turning the puck over and lost his linemates.

Kokkala is an impressive package for a forward: Swift, powerful and skilled, he seems to have all the talent needed to fish the puck out of the corners and create a scoring opportunity. He battles his way through opponents with quick moves and a balanced use of his good frame. However, his top speed is questionable on open ice and cooperation with linemates ranges from very good to poor. Kokkala also appears to have some problems with decision-making, which will hurt his chances of becoming a core player for an NHL team.

Opinions on how far Kokkala’s skills can carry him vary a lot, as could Kokkala’s draft position.

3. Juha Metsola, G

Beating Harri Säteri for the starting goalie’s job during the U18 World Championships in 2007, Metsola became the third Ilves goalie in a row to hold the post, trailing Tuukka Rask and Riku Helenius. Overshadowed by his elders in Ilves and previously by the younger Säteri and Tomi Karhunen on Team Finland, it took consistent game-breaking performances on international ice for Metsola to join the forefront of Finnish goalies. His draft year in 2006-07 was the best of his career so far.

Metsola has a hurdle — small-framed and standing at 5’10, he can’t play a fully-effective butterfly. Instead, he does his best to cover the lower part of the net while still on his skates. He reads the game very well for his age, which is necessary for him to survive in traffic. Altogether, his abilities add up to game-breaking potential. His technique doesn’t quite appear like something a seasoned pro would boast, so Metsola will likely still go through some fundamental development before finding his final form.

A successful starting goalie of Team Finland can rise all the way to the top of the country’s draft rankings, as it has been proven in past years. There are undoubtedly teams who see very high potential in Metsola, and others who don’t see him distinguished from the bulk of European netminders in the draft.

4. Harri Ilvonen, D

A fairly unknown player until the fall of 2006, Ilvonen was the sensation of the semester, which almost led to him being picked to play in the World Junior Championships with his elders. Instead, he became the first of his draft class to accumulate experience in the Finnish SM-liiga while also reaching strong results in the Jr A league. Born late in the year, Ilvonen didn’t play in a top international tournament in his draft year.

Ilvonen has found his groove in juniors as a two-way defenseman, although his abilities would suggest at more of a stay-at-home game at professional level. He is a smart player who never panics with the puck — getting the team out of a defensive zone is one of his strong points. A smooth but not particularly fast skater, Ilvonen lacks some top skills which he would distinguish himself with in the NHL.

Limited international exposure can hurt Ilvonen in the draft. Some consider him the best Finn of the draft class.

5. Jori Lehtera, C

After Ilvonen, there is a gap in terms of quality. Still, opinions on Jori Lehterä can vary so much that the top four is by no means set.

Lehterä has been stigmatized as a solo artist in his junior years, so he settled with dominating opponents in domestic rinks, rarely considered for the national teams. In 2006-07, he exceeded scoring expectations on every level he played that year: 66 points in 24 Jr A games, 12 points in 28 SM-liiga games. Lehterä missed the World Juniors Championships of 2007 with an injury.

Lehterä combines some abilities of a large all-around centerman and a flamboyant scoring winger. Above all he is an adept stick handler able to move in small spaces and a gifted set-up man, combining positioning and passes to create scoring opportunities by himself if need be. On the top of it, Lehterä is a cold-blooded finisher at short range. On the downside, he hasn’t developed his defensive skills properly, although he isn’t too bad at the two-way game. He also remains too much on the receiving end of physical play. His most limiting factor is his questionable skating, which is the next aspect to work on after the draft.

Lehtera has better skills than a number of first-rounders, but it remains to be seen if he can make use of them in the NHL.

6. Eetu Poysti, RW

Like the top four, the top six is the easiest (or the least difficult) to separate from the rest of the potential draftees.

Following a solid career path in Finnish rinks, Pöysti never managed to score all that much on international ice until the main event of the season. In the U18 World Championships, Pöysti led team Finland with six points in six games, distinguishing himself from a disappointing pack and earning great momentum for the NHL draft. However, he was invisible in many of the tough games where he accumulated assists, and he could only score against Germany and Latvia.

Pöysti is part a skilled offensive forward, part an average all-around forward. He barely has flaws in his skating and his puck skills can too be seen as a strength of his. So far these abilities haven’t helped him score at levels typical of future NHL scoring liners, though. If Pöysti doesn’t make it that far, he still has a strong work ethic and a good two-way game to rely on. He is still in need of clear strengths in his play, ones that would help him best offensive second liners or defensive third liners for their jobs.

The performance in the U18 WC was two-sided, but nonetheless it is that reputation which carries Pöysti in the draft, and it has surely persuaded some to consider Pöysti the best Finnish forward available this year.

7. Olavi Vauhkonen, RW

Vauhkonen began to make the transition from Jr B hockey onto Jr A level in the Jokerit organization In 2006-07. The season wasn’t easy for him, as he still grew two inches in his draft year, now standing 6’3, 196 lbs. In the U18 WC his performance was one of the most pleasant surprises. Two goals and two assists were plays reviewed by many NHL scouts.

Vauhkonen has always been among the tallest of players. Combined with a lack of top offensive skills, that has raised the question whether he was just dominating because of early maturation. In the end, however, Vauhkonen kept growing at an older age than most and bested the competition in other aspects of the game, too. A solid, hard-working winger, he is adept at reading the game, which helps him both take the puck to the net and make unexpected moves in small spaces. A future checking line player, Vauhkonen has notable scoring potential at short range.

Some offensive production is needed to warrant a career as a checking liner. Whether that can happen for Vauhkonen on NHL level is less likely than not, but in the later rounds teams are more inclined to hope than demand for results.

8. Joonas Jarvinen, D

A long-time defensive stalwart on TPS junior teams, Järvinen had always grown earlier than his peers, which reinforced his role as the leader of the defense. Järvinen’s abilities carried over to international ice, where he captained the Finnish team as well on occasion. This experience has made him the most seasoned defenseman of the age group.

Järvinen stands tall and gives the opponents a hard time along the boards. His speed is only moderate, which places his future in question in a world favoring mobile defensemen. The 2007 U18 World Championships were a key challenge in that sense, which he passed, keeping up with the pace of the game. Järvinen keeps mistakes to a minimum. His hockey sense and poise are well fit for a young defenseman vying for the NHL. Offensive potential can hardly be spoken of in his case, though.

Järvinen’s impending transition to Finnish pro hockey will soon determine whether he is developing fast enough for the NHL. The drafting teams are forced to decide earlier than that, so Järvinen remains a chance to take, but a smart one at that.

9. Tomi Sallinen, C

Sallinen enjoyed a solid rookie season on the silver medalist Espoo Blues team in the Finnish Jr A league, scoring 20 points in 42 games. The composed center with impeccable work ethic has gained respect from his peers, which is shown by the C he wore on his chest in the U18 World Championships in 2007. Sallinen stuck on the lower lines, which is indicative of his style of play.

With a relatively small frame, Sallinen has no trouble speeding around the ice in chase of the puck. He never stops working, although from the center position it isn’t natural to throw a lot of checks or to get under the skins of opposing players. His ability to read the game is good, but it wouldn’t hurt to truly specialize in defense in the neutral zone like some true two-way forwards. Not gifted with anything special in terms of puck skills, Sallinen does have a decent wrist shot and the vision to make smart passes. In professional hockey he will likely get most of his points from garbage goals.

A long-term fixture on international ice, Sallinen must be happy with the exposure he has received. His best chance to be picked are the teams drafting for character.

10. Juha Jarvenpaa, G

The last remaining ranked player on the list is Juha Järvenpää. He wouldn’t make the most solid of picks, but for a late choice out of Finland, a goalie isn’t a bad bet.

Järvenpää has always had to fight for attention on the Finnish national team deep in goalies. In the end, in the fight for a spot in the U18 World Championships, he could beat only one of his three competitors and was left out. Järvenpää had to settle with an international showcase of only a handful of games over the season, in which he did perform admirably. Back home with the Ässät Jr A team, the results of his play didn’t stand out quite that much, but his technical development was solid.

Järvenpää isn’t the most composed of Finnish hybrid style goalies, but he does have the makings to develop game-breaking potential. Giving him a chance to stop each shot, his quick legs keep him up with the game, whereas his coordination needs improvement. Another area that needs to develop is his arms, especially the blocker side. Järvenpää isn’t a very big goalie, so he needs all the technique he can learn in order to cover the net efficiently.

Other notables

Eetu Heikkinen, D – 2006 eligible will have a better showcase next year.

Jesse Jyrkkio, D – Offensive defenseman remains wildly inconsistent.

Nestori Lahde, RW – Developed in physical play, but puck skills are stalling.

Jussi Makkonen, D – Well-rounded defenseman didn’t get to prove himself in spring season.

Juuso Oinonen, G – Gifted goalie faces a pressing need to develop technique.

Mikael Paunio, C – On the bubble with impressive offensive skill.

Juha-Petteri Purolinna, D – 2006 eligible is an early candidate to shine at U20 level.

Antti Roppo, LW – Built to be a sniper, but not with results of NHL quality.

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