Welcome to the May edition of the Liiga Report where I’ll talk about the Liiga Awards, recently signed free agents, prospects who have signed their entry level contracts, and the upcoming 2018 NHL Entry Draft. If you want to read about Liiga Playoffs, check out my April Report.
Miro Heiskanen (Stars) won the Best Defenseman award and became the youngest ever winner of that award. Previous winners include players like Sami Vatanen and Esa Lindell who were both a bit older than Heiskanen when they won the award. What makes this interesting is that Heiskanen only played half the games this season because of two separate injuries and also because he played at the World Junior Championship and at the Olympics as well (he also played at the World Championship but that happened after the season). Heiskanen turns 19 in a few weeks but he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL next season, and I believe he can handle top-four minutes right away.
Veini Vehviläinen won the Best Goalie award. The 21-year-old goaltender is draft-eligible for the final time this summer, and after a strong season like this, he should get drafted somewhere in the final few rounds. Vehviläinen has now played four years against men and I’m really surprised he hasn’t been drafted previously because he’s posted strong numbers and he’s had success in international tournaments as well.
Petrus Palmu (Canucks) won the Best Rookie award. Palmu turns 21 in a few weeks and recently signed his entry level contract with the Canucks. I think he would have benefitted from another season in Liiga but apparently he wants to make the jump to the AHL now.
The Blackhawks signed 23-year-old goaltender Kevin Lankinen to a two-year entry level contract. Lankinen was one of the best goalies in Liiga this past season and actually ended up third in the Best Goalie voting even though he only played 15 games during the regular season because he had a long-term injury to start the season. But he was absolutely amazing in the games where he played (0.946 save percentage) and he had a really strong playoff run as well (0.936 save percentage in 13 games). Lankinen has good size (6-2, 185), and the Blackhawks have a history of developing undrafted Finnish goalies, so this is a situation worth watching.
The Rangers signed 22-year-old winger Ville Meskanen to a two-year entry level contract. Meskanen has decent size (6-1, 181), and he’s a goal-scoring winger with a good release. Meskanen had a very good season in Liiga where he scored 24 goals and 44 points in 48 games but probably needs a year or two in the AHL.
The Penguins signed 24-year-old defenseman Juuso Riikola to a one-year entry level contract. Riikola is an average-sized (6-0, 190) puck-moving defenseman but he turns 25 in November, so there’s not much upside here – he needs to impress immediately. He had a decent season in Liiga where he scored eight goals and 24 points in 59 games, and he also represented Finland at the World Championship.
The Hurricanes signed 23-year-old forward Saku Mäenalanen to a one-year entry level contract. Mäenalanen was previously drafted by Nashville but they never signed him. He’s played wing his entire career but when his Liiga team was short on centers, he also managed to play that position quite well. He has great size (6-4, 185) and he had a good season in Liiga where he scored 46 points in 59 games.
The Predators signed goaltender Niclas Westerholm to a three-year entry level contract. Westerholm turns 21 in August and has played just a few games against men at this point. This was a signing that really came out of nowhere and I got nothing on this kid.
One player who was expected to be signed by now is center Antti Suomela. Suomela led the league with 60 points in 59 games and he was expected to one of the most sought-after free agents this summer but for whatever reason, nothing has happened as of yet.
Entry Level Contracts
Forwards Henrik Haapala (Panthers) and Sebastian Repo (Panthers) as well as defensemen Olli Juolevi (Canucks) and Libor Sulak (Red Wings) were already signed by their NHL teams last season and they were loaned to Liiga, so all four are expected to cross the pond this summer. Haapala could crack the NHL roster if he has another impressive training camp. Repo, Juolevi and Sulak are likely to play in the AHL next season but could see some games in the NHL if they can adjust to the smaller rink quickly.
Forwards Joona Koppanen (Bruins) and Otto Koivula (Islanders) also signed their entry level contracts and are likely to play in the AHL for some time now. They’re both big kids (Koppanen is 6-5, 192 whereas Koivula is 6-4, 220) with some offensive talent but will likely end up being just bottom-six forwards. Koivula has shown more offensively in Liiga but there’s something about Koppanen that really intrigues me. Koppanen is also better defensively and can play at center which is valuable.
Defensemen Joni Tuulola (Blackhawks) and Jesper Lindgren (Maple Leafs) signed their entry level contracts as well and are likely to stay in the AHL for some time. Tuulola has good size (6-3, 181) and he has some nice offensive tools as well which he demonstrated by scoring seven goals and 30 points in 58 games. But he’s already 22 years old, so he needs to make an impression quickly. I haven’t seen anything out of Lindgren to get me excited, so I don’t really have anything to say about him.
Goaltender Kaapo Kähkönen (Wild) finally signed his entry level contract as well. The Wild were close to losing his rights but got him signed eventually. Kähkönen, who turns 22 in August, was one of the best goalies in Liiga this season, and he’s expected to play in the AHL for the next couple of years at least.
Forward Alexandre Texier (Blue Jackets) also signed his entry level contract but he’s expected to return to Finland for one more year before he’ll likely cross the pond. I like Texier a lot and I’m expecting him to be an impact player next season.
One player who still hasn’t signed his entry level contract is winger Kristian Vesalainen (Jets). He has said in interviews that he’s going to cross the pond this summer, so I’m not sure what the hold-up is. Most likely explanation is that it’s just about bonus money because Vesalainen is ready to play a big role in the AHL, and I’m sure the Jets would love having a guy like him available for them in case they run into injury problems.
It may sound like Liiga is just losing talent left and right but luckily there are also some talented players coming in as well. Forward Aleksi Heponiemi (Panthers) dominated the Western Hockey League where he scored 28 goals and 118 points in just 57 games, and he’ll now return to Finland to Kärpät team that lost six of their best forwards this summer, so there’s room for Heponiemi to play an important role on a team that won the Liiga Championship this past season.
There are also two interesting draft-eligible players who are coming to Liiga for next season. Winger Linus Nyman didn’t get drafted last year but should hear his name called this time around after a strong season in the OHL where he scored 39 goals and 85 points in 67 games. Goaltender Jakub Skarek is also coming to Liiga after a strong season in the Czech Extraliga. He’s looking to challenge himself against higher level of competition and I’m very much looking forward to see what kind of impact he can make. Skarek is one of the top goalie prospects in this draft class.
NHL Entry Draft
The 2018 NHL Entry Draft is coming soon, so here’s my personal ranking of Finnish players who played in Finland this past season. Please notice that this is a real-life ranking, so see the comments below to know what kind of changes I’d make for fantasy hockey purposes.
1. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C/LW
2. Rasmus Kupari, C
3. Niklas Nordgren, RW
4. Jesse Ylönen, RW
5. Justus Annunen, G
6. Lenni Killinen, RW
7. Toni Utunen, D
8. Santeri Salmela, D
9. Jerry Turkulainen, LW
10. Kristian Tanus, C
11. Arttu Nevasaari, RW
12. Veini Vehviläinen, G
Jesperi Kotkaniemi stands alone at the top after a strong showing at the U18 Worlds where he proved he can be an impact player at center. He’s a natural center who spent the entire Liiga season playing wing but his performance against his peers removed any doubt about his ability to play center going forward. Kotkaniemi is likely going to be a top 10 pick and because he’s the best center prospect in this draft class, I wouldn’t be shocked if someone reached for him in the top five. His Liiga team has marked him at center for next season, so it’s very likely they make that switch over the summer.
Rasmus Kupari didn’t progress throughout the season the same way Kotkaniemi did but his upside is arguably at least as high. Kupari is a much better skater than Kotkaniemi but hasn’t been fully able to take advantage of his skating against pro players which is completely understandable but a bit disappointing at the same time considering the lofty expectations set on him. Kupari spent most of the season playing center against men which isn’t easy to do. He needs more development time, though, which is why I like him somewhere in the range from 15th to 20th overall.
Next up I have Niklas Nordgren and Jesse Ylönen who I’m projecting to go in the second round but I also wouldn’t be surprised if someone reached for them late in the first round. They have a lot of offensive talent which makes them very intriguing prospects for fantasy hockey purposes as well. Nordgren is small (5-9, 170) but he had a great season in the Finnish junior league, and his real breakout performance came at the U18 Worlds where he led the tournament in goals and was named to the tournament All-Star Team.
Jesse Ylönen was born in October 1999 in Arizona because his dad Juha was playing for the Phoenix Coyotes at the time. Jesse played at the second highest level in Mestis and scored 14 goals and 27 points in 48 games. He’s already confirmed to play at the top level in Liiga next season. Because he’s a 1999-born, he wasn’t eligible to play at the U18 Worlds this year but played there in 2017 and had a great tournament back then.
Justus Annunen is my fifth ranked prospect and I like him in the third or fourth round. He’s one of the best goalie prospects in this draft class but as usual, there’s a long development time with 18-year-old goalies. A lot of comparisons have been made to Pekka Rinne because they’re both big goalies (Annunen is 6-4, 207) who are from the same small town and went through the same junior system.
After the top five, I have Lenni Killinen and Toni Utunen who I like in the fourth and fifth round. Killinen is a very talented offensive winger with good size (6-2, 181) but consistency has been a big issue for him. And not just from one game to another but from one shift to another as well. If he can become more consistent, he has some serious upside. Killinen had a very good season in junior league where he scored 13 goals and 41 points in 38 games. But his consistency issues became very visible for the big audience at the U18 Worlds where he started on the second line and was demoted again and again until he didn’t see any ice time at all.
Utunen spent the entire season playing against men. He played 11 games in Liiga and was held pointless. But he also played 28 games in Mestis and scored 12 points there. Utunen is an average-sized (5-11, 172) puck-moving defenseman, and he’s also pretty decent defensively. He just doesn’t have any real high-end tools which limits his upside. Utunen captained the Finnish team to gold at the U18 Worlds, and he played big minutes in all situations for that team.
And finally, there’s just one big tier that includes all the remaining prospects who I think deserve to be drafted but I wouldn’t take any of them until the fifth round. Santeri Salmela spent most of the season in Liiga but he’s a stay-at-home defenseman, so feel free to ignore him for fantasy hockey purposes.
Jerry Turkulainen (5-7, 146) and Kristian Tanus (5-8, 159) have some serious size issues but they’re very talented players and the type of personalities who can overcome their size. Turkulainen is a bit older for this draft class as he turns 20 in September but he had a great season in Liiga where he scored 10 goals and 33 points in 52 games. A bit of a warning about those point totals, though: he spent the entire season with the previously mentioned Suomela who led the league in points. You can find a couple of short highlight clips of him from here.
Tanus spent the entire season in junior league where he scored eight goals and 36 points in 48 games. Tanus is purely a playmaker and doesn’t like using his shot at all which is something he needs to improve. But his creativity, vision and passing abilities are very good. He’s also good defensively and can kill penalties. Tanus’s coach was an expert commentator for the Finnish TV during the U18 Worlds, and he couldn’t stop raving about this kid – and not just about the things he does on the ice but also about his personality and how easily coachable he is. If only he was a bit bigger but his older brother plays in Liiga and is just an inch taller, so make of that what you will.
At least a few of these prospects will be profiled in Dobber’s 2018 Fantasy Hockey Prospects Report which is out on June 1st, so go buy that now if you haven’t already. This is my first year contributing to the report, and spoiler alert: only the top two prospects from this list cracked my top 50 ranking that includes draft eligible players along with all other prospects with zero NHL games played.
And that’s all for now. Feel free to add comments below – all kind of feedback is welcomed. You can also find me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
All images used on the collage courtesy of Liiga.fi