Welcome to my first ever Liiga Report at DobberProspects. In this edition, I’ll be going over each team, their most interesting prospects and how they have started the season. I’ll also feature some interesting names from the Finnish U20 league. In the future, I’ll probably focus more on specific players I think are interesting or particularly relevant NHL-wise. If you would like to see regular GIFs and tweets about prospects playing in Liiga or Finnish U20 league, follow me on twitter at @lassialanen. Without further ado, let’s get started.
TPS’ biggest prospect is obviously Kaapo Kakko, who has cemented himself as the clear-cut number two prospect for the 2019 NHL draft (at least in my books). He has three goals and nine points in 12 games with the team and with him on the ice, TPS has been controlling 55.8 percent of the shot attempts (one of the best marks in the team).
Kakko is very well-rounded and versatile winger, who shines in the offensive zone and transitions. At 6’1’’ and 181 pounds, his skating is very good. His agility and acceleration are both top notch, but his top speed is pretty average. Kakko is extremely good at protecting the puck, which makes him very effective in the corners.
Kakko reads the game at a high level and is constantly looking for opportunities in the offensive zone. His puck-handling skills and playmaking are both borderline elite. Kakko also has a pretty dangerous release, which makes him a real multidimensional threat. It would be interesting if TPS tried to use him as a centre, but that probably won’t happen, since they are pretty stacked at that position. Kakko will play a major role for Finland at the World Juniors.
TPS has two other drafted prospects in Lauri Pajuniemi (New York Rangers) and Markus Nurmi (Ottawa Senators). Pajuniemi has put up one assist in 10 games averaging only 12:06 minutes of ice time per game, while Nurmi has three assists in 12 games averaging 15:18 minutes of play per night. Pajuniemi likes to play with speed and utilize his skill, while Nurmi is bigger and more physical of the two.
JYP has arguably the second best Finnish prospect for the 2019 draft in Anttoni Honka. Honka has played 12 games, in which he has put up four points. He has been averaging about 16 minutes of ice time per game. With Honka on the ice, JYP has been controlling 54.0 percent of the shot attempts. That being said, I’ve also seen him getting benched in the third period this season.
Brother of Julius Honka, Anttoni is one of the more skilled defencemen eligible for the upcoming draft. His puck skills are clearly above-average for a defenceman, and so is his vision. Honka excels at transitions, and he can constantly drive the play by creating clean zone exits and entries. He is very mobile, but his first few steps could be a little bit quicker. He has been getting power-play time regularly, and that is no coincidence. Honka doesn’t have the best shot, but he can distribute the puck very well. He can be really deceptive with his passes, but sometimes he can also try a bit too much.
Honka’s flaws are in his defensive game. His positional awareness has been getting better, but it is still clearly a work in progress. At 5’10’’ and 170 pounds and playing versus men, Honka can be overpowered, but he is not afraid of physical battles. Sometimes he can be a little bit too eager to start the attack, but you can give a bit leeway when you have a player as talented as him. You also have to factor in that Honka has a late birth-date and is one of the oldest top prospects eligible for the 2019 draft.
As of right now, I see him as a mid-first-round pick. If he can add more consistency and improve defensively, he could push for a higher spot.
Jerry Turkulainen, who has gone undrafted for two years, is another interesting player to keep an eye on. He is very small (5’7’’, 159 pounds) but has high-end speed and very good skill. He produced 33 points in 52 games last season playing in the same line with Antti Suomela, who the San Jose Sharks signed last off-season. Turkulainen has been of JYP’s primary offensive drivers and I would think (and hope) he gets some serious consideration as a late pick in next summer’s draft.
HIFK has two very intriguing prospects in Niklas Nordgren, who the Chicago Blackhawks drafted in the third round in 2018, and Anton Lundell, who is not eligible until the 2020 draft. Nordgren missed the start of the season due to injury but has been producing since he came back. So far, he has 11 points in eight games with the U20 squad and two points in three games with men’s team (also amazing 77,5 Corsi for percentage). Nordgren is a very skilled playmaker with a clearly above-average release in his toolbox. Skating remains his biggest weakness, although he is continuously improving his speed.
17-year-old Lundell has been ultra-impressive to start the season. He has recorded 11 points in nine games with the U20 squad and three goals (and points) in six games with the men’s team. At his age, the fact that HIFK is using him as a defensive role is incredible and tells you a lot about Lundell as a player. His hockey sense is elite, which makes him very good offensively, but also very good defensively. He has top 10, maybe even top 5 potential for 2020 draft. The most impressive Finnish pure centre prospect since Aleksander Barkov.
KalPa boasts an impressive amount of young talent, led by Joni Ikonen (2nd round pick in 2017 by the Montreal Canadiens) and Eetu Luostarinen (2nd round pick in 2017 by the Carolina Hurricanes). Ikonen has yet to play a game this season due to injuries, but Luostarinen has been playing in a big role, recently as their first line centre. He has good size, decent puck skills, strong work ethic and has improved his skating a fair bit.
Alexandre Texier, who the Columbus Blue Jackets selected in the second round in 2017, has been averaging about 15 minutes of ice time per game. He has clearly above-average puck skills and vision, but has only recorded one assist in seven games. To justify his status as a second-round pick, I would like to see him producing more.
Leevi Aaltonen is one of the better Finnish forwards eligible in the 2019 draft. Once touted as maybe even the most promising forward in his age group, Aaltonen has good skill, strong skating and relentless work ethic. At 5’9’’ and only 154 pounds, Aaltonen is undersized, but his impressive motor and hockey sense allow him to play already with KalPa’s men’s squad. He should go in the first few rounds of the next summer’s draft.
KalPa’s second heavily undersized but very skilled winger is 19-year-old Aleksi Klemetti, who, like Turkulainen, has already been passed on twice in the draft. Klemetti was awarded the playoff MVP of the Finnish U20 league last spring, and he has had a good start with KalPa’s men’s team this season. I think Klemetti has excellent speed and vision, and like Turkulainen, he should get serious consideration next summer.
Kärpät, the defending champion of Liiga, have been clearly the best team in Liiga to start the season. The biggest single factor for their amazing start is their starting goaltender Veini Vehviläinen, who the Columbus Blue Jackets picked up in the sixth round of the 2018 draft. Vehviläinen has started nine games for Kärpät this season and he leads the entire league in save percentage (95.2) and GAA (1.10).
Another goalie prospect, Justus Annunen (third-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche in 2018) has yet to play for Kärpät this season. He has started in three games for Hermes in Mestis.
Aleksi Heponiemi (Florida Panthers’ second-round pick in 2017) and Rasmus Kupari (Los Angeles Kings’ first-round pick in 2018) have been playing in the same line and have found a good chemistry. Kupari has one goal and five points in 10 games, while Heponiemi has four goals and 11 points in 12 games.
Kupari is a centre with dynamic skating ability and has good puck skills. He was one of Finland’s best forwards at the Summer Showcase tournament and will play in a big role for his country in the upcoming World Juniors. Heponiemi is not as good of a skater as Kupari but has high-end hockey sense and playmaking. He lit up the WHL last season, and the fact that he is already putting up almost point per game playing versus men is a very positive sign.
Jukurit has two of the five best Finnish prospects for the 2019 draft in Henri Nikkanen and Mikko Kokkonen. Nikkanen is a centre with an intriguing skill set: very good speed, good size combined with above-average hands. He has played six games and scored two goals with Jukurit’s men’s squad, although he has been only averaging only 8:35 minutes of ice time per game. Nikkanen has also played seven games with the U20 team, in which he has put up 5 assists.
Kokkonen, the 5’11’’ and 190 pounds defenceman, has been more impressive of the two (although he has also been given a bigger opportunity) to start the season. Kokkonen has put up five points in 12 games with the men’s team and looks like a very potential first-round selection. He plays a rather simple, yet effective game. His strengths are solid skating and good hockey sense.
Tappara has two interesting prospects for the 2019 draft in Finnish winger Patrik Puistola and Czech defenceman Hugo Has. Puistola has up nine goals and 16 points in 16 games with Tappara’s U20 team. He has also played one Champions League game with the men’s team. I thought Puistola was Finland’s most consistent player at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and he has shown very good skill and vision at the Finnish junior league.
Has played eight games with the U20 squad and two games on a loan in Mestis. Has has good size, long reach and pretty good skating ability. I would profile him as a two-way defenceman since he has some offensive upside. Has has especially heavy shot from the point.
Toni Utunen, who the Vancouver Canucks drafted in the fifth round in 2018, has played in a very limited role for Tappara’s Liiga team. He has been managing only about 10 minutes of ice time per game and has one assist in 11 games. Utunen is a two-way defenseman with good puck-moving ability and effective defensive game for a player at his age.
Kasper Simontaival is a name that you should get familiar with already. Not eligible until the 2020 draft, he has already played five Liiga games this season, in which he has managed to get two assists. Simontaival is a dangerous goal-scorer with very good offensive instincts and release. Like Lundell, he could be a very high draft pick in 2020 and will likely play for Finland at the U18 Worlds next spring.
Undrafted 20-year-old Arttu Ruotsalainen has been one of the best centres in the entire Liiga. So far, he has six goals and a total of 12 points in the first 11 games. He plays in every situation of Ilves and has recorded a 53.4 Corsi for percentage. He might very well get signed by an NHL organisation next summer.
Oskari Laaksonen (Buffalo Sabres’ third-round selection in 2017) has had an excellent start to his season with the team, as he already put up six points in the first 11 games. Laaksonen has good skating and intriguing offensive skill set. He has already shown that he can quarterback a power play and produce as a defenceman. Sabres must be very pleased with Laaksonen’s development so far.
Robin Salo, who was drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft by New York Islanders, has played 11 games with SaiPa. He has recorded two goals and five points and with him on the ice, SaiPa has controlled 47.1 percent of the shot attempts. In terms of his development, Salo is clearly behind other Finnish defencemen, who were selected in the first and second round in 2017 like Juuso Välimäki, Henri Jokiharju and Urho Vaakanainen.
Veeti Vainio (Columbus) has had a quiet start to his season, as he has not recorded a single point in the eight games that he has played. He also has one of the worst Corsi percentages in the entire team (32.8)
Ässät has been one of the worst team in Liiga to start the season. Otto Kivenmäki, 7th round selection by the Detroit Red Wings in 2018, has recorded three assists in seven games with the men’s squad and three assists in five games with the U20 team. Kivenmäki is a tiny but very skilled playmaker. I would say he definitely has been one of the better forwards in the team.
Lenni Killinen, 4th round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2018, is currently injured, but has played six games with the men’s team and scored one goal in them. He also has the best Corsi for percentage in the entire team (61.5). Killinen is a decent skater with good hands, but I have still some questions about his decision-making.
Jesse Ylönen, Montreal Canadiens’ second-round pick in 2018, has played 12 games with Pelicans’ men’s squad. So far he has scored three goals and recorded impressive 57,1 percent Corsi. Ylönen was one of the best skaters in the most recent draft class and can either be the trigger-man or the playmaker.
Santtu Kinnunen, who the Florida Panthers picked up in the seventh round in 2018, has been splitting time with Pelicans’ men’s team, U20 squad and Peliitat in Mestis. He has some offensive skill, but really struggled defensively in the games he played in Liiga.
Born in 1998, Severi Lahtinen is a player still eligible for the 2019 draft. He put up excellent numbers in Mestis last season (37 points in 32 games) and has started his first full Liiga season well with five points in nine games. At 6’1’’ and 190 pounds, Lahtinen has very good, even great puck skills and is very creative with the puck. If he ever makes it to the NHL, it will be in a scoring role.
One of the weaker teams in the league, KooKoo has two 18-year-old defencemen in their system in Peetro Seppälä and Santeri Salmela. Seppälä has played two Liiga games (without points) and 15 games with KooKoo’s U20 team, in which he has one goal and nine points. Salmela has managed to play eight games without points with the men’s team and another eight games in the U20 league, in which he has five assists. I would say that especially Salmela has a decent chance to get drafted in the later rounds next summer.
Lukko’s only already-drafted prospect is Tarmo Reunanen, who the New York Rangers took in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. The 20-year-old defenceman managed four points in the first 12 games and has been averaging about 17 minutes of ice time per night. Reunanen moves the puck well and can make plays, but I have reservations about him as an NHL prospect.
Interesting name for the 2019 draft is Ville Heinola, who has been splitting time with Lukko’s Liiga and U20 teams. He is very well-rounded and can do a lot of things at an above-average level. He will play in a big role for Finland at the U18 Worlds next spring.
Linus Nyman, who had 39 goals and 85 points last season playing for the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL, has started his season by scoring three goals in his first 12 Liiga games. Despite his offensive production, he did not get drafted in 2017 or 2018, so I would bet that he does not get picked in 2019 either.
HPK’s defence is stacked with already-drafted NHL prospects. The most promising of them all is probably Roope Laavainen, who the Blackhawks selected in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. Laavainen has good size, can move the puck effectively and has some offensive upside. He has played three games of Liiga with HPK and five games of Mestis with TUTO Hockey. Laavainen has recorded two assists and really good 63.8 Corsi for percentage in Liiga, so I would think he gets a more playing time with the team in the near future.
Niclas Almari (5th round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016), Swedish player Jesper Lindgren (4th round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015) and Markus Niemeläinen (3rd round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2016) are the other three already-drafted defenceman playing for the team. I don’t think those three have much upside, but if anyone out of them makes it, it will probably be Lindgren, who already played four games for the Toronto Marlies last season.
Eetu Tuulola, a winger who the Calgary Flames selected in the sixth round of the 2016 draft, is off to a decent start with the team, as he has put up five points in 12 games. Tuulola is big, competes hard and has decent skill.
Some notes from the Finnish U20 league
Roni Hirvonen (Blues U20) is a very interesting player for the 2020 draft. He is one of the best point-producers in the Finnish U20 league as a 16-year-old and has excellent offensive instincts combined with finesse skating and great vision.
Hirvonen’s teammate from Blues U20, Veeti Miettinen is another small but skilled forward prospect for the 2020 draft. Being just a couple of days away for being eligible in this year’s draft, Miettinen represented Finland at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and is a solid bet to play at the U18 Worlds. He has nine goals and 20 points in 16 to start the season.
Born in November of 2002, forward Aatu Räty is not eligible until 2021, but he has already made his debut with Kärpät’s U20 squad and scored five goals in eight games. Räty was clearly too good for the U18 league, as he scored 10 goals and 18 points in the first six games there. Räty is a high-end talent with very strong skating and puck skills. He drives the play constantly and already makes his linemates better at the U20 level.
That is all for this time. You can follow me on Twitter at @lassialanen. I’ll be posting lots of GIFs and tweets regarding these prospects I just mentioned.