Hi and welcome to the December edition of the Liiga report. I’ll be taking a closer look into players I have been watching closely for the past four weeks. With World Juniors starting in under a week, I’ll discuss some of the players who made Team Finland but also share a couple of notes about other interesting names. If you wish, you can give me a follow on Twitter at @lassialanen.
I’ve also been doing some tracking in the Finnish U20 league (shot contributions, zone exits and entries etc.). The data is public and you can check it out here.
Ville Heinola, Lukko (Liiga)
Heinola has been one of the biggest risers on my draft board this season. He had an excellent start with Lukko’s U20 team and quickly got a call-up to play with the men’s team. So far, Heinola has 23 Liiga games under his belt, in which he has put up one goal and six points. He is a quick and mobile skater with very good skill level for a 17-year-old defenceman. He has also impressed me with his hockey sense.
With Anttoni Honka having a difficult first half of the season and Mikko Kokkonen not having as dynamic of a skillset, Heinola has put himself in the conversation for the best Finnish defenceman and even the second-best Finnish prospect eligible for the 2019 draft. Chicago Blackhawks’ decision to loan Henri Jokiharju to the World Juniors means that Heinola won’t likely get power play time, but I suspect lots of people will be surprised with his play. Heinola is likely going the first two rounds in the upcoming draft.
Anton Lundell, HIFK (Liiga)
Not eligible until the 2020 draft, Lundell is expected to play in a major role for Finland at the upcoming World Juniors. He is the third best U18 scorer in the Liiga after Kakko and Kokkonen with 10 points in 20 games and HIFK has controlled 53.5 percent of the shot attempts with him on the ice.
Lundell’s hockey sense is borderline elite, as he is able to produce and be dangerous offensively while maintaining very good defensive play. It is not a coincidence that many scouts have compared him to Aleksander Barkov. Lundell is not the quickest skater (neither was Barkov at his age), but he gets where he needs to be reliably. His well-rounded skill set makes him a very interesting player to watch the upcoming tournament.
Jesse Ylönen, Pelicans (Liiga)
Ylönen has put up eight goals and 13 points in 31 games while averaging only 14 minutes of ice time per game. The Montreal Canadiens second-round pick from the 2018 draft has not blown me away in my viewings of him, but from the numbers point of view, his first Liiga season has been decent.
Ylönen’s main strength is his speed. He was one of the quickest skaters in his draft class and he certainly has not gotten any slower. Ylönen is very active without the puck and works hard, but in the games that I’ve seen, he has not been playing with the puck that much. He will likely be a top 6 winger for Finland at the World Juniors.
Antti Saarela, Lukko (Liiga)
Saarela’s beginning of the season was not that great, but he has looked better recently and has put up five points in 10 Liiga games after a call-up from the U20 team. Saarela is a smart forward (he has played as a winger in Liiga and as a center in the junior leagues) with good skills and vision. He is not the best skater, but his speed has looked ok at the Liiga level in my viewings. Saarela will be a part of Finland’s team at the U18 Worlds in the spring.
Kalle Loponen, Hermes (Mestis)
Loponen is one of the most underrated Finnish draft-eligible players. He started the season with Kärpät’s U20 team and has recently been playing very well on a loan in Mestis with Hermes. Loponen is a good skater with some offensive upside. He has a powerful slapshot and decent defensive ability. On top of that, Loponen has been producing at the same rate as much more highly touted Honka (they both have six points in 10 Mestis games). Loponen should be a lock to make Finland’s U18 team in the spring.
Eetu Päkkilä, Kärpät U20 (Jr. A SM-liiga)
Päkkilä has been hot lately and is currently the top goal-scorer in the Finnish U20 league. Drafted in the seventh round by the New Jersey Devils in the 2018 draft, Päkkilä is a winger with good size, puck skills, and powerful shot. In the games that I’ve tracked, he has been generating a lot of shot attempts and scoring chances for himself. Päkkilä still has work to do with his skating and overall game.
Tuukka Tieksola, Kärpät U20 (Jr. A SM-liiga)
Tieksola has looked really good in my viewings of him this season. The 17-year-old winger is third in U18 scoring in the U20 league, only behind Blues’ Veeti Miettinen and Roni Hirvonen. Tieksola is a good and agile skater with very good vision and hands. He is excellent at creating offence for his teammates and can make very creative passes on the power play and at even strength. He should get consideration as a potential late-round selection in the upcoming draft.
Henri Nikkanen, Jukurit U20 (Jr. A SM-liiga)
Nikkanen’s first half of his draft-eligible season has been pretty disappointing. He has played with three different teams at three different levels, which is quite telling. He has 14 games with Jukurit’s U20 team, in which he has recorded only two goals and nine points. Nikkanen is still a legitimate prospect due to his combination of good frame, strong skating, and good skill, but his hockey sense is a red flag to me.