Playoffs are now over in major European leagues like the KHL, SHL and Liiga. We’ve seen many drafted prospects sign their entry level contracts lately. Some free agents have been signed out of Europe as well. Many more free agents are still deciding who to sign with. Here are my thoughts on those players.
27-year-old center Oula Palve signed a one-year contract with the Penguins. It’s a great story because he played second-tier hockey in Finland just three years ago but I have concerns about his ability to play in the NHL. If everything breaks perfectly for him, perhaps he could be a number three center – similar to Antti Suomela with the Sharks. But more likely scenario is that Palve plays a bit in the AHL and returns to Europe shortly after. Palve has had two great seasons in the Liiga but he’s 27, so what you see is what you get – and I don’t think it’s good enough.
24-year-old winger Ilya Mikheyev is rumored to be signing with the Maple Leafs. I like Mikheyev a lot and think he can jump straight to the NHL and play on the third line. He has good size (6-2, 194) and he plays a good two-way game which allows him to play lower in the lineup. But there is definitely some offensive talent there as well. I don’t like Toronto as a landing spot for him, though, because they have so many other options. I fear Mikheyev might get lost in the shuffle.
21-year-old center Arttu Ruotsalainen is rumored to be signing with the Sabres. He’s a talented offensive forward who has always been one of the top players in his age group in Finland but has been overlooked because of his size (5-8, 181). But after a great season in the Liiga, his size doesn’t look like such an issue anymore. He had 21 goals and 42 points in 59 regular season games (both markings led the team) and then added seven points in seven playoff games. It’s hard to see him staying at center in the NHL, so I would expect him to move to wing at some point. He needs a couple of years before he’s ready to play in the NHL but it’s hard not to like him.
23-year-old winger Teemu Turunen had a great season in the Liiga, scoring 20 goals and 54 points in 57 regular season games and then 14 points in 17 playoff games on his way to Liiga Championship. Both marks were some of the best in the league. Turunen is an average-sized (5-10, 176) player with somewhat weak skating ability. His skating has definitely improved which allowed him to have a breakout season but it’s still not a strength. Apparently it’s just a matter of time before his NHL contract is announced. I don’t see his abilities being good enough to play a regular role in the NHL but there’s always a chance after you’ve signed an NHL contract. It depends on the team he signs with, though.
23-year-old defenseman Oliwer Kaski hasn’t yet decided who he signs with but apparently the Blue Jackets are one option. I don’t love that destination for him unless they trade someone like David Savard or Ryan Murray to make room. Kaski is an offensive defenseman with great size (6-3, 187). He’s a late bloomer because of late growth spurt and move from forward to defense later than what you’d normally see. Kaski has some issues in his defensive game but it’s hard to find a defenseman with his size and skating ability not to mention his great puck-skills and his biggest strength which is his shot. If you put him on the Ovechkin spot on the power play, he will score goals at any level. Kaski needs to sign with a team that is willing to use him in offensive situations and willing to look past his defensive deficiencies. Kaski was voted as the best player in the Liiga this season, so that’s the type of upside he can deliver in the right circumstances. UPDATE: Finnish newspaper is reporting Kaski will sign with the Red Wings after the Worlds. I like that fit for him because the Red Wings are rebuilding and they should have room for him after they trade some of the older guys from the roster.
27-year-old defenseman Jani Hakanpää is rumored to be signing with the Ducks. He was originally drafted by the Blues and spent a couple of years in their system. He returned to Finland after that and has developed nicely since then. Hakanpää is a huge (6-5, 207) guy who likes to play a physical style. Skating was an issue for him in the past but it has been getting much better over the last few years. He’s been one of the best defensemen in the Liiga over the past two years. I like the fit with the Ducks because they love big players who can play a physical brand of hockey. Hakanpää isn’t expected to be more than a bottom-pair defenseman and he won’t provide a lot of offense but he could be a nice depth player in deep salary cap leagues that count penalty minutes, hits and blocked shots.
23-year-old defenseman Teemu Kivihalme was originally drafted by the Predators but his rights have expired. There hasn’t been any rumors about his potential landing spots but many NHL clubs should be interested. Kivihalme was born and raised in USA and went through the NCAA route but then decided to return to his father’s home country Finland and play in the Liiga. And after two years, he is now eligible to represent Finland in international tournaments as well. Kivihalme’s counting stats may not look impressive but it’s important to notice he didn’t get to pad his stats on the power play. In fact, his even strength production was one of the best in the league. Most likely he won’t be a power play player in the NHL either but he has good offensive tools nonetheless. He’s a very smart player who can log big minutes and do a lot of good things without most viewers even noticing him. I believe he can jump straight to the NHL.
22-year-old goalie Emil Larmi has been HPK’s number one goalie for three years now but his big breakout performance came in the playoffs this year. After a decent regular season, Larmi was arguably the best or second-best goalie in the playoffs, sporting a great .932 save percentage, and he was one of the main reasons his team won the Liiga Championship. Larmi is an average-sized (6-0, 183) goalie who doesn’t have great pedigree because he didn’t have a very good junior career. He does have a gold medal from the World Juniors but he was Finland’s number three goalie that year. But because of hard work and dedication, he is now one of the top goalies in Finland, and apparently it is just a matter of time before his NHL contract is announced as well. I have doubts about his ability to become an NHL goalie but Larmi has proven doubters wrong so far, so we shall see what happens.
Kaski and Hakanpää will represent Finland at the Worlds. The tournament starts on Friday. (And by the way, Kaapo Kakko will be on the team as well.) Finland has one of the worst rosters in a long time, though, so I wouldn’t expect much from them. I was surprised Ruotsalainen, Turunen and Kivihalme weren’t on the final roster.
22-year-old winger Yegor Korshkov signed his ELC with the Leafs. Korshkov already impressed in his AHL debut, and he shouldn’t need more than a year there before playing in the NHL. His upside isn’t all that high but he could be a nice third-liner. He has great size (6-4, 181) and his skating is very good as well but his puck-skills aren’t high-end and he isn’t overly creative either.
20-year-old goalie Kirill Ustimenko signed his ELC with the Flyers. Ustimenko will likely start in the ECHL for his first year in North America but there’s nothing wrong with that. The Flyers wanted to get him out of Russia as soon as possible, so now they just need to make sure they take care of his development. He has a long way to go before he plays in the NHL but there’s potential for him to be a starting goalie one day – probably not in Philadelphia, though.
19-year-old winger Vitali Kravtsov and 23-year-old goalie Igor Shestyorkin signed their ELCs with the Rangers. With a pro-ready frame (6-4, 183) and two years’ worth of experience from the KHL, Kravtsov is ready to jump straight to the NHL and play a middle-six role. The Rangers are rebuilding, so there’s room for their youngsters. Even though they’re adding another NHL ready piece in the draft this summer, it doesn’t matter because Kravtsov is so mature. Kravtsov could challenge for the Calder Trophy next season if he gets the right kind of usage early on.
Shestyorkin will likely start in the AHL but he should receive call-ups quickly, and by 2020-2021 he’s likely a full-time NHL goalie already. Apparently Shestyorkin has an European Assignment Clause which allows him to return to Europe in year two if he’s not on the NHL roster by that time, so it’s very likely the Rangers won’t let him slip between their fingers. Despite his somewhat average size (6-1, 183) for a modern day goalie, Shestyorkin is the goalie of the future for the Rangers, and that future isn’t very far ahead anymore.
21-year-old forward Oskar Steen signed his ELC with the Bruins. He has drawn some comparisons to current Bruin Brad Marchand because Steen is also undersized (5-9, 187) and a real pain in the ass to play against. Steen doesn’t have Marchand’s offensive upside but after a great season in the SHL as a 20-year-old, it’s realistic to think he could become a solid middle-six forward. He is known as a center but will likely switch to wing at the NHL level. My estimate is that Steen needs just one year in the AHL before he’s ready to play in the NHL – but I also wouldn’t be shocked if he cracked the NHL roster immediately in the fall because of his ability to play a fourth-line energy role.
20-year-old goalie Daniil Tarasov signed his ELC with the Blue Jackets. The Jackets will need to get creative with their goalie situation because of how many good options they have. They already signed Elvis Merzlikins earlier, and they’re also expected to sign Veini Vehviläinen soon. Tarasov is a huge goalie (6-5, 183), and he may have the highest upside of those three but he’s also the youngest and has the least amount of experience. Those goalie prospects are very eager to sign with the Jackets because they know ‘Bob’ is leaving in the summer. That creates a huge hole in the organization and they all want an opportunity to fill it. Opportunities like that are rare in the NHL, so I don’t blame them.
At the end of the day, my expectation is that Merzlikins is the one who stays with the NHL club while Vehviläinen takes over as the number one guy in the AHL and Tarasov is loaned to the KHL. And then the Jackets will review the whole situation in a year. But all three goalies will get a legitimate opportunity to earn any of those spots, so it’s not a done deal by any means. I wouldn’t want to see two of those goalies in the AHL because then they wouldn’t get enough games for their development. I also don’t want to see any of them in the ECHL because they’ve all proven to be better than that already.
There will be more signings over the next few weeks, so I’ll try to do something like this again at some point. In the meantime, you should follow me on Twitter (@JokkeNevalainen) for updates as these signings happen.
Images used in the main picture courtesy of TheHockeyWriters.com, Sport.de and ESS.fi