Season Preview: Jr. A SM-liiga

Lassi Alanen

2019-08-26

 

We can finally begin the Finnish hockey season tomorrow with the Jr. A SM-liiga (U20 league) starting. I’ll be going over every team and mentioning relevant players from those teams. Because on many cases we don’t have the exact rosters, I’m trying my best to guess which players should play at the U20 level and which likely won’t.

 

The league starts with 18 teams playing in the autumn season. After December, the 10 best teams will play the spring season in the upper league while the bottom eight teams play in the lower league. After the regular season has finished, the teams who finished 7–9 in the upper league and the winner of the lower league will play a best-of-three series to determine the last two playoff teams. The playoffs are best-of-five series apart from the single bronze medal game.

 

Kiekko-Espoo U20

 

Due to financial problems, Blues U20 will play under the Kiekko-Espoo name and organization this season. With Roni Hirvonen moving to Ässät’s Liiga team, Veeti Miettinen (2020) will undoubtedly be the big star of this team. Miettinen, who recently committed to play for the St. Cloud State University next season, scored 27 goals and 61 points in 48 regular season games with Blues U20 last season. Late birthdate eligible for the 2020 draft, Miettinen is a skilled winger with good skating ability and release. He had fantastic chemistry with Hirvonen last season, but now he is expected to carry his own line. Miettinen is a projected second-round pick on most people’s rankings.

 

Joona Haarti (undrafted) is another player who I’ll be watching closely. He was the captain of Blues’ U18 team last season and put up very respectable numbers for a defenceman. Given that he was already draft-eligible in 2019, I wouldn’t call him an NHL prospect at this point, but he is someone to keep an eye on.

 

Kiekko-Espoo also has multiple younger players who might get a chance to play with the U20 squad this season. Niko Huuhtanen (2021) has been on the radar for a while as one of the better forwards in his age group, and I would expect him to play with the U20 team for the majority of the season.

 

There has been rumors that Verner Miettinen (2021, and yes, he is the younger brother of Veeti) will move to North America for this season, but if that doesn’t happen, I would expect him to play with the U20 team as well. Both Huuhtanen and Miettinen will also very likely play for Finland’s U17 national team at the U17 World Hockey Challenge this year. The same could be said for Jimi Suomi (2021), who was one of the better blueliners at the U16 league last season. He is on the smaller side, but he is very mobile and moves the puck well.

 

HIFK U20

 

15-year-old Brad Lambert (2022), who is the top undrafted Finnish prospect in my books, had a great showing at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and looks ready to dominate at the U20 level this season. Lambert is an elite talent with very versatile offensive skill set. He is a high-end skater, stickhandler and playmaker with a good release. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lambert makes his Liiga debut this season. He is the top prospect eligible for the 2022 draft alongside Matthew Savoie and Shane Wright.

 

Wiljami Myllylä (undrafted) was one of HIFK’s top forwards last season, putting up 20 goals and 40 points in 52 games. If he gets to play with a playmaker like Lambert, I could see him getting 30+ goals this season. Myllylä is a winger who plays with lots of energy. He skates pretty well and has a good shot, but could have more finesse in his game.

 

Defenseman Joona Sillanpää (undrafted) and Jasper Rannisto (undrafted) are both returning to HIFK after playing in the CHL last season. Rannisto has been the more highly-touted prospect out of the two and will likely have a bigger impact this season, although I wouldn’t consider either one of them an NHL prospect at the moment.

HIFK also got two exciting 2003-born forwards from Jokerit’s U18 team in Viljam Sandvik (2021) and Rasmus Ruusunen (2022). Sandvik is a two-way center with good hands and instincts, while Ruusunen is a winger who can do everything well in the offensive zone. If healthy, they both will be on Finland’s team at the U17 World Hockey Challenge, and I would expect that they’ll both get ice time with HIFK’s U20 squad this season. Patrick Isiguzo (2021), who is moving to HIFK from Blues, is also someone to keep an eye on. He put up 37 points in 47 games in the U18 league last season. 

 

HPK U20

 

At least on paper, HPK doesn’t have too many interesting players to watch this season. Santtu Hakanen (undrafted) caught my eye last season as a skilled, undersized winger and Atso Lehtinen (undrafted) looked pretty good on the back-end. They are both pretty good players, but once again, I wouldn’t consider them as NHL prospects at this point.

 

Ilves U20

 

Roby Järventie (2020) was already a top forward for Ilves’ U20 team last season, and he’ll likely play at least partially with the men’s team this season. Järventie is a winger with good frame and dangerous shot. At times his skating looks really good, other times I would say it’s just above-average. He is a projected to go in the first three rounds in the 2020 draft.

 

Jakub Kos (2021) is an interesting addition to Ilves’ U20 team. He scored a ridiculous amount of points in the Czech U16 league and has looked promising in the pre-season games that I’ve seen. I’ve been particularly impressed with his playmaking prowess and decision-making. Kos should be a stable on the team’s top two lines.

 

Defenseman Karri Aho (2020) has also looked very promising in Ilves’ pre-season games. He is a very smooth skater, has the necessary tools to move the puck effectively and Ilves has rightfully used him on the power play as well. Having an early September birth-date, Aho is also very young for his draft class. It wouldn’t shock me if he ends up on the U18 national team at some point during the upcoming season.

 

Ilves also has three 2002-born goalies on their roster, including Joonas Valtonen (2020), who played some games with Finland’s U17 squad last season.

 

Jokerit U20

 

Juuso Mäenpää (2020) looked very promising at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and he’ll likely play in a big role for Jokerit’s U20 team this season. He is a tiny center with very good skating ability and playmaking skills. If he has a good season and continues to progress, he could be someone to consider in the later rounds of the 2020 draft.

 

Samu Salminen (2021) has been a top player on his age group for a while. He put up 36 points in 33 games in the U18 league last season and 22 points in 14 games with the U16 national team. Salminen is a skilled playmaking center with good frame and puck skills. He is not the most electrifying skater, but he compensates for that well with his smarts. Salminen should be a regular at the U20 level this season, especially considering that Jokerit is not the most stacked team.

Other less interesting names include Mico Luoto (undrafted) and Rasmus Lahnaviik (undrafted), who both became regulars at the U20 level last season, but they both fall on the “not a legit NHL prospect” category.

 

Jukurit U20

 

Jukurit is one of the least interesting teams this season. 5-foot-11 goalie Eetu Randelin (2020) was great last season, recording a .911 save percentage in 33 games with the U20 squad. His league play earned him one game with the U18 national team. Given that Randelin is third on Jukurit’s goalie depth chart, I would expect that he makes his Liiga debut this season.

 

JYP U20

 

JYP does have some interesting names, especially on their defense. Tomi Niku (2020) put up 12 points in 38 games with the U20 team last season and regularly played on their top four. Valtteri Koskela (2021) was Finland’s seventh defenseman at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and didn’t get a lot of ice time, but he skates and moves the puck well. Aleksi Malinen (2021), who will likely be on Finland’s roster at the U17 World Hockey Challenge, will likely also play with JYP’s U20 team this season.

 

Up front, I have some interest for Samuel Valkeejärvi (undrafted) and Kristian Kujala (undrafted). Valkeejärvi was already a key player for the team last season and he also played some international U20 games. Kujala was the top scorer for JYP’s U18 squad last season and he has looked promising in the pre-season. JYP has also a couple of younger players who could already make appearances at the U20 level, including forwards Joakim Kemell (2022) and Jesse Helander (2021) and goalie Topias Leinonen (2022).

 

KalPa U20

 

KalPa has some intriguing 2020 eligible prospects in forwards Niklas Meriläinen and Veikka Hahl, who both had good seasons with the U18 team last season. They also have goalies Juha Jatkola (2020) and Eikka Kokkonen (2020). Jatkola was Finland’s back-up goalie at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and one of the youngest players in the draft. The two split games at the U18 level last season.

 

I’m also very intrigued by Jeremi Tammela (2021), who put up big numbers at the U16 and U18 levels last season. He is a small winger with lots of skill and a very dangerous release. KalPa also got two new players from Jokipojat in Rasmus Kuiri (2021) and Atte Lehikoinen (2021). Kuiri was the top scorer at the U16 league last season while Lehikoinen was awarded as the best defenceman.

 

KooKoo U20

 

Veeti Korkalainen (2020) is easily KooKoo’s most intriguing player for this season. He was decent at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and already put up 13 points in 32 games at the U20 level last season. Korkalainen is a small center with good skills and smarts. Another interesting name is Akseli Mäkinen (2020), who had 35 points in 45 games at the U18 level last season.

 

Kärpät U20

 

Even with multiple players moving to North America, Kärpät is still the most stacked and entertaining team in the league. If he ends up spending another season with the U20 team, Tuukka Tieksola (Carolina’s fourth round pick in 2019) would be my pick for the league’s top scorer. I had Tieksola ranked as the fifth-best Finnish prospect for the 2019 and a second-round talent, but he ended up slipping all the way to the fourth round. Tieksola is a dynamic playmaker with very good hands and effective stride. On another organization, he would be already playing in Liiga, but given how stacked Kärpät is, it’s possible that he only gets few games here and there.

 

Another name who was already drafted this summer is Aku Räty (Arizona’s fifth round pick in 2019). I was a big Räty proponent last season, as I think he does many things very well and projects to become a play-driving winger at the NHL level. Both Aku and his brother Aatu Räty (2021) played games with Kärpät’s Liiga team in the pre-season. The younger Räty was one of Finland’s best forwards at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and projects to be a very high pick in the 2021 draft.

 

On the blueline, Kärpät has one of the best Finnish draft-eligible defensemen in Topi Niemelä (2020). Niemelä is a smooth-skating two-way defender who moves the puck well and can also contribute in the offensive zone. I wouldn’t be shocked if he ends up getting some Liiga games this season. Another interesting name is Arttu Paaso (2020), who was one Kärpät’s top blueliners at the U18 level last season. I would expect that Kalle Loponen (Toronto’s seventh round pick in 2019) won’t be playing much at the U20 level this season.

 

Kärpät has also another top-tier talent for the 2021 draft in Samu Tuomaala, who unfortunately wasn’t able to play at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup due to injury. Tuomaala is a goal-scoring winger with a high-end shot and puck skills. Other names who might end up playing with the U20 team include Antti Myllyaho (2020), Viljami Juusola (2021), Viljami Marjala (2021) and Matous Mensik (2021).

 

In net, Kärpät has one of the better draft-eligible European goalies in Joel Blomqvist (2020), who already was the starter for the championship-winning team last season. Blomqvist is a very good athlete with good size and reflexes. I would expect for him to go in the top three rounds of the draft.

 

Lukko U20

 

Lukko doesn’t have any standout prospects but instead multiple mildly interesting names who had good success at the U18 level last season. These names include defensemen Niklas Grönlund (2020) and Aapo Siivonen (2021) and forwards Thomas Hölsömäki (2020) and Leo Ring (2020). Defenseman Kalle Ervasti (2021) is also returning to Finland after spending last season playing midget hockey with the South Florida Hockey Academy.

 

Pelicans U20

 

Pelicans has a few interesting names on their defense. Matias Rajaniemi (2020) already spent the majority of last season with the U20 team as a 16-year-old. Standing at 6-foot-3, Rajaniemi is more of a defensive defenseman who can move the puck relatively well, but doesn’t have any flashy qualities. Topias Vilén (2021) will likely be in Finland’s top four at the upcoming U17 World Hockey Challenge. He is a skilled two-way defenseman who makes good decisions with and without the puck. His older brother Elias Vilén (undrafted) also caught my eye in the pre-season as someone to keep an eye on.

 

SaiPa U20

 

With Matias Mäntykivi (Boston’s sixth round pick in 2019) likely playing for SaiPa’s Liiga team, there aren’t many relevant prospects to watch on the U20 squad. Forward Aleksi Sinkkonen (2020) put up decent counting stats at the U18 level last season, but aside from him, the roster is pretty uninteresting.

 

Sport U20

 

Sport is another pretty uninteresting team in terms of relevant prospects. Forward Elmeri Hällfors (2020) put up good numbers in the U18 league last year and the same thing can be said about defenseman Jesper Ahlroth (2020).

 

Tappara U20

 

Tappara has one of top Finnish draft-eligible players in Kasper Simontaival (2020), but I don’t think he’ll play too many games with the U20 team this season. Arttu Tuomaala (2020) looked decent in a smaller role last season and he’ll be relied upon significantly more to produce this season. Oskari Luoto (2020) played well at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and has looked promising in the pre-season. Viljami Nieminen (2020) is returning to the team after a short stint with the Sioux City Musketeers last season.

 

Should he play at the U20 level, Martin Hugo Has (Washington’s fifth round pick in 2019) will be the top name on Tappara’s blue line. He is still rather raw prospect, but should dominate with his size and two-way abilities at this level of play. Leevi Sorvali (2020) is a rather small defenseman, but also very mobile and excels in transitions.

 

TPS U20               

 

TPS’ roster is looking very intriguing for this season. On defense, they have three very potential draft picks in Samuel Knazko (2020), Eemil Viro (2020) and Jiri Pärssinen (2020). Up front, they have players that spark some interest in Mikael Pyyhtiä (2020), Vili Munkki (2020), Topias Kaski (2020), Riku Uusikartano (2021) and most notably Eetu Liukas (2021), who was on the Hlinka Gretzky Cup roster this year.

 

TPS also has multiple high-end names at the U18 level, and I wouldn’t be shocked if any of them ends up playing some games with U20 team later in the season. These players include Juraj Slafkovsky (2022), Santeri Sulku (2022), Elmeri Laakso (2022) and Robin Keihäs (2022).

 

TUTO Hockey U20

 

I don’t think TuTo Hockey has anyone worth mentioning here on their roster.

 

Ässät U20

 

Antti Tuomisto (Detroit’s second round pick in 2019) should be one of the better, maybe even the best defenseman in the league this season, as he already was on the second all-star team last year. Tuomisto is big, has a powerful release from the point and does his job well in the defensive zone. His puck skills have always looked very average to me, but that hasn’t limited him from doing his job at this level. Rami Määttä (2020) had a good showing at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in a third-pairing role. He moves the puck effectively and can jump on rush as well.

 

Up front, Ässät has Juuso Aaltonen (2020) and Kalle Myllymaa (2020), who both put up good numbers at the U18 level last season. Valtteri Karnaranta (2021) didn’t play a lot last season and he was the 13th forward for the majority of Hlinka Gretzky Cup, but he is talented offensive winger when he is at his best.

 

 

Lassi Alanen (@lassialanen)

 

 

Main photo courtesy of Leijonat.fi