The 2021 NHL Entry Draft is still a year and a half away but I feel like I already have a good idea of what the draft class looks like for European prospects and Finnish prospects in particular. I am planning on putting together a 2021 ranking of European prospects in the spring but before that, I’ll let you know what the Finnish group looks like.
I have watched the players I ranked between three and 24 times according to my notes about them. Obviously that number 24 is for the guy at the top of the ranking. There are a couple of others that have looked interesting but because I’ve only seen them once or twice, I didn’t feel comfortable ranking them just yet.
In general, the 2021 draft class doesn’t look like anything special for Finland. But there is one thing that truly stands out from it and that is the top ranked Finn who is also the consensus top ranked player in the world for the 2021 NHL Draft. Despite our great run of top five picks, Finland has never had a first overall draft pick in its history. But right now, everything is pointing towards Aatu Räty becoming the one who changes history and finally breaks that barrier.
Aatu’s older brother Aku was drafted in the fifth round by the Arizona Coyotes this past summer, and although Aku is also a good prospect, there’s no question as to which one is better. Aatu has been well-known for about a year now and his position at the top of the draft class hasn’t really been threatened or challenged by anyone during that time.
Finland has had players like Kaapo Kakko, Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov who have been good enough to go first overall but unfortunately they happened to be in the same draft with players who were just slightly better: Jack Hughes, Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon. Räty is not necessarily better than any of those second overall picks but he has the good fortune of not having a Hughes, Matthews or MacKinnon in his draft class.
In addition to Räty, the 2021 draft class has a couple of other Finns with definite first round potential and a couple more who could potentially get there. That amount is great but has also been pretty normal for Finland these past few years. Let’s go through all 16 players, including my thoughts about them and their projected draft ranges.
- Aatu Räty, C – Kärpät U20 – 6-1, 181 lbs – Draft range: Top 3 (1-3)
Räty has all the tools to become a very good number one center at the NHL level. His size is not going to be an issue because he’s already big enough to compete against men. He is an excellent skater who can push the pace of the game, and it’s almost impossible to prevent him from entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck. He has an excellent wrist shot, and his release is quick and at times difficult for goalies to see. He is also great at making plays, including some very creative ones. He is a quick thinker who is able to stick-handle through traffic and make plays at high speed. He works very hard on the ice and has been getting better at using his size to protect the puck and win battles by the boards.
Räty has already played a few games against men at the Liiga level. He is expected to be a top player for Finland at the U18 Worlds in the spring but before that, he is expected to play a middle-six role at the U20 World Juniors. He is on the older side for his draft class but nonetheless, those are impressive accomplishments for someone who just turned 17 recently.
Räty has had a habit of making an immediate impact wherever he goes; when he was promoted to the U20 league, people noticed him right away. And the same thing happened in his first few Liiga games. And it also happened when he played his first games for Finland at the U18 and U20 levels. But he hasn’t yet figured out how to keep his level of play at or near that top level which is the only concern I have right now. The difference between his ‘A’ games and ‘B’ games is too large right now. But consistency is a difficult thing to learn for young players, and I trust that he can figure it out.
I wouldn’t label Räty a franchise player but it seems like the 2021 draft class doesn’t have such a player, so it’s very difficult to not take a future number one center at the top of the draft. There’s obviously still lots of time for other contenders to emerge but right now, everything points towards Räty becoming the first ever Finnish player to go first overall in an NHL Entry Draft.
- Samu Tuomaala, W – Kärpät U20 – 5-10, 165 lbs – Draft range: 1st round (15-30)
Tuomaala looked like a top ten pick last season when he played in the U18 league but his adjustment to the U20 league hasn’t gone as smoothly as expected. But he has such great tools that I believe it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out which is why he is still the second-best Finn on my board. Tuomaala is a great skater with excellent speed. He is a quick thinker who can make plays at high speed. He has a great shot which is both heavy and accurate. His stick-handling skills are very good, and he can definitely make flashy players because of it. Tuomaala was one of the best Finns at the U17 World Hockey Challenge which was a good indicator of his abilities against his peers. There’s a good chance that Tuomaala will also play for Finland at the U18 Worlds in the spring. His struggles in the U20 league are keeping him outside the top 15 for now but he is still just 16 years old, so there’s lots of time for that to change.
- Samu Salminen, W – Jokerit U20 – 6-2, 176 lbs – Draft range: 1st round (15-30)
Salminen has a history of producing points wherever he’s played, and his transition to the U20 league has gone even better than expected. Salminen was also very good at the U17 World Hockey Challenge, and there’s a very good chance he plays for Finland at the U18 Worlds in the spring. He has excellent size but he’s more of a skill player than a power forward, although he has been learning how to utilize his size better. He is capable of playing down the middle as well and he’s actually very good at faceoffs but he’s been used at wing in almost all the games this season. Salminen is a very smart player with great puck-skills and a good shot but skating is a bit of a concern with him right now. I wouldn’t call him a bad skater but it is definitely not a strength for him. But Salminen is pretty young for his draft class and sometimes big boys just need a bit more time to work on their skating. If he can show clear improvement in his skating ability next season, Salminen could push for top 15 selection.
- Verner Miettinen, C – Kiekko-Espoo U20 – 5-11, 161 lbs – Draft range: 2nd round (30-50)
Verner is the younger brother of Veeti who is a projected second round pick for the 2020 NHL Draft. They play on the same team and on the same line this season but as players, they don’t have a lot of similarities. But those differences are exactly what makes them great linemates. Verner is a playmaking center with pretty good size and very good skating ability. He is a very smart player who plays a reliable two-way game and can be used on both special teams. He doesn’t have any real holes in his game but doesn’t seem to have standout skills either. He projects to become a good middle-six center which is valuable but probably not worth a first round selection.
- Jimi Suomi, D – Kiekko-Espoo U20 – 5-10, 143 lbs – Draft range: 2nd round (30-50)
Suomi did something remarkable by skipping the U18 league entirely. He played in the U16 league last season and made the jump straight to the U20 league from there. And he’s been playing a big role in the U20 league right away. Suomi is an average-sized offensive defenseman. He is a very smart player with excellent skating ability. His skating is so smooth that it’s a treat to watch him go. He’s excellent in transition where he can both skate the puck up the ice and also make crisp passes to his teammates. He can also move very well with the puck in small spaces which is why he’s also very good in the offensive zone. He’s very poised with the puck. Suomi needs to work on his defensive zone game but there’s a lot of upside in his game. He projects to become a middle-pair puck-mover at the NHL level.
- Eetu Liukas, W – TPS U20 – 6-2, 201 lbs – Draft range: 2nd/3rd round (50-70)
Liukas is your typical modern power forward. He loves to play a physical brand of hockey and he delivers big, crushing hits because of his heavy frame. He also owns a heavy shot. He is not afraid to get to the dirty areas and get involved in physical battles there – he is excellent at protecting the puck when he has it. When he puts his head down and gets to full speed with the puck, it’s very difficult to stop him. He is also a hard-working player and great on the penalty kill. His biggest weakness by far is his skating ability. His speed is fine but his agility and acceleration need a lot of work. Part of it might be because he has put on so much weight already that his body is just not used to it yet. He is the oldest and heaviest player on this list. To become more than just a bottom-six player, Liukas needs to work on his skating, and that will largely define where he gets drafted. I believe he can get it improved enough to become a middle-six player but only time will tell. Liukas has a very good chance to play a bottom-six role at the U18 Worlds in the spring.
- Atte Lehikoinen, D – KalPa U20 – 6-2, 176 lbs – Draft range: 3rd round (60-90)
Like Suomi, Lehikoinen also skipped the U18 league and went straight to the U20 league from the U16 league. The first few games were definitely a learning experience for him but after that, he quickly started to look like a veteran at the U20 level. Lehikoinen is a two-way defenseman with great size. He is a very good skater for his size. He has a good shot and he’s excellent at finding shooting lanes and getting pucks to the net. He is confident with the puck on his stick and makes great passes. In transition, he can skate the puck up the ice and he can also make great breakout passes. Lehikoinen has no real weaknesses and because of that, it wouldn’t surprise me if he makes his Liiga debut already next season. He started the season as the seventh defenseman for Finland U17 but was already a top-four player at the U17 World Hockey Challenge. He is physically raw and one of the youngest players on this list but his development has been rapid to say the least.
- Niko Huuhtanen, W – Kiekko-Espoo U20 – 6-1, 185 lbs – Draft range: 3rd round (70-100)
Huuhtanen is an offensive winger with great size. He has great hands and he’s capable of making great passes. He also owns a great shot which is both heavy and often times accurate. His skating has improved from the start of the season but it’s still below average, and that is clearly his biggest weakness right now. There are also some concerns related to his discipline and defensive effort. If Huuhtanen can work on his weaknesses and continue to develop his game as expected, there is definite middle-six potential here. He is the second-youngest player on this list and a big boy, so I believe it’s realistic to expect at least some improvements in his skating before the draft.
- Viljami Marjala, W – Kärpät U20 – 5-11, 154 lbs – Draft range: 3rd round (70-100)
Marjala mostly played in the U18 league before the U17 World Hockey Challenge but he had a true breakout performance in that tournament, and he’s been getting more games in the U20 league after that. He is a very skilled offensive forward who can play at center or wing. Marjala’s strengths are in the offensive zone where he can make great plays but he also knows how to finish them. He is a very good skater and capable of making plays at high speed.
- Viljami Juusola, D – Kärpät U20 – 5-9, 137 lbs – Draft range: 3rd/4th round (80-110)
Juusola is an undersized offensive defenseman. He is a very good puck-mover who can also make very good passes, and he also owns a good wrist shot. But his skating isn’t great which is a concern because of his size. He likes to join the rush and he’s capable of making good entries to the offensive zone but I would still like to see some improvements in his skating. Defensively, he has a good active stick but other than that, there’s a lot of work to be done.
- Topias Vilén, D – Pelicans U20 – 6-0, 185 lbs – Draft range: 3rd/4th round (80-110)
Vilén is a very reliable two-way defenseman who is very good at basic plays and likes to join the rush to support an attack but doesn’t really seem to have any high-end offensive tools. His defensive game is very good already at a young age and he also has decent size. Vilén is capable of making good breakout passes from the defensive zone and he can also skate the puck up the ice if needed but I believe his value will come from his ability to play good, reliable minutes without making any major mistakes while contributing to the play at both ends.
- Viljam Sandvik, C – HIFK U20 – 5-9, 181 lbs – Draft range: 4th round (90-120)
Sandvik is an undersized center with a right-handed shot. He owns a great shot and likes to use it often but he’s also capable of making great passes. Because of his size and playing style, it wouldn’t be shocking if he was moved to the wing at the pro level. But he’s shown that he can be a very capable center at the junior level. Sandvik has great hands but at times, I’ve had some concerns about his hockey sense. Because of that, I’m not willing to have him higher on the list right now.
- Jere Virolainen, C – Tappara U20 – 6-1, 190 lbs – Draft range: 4th round (90-120)
Virolainen is a left-handed shot center with great size. His skating is good but not great. He is very good at making plays and he’s also capable of finishing them. I am a bit concerned about his lack of standout skills but dual-threat centers are always valuable, even though he may only end up being a third-line player at the NHL level. He was very good at the U17 World Hockey Challenge and is starting to look comfortable in the U20 league as well.
- Valtteri Karnaranta, W – Ässät U20 – 5-8, 159 lbs – Draft range: 4th/5th round (100-130)
Karnaranta looked like a potential second round pick last season when he made the jump to the U20 league but I haven’t really seen any improvements in his game since then which is very concerning. He’s one of the oldest players on this list, and he’s also one of the smallest. He is very skilled with the puck but he hasn’t been able to figure out ways to be an impact player in the U20 league yet. He gets pushed off the puck way too easily and doesn’t work as hard as he should on the ice. He is very quick but his speed isn’t great. Six months ago, Karnaranta looked like a lock for the upcoming U18 Worlds but right now, it’s starting to look like he has no chance to play there because way too many players have outplayed him this season.
- Jeremi Tammela, W – KalPa U20 – 5-7, 161 lbs – Draft range: 4th/5th round (100-130)
Tammela is the youngest and shortest player on this list. He also has the least amount of experience in the U20 league. He has officially played just one game in the U20 league because he had an injury in that first game of the season and hasn’t returned on the ice after that. Luckily, he plays for the local team in Kuopio where I live and I also managed to catch a couple of their preseason games, so I got to see him three times live before the injury. Tammela has a ton of skill. He has great hands which allow him to make opposing players look foolish and make great passes to his teammates. Tammela also has a great shot – it may not be the heaviest but it’s quick and accurate. He’s also surprisingly strong on his skates and doesn’t get pushed around. He hits more than you’d expect from someone his size. He also works hard to steal pucks from opposing players. It’s a shame he had that long-term injury because I was looking forward to seeing more of him this season because he’s an exciting player to watch.
- Samuel Helenius, C – Jokerit U20 – 6-6, 183 lbs – Draft range: 4th/5th round (100-130)
Helenius, the son of former NHL enforcer Sami, is a massive player just like his father was but that’s pretty much the end of their similarities. Samuel is surprisingly good skater for his size. He has decent hands and a good shot. He can be used as the net-front guy on the power play but his biggest strengths are in the defensive end. He’s an excellent penalty-killer who utilizes his long reach very effectively. He also works very hard on the ice and makes smart decisions. Helenius is one of the oldest players on this list and definitely the tallest one. He has a good chance to play a bottom-six center role at the upcoming U18 Worlds. That is also the type of role he could eventually play in the NHL.
Those were the 16 prospects I’ve seen enough times to feel comfortable ranking them. Below is the same in table format.
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Feel free to add comments below. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Main picture courtesy of Leijonat.fi