Since I haven’t written anything for a while and we still don’t have anyone writing the Liiga Report (hint hint, check here if you watch Liiga games and would like to write about the prospects there), I figured I’d write a little bit about some of the more interesting prospects playing in Finland.
It’s been an interesting start to the season for sure. With COVID outbreaks causing some games to be rescheduled, teams have played between seven and eleven games so far. And with about a million NHL loans playing in the league, the lineups we’re seeing right now won’t be the same we’ll see in the spring.
But nonetheless, some players have managed to stand out in a positive way, so I figured I’d highlight a few of them. Since I think some of my opinions seem bold or even odd to people who don’t follow the Finnish Liiga regularly, I figured I’d do this in a ‘bold statements’ type of way.
Bold statement number one: Juuso Välimäki (CGY) is the best player in the league.
In a league that includes players like Jesperi Kotkaniemi (MTL), Emil Bemström (CBJ) and Jesse Puljujärvi (EDM), all of whom are expected to be full-time NHL players whenever the season starts, Välimäki has risen to the top of the mountain with his dominance at both ends of the ice. He’s the best defenseman in the league without any doubt but I’ll go as far as saying he’s the best player in the league.
The former first round pick, who turned 22 a few weeks ago, missed the entire 2019-2020 season due to injury. He needed just a couple of games to find his game, and it’s been pure dominance ever since. He has 11 points in 11 games, and that includes the first two games where he went pointless. He might be a bit of a forgotten guy because of that injury but I believe he will be a top-four defenseman for the Flames as soon as this season. Do not be one of those people who forgot him.
Bold statement number two: Lukas Dostal (ANA) is the best goalie prospect in the league.
With names like Veini Vehviläinen (CBJ), Joel Blomqvist (PIT), Justus Annunen (COL) and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF) playing in the league this season, there’s no shortage of future NHL goalies to choose from. But Dostal has risen to the top of the mountain, and I’m not just saying that because of his ridiculous .947 save percentage. He was the best goalie in the league already last season, and it seems he’s somehow managed to take his game to a whole new level this season.
Dostal plays behind an Ilves team that is not known for their strong defensive structure. They allow their skaters to take risks, and their wingers are even allowed to cheat for offense. Despite that, Dostal gives them a chance to win every game, whether they score one or more goals. He might not be a huge name at this point but he has all the tools to become a star goalie in the NHL. He will make the jump to the AHL when their season starts, and that’s the best thing for his development since he’s already proven all he can in the Liiga.
Bold statement number three: Matias Maccelli (ARZ) has star potential.
The former fourth round selection still has a lot of work in his play without the puck. But when he has the puck, he can do magical things with it. He slowed down in the second half last season but still took home the Rookie of the Year award. This year, he could be one of the league leaders in points. He’s already off to a good start with 11 points in 11 games. Maccelli is allowed to participate in Arizona’s training camp but once he’s cut from the NHL roster, he will be returning to Finland instead of playing in the AHL. On the other hand, Arttu Ruotsalainen (BUF), his teammate and current league leader with 14 points, will be going to the AHL when that season starts.
Maccelli plays on the same Ilves team where Välimäki and Dostal play as well. As previously mentioned, they allow skaters to take risks and wingers to cheat for offense. That style suits Maccelli’s strengths perfectly. He seems to have no nerves when he has the puck, and he makes it look so easy. He makes opposing defenders look silly on a regular basis. If he wasn’t already on your radar, now is the time to get on board before everyone starts talking about him. He will need some time before he’s ready for the NHL but once he gets there, he could become a star.
Bold statement number four: Samuel Helenius has been the best 2021 NHL Draft eligible player in the league.
You probably expected Aatu Räty (2021) here instead but Räty has been struggling a lot to start this season. And at the other end of the spectrum, Helenius has been a regular on JYP’s third line and on their penalty kill. He lacks offensive upside but a 6-foot-6 center who skates well, plays a physical style and is a great penalty-killer will bring some value to the NHL team that drafts him. I’m not suggesting Helenius is a better NHL prospect than Räty by any means. But I think it’s worth pointing out just how good Helenius has been in his rookie season. I’m fully expecting him to represent Finland at the upcoming World Juniors as well, playing that defensive fourth line center role that fits him perfectly.
Bold statement number five: Vili Saarijärvi (ARZ) might be worth another look after all.
During his time in the AHL, Saarijärvi struggled mightily, and everyone wrote him off after he decided to return to Finland. But the Coyotes decided to retain his rights, and considering how well he’s played to start this season, maybe it was a smart decision to do so. Saarijärvi leads all defensemen in the league with 12 points in 11 games, and his strong league play even earned him an invitation to Finland’s national team for the upcoming Karjala Cup. I’m not suggesting he’s suddenly an interesting prospect but maybe there’s still a chance he could make it. He’s almost two years younger than Julius Honka (DAL) who was just signed by the Stars after a year in which he scored 15 points in 46 Liiga games. So maybe?
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.