Under-the-Radar Finns Eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft
In the last decade, Finland has been producing more and more high-end NHL players. Whether it’s star players such as Aleksander Barkov, Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, Miro Heiskanen, or more recently selected players such as Kaapo Kakko and Anton Lundell, the country has a lot to be proud of, with 108 Finnish players being selected in the last six drafts. There may be no star player in this year’s draft out of Finland, but there are a multitude of under-the-radar options for teams looking to swing for the fences on upside. Of course, there are more commonly known players such as Aatu Räty, Ville Koivunen, and Aleksi Heimosalmi, but there are going to be plenty of options even once those players are gone.
Three players who impressed me, for various reasons, as worthwhile selections are Valtteri Koskela, Kalle Vaisanen, and Jeremi Tammela. In order to paint the clearest picture possible, I’ll explain why I believe they should be drafted, and what is holding them back from being considered top prospects for the 2021 NHL Draft.
Koskela is an undersized defenceman, standing at 5’10 and weighing in at around 160 lbs. When hearing ‘undersized’ and ‘defenceman’, most people automatically think of offensive-minded. With Koskela, however, defensive play may very well be his best attribute. Defending the rush, he does a terrific job keeping skaters to the outside, limiting quality chances against. He continues that when playing zone defense, aggressively taking away time and space from opposing forwards, forcing poor decisions, and keeping them out of the slot. Even given his size, age, and inexperience, Koskela was trusted with a first-line PK role, along with the bulk of the responsibility in the dying minutes of multiple close games, something we don’t see very often from draft-eligible players in professional leagues such as the Liiga.
Koskela is a good skater as most would assume given his size, but he tends to be a pass-first transition player and not just a one-man breakout. A quick decision-maker, Koskela only opts for uncontrolled exits if given no options and no time. Pressure doesn’t seem to phase him, which could be a very translatable asset when he moves from wider European ice surfaces to narrower ice in North America. Here, we can see Valtteri’s puck-moving ability in transition, as well as his play under pressure, making a terrific pass into space and evading forecheckers behind the net:
Offensively, Koskela displays poise, strong lateral movement, and a willingness to bring pucks to high danger areas consistently. Instead of opting for poor-quality shots from the point, he looks to move laterally in order to open up passing lanes or skating options. With that being said, he lacks the high-end four-way mobility the top offensive defencemen possess, and while he can still be an effective offensive player, it is something that may be holding him back on some scout’s draft boards.
In the first clip, while Koskela does a good job of getting into the high slot for a shot, and follows it up with a slick 10-foot saucer pass, he makes a mistake in between which he needs to work on: he fails to understand how much smaller he is than others. While it got better as I watched later into the season, figuring out how to avoid contact resulting in easy possession for the other team will lead him to better drive play.
Overall, Valtteri Koskela is an intriguing prospect who possesses above-average abilities in all three zones. He has an uphill climb given his slim frame, but putting on muscle is one of the easiest deficiencies to overcome in a teenage athlete, and one that could make him an effective defender should he do so successfully.
After discussing a 5’10 defender, we move to a 6’4 winger – near polar opposite players. Vaisanen doesn’t strike me as a high upside selection, but he does a lot of things that scream effective third-line offensive grinder. Along with his size, Kalle displays terrific footwork in tight corners and along the boards, making him a force on the cycle. Once the play moves out from the corner, Vaisanen has a strong shot that he uses often, even though he only scored nine goals to go with his 21 assists in Finland’s U20 division this season. What makes his shot more dangerous is how patient he is with the puck on his stick, allowing him to move into slightly more dangerous spots every time he gets the puck. While it doesn’t change a ton on shots individually it results in a lot more expected goals over time, and in turn, should lead to higher goal totals.
In the first two clips, he moves into a good position to use his shot himself, and in the final clip, we see his ability to take the puck from the boards into the middle of the ice, followed by a pass to the front of the net for a scoring chance. On top of playing a strong cycle game, Vaisanen is effective in transition, changing pace to throw off defenders when hitting the blue line, and moving east-west when he spots openings. On the flip side, he’s not elite in that aspect because of his biggest weakness – speed. The footwork is impressive and allows him to create separation against defenders in the corners, but his short and stiff stride makes overall speed a weakness of his that is certainly holding him back on draft boards.
Becoming just an average skater at the professional level should be Vaisanen’s main focus this off-season, and if done successfully could turn him into a sneaky third-line forward for whichever team feels inclined to select him this summer.
5’10 defenceman done, 6’4 forward done, now we have a mix of both – an undersized forward. Listed at only 5’9, Tammela already boasts a wide frame at 180 lbs and has room to become taller as he’s three days off being a 2022 NHL Draft-eligible player. He scored at a 0.5 G/GP pace for Lukko in U20 action, but what was more impressive to me was how well he drove play. According to InStat, his CF% was 59%, a relative rate over 4% higher than his team.
With prospects in European minor leagues, it’s foolish to go only off of stats. When a player scores a lot and dominates shot attempts, it probably means they’re great against other junior players; but can it translate not only to the professional level but also to a smaller ice surface? Tammela’s issue may be concerning the first question: the ability to translate his game to the professional level.
Tammela’s inability to use his teammates offensively makes him an individualistic player that may struggle at the next level. When given time and space, Tammela is a fine passer and playmaker, which is a good sign. However, he tends to falter under pressure in the offensive zone, resorting to poor shot selection and being hit off the puck. Something that will undoubtedly become more and more of an issue every time he moves up to higher levels.
The reason I like Tammela as a late-round selection is that he’s incredibly young and only has one glaring hole in his game. Looking past the passing ability, we find a speedy and agile sniper with pinpoint accuracy and the willingness to battle down low and outmuscle larger opponents. Night in and night out at the U20 level, Tammela is a threat to beat a goalie clean with shot speed and location:
Another positive aspect the clips show is that Tammela tries to find open ice when his teammates are looking for options in the offensive zone, an important attribute for a complimentary goal scorer to possess.
For Tammela, his work is cut out for him – he has to learn to utilize his teammates better under pressure, especially as he attempts to climb the ranks of Finnish and North American hockey. While he drives plays well in junior hockey, he currently lines up more as a complementary player that puts up more goals than assists because of his knack for finding openings in the middle of the ice. Nevertheless, complementary players who can score efficiently and pose a threat on the half-wall on the powerplay are useful players in any organization. The risk may scare teams away, but swinging for the fences has shown to be a good strategy for drafting.
All three players discussed in this article play different games. All three of them also possess various capabilities that make them intriguing bets later on in the draft. In a weaker draft than usual such as this one, I would pencil Koskela in as a late second or early third-round pick, Vaisanen somewhere slightly outside the top 100, and Tammela as a final round high-risk high reward bet.
As much as I believe in their games, I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the three go unpicked for various reasons outlined above. Regardless, they make up yet another group of Finnish players to keep an eye on come draft day, continuing a decade-long trend that the country is surely very proud of.
For more coverage on Finnish hockey and all its prospects, check out Josh Glazer on Twitter: @jglazer9