Liiga Update – March 23 2018

by Jokke Nevalainen on March 23, 2018

All images used on the collage are taken from Liiga.fi

 

Welcome to my first ever Liiga report! You may have seen my previous work here providing the SHL report but I’m now officially taking over the Liiga coverage as well. If you want to see highlight clips of these players, I suggest checking my Twitter feed @JokkeNevalainen because I frequently post short clips of SHL and Liiga prospects in there.

 

Regular season is already over in Liiga, and the Wild Card round of the playoffs is over as well. This report will mostly focus on the regular season because the playoffs are just getting started. Let’s get going.

 

Kärpät

 

Kärpät were the best team in the league by a wide margin but that didn’t stop them from acquiring even more offensive talent near the trade deadline as they added winger Kristian Vesalainen (Jets) from HPK. Vesalainen had a great season, scoring a total of 43 points in 49 games which was most among teenagers in the league and puts him high on the all-time list as well. Vesalainen’s 22 goals were sixth best in the league, and his 14 power play goals were the most in the league.

 

Vesalainen has taken huge steps in his development since last season, and he’s been improving throughout the season as well. Vesalainen has been especially dangerous on the power play where he loves blasting one-timers from the right circle, and his power play prowess was a big reason why Kärpät wanted to add him to their team to help their power play. Vesalainen was acquired as a rental because he’s expected to cross the pond after this season.

 

Center Rasmus Kupari (2018) had 14 points in 39 games which may not seem like much but it’s actually 21st on the all-time list among under-18 players. I have more about him at the end of this article.

 

One interesting overage player for the draft is 21-year-old goaltender Veini Vehviläinen. Many believed him to get drafted already in previous drafts but it hasn’t happened yet. Size might be one reason he hasn’t been drafted as he’s only 6-0 which is not ideal for a goalie but Vehviläinen is having a great season in Liiga, and someone should take a flyer late in the draft.

 

TPS

 

TPS finished the season second in the league. Their most interesting prospect is defenseman Olli Juolevi (Canucks) who finished the season with 19 points in 38 games. There are two ways to look at Juolevi’s season – on one hand, his 0.5 points-per-game average is 18th best in the league among defensemen which is impressive because he only played 18 minutes per game. But on the other hand, it’s a bit worrisome that Juolevi didn’t earn more ice time. Those 18 minutes included about two minutes of power play time and less than a minute while short-handed. Juolevi probably needs at least one more season of development before he can play in the NHL, and he also needs to get stronger this summer. Juolevi struggled a lot after the World Juniors but his play has improved lately.

 

Forward Patrik Virta (Rangers) finished the season with 40 points in 58 games which was fourth best on the team, although one of the players ahead of him was acquired late in the season. The recently turned 22-year-old is capable of playing center and wing, and those 40 points were eighth best in the league among under-24 players. Virta played about 17 minutes per game which included three and a half minutes on the power play and less than a minute short-handed.

 

Winger Petrus Palmu (Canucks) played his rookie season in Liiga after spending three years in the OHL, and his 36 points in 59 games was best in the league among rookies. Palmu played a little less than 16 minutes per game which included about two and a half minutes on the power play. Palmu is a talented offensive winger who can handle the physical play at this level but he’s a long shot to make it to the NHL. His play without the puck has improved late in the season, though, and that’s important if he wants to play in the NHL at some point.

 

Winger Markus Nurmi (Senators) finished his rookie season with 21 points in 51 games, and the 19-year-old forward also represented Finland at the World Juniors in Buffalo. Nurmi’s average ice time for the season was 14:33 which included almost two minutes while short-handed. Nurmi is a big, physical winger with some offensive talent and could eventually become a good bottom-six winger at the NHL level.

 

Tappara

 

Tappara finished the season third in the league, and they’re facing KalPa in the playoffs. Forward Sebastian Repo (Panthers) has played three full seasons in Liiga now with similar offensive totals, so it’s probably time to move to North America after this season is over. I created his fantasy hockey profile recently, so just click on his name to read more about him.

 

JYP

 

JYP finished the season fourth in the league but they also won the Champions Hockey League championship during the season, beating Växjö from the SHL in the final. The top offensive player for JYP throughout the season was Antti Suomela who had 60 points in 59 games, and that point total also lead the entire league. Suomela recently turned 24, and he’s an interesting free agent for NHL teams. His ice time was rather low for someone with such high offensive totals but it wasn’t because he can’t be relied to play bigger minutes, it was just because JYP is a very good team with lots of depth.

 

Suomela’s partner in crime throughout the season has been 19-year-old Jerry Turkulainen who didn’t get drafted last summer but should hear his name called this time around. Turkulainen is a small winger who wasn’t selected to play at the World Juniors for some reason but his 33 points in 52 games were second best in the league among teenagers. His skating is not great but it’s not bad either. Although he’s small, he doesn’t get intimidated by physical play. He’s another player worth a flyer late in the draft.

 

HIFK

 

HIFK finished the season fifth in the league, and they’re facing JYP in the playoffs. HIFK have one of the most interesting players in the league in defenseman Miro Heiskanen (Stars). Heiskanen’s average ice time of 25:06 was highest in the entire league, and his 0.77 points-per-game average was best in the league among defensemen. Just a quick reminder – he’s just 18 years old. Those minutes include about two and a half minutes on the power play and almost three minutes while short-handed. Heiskanen was arguably the best defenseman in the entire league and he finished fifth in the league MVP vote despite missing half a season to injuries.

 

In my opinion, there are two reasons why Heiskanen is so good already and will only get better. The first reason is his effortless skating. He can play 25 or even 30 minutes in a game without it affecting him negatively. He can join the rush or even lead a rush, and he gets back to his own zone if the puck is turned over. Tired players make bad decisions but it seems like Heiskanen doesn’t get tired.

 

The other reason is his hockey smarts. There are hundreds of small things he does correctly on the ice but one example is when he’s behind the opposing goal line, he doesn’t just get rid of the puck when there’s pressure because those things usually end up in the back of your own net. If he doesn’t see a safe pass, he keeps the puck to himself to buy time for his forwards to get into defensive position – but he also manages to get out of those situations with the puck more often than you’d think. He makes correct decisions more often than most players in the league, and you don’t see him making too many costly mistakes.

 

Heiskanen was mistakenly labelled as defensive defenseman during his draft year which is understandable because he was playing a defensive style in Liiga during his draft year – he was a 17-year-old kid playing in a league where 17-year-old defensemen don’t usually get to play. But he already showed the offensive side of his game at the U18 World Championship tournament, and he’s shown that same offensive game in Liiga this season. He’s an offensive defenseman with solid defensive game.

 

Heiskanen wasn’t at his best at the World Juniors in Buffalo but he was most likely playing through an injury at the time because he missed some Liiga games when he came back from the tournament. At the Olympics, Heiskanen didn’t really get to shine because Team Finland was using seven defensemen, so Heiskanen’s ice time was much lower than what he’s used to. When they started giving him more ice time near the end of the tournament, we started to see the same Heiskanen there as well.

 

Heiskanen has all the necessary tools to become a minute-munching number-one defenseman in the NHL. He doesn’t have a huge slap shot and he’s not going to punish players with physical play but those traits are not really necessary anymore. He has a great wrist shot that goes through traffic, and if he gets close enough, he’s like a sniper finding holes on goalies. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit to see Heiskanen becoming a perennial Norris Trophy contender. He is NHL ready now.

 

Another interesting prospect on HIFK’s roster is winger Niklas Nordgren (2018). Nordgren is a very talented offensive player but he’s small and his skating is not good, so he’s a boom or bust type prospect who is likely being drafted in the second or third round this summer. Nordgren played just 15 games in Liiga this season and had three assists. I recently created his fantasy hockey profile, so click on his name to read more about him.

 

KalPa

 

KalPa finished the season sixth in the league. Interestingly enough, they have three second round selections from the 2017 NHL draft on their roster.

 

Center Eetu Luostarinen (Hurricanes) was passed over in 2016 but his selection in the second round of the 2017 draft is looking smart now. Luostarinen has been the top center for KalPa this season, and he finished the season with 20 points in 55 games. Luostarinen is a reliable two-way center with offensive talent, and could become a good third line center in the NHL. He wasn’t selected to play at the World Juniors in Buffalo which was very odd because he was one of the best teenagers in the league.

 

Alexandre Texier (Blue Jackets) has been playing wing most of this season but has also played some games at center when needed. Texier is a shoot-first type player and his skating is very good. I think he’s better at wing, and could end up being a top-six forward at the NHL level but it will take some time to get there. Texier finished the season with 22 points in 53 games.

 

Joni Ikonen (Canadiens) has been playing the third line center role this season, and he played that same role at the World Juniors as well. His 14 points in 52 don’t seem like much but he has offensive talent and should be able to contribute more offensively next season. He’s a future middle-six center in my books but right now looks like he’s trending towards third line role at the NHL level.

 

SaiPa

 

SaiPa finished the regular season seventh in the league and they managed to beat Pelicans in the Wild Card series, so they moved on to the quarter-finals where they’re facing TPS. The one interesting player on their roster is defenseman Urho Vaakanainen (Bruins). Vaakanainen only had 11 points in 43 games but his average ice time of 21:56 was 13th highest in the entire league and most on his team. Those minutes include a little less than a minute on the power play and over three minutes while being short-handed. Vaakanainen is a defensive defenseman but has some offensive talent and isn’t afraid to join the rush, and he’s a capable power play player as well. Eventually, I could see him becoming a Marc-Édouard Vlasic type player, although probably not quite as good as him. Vaakanainen probably needs another year of development but could make the NHL soon after that.

 

Ässät

 

Ässät finished the regular season eight in the league and they managed to beat Lukko in the Wild Card series, so they also moved on to the quarter-finals where they’re facing Kärpät. Their only interesting prospect is forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi (2018) who had 29 points in 57 games which puts him seventh on the all-time list among under-18 players. I have more about him at the end of this article.

 

Lukko

 

Lukko finished the regular season ninth in the league but they were beaten by Ässät, so their season is over. 21-year-old goaltender Kaapo Kähkönen (Wild) was a real workhorse for them this season, playing in 56 out of 60 games which was most in the league. His 2.20 goals-against-average was fifth best in the league and his 0.922 save percentage was fourth best, so Kähkönen was definitely one of the best goalies in the entire league this season. But the big work load probably started affecting him late in the season because his numbers started to drop, and during the Wild Card series he was almost a liability in net. Kähkönen is probably ready to make the jump to the AHL next season but the Wild have yet to sign him and they’ll lose his rights if he’s not signed by June first.

 

Ilves

 

Ilves finished the season 11th in the league which meant they didn’t make the playoffs at all. One interesting player on their roster is forward Joona Koppanen (Bruins). Koppanen is a natural center but was often used at wing in Liiga. At the World Juniors in Buffalo, Koppanen was playing center and impressed a lot of people with his play there. Koppanen has offensive talent but it will take some time before we start seeing more of it. The good news is that he’s defensively reliable and a huge kid, so he can play a bottom-six role in the NHL very easily. After his Liiga season was over, the Bruins assigned him to their AHL affiliate.

 

Another interesting prospect on their roster is winger Otto Koivula (Islanders). Koivula played his second full Liiga season and had 27 points in 53 games which is slightly lower than what he produced in his rookie season. Koivula is an interesting prospect because of his size and offensive talent but he’ll need lots of time to develop into an NHL player. Koivula signed his NHL contract yesterday and could cross the pond now.

 

Sport

 

Sport finished the season 15th in the league which is dead last. Sport was promoted from Mestis to Liiga just a few years ago, and their team is not very good for this level. One interesting player they have on their roster is defenseman Joni Tuulola (Blackhawks). Tuulola decided to change teams and go to Sport this season because he wanted to play bigger minutes, and that has definitely happened as his average ice time of 22:59 was seventh highest in the league. Those minutes included more than two and a half minutes on the power play and a little less than that while short-handed. Tuulola finished the season with 30 points in 58 games which was 10th best in the league among defensemen. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Blackhawks wanted him to play in the AHL next season but they need to sign him first.

 

Another interesting player on their roster is defenseman Robin Salo (Islanders). Salo was drafted in the second round last summer after a strong Liiga season where he scored 16 points in 54 games but he’s taken a step backwards this season and only managed five points in 43 games. His struggles could be partly caused by Tuulola joining the team because they’re similar type players but Tuulola is much further along in his development. Salo needs to take a big step forward next season to justify his high draft selection.

 

Rasmus Kupari vs Jesperi Kotkaniemi

 

This is by far the most common question I see regarding Liiga players – which one of these 2018 NHL draft eligible players is going to be better? Kupari started the season higher on most draft rankings but Kotkaniemi has been gaining ground and has passed Kupari on many rankings now. They’re both projected to go somewhere in the middle of the first round this summer.

 

Kotkaniemi has spent most of this season as a second line winger. He’s a natural center but hasn’t been playing that position this season in Liiga – although he played center at the U18 Five Nations tournament and apparently looked good there. Some are saying Kotkaniemi had an unfair advantage because his dad is on the coaching staff of his team – he was promoted to head coach mid-season – but to that I’d say it may have helped to start the season but Liiga is a professional league, so every player has to earn their place there. Kotkaniemi is not a great skater but his offensive production this season is undeniable.

 

Kupari has spent most of this season as the third line center for the top team in the league. He didn’t get any power play time in the first half of the season but has been getting some power play time in the second half. Kupari is a great skater with soft hands but it hasn’t translated to a lot of points yet. He didn’t play with a lot of talent on his line earlier in the season but when his team acquired Vesalainen late in the season and put him on Kupari’s line, his offensive game started to look better.

 

If we just look at numbers, Kotkaniemi is clearly above Kupari in all possible stats. But obviously stats are not everything when talking about 17-year-old kids. The center position is much more difficult compared to wing because it includes more defensive responsibilities, and Kupari has also played on the top team in the league which means there are less opportunities for him. I’d argue that Kupari has the better tools but Kotkaniemi has the numbers. Kupari also got to play at the World Juniors whereas Kotkaniemi didn’t make the team – although that was another odd omission from the team.

 

So which one is going to be better? I honestly don’t know. I would probably take Kotkaniemi as the safer choice but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kupari ended up being the better player in a few years. I wish I had a definite answer to this question but I don’t. But I hope I managed to at least clarify some of the questions you may have had about these two.

 

*

 

And that’s all for now. Feel free to add comments below – all kind of feedback is welcomed. You can also find me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.