Liiga Report – November 2019

by Juha Rapanen on November 7, 2019

Almost two months of play in the Liiga has gone by, and in this article, I will go through the success and results of how the most interesting Finnish NHL prospects have done.

Jesse Ylönen, RW, Pelicans

The Montreal Canadiens prospect has had a rather slow start to his season with Pelicans. Ylönen has been one of the best forwards on his team defensively and is really good at making zone entries at Liiga level. His skating is as standout as always, and he can handle the puck well on higher speed. His team is going through a rough time right now, and it seems that it’s impossible to get a win right now. That has affected on Ylönen but this is the kind of stuff these prospects will learn to deal with when they are playing pro. Pelicans was in a similar situation also a year ago, so he has already some experience to deal with this.

Ylönen has started to find his way back to the net but is still having those off games offensively. This is the biggest thing that he needs to develop as a steady scorer. We could talk all day long about his great defensive playing and work ethic but Ylönen has a ceiling and it is higher than being just a depth guy who rarely scores.

I’m still expecting for him to find that offensive spark already this season but the start for the season has been somewhat a let-down. His point totals are fine with four goals and six assists in 18 games but for a player with his skill and potential it’s just not enough. Ylönen has taken 68 shots in those 18 games but he has started to shoot less lately, and it’s not a good sign. That usually comes and goes with confidence and he needs to find it.

Aku Räty, RW, Kärpät

The Arizona Coyotes prospect started his season with the U20 juniors. After that, he got his chance to play with men and ended up stealing the spot from Tuukka Tieksola to play professional games with Kärpät, as he was immediately more mature and reliable in his two-way game. Räty is not as skilled offensively but the role available fits better for him right now.

Aku Räty has put up two goals and two assists in 11 games, and half of his points are coming from the power play. At even strength, he is not the biggest threat on offensive zone, and his coach Manner has tried to boost that with giving him more ice time on a top six role with more skilled players. He hasn’t been successful in that role, though, and as Kärpät has been getting more skilled players to their system from other pro leagues during the season, his ice time and role will likely drop down again. Räty has to find a way to stay on the third line and really try to find his scoring there at some point also.

His hard work attitude and maturity on two-way game is one of his biggest strengths, and he has to keep playing like that. One missing element from his game is his shot. Aku is not the most lethal scorer and never has been one but he has to start firing at the net more often and really try to work on getting better with it. The fun part is that Liiga coaches have microphones on during commercial breaks, and this is the stuff his coach Mikko Manner has been telling him constantly. His offensive game should get going when he can make it more well-rounded. His options are somewhat limited but with the right guy next to him he looks like a totally new player. That happened with his little brother Aatu Räty (2021 draft) centering him earlier in the season. Aku should find a way get his game going with other players too but he is a depth player who does a solid job in his own role. That is what I like to see from him right now.

Lauri Pajuniemi, RW, TPS

The New York Rangers prospect has been in a tough spot from first game on this season. His team TPS has been a total disaster in the Liiga but Pajuniemi has found a way to score goals and shine. Pajuniemi has been scoring a lot from left side half-wall with a lethal one-timer, and the right-handed shot winger has looked real good at even strength too.

 

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Pajuniemi is really strong with the puck and can protect it well. He knows how to find a way to make plays that end up going to the net most times even thought his point totals overall aren’t so high. I’ve really started to appreciate Pajuniemi’s game lately and he really is the only positive thing that comes out from his team right now.

Pajuniemi has put up six goals and one assist in 17 games but the assists will come. He plays next to skilled guys who haven’t been able to score on their normal level but that will change. TPS fired their head coach and under their new man, the team performed a lot better despite losing the game. That gives a lot hope for Pajuniemi as their playing system will be fixed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pajuniemi would have 20 goals after the season ends if he just keeps playing like he has.

Matias Maccelli, LW, Ilves

The Arizona Coyotes prospect has started his Liiga season really well. His team Ilves really struggled in their first 10 games and ended up firing their coach Karri Kivi. Even when Ilves was doing badly, Maccelli was looking brilliant. He did not get as many points after his first game but he has get his scoring going again and it’s no wonder.

Maccelli has been insanely fun player to watch as he is being constantly flashy. He seems to always know what to do with the puck and his decision-making is high quality right now. Maccelli has become a force at making zone entries, and is exceptional on the power play. He has put up 14 points in 14 games and he has been rather unlucky with not getting more goals and assists.

When Maccelli’s plays don’t end up on score sheet, it usually looks something like this:

 

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Maccelli is not the biggest guy but he has shown that he can hang on to pucks against men and their physical play. His edge work stands out in Liiga and he really can get out of pressure with ease. The way he moves and spins away with the puck under the pressure reminds me of Mathew Barzal.

Without the puck, he has still a lot to learn and especially in his own zone. Positioning is not the greatest yet but there is already some improvement. Maccelli’s work ethic has grown from game to game and he really has started to use his wheels to backcheck more often. No wonder he is starting to get more love from his new coach and sees more ice time, and he is average time is slightly over 16 minutes per game. If I had to choose it, Maccelli would be the rookie of the month in Liiga.

Oskari Laaksonen, D, Ilves

The Buffalo Sabres prospect is one tough luck kid. I still would not call him injury prone, and he has been honestly very unlucky with his injuries. He played first 11 games with Ilves and just managed to lock his spot as their number one defenseman before getting hurt. Laaksonen has shown maturity, and what has stood out the most is his decision-making in own end.

Laaksonen has gotten physically much more mature and he is strong at battling for pucks. He has always been strong with his stick but right now, it’s on a new level. Laaksonen seems to win most of his battles, and what’s important is that he has learnt the option to make easy short passes when opening the game. He still can move the puck over the blue line with his great skating ability and individual skill but is not forcing it when there’s no need.

The good news right now is that Ilves has taken Laaksonen out from their list of injuries so he should be ready to play soon again. Ilves has the best power play in the Liiga, and that should only get better when Laaksonen gets back. He has developed his shot in the summer and he can blast the puck from long distance. As for now, we’ll wait for his return and keep telling his story as the season progresses.

Lassi Thomson, D, Ilves

The Ottawa Senators prospect has had similar story like his teammate Laaksonen. Season started well but after getting his game going an injury occurred. Thomson scored three goals and three assists in 14 games before getting hurt. He has had some growing pains on pro level. In his own end, the puck battles have been a struggle at times and he gets in a rush when opening the plays.

There is much to learn especially in his own end but that should turn out ok just with getting more confidence. Thomson started the season on first pair and ended up dropping down to third. That has not been a bad thing as he still gets a lot of power play time, and he will get his top four minutes soon after he gets back. Right now, he is averaging over 15 minutes per game and that is not too bad.

Offensively Thomson has been fun guy to watch as he likes to use his quality shot a lot. Thomson has registered 54 shots. Most of his shots have come on the power play but he is constantly looking for lanes at even strength also. You can see his underlying skill right under there but it will come out when Thomson gets more used to playing on this level. We will get to enjoy scoring more in the future for sure.

 

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Valtteri Puustinen, RW, HPK

The Pittsburgh Penguins prospect has started his season hot and has stayed like that. The small sized winger has dragged his team from the first game on, and his hockey sense and decision-making have been high-end. At the even strength, Puustinen has been really good all around the ice. He has put up seven goals and seven assists in 18 games and is a constant threat in the offensive end. His shot is above average, and he really likes to use it to keep his playmaking more deceptive as you never know if he will shoot or keep making plays. His mindset is something that every young player should have in that sense. Deception is on such great value in the offensive end.

Puustinen likes to play under the radar with his game but he definitely knows how to and can be as flashy as anyone else:

 

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He does not have any weakness with playing the game but it’s his physical traits that are holding him back. His skating and explosiveness are lacking, and that’s the biggest issue I have with him if we talk about his future.

Right now, he looks somewhat similar to Mikael Granlund back in the day he was still playing in Liiga. Lacking same way with skating and physicality but the high understanding of the game and playmaking skills standing out. On this level, Puustinen is a force and will stay that way but I want to see him developing his physical traits, and with Liiga’s lower amount of games than AHL for example, he should stay in Finland and focus working on the athletic side of things. Points-wise, he should keep going like he has, and 20+ goals and 30+ assists should not be too far of a reach.

Anttoni Honka, D, JYP

The Carolina Hurricanes prospect has seen his ups and downs since beginning the season with JYP. Honka was totally lost in his own zone for at least the first 10 games of the season but the team and coaching staff have been thinking long-term and have given him the chances to keep playing bigger minutes through every game. Honka is seeing top four minutes and right now, he actually has started to look solid. He is far from perfect still in his own end but is not a total disaster anymore.

After his brother Julius came back to Finland from Dallas Stars, Anttoni looks like he has grown a couple of inches physically also. It’s pretty incredible to see how much the level of playing will change with confidence.

 

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In the offensive end, Honka has put up a lot of assists even though most of them are secondary. That is actually a positive sign in his game and he really has not been forcing the plays all by himself. Now that Honka has more variation, he has become a lot better overall. The offensive ceiling is so high that the point totals will only keep growing. Right now he is at eight points in 19 games, and those are really good numbers for his age in Liiga. Lately he’s been on fire, and in his last five games he has put up five points. He will not be a point-per-game player from now on but right now the things are happening that are supposed to with his skillset. It’s good to see him scoring a lot but what I’m happy about is that his defensive game is getting better. That is the most crucial part considering his future, and as his defensive game gets better, so will the point production. This long-term project looks more promising than ever, and that’s money for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Thank you for reading,
Juha Rapanen