Liiga Report – September 2019

by Juha Rapanen on September 18, 2019

 

The new season in the Finnish Liiga has started. We are going to cover how the most interesting NHL prospects in Finland will progress during the season. In this first report, I will give an overall look of the players, and will make projections for the upcoming season on their playing and development.

 

Liiga has worked wonders for many of today’s NHL players like Mikko Rantanen, Sebastian Aho and Aleksander Barkov. All of them have benefitted from playing on a professional level against men at a young age. Learning to play an all-around game and be a reliable two-way player will always be a good thing. The trend seems to be the same with more and more Finnish players getting drafted.

 

Leevi Aaltonen, W, KalPa (New York Rangers)

 

Aaltonen, a fifth round pick this summer, is a left-handed winger who is a high-end skater and has a nose for the net. Aaltonen is more of a goal-scorer than a playmaker but he can also make nifty passes. He was thought to be a potential first-rounder earlier in his career but his game instincts have not developed as well as his skating and other abilities. He is a smaller sized player but Aaltonen does not shy away from physical battles. He is not the best at protecting the puck but his speed gives him an advantage to avoid most of those situations. As he gains more strength and muscle, I believe he is going to do well on that area too with the hard work attitude he has.

 

The biggest “issue” I have with Aaltonen is his decision-making. Aaltonen has shoot-first mentality and he usually ends up rushing plays too often. For example, on the power play, he ends up shooting from too far, and puck-possession is lost too often on weak scoring chances. Aaltonen needs to get his confidence up because he has all the tools to compete with his speed and puck-handling skills. I’m expecting that he cracks himself into a top-six role as the season progresses. If Aaltonen stays healthy, he should be able to put up around 10 goals and 15 assists. He won’t be ready for the NHL until after a couple of pro seasons in Europe.

 

Joni Ikonen, C, KalPa (Montreal Canadiens)

 

Ikonen, a second-round pick from 2017, is a right-handed center who can outsmart players in the rink to make beautiful plays and get his team going. His last season was a letdown but not because of bad playing. Ikonen had a broken season because of many injuries he had after being drafted. Those have affected his stock in a negative way for certain, and his development has slown down since he hasn’t been able to play enough games. Most of his time has gone to conditioning and he has put up enough hours in the gym for now. Still, the hockey smart to make great decisions on the ice is there. In terms of his future, the upcoming Liiga season will have a huge impact on his future. Ikonen will start as second line center, like he did last season. In 13 games he played, Ikonen scored impressive five goals and five assists.

 

Ikonen has always been a very smart player and that will be a key for his success in the future. He really has to stay healthy in the future and start to produce points more consistently. Although he might not be able to keep up the same points-per-game pace he had last season, I believe he should get close to 40 points over a full Liiga season.

 

Jesse Ylönen, W, Pelicans (Montreal Canadiens)

 

Ylönen, a second-round pick from 2018, is a speedy right-handed winger with great skills to finish plays by himself. Ylönen was already a great scoring threat on Mestis level on his draft year, scoring 14 goals and 13 assists. After that, he posted his first full Liiga season with 13 goals and 14 assists last season, ending up with as many points on a higher level. Ylönen had a rather slow start to the season but after winning gold at the World Junior Championship, he really started to produce more goals. When the playoffs started and games got more physical, Ylönen started to get out of the picture as it comes to point producing. On the positive side, his two-way game really matured during last season and he became one of the most important players for Pelicans during penalty kill and on last minutes of the games protecting the lead. Pelicans head coach Ville Nieminen also praised the effort of Ylönen on how well he played without the puck and how hard he worked on back-checking.

 

Ylönen was Pelicans’ top scorer during the preseason and started well with the team at the Champions Hockey League. He has forced himself into a top-six role already, and he can also push for top line minutes. What I would prefer to see from him is more power play points as he gets a lot of minutes there but still, he hasn’t been the most productive on that part of the game. If he can find a way to score on the man advantage, he would probably start producing consistently. In my books, Ylönen should have a full breakout season, especially with his scoring ability.

 

Tuukka Tieksola, W, Kärpät (Carolina Hurricanes)

 

Tieksola, a fourth-round pick this summer, is a highly intelligent hockey player with great vision and puck-handling skill. Tieksola played a great season for Kärpät U20 last season, and he improved more than anyone had expected during the year. The smart kid should push himself into a regular Liiga player this season. Unfortunately, there is not too much space on the Kärpät team because their depth is insane. For his development’s sake, a loan contract to another team would work great but I doubt it ever happens.

 

Tieksola has shown that he is ready to play with men and that he excels against them. Tieksola was already stellar in the CHL games he played. On the last one, he gave a primary assist with a beautiful play before setting up Kärpät to tie the game. Later on, he scored a goal in the shootout with a slick move. If Tieksola manages to get a roster spot with Kärpät, he will most likely play on the third line and get second power play minutes. In my opinion that would work out great for Kärpät also, as he has shown already that he can be the best player on the team at times. It’s hard to project Tieksola’s point totals as he might also end up playing some games in the juniors but I strongly believe that he will find his way to play with men this season. If that happens, Tieksola should be able to score consistently at least half a point per game.

 

Aku Räty, W, Kärpät (Arizona Coyotes)

 

Räty, a fifth-round pick this summer, is a right-handed winger who plays a smart two-way game. Räty will try to push himself into Kärpät’s roster at the men’s level but that will be very unlikely unless injuries occur. With Kärpät’s depth, there is basically no space at all, and fighting for ice time with Tieksola seems to be a battle he already lost. I believe Räty will see more games on junior level in the upcoming season. A lot of ice time and more time to practice might be just the thing he needs to get his game going on a new level. Unlike Tieksola, he hasn’t completely dominated the U20 league yet either.

 

He should add up a dominant year on every aspect of the game against juniors and get his confidence going. I believe that in a year, he will be ready to play a full season against men with Kärpät.

 

Lauri Pajuniemi, W, TPS (New York Rangers)

 

Pajuniemi, a fifth-round pick from 2018, is a right-handed winger who plays a hard-working game and has good skill set. Pajuniemi has good puck-handling skills, and he loves to drive the play with puck on his stick. On a professional level, he hasn’t been a steady producer yet but this preseason showed that he is ready to take more role offensively. Pajuniemi has been a really solid two-way player on his professional career so far and his positioning has always been good without the puck. He is a good skater with solid speed and real good edge work which makes him good at protecting the puck, and he can keep plays going.

 

His hockey IQ and decision-making has not been the greatest in the offensive zone as he likes hanging on to pucks for too long and missing making better overall plays. He should be able to drive the play more directly to the net and more often. Pajuniemi also possesses a heavy and a quick wrister that he should use more consistently.

 

Based on TPS’ preseason, Pajuniemi has locked himself into a top line role and he will also see a lot of power play minutes. That being said, I’m expecting that Pajuniemi starts to finally show the offensive potential in him. He should crack 30 points this season and be a steady goal-scorer.

 

Lenni Killinen, W, Ässät (Carolina Hurricanes)

 

Killinen, a fourth-round pick in 2018, is a skilled left-handed winger who has a nose for the net, and he battles hard through every play. Killinen was great last season for Ässät despite missing a lot of games while being injured. Killinen tallied 11 points in 32 games on his first season at the pro level where he was used in a smaller role. Killinen plays a fast-paced game, and his work ethic is something to adore. He is a really strong skater and can protect the puck well. His game is simplified in a smart way, and that looks already a fit for North American play in the future, as he is a hard worker against the boards and always finds the way to the net with ease.

 

Killinen played really well during this preseason for Ässät. He was also impressive at the World Junior Summer Showcase where he tallied five points in seven games. However, he has his problems in the game. Those are the same with most of youngsters usually, he needs to produce offense more consistently, and his defensive game will have to adapt more to match pro level. Killinen will get a lot of ice time with Ässät, and he is a lock for top-six role with power play time. Killinen is one of those guys that I believe will excel this season as a goal-scorer. He can definitely finish plays in front of the net, and I have liked his effort so far a lot. 15 to 20 goals should be a possibility for him.

 

Otto Kivenmäki, C, Ässät (Detroit Red Wings)

 

Kivenmäki, a seventh-round pick in 2018, is a left-handed center who plays a really smart game and sees the ice well. His size and strength are obvious weaknesses but he doesn’t shy away from physical battles. Kivenmäki is strong on his skates and has good edge work which helps him hang on to the puck even on higher pressure.

 

Playing last season with Ässät, Kivenmäki put up good point totals as he produced 16 points in 34 games. A notable mention on that is also the fact that Ässät was one of the worst teams in Liiga last season, and they really struggled with scoring goals. In that sense, I see his point totals even better because he had to work really hard to make and get more scoring chances. On the upcoming season, I’m expecting that Kivenmäki will produce at least the same pace and play the whole season for Ässät.

 

Patrik Puistola, W, Tappara (Carolina Hurricanes)

 

Puistola, a third-round pick this summer, is a left-handed winger with high-end skills and great vision. Puistola possesses a real good shot with quick release, and he reads the game better than most in the offensive zone. Puistola had really impressive season with LeKi on Mestis where he scored 15 goals and put up 11 assists in 22 games. Puistola is a real promising forward with top-six potential because of all the raw skill and hockey smarts he has. However, there are some things that may slow him down. The threat I see here is him being Tappara’s contract player.

 

Puistola got to play with Tappara’s men’s team this preseason but his ice time was very limited and he was benched in a couple games. Same story on CHL games also. Despite the very limited ice time, he managed to get a primary assist, and he looked good throughout the games. However, he looked frustrated and upset during the games as he was sitting on the bench mostly. A loan contract would work great for his career right now. Puistola should get into top-six role playing big minutes and get to show his tremendous skill on the power play. With the situation he is in with Tappara, it’s hard to project any point or goal totals for the upcoming season. But if he gets the role and ice time he needs, he is a force in Liiga already.

 

Anttoni Honka, D, JYP (Carolina Hurricanes)

 

Honka, a third round pick this summer, is a right-handed, fairly small defender who definitely has wheels. He has high ceiling when it comes to offensive game but then it gets trickier. To be honest, Honka has been somewhat of a disaster in his own end which considers me a lot thinking about his future. He also did not take many steps progressing forward in his career during last year.

 

Honka really likes to be the puck-moving defenseman who can even force zone entries by himself carrying the puck. Other than that, he makes way too many high risk, low reward decisions all around the ice. Honka has to adapt to a professional game in the upcoming years and he has to start making better decisions with and without the puck. He is not the strongest player and he can’t keep good gaps to opponents while defending but that should improve when he gets more experience and gains some weight.

 

In the upcoming season, I’m expecting that Honka would take steps in terms of his defensive game. His offensive skills and playing is already there but he constantly makes me nervous when he plays the puck on the blueline. I like his overall potential but his defensive game has to step up a lot to even convince me to believe he ever makes it to the NHL.

 

Matias Maccelli, W, Ilves (Arizona Coyotes)

 

Maccelli, a fourth-round pick this summer, is a left-handed winger with great offensive tools. The skilled offensive player sees the ice well and finishes plays effectively. Maccelli played a real impressive season in the USHL with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. He was third in point totals in the whole league. Maccelli is not the fastest skater and he sometimes lacks effort in his all-around game, and that needs to improve. Maccelli came back to Finland to play for Ilves and to learn the pro game. Oh boy did he start the preseason well, Maccelli scored four goals in his debut game and really showed his potential in the offensive zone. However, his role dropped down eventually because of his lacking two-way game. Maccelli needs to learn that he has to work hard in every shift and not just in the offensive zone.

 

Maccelli has to crack himself into a top-six role as the season progresses. Before that happens, he has to learn how to work hard for full 60 minutes. Puck possession is so important in today’s hockey that the defensive playing can’t be overlooked. Maccelli will start the season in the fourth line and will get more ice time on second power play unit. I believe that before New Year, he is a regular in second line, and he will get his chances to prove himself on a top line role. I’m expecting that Maccelli will produce 35+ points this season, and that his pace in scoring will accelerate as the season progresses.

 

Oskari Laaksonen, D, Ilves (Buffalo Sabres)

 

Laaksonen, a third-round pick from 2017, is a right-handed, offensively skilled defenseman who can move the puck really well. Laaksonen is a high-end skater, and he plays a smart overall game. Last season, he still showed some rookie mistakes with his decision-making but it got a lot better. Laaksonen earned himself more name-recognition last season as he put up 24 points in 46 games with Ilves. Last year, he still looked like a kid playing against men because the lack of strength, and he had problems positioning properly in his own end. Anyhow, you could see how well his offensive game excelled and how much he also progressed in the own end as he gained more confidence.

 

With the upcoming season, Laaksonen is a lock for top pair role, and he already looked amazing during the preseason. He has had a real good summer and you could see immediate change in his physical game and better defensive play overall. I’m a strong believer in Laaksonen and I say that he will put up around 40 points in the upcoming season being a lethal force in Liiga.

 

Lassi Thomson, D, Ilves (Ottawa Senators)

 

Thomson, a first-round pick from this summer, is a right-handed offensive defender with good skating. He sees the ice well and possesses a hard and accurate one-timer. Thomson is also really good at getting pucks through to the net even with traffic in front. Thomson played a breakout season with Kelowna Rockets in the WHL where he put up impressive 17 goals and 24 assists. His career will continue in Finland with Ilves on a professional level.

 

Thomson started the preseason with Ilves on a top four role. He is still adjusting to playing against men but he has looked better game after game. He got a shot at playing a top pair role and got some power play time which ended up with him immediately scoring his first goal with Ilves. Thomson’s offensive upside is something to admire but his two-way game needs to develop to match the level of pro games. He looks solid already physically and he always hits hard if he has the chance. Thomson will play in a top four role for Ilves but as the season progresses, he should see some time also on the first pair. I believe Thomson is going to get around 30 points this season because of his offensive upside.

 

Henri Nikkanen, C, Jukurit (Winnipeg Jets)

 

Nikkanen, a fourth-round pick this summer, is a left-handed center with good size. He was thought to be a potential first-rounder before his stock went down with injuries. However, the potential in him is still there. Nikkanen is a strong skater who plays an offensive game. He is a big-bodied power forward who drives the game hard to the net. Nikkanen plays a solid two-way game but his hockey IQ and decision-making has not always been the greatest. That being said, he plays a simplified game that looks to fit better in North American ice already than in Europe. I really like his work ethic, and despite his injuries, I believe that he is going to have a strong season in Liiga after he settles back into everyday hockey.

 

Nikkanen has started the season with Jukurit U20 team, and he will also see more games on that level during the season. It won’t last too long as he is there just getting used to playing regularly again. Nikkanen will get a third center role at first but I believe he will be a top-six center after New Year. I’m expecting that Nikkanen will put up around 10 goals and 15 assists in the upcoming Liiga season. Like with most others, I believe his point totals will accelerate as the season progresses and he gets his confidence going.

 

Mikko Kokkonen, D, Jukurit (Toronto Maple Leafs)

 

Kokkonen, a third-round pick from this summer, is a left-handed puck-moving defenseman who plays a real smart and mature game despite his young age. Kokkonen has developed really well physically, and he is always reliable in his own end. Kokkonen is relatively small as he is only 5-foot-11 but he is really strong on his skates and wins puck battles. He moves the puck quickly and safely with easy passes to progress the game with pace. His offensive end of the game is overlooked quite easily but Kokkonen can definitely distribute the puck to the net well with his quick release. I believe his decision-making in the offensive zone will get better with confidence and age.

 

In his first full season with Jukurit, he put up a solid amount of points as he produced more than, for example, Miro Heiskanen at the same age. I doubt Kokkonen will ever become nearly as good a player but his offensive upside is there. I believe Kokkonen will put up even more points this season and he will get into top pair role and top power play time. It will take some years before he is ready for the next level but I believe Kokkonen will surprise most of hockey folk as the time goes on.

 

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Thank you for reading.

 

Juha Rapanen (@jrabane)

 

 

Images used on the main collage courtesy of Liiga.fi