We continue along with the NHL Draft Scout Series with a look at a country that has turned in some sensational drafts in recent years, and doesn’t look to be slowing down much: Finland. Marco Bombino of McKeen’s and @FINjrhockey joins us to discuss an extremely strong Finnish contingent for the 2017 NHL Draft.
Christian: With Finland coming off possibly their best draft in history, with three top five draft picks, and four first rounders overall, how does their follow-up draft class in 2017 look? With the 2017 class as a whole being regarded as “weak”, Finland’s looks pretty strong with a possibility of six or seven first rounders.
Marco: Finland’s draft class is overall very strong this year and in fact, I think it could end up being the best draft ever for Finland. Not only there will very likely be more first rounders than in 2016, but there is some extremely impressive depth in the draft class, especially among defensemen. I believe that this year there will be overall more picks than in 2016, when 15 Finns were selected. Compared to last year’s draft, I also lean more towards this year in terms of quality for the first few rounds.
C: Miro Heiskanen seems the consensus top Finn in the 2017 NHL Draft after a dominant end to the season that included a dynamite U18 tournament. He’s flown up the rankings, finishing third in McKeen’s final rankings. What kind of player is Heiskanen and what do you attribute to his sharp ascent?
M: Heiskanen has lots of two-way potential. He is an excellent skater with an effortless stride and great four-way mobility. Having terrific instincts and vision, he constantly makes simple, yet effective plays with the puck. He always seems to be in control, even under heavy forecheck pressure. He is also strong defensively, having a strong, quick stick and the ability to react to the developing play quickly.
I have seen him a lot over the past three seasons and the way he handled his role in the Liiga this season was very impressive. I had him as the second best draft eligible Finnish prospect at the start of the season, but after he to made an impact with HIFK and had a solid World Juniors tournament, he’s been my number one Finnish prospect ever since. He has the potential to develop into a very special player.
C: On the topic of defenceman with fluctuating rankings, Urho Vaakanainen has been a concern. Why the drop off for Vaakanainen and how do you project him?
M: I view Vaakanainen as one of the safest Finnish prospects in the draft. With his excellent mobility and sound positioning, he is very hard to get around. He has good gap control and plays an active game away from the puck. Offensively, he has good poise and can retrieve pucks pretty well. Occasionally, I would like to see him process the game more quickly with the puck.
I don’t see him becoming an elite offensive weapon at the NHL level. However, he got the job done defensively in the Liiga this season, plus there were improvements in his offensive game as the season progressed. With his move to SaiPa for the next season to play under his former junior coach, Vaakanainen will have much more responsibility and that could definitely give a boost to his offensive numbers. I think he has the tools to be a top four defenseman at the NHL level, although he may not become a top point producer.
C: Eeli Tolvanen has also seen a drop in his stock since the beginning of the season despite a strong season in the USHL. How do you like Tolvanen and might his size (5’10, 170 lbs.) drop him even further – possibly into the mid-teens – come draft day?
M: Tolvanen is undoubtly a terrific goal-scorer with an excellent, quick release and great scoring touch around the net. His offensive instincts and especially puck handling skills are high end. However, the highly skilled forward will need to improve his defensive game. For a smaller player, he wins puck battles at a surprisingly strong rate, but his positioning and play reading off the puck need a lot of work. He can look disinterested defensively at times, not showing much intensity nor skating hard when returning to the defensive zone. There are holes in his defensive game that need to be addressed. I’m certain that Tolvanen will be a first round pick given his fantastic offensive potential, but his lack of size and defensive reliability are areas of concern.
C: Kristian Vesalainen is a reasonably polarizing player as his results in the SHL and Liiga leave something to be desired, yet he torched the U18 tournament like it was nobody’s business. Where do you stand on Vesalainen and does he project as a top six NHL winger to you?
M: Vesalainen had a very rough season. He wasn’t getting ice time nor producing in the SHL. However, when he was loaned to HPK, he played better than his one goal indicates. The biggest issue was the lack of production in the final third, as was with Frölunda. However, he was absolutely dominant at the U18 World Championships and displayed great offensive tools and skating ability.
He has improved his mobility and speed drastically. He’s athletic, has good hands and a hard wrist shot. He is big, strong and built well for North American hockey. My biggest knock on his game is his hockey sense. He could utilize his linemates more effectively and carry the puck up the ice less himself. He is pretty good and aware without the puck but there’s room for improvement. I still think Vesalainen is worth a top 15 pick in the draft. I don’t see him having first line NHL potential, but think he could be more of a solid second liner, or at worst, a very good third liner.
C: Finland has been known as a goalie factory in recent years, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is seen by many as the next great product of the Finnish goalie machine. Luukkonen didn’t have a great draft year overall, though. How do you see Luukkonen and is he rightfully dubbed as the next great Finnish goalie?
M: I loved what I saw from Luukkonen in the U20 league. A butterfly goalie with good technique, he displayed great quickness and fluid movements, along with good reflexes. I liked his calm demeanor, he didn’t get rattled after allowing a bad goal. Rebound control was another plus in his game. Going forward, he must improve his puck handling skills in particular.
However, one thing to note is that HPK U20 played a really structured, strong defensive game and as a result, he did not face a lot of shots in every game. Additionally, I wasn’t as impressed with Luukkonen in the U18 national team, in my opinion he didn’t perform at the same level as with his club team. Nevertheless, I see Luukkonen as a second round pick with high NHL potential. Goalies take generally longer to develop but his game is already fairly polished.
C: Which Finnish draft eligible has been your biggest surprise this season?
M: 6’5 HPK defenseman Otto Latvala was by far the biggest surprise for me. When I first saw him in a preseason game a couple of years ago, he was lanky and extremely raw. But he has really elevated his game over the past two seasons, especially in the past nine months. He logged lots of minutes on the backend for HPK U20 and capped off the season by winning the championship.
Latvala was great defensively, playing a physical brand of hockey and using his long reach effectively to keep forwards to the perimeter. He has a good, heavy shot from the point. He is definitely not the flashiest of defensemen, but he has adequate puck skills and can move the puck under pressure. However, his overall mobility and foot speed will need to improve. I consider Latvala more of a long-term project who likely won’t play in the NHL anytime soon; however, as a versatile blueliner with two-way potential, there are many things to like about his game.
C: Who has been your biggest disappointment?
M: I expected much more from TPS winger Lauri Pajuniemi. He had some really impressive games when I saw him at the U18s, but he wasn’t able to take his game to the next level in the U20 league this season. While he possesses good first-step quickness, great hands and puck control in tight spaces, he was too inconsistent and a perimeter player. His decision making and intensity without the puck left me wanting more as well. He didn’t show enough offensively in my viewings to make warrant a high pick and it wouldn’t be a big surprise if he went undrafted.
C: If you had to choose a most overrated and most underrated Finnish prospect for this year’s draft, who would they be?
M: I think Kingston Frontenacs defenseman Eemeli Räsänen is the most overrated draft eligible Finn. He has improved significantly since his previous season in Finland. The hulking blueliner does a great job of using reach to intercept plays. He will play physically and with an edge. He has become more active offensively. However, I think he still has a ways to go as a prospect. His skating looks really clumsy. Aside from his heavy shot, I’m not a huge fan of his offensive game either. Some team will likely pick him in the first two rounds as the reward could be high, but whether Räsänen is able to reach his full potential is a question mark for me.
As for the most underrated Finnish prospect, I’ll go with Penn State University commit Aarne Talvitie. His game with Blues U20 improved fairly rapidly as the past season went on. He is not a flashy player who will wow you with fancy dekes. But he’s a gritty, strong skating character center. He plays with a high energy level in every shift and won’t shy away from battles. I like his attention to detail without the puck. He has an accurate wrist shot that features a quick release. The odds are very good that he will be selected in this year’s draft.
C: Lastly, who’s your favourite Finnish draft eligible and why?
M: Skilled, tenacious Frölunda center Joni Ikonen is my favorite Finnish player for this year’s draft. I watched him play quite a bit with Blues U18 in the 2014-15 season and he was great on the same line with Eeli Tolvanen, putting up points and displaying terrific puck possession skills. Moreover, Ikonen was excellent at the U18 World Championships in Slovakia in April this past season.
His first few strides have gotten quicker, allowing him to pull away from opponents more effectively and create more offense at high speed. He’s a high-volume shooter and possesses dazzling puck skills. He thinks the game at a high level, but could be even more effective if he made simpler decisions with the puck at times. In addition to his offensive skill set, I really like his active play away from the puck. While he needs to add more muscle, he’s a high-compete player and that helps him to consistently win puck battles. He’s a hard-nosed kid who does not quit on any play. In the upcoming SHL season, Ikonen will definitely challenge for a spot on Frölunda’s roster. I see him as a safe bet to be selected in the second round, if not in the late first round.