In recent years, Finnish hockey has been in a bit of down cycle in terms of producing highly-touted players selected in the first round of the NHL Draft. Dating back to 2006, a grand total of three Finnish players have been selected in the first round.
In 2006, the Tampa Bay Lightning chose Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL) goaltender Riku Helenius with the 15th pick. There were no Finnish first-rounder selections in 2007, 2008 or 2009. Two years ago, the Minnesota Wild picked HIFK Helsinki center Mikael Granlund at No. 9. Last year, Buffalo used the 16th pick to choose Assat Pori right wing Joel Armia.
This year, there is likely to be a pair of Finns picked in the first round. Jokerit Helsinki left wing Teuvo Teravainen (ranked second among European skaters by Central Scouting) could go within the top 10, while London Knights (OHL) defenseman Olli Maatta is ranked eighth among European skaters and is expected to be chosen in the middle or latter stages of the opening round.
In the meantime, there's no shortage of Finnish sleeper prospects available this year. Fittingly, in a draft class generally dominated by defensemen, the remaining group is led by four defensemen, one goaltender and a re-entry forward originally chosen in 2010.
Ranked seventh among European skaters, Karpat Oulu defenseman Ville Pokka is already a regular starter in the SM-liiga and played at the 2012 World Junior Championship (one goal, four points in seven games) as well as the Under-18 Worlds (one goal, six points). A Western Conference scout compared his NHL upside to that of countryman Toni Lydman.
A smooth puck-moving defenseman with a right-handed shot, Pokka is not flashy but gets the job done. Although he is not especially aggressive in the physical department, the 6-foot, 196-pound defenseman does not shy away from contact.
Pokka started 35 games for Karpat's senior team this past season, recording three assists and 12 penalty minutes. The 18-year-old is likely to remain in Finland for two or three more seasons, and has already signed a contract extension for next season with Karpat.
Esa Lindell, whom Central Scouting ranked 12th among European skaters, has yet to play an SM-liiga game for Jokerit but is coming off one of the best Junior A seasons of any defenseman in recent years. A dominating force for the Jokerit Under-20 team, Lindell took league MVP honors and led all blueliners in goals (21), assists (30) and points (50) in his 48 regular season games. Lindell added seven points in 11 playoff games as the Jokerit juniors lost in the finals, and then compiled 6 points in 7 games for Team Finland at the Under-18 Worlds.
Size is not an issue for the 6-foot-2, 190-pound rearguard. However, there are several areas of his game that need further refinement and may push him toward the middle rounds of the draft.
"He needs to continue to improve his skating and pick up the pacing of his game, because each level higher there is less time and space to make plays," said a Western Conference scout. "There is also some work he needs away from the puck. I know he had the big scoring stats, but I think if he's going to make it to the NHL he will need to be more of a two-way defenseman. He does have a heavy shot and has improved in a lot of ways over the last year."
The captain of Finland Under-18 World Junior Championship team, HIFK defenseman Mikko Vainonen is ranked 11th among European skaters in the final Central Scouting ratings. A sturdy defensive-minded blueliner, Vainonen suited up in eight regular season SM-liiga games this past season as well as 48 combined regular season and playoff games for HIFK's championship-winning Under-20 team. He had four assists in seven games at the Under-18 Worlds.
"He has size (6-foot-3, 207 pounds) and is also a pretty good skater," said the scout. "He usually keeps his game pretty simple, and that's where he's effective. He makes a good first pass out of the zone and doesn't panic when he's under pressure. He's not someone you'll see on a power play in the NHL, but he could become a good penalty killer and shot blocker."
Niklas Tikkinen, Central Scouting's 17th-ranked European skater, is a different type of defenseman than Vainonen. A natural forward who was converted to defense this season, the 5-foot-11, 172 pound is one of the best pure skaters in this year's draft. An adept puckhandler and passer, Tikkinen excels at playmaking and likes to pinch up on the play.
Tikkinen, who plays in the Espoo Blues system, has yet to appear in the SM-liiga. This past season, he dressed in a combined 43 regular season and playoff games for the Blues' Under-20 team (8 goals, 24 points) as well as a combined 16 regular season and playoff games for the Under-18 squad (5 goals, 22 points). At the end of the season, he was selected to represent Finland at the Under-18 Worlds, recording a pair of assists.
"Good skills, but he's undersized and very raw," said the scout. "I'm not sure he'll be ready for SM-liiga at the start of next season, but he has potential. He needs to get much stronger physically and continue to improve with and without the puck in the defensive zone. Good offensive instincts and a good shot release, but I don't think he'll be a big scorer as he moves up."
Tikkinen closed the 2011-12 season with a rush, winning Junior-A SM-liiga Young Player of the Month honors for the month of February. When his U20 season was over, he played a key role in the U18 team reaching the final round of the playoffs.
Over the last dozen years, Finnish hockey has been best known for producing bushels of NHL goaltending prospects. While the quantity of goaltending prospects coming over from Finland has slowed somewhat over the last few years, there is still no shortage of good young netminders in the pipeline.
Arguably, the best of the bunch available in 2012 is Jokerit goaltending prospect Joonas Korpisalo. Ranked third among European goaltenders by Central Scouting, the 6-foot-3 Korpisalo has both the big frame and natural athleticism NHL teams covet nowadays. The son of iconic Assat Pori winger Joni Korpisalo (who spent all but two of his 15 pro seasons in Pori and whose number has been retired by the club), the younger and much larger Korpisalo has sought a separate path to success.
A classic butterfly goaltender with a quick glove and fast recovery time, Korpisalo started 38 games for Jokerit's Under-20 team this past season. He posted a 2.04 goals-against average and .920 save percentage with four shutouts. After his Finnish season ended, Korpisalo appeared in six games (3.02 GAA, .902 save percentage) at the Under-18 Worlds. He may opt to play next season for a North American junior team to begin acclimating himself to the small-rink game.
Beyond the highly-touted Teravainen, there is not much in the way of highly-skilled Finnish forwards available. KalPa Kuopio center Henri Ikonen, who posted 45 points (17 goals and 28 points) in 35 regular season matches at the U20 level and appeared in eight SM-liiga games, is the next highest rated Finnish forward in Central Scouting's final rankings. Ikonen is ranked 22nd among European skaters and is likely to be chosen in the later rounds of the draft if he's selected at all this year.
Perhaps the most advanced Finnish forward available outside Teravainen is Karpat Oulu right wing Joonas Donskoi. Originally selected by the Florida Panthers in the fourth round (No. 99) of the 2010 Draft, Donskoi was not signed to an entry-level contract by the June 1 deadline and became eligible for re-selection.
Hailing from the northern Finnish village of Raahe (hometown of former NHL defenseman Janne Niinimaa), Donskoi has been a regular SM-liiga starter for Karpat the last two seasons. He did not play as well in 2011-12 as he did the previous season when he tallied 16 goals in 52 games, but he closed the campaign with a solid playoff performance. Donskoi, who turned 20 on April 13, has also appeared for Finland in each of the last two World Junior Championships. The 6-foot, 187 pound winger recorded a pair of goals and three assists in seven games while serving as one of his team's alternate captains at the 2012 tournament.
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