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Vatanen taking advantage of his time on the big stage

Saturday, 06.13.2009 / 9:00 AM / 2009 NHL Entry Draft

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

"I don't (rush the puck) so often, but when I see an opportunity, I take it if it's necessary. I had a lot of success on the power play. I tried to give the puck to players who score goals and shoot if I had a good chance."
-- Sami Vatanen

Sami Vatanen is on a roll. The native of Jyvaskyla, Finland, rose from the No. 20 European skater in Central Scouting's midseason rankings to No. 16 by season's end. He's the top-rated Finnish defenseman and he was one of the standouts in physical testing at the 2009 Scouting Combine in Toronto.

He captained Finland to a bronze medal at the World Under-18 Championship in Fargo, N.D., finishing with 5 assists and a plus-6 rating. He also led Finland to the Three Nations Tournament title in Minsk, Belarus, in early April. Vatanen's 3-goal, 5-point game in a victory against Belarus was the top individual performance by a Finn at the tourney.

Vatanen has played the past two seasons with his hometown Jyvaskyla Jyps junior team. He had 38 points in 35 games last season, and 3 goals and 10 points in 20 games in 2008-09.

Vatanen is a little undersized at 5-foot-9 and 163 pounds, but he tested well at the Combine in core-body strength and stamina -- he did the best of any prospect on the VO2 Max bike test, which measures a player's aerobic fitness and endurance, and his 72 curl-ups were more than triple the combine average.

He's an excellent skater with great passing skills who can control the pace of play and makes great outlet passes from his own zone.

An intelligent young man, Vatanen is comfortable speaking English, just another way he made a great impression at the Combine.

"I try to be a very offensive defenseman and at the same time stay in my own zone as well as I can," Vatanen said. "I don't (rush the puck) so often, but when I see an opportunity, I take it if it's necessary. I had a lot of success on the power play. I tried to give the puck to players who score goals and shoot if I had a good chance.

"I think I can play all roles that the coach gave me. I don't care if I play defense all the time. At the same time, I can play offense."

NHL Director of European Scouting Goren Stubb compared Vatanen to Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall. Vatanen, though, sees a better comparison to slick-skating, puck-moving NHL defensemen Brian Rafalski and Scott Niedermayer.

"I've watched a lot of Rafalski and Niedermayer. I like them more," Vatanen said. "I'm pretty small, but I don't think that matters. It's all about your heart and how you win the battles.

"I think I'm very quick with my skates. Whether I am skating backwards or forwards, I think I'm very fast. The skating and hockey sense are my best attributes. I'm good with the first pass out of our zone and I worked hard to develop a good shot.

"When I was a little younger, I would spend maybe seven hours a day playing hockey with my friends. If you like hockey, Finland is a great place to live because we have so many rinks."

Vatanen gets high marks from fellow Finnish national team player Joonas Nattinen, Central Scouting's No. 10-ranked European skater and a fellow native of Jyvaskyla.

"He plays a different kind of defense," Nattinen said. "He loves to keep the puck and he makes good decisions with it. He gives good passes to the forwards and he's really an amazing player."
"He loves to keep the puck and he makes good decisions with it. He gives good passes to the forwards and he's really an amazing player." -- Joonas Nattinen on teammate, Sami Vatanen
Vatanen thinks showing courage is important for a defenseman and he thinks he has good leadership skills, an impression bolstered at the Under-18s. He was pleased with his performance and believes he ranks with the world's best players his age.

"I think I played a very good tournament and it gives you a lot of confidence when you see that you can be as good as they are," Vatanen said.

Vatanen expects to be promoted to the Jyvaskyla team in the top Finnish league next season. That team will carry a heavy load in trying to repeat as league champion, something it had never done before. Vatanen was asked if that will make him feel a little more pressure.

"Yes, the title was the first in the history in Jyvaskyla so it's important to get that again," Vatanen said. "I think I would like that."

Contact John McGourty at jmcgourty@nhl.com