Special to AnaheimDucks.com
|Vatanen, a fourth-round pick by the Ducks in 2009, is captaining Finland in the World Junior Championship. |
BUFFALO – Sami Vatanen
was a five-year-old just learning how to play hockey in central Finland when he came across a hit movie called The Mighty Ducks.
The film left such a strong impression that for as long as he can remember, he has considered himself a rabid Anaheim Ducks fan. And when he got a little older and more involved in the sport, his affinity for the club grew even stronger because he idolized Scott Niedermayer. He saw himself as having a similar stature and playing style to the former Duck great.
So imagine Vatanen’s excitement when he was not only picked in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL entry draft, but it was Anaheim that chose him.
“It was such a dream come true,” said the 19-year-old, who is in Buffalo right now for the World Junior Championship, as captain of Team Finland. “The Ducks were always my favorite team and I really liked Niedermayer. He was (an) offensive defenseman and I like that. I watched his games and I saw a lot of my game in his game.”
The native of Jyvaskyla is playing for his hometown team in the country’s top league this season. He had eight goals and 13 assists in 32 games before being plucked to join the junior national squad for a few weeks.
“I am getting all the time better,” he said. “That’s my one mission, to get better and better all the time. It’s going so fast, big jumps I have taken in a few years. I’m getting a bigger role on the team and I play about 22 minutes (a game) there so I’m very happy about that.”
Still, he realizes he’s not quite ready to make the Ducks roster, though he hopes that perhaps as early as next year he might be able to.
“I have to get a little bit more muscle before I can come here and try because I’m not so big yet. I’ve got to go in the gym and do some workouts. And of course there’s a lot of more of what I have to do (to be) better in defense, so I’ve got to get all of them better and better,” said the 5-foot-9, 163 pounder, whose fitness and endurance tests were off the charts at the at the 2009 Scouting Combine.Watch Vatanen's two amazing goals in last year's World Juniors
|“Last year Vatanen was great but this year he is even better,” said Finland’s junior national team coach, Lauri Marjamaki. “He’s playing a little bit smarter than earlier. Now he is better at penalty killing, defensive zone, and he’s going to be a pretty good player in the NHL in about two years.” |
At the World Junior tournament – which features the best Under-20 hockey players from 10 different nations – Vatanen, who also played on Finland’s senior world championship team last spring, has had a lot of attention with his smooth skating, quickness and ability to read and makes plays, which compensates for the fact that he’s relatively undersized.
Finland’s junior national team coach, Lauri Marjamaki, feels his star defenseman will have a very successful NHL future. “Last year Vatanen was great but this year he is even better,” said Marjamaki. “He’s playing a little bit smarter than earlier. Now he is better at penalty killing, defensive zone, and he’s going to be a pretty good player in the NHL in about two years. His skating skills are so good and he plays so smart.”
In the tournament opener, Vatanen’s team took the heavily favored Americans to overtime before losing 3-2, but since then Finland has beaten Switzerland 4-0 and Germany 5-1. With only one round robin game remaining against Slovakia, the Finns now seem to be a lock to advance to the quarterfinals, and based on their performance against Team USA are a serious medal contender.
“We have played very good games these three games,” said Vatanen. “We trust ourselves and we have played as we have planned. We’d like to get a medal back in Finland this season.”