The talent and depth in Finland's SM-Liiga may not be quite as good as it was in the past. Nevertheless any time a young player stands out, it is a noteworthy accomplishment. Still a month shy of his 22nd birthday, Tappara Tampere center Jori Lehterä leads the league with 26 points through the first 22 games of the regular season. His 20 assists also pace the top Finnish league.
Selected by the St. Louis Blues
in the third round (No. 65) of the 2008 Entry Draft, no one ever has doubted the youngster's hands or ice vision. The Helsinki native starred offensively at the junior level for Jokerit and quickly showed he belonged in the elite league in stints with Jokerit's senior team and Tappara Tampere. Nevertheless, he had his share of critics and wound up going unpicked in the 2007 NHL draft.
Ironically, the Blues were among the teams who initially questioned whether Lehterä had the package of skills necessary to be a legitimate NHL prospect. By the next season, however, they were satisfied his skating would not be a major hindrance and he had the ability to develop into a well-rounded player. When he was available in the third round, St. Louis grabbed him.
"It's not about statistics," St. Louis Assistant General Manager and Director of Amateur Scouting Jarmo Kekäläinen said of Lehtera two days after his selection. "We look at a variety of different factors about a player -- skating, fundamentals, competitiveness, defensive play -- and he's a guy who has come on in the last year."
The move from Helsinki to Tampere helped. With Tappara -- a club that generally has had lesser playoff expectations than Jokerit over the course of the past 15 years -- there was more playing time available for promising youngsters such as Lehterä. In his first season with Tappara, a 20-year-old Lehterä had 13 goals, 42 points and a plus-12 rating in 52 games. He added 4 goals and a pair of assists in 11 playoff games.
Last season, the bottom fell out for Tappara. The club had to defend its SM-Liiga spot in the playdowns, but Lehterä produced 38 assists and 47 points in 52 games. In the playdowns he was a one-man wrecking crew, scoring four times and adding 5 assists in three games. As a result, Tappara retained its place in SM-Liiga.
Lehterä closed the season by earning an end-of-season amateur tryout contract with the Peoria Rivermen (the Blues' American Hockey League affiliate). In 14 regular-season and playoff games, the Finn struggled to adjust to the smaller rinks and North American playing style, but showed improvement in his last few games. At the end of the campaign, he returned to Finland for additional seasoning.
Tappara has remained an also-ran this season. The club currently sits 10th in the 14-team SM-Liiga with 23 points. First-place Lukko Rauma already is a staggering 29 points ahead of Tappara. Nevertheless, if the regular season ended today, Tappara would make the postseason and play a miniseries with its traditional archrival from the same city, Ilves Tampere.
Lehterä is part of a quintet of skilled young players on Tappara. Along with Lehterä, 20-year-old Niclas Lucenius (a 2007 fourth-round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers
) and 21-year-old Jonas Enlund
(a 2006 sixth-rounder by Atlanta) have paced the club offensively. Through 22 games, Enlund has 11 goals (tied for fourth in the league), while the well-rounded Lucenius has 12 points and a team-best plus-5 rating at even strength. The club also features promising 19-year-old goaltender Harri Sateri
, a 2008 fourth-round pick by the San Jose Sharks
, as well as mobile defenseman Harri Ilvonen
, a Minnesota Wild
prospect chosen in the sixth round of the 2007 draft.