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Finnish prospect Nattinen brings strength and skill

by John McGourty
If you were looking to build a team around a foundation player and you had your choice, say, between Joe Sakic and Martin St. Louis, which one would you choose?

Finnish forwards Joonas Nattinen and Toni Rajala, NHL Central Scouting's Nos. 10- and 11-ranked European skaters -- and top prospects from their home country -- for the 2009 Entry Draft may not develop into world-class players like Sakic and St. Louis, but the physical contrasts are similar.

Nattinen is a 6-foot-2, 183-pound right-handed, playmaking center who is excellent on faceoffs and penalty killing. Rajala is a 5-foot-10, 163-pound right wing with quick feet and a quicker shot.

Nattinen also is a former teammate of Sami Vatanen, the Finnish defenseman who is ranked No. 16 among European skaters. Vatanen and Nattinen were teammates with Jyvaskyla until Nattinen moved south to play with the Espoo Blues junior team. It was a good move, as he posted 9 goals and 29 assists in 30 games.

He also played 14 games for the Blues in the SM-Liga, the top Finnish league. Nattinen also represented Finland at the 2009 World Junior Championship and the 2009 World Under-18 championship. It was Nattinen's second time on his country's U-18 team.

Nattinen was the third-best faceoff man at the World Juniors, winning 63 percent, and he won 56 percent of his faceoffs at the Under-18s. Scouts like his skills, strength, awareness and disciplined play. He's also fluent in English and Swedish.

"Joonas plays very well at both ends of the ice and moves the puck well from both sides," said a scout from NHL Central Scouting. "He's a good passer on his backhand and is utilized on the penalty kill. He is physically strong on the boards and is hard to knock down in this level."

Nattinen was very impressive at the NHL Scouting Combine, finishing third in the standing long jump and fifth in the vertical leap. talked to Nattinen at the Combine: Goran Stubb, NHL Director of European Scouting, said some nice things about you. He said you moved from central Finland when you had a chance to play for the Espoo Blues?

Nattinen: One year ago I moved from Jyvaskyla to Espoo just hoping for a shot to finish (my junior career) well. Everything is going extremely well. Did you play with Sami Vatanen in Jyvaskyla? What's good about his game?

Nattinen: Yes, we played together on the same team for a few years. I've known him for a long time. He plays a different kind of defense. He loves to keep the puck, makes good decisions with it. He doesn't give it away. He gives good passes to the forwards and he's really an amazing player.
: And you've played with Toni Rajala on Finnish national teams. He moved up in the late-season ratings. Tell us about Rajala.

Nattinen: Rajala is a kind of a slippery player. He loves to score and he can score. He loves to shoot. He shoots like 20 times a game. He's a good player. He's a different player. He's an amazing goal scorer. I like to play with him.
: You played in Fargo in the Under-18s and you guys had a great tournament, winning the bronze medal.

Nattinen: We had a balanced team. We had four lines which could score. We had a good tournament. We played good games and our only bad game was in the semifinal. We didn't make the final, but we were a good team.
: Goran Stubb described you as a finesse player -- a very good skater and stick handler. Is that the best part of your game, your skating and your hockey sense?

: I would say so. Hockey sense and stick handling, those are my best areas. Let's talk a little bit about developing those skills and that kind of thinking. How old were you when you started playing?
"You've got to stop the opponent from scoring goals. If you let the opponent score a goal, you have to get one more, so it's as important as goal scoring."
-- Joonas Nattinen on the importance of playing defense
Nattinen: I started when I was 2 1/2, so I've been playing now for 16 1/2 years. So I've been training a lot. You centered the first line for Espoo's junior team?

: I centered the first line and on that Blues junior team. We had so much talent. We had lots of good players. Almost every one of our lines made goals, so that was the way we won the championship.
: Then you went up and played a little bit in the SM-Liga, the top Finnish League. How much harder was it to play against the older men in that league?

Nattinen: The guys were a lot stronger than junior, a lot smarter. In junior you have to skate almost as fast as in the top league, but they're a lot smarter in the top league than junior. Stubb said you're very, very responsible defensively, that you take the defensive part of the game as seriously as the offense.

Nattinen: You've got to stop the opponent from scoring goals. If you let the opponent score a goal, you have to get one more, so it's as important as goal scoring.
: You had an injury in February. How is it now?

Nattinen: It wasn't a major injury. I just twisted my ankle in a regular-season game so I was off the ice like two or three weeks. Stubb also described you as a coach's dream player, that you're very responsive to what the coach wants. Is that something that you consider important?

: I listen to coaches. I find out that they have lots of important clues for players. They can help you out, if you just listen to them.

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