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NHL Draft

Miro Heiskanen leads record six Finland-born players taken in first round

Defenseman one of 23 Finnish prospects selected in 2017 NHL Draft

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Hockey in Finland is alive and well.

A record six Finland-born players were chosen in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft presented by adidas, and a total of 23 Finns were selected over seven rounds (217 players) at United Center on Friday and Saturday.

"Seeing six Finns selected in the first round was a small surprise," said Goran Stubb, NHL director of European scouting. "I thought four or five could be taken, but this is proof that the Finnish Hockey Association and their member clubs are doing a lot of things right."

 

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HIFK defenseman Miro Heiskanen (6-foot, 172 pounds), a left-handed shot, was the first Finn to go, selected No. 3 by the Dallas Stars.

"This is an amazing feeling; I've always dreamed of being drafted and it came true," the 17-year-old said. "I'm going to talk with the Stars management and see where I am in September. I always thought I was the best two-way defenseman [of the draft]. I'm good in the offense zone and defensive zone."

Finland was reeling six months ago, and Heiskanen was part of it. After losing the first three games of the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship to become the first defending champion to fail to qualify for the quarterfinal round the next season, coach Jukka Rautakorpi and his staff were fired. Finland avoided being relegated with three straight victories to close out the tournament under new coach Jussi Ahokas, who will guide Finland at the 2018 WJC in Buffalo.

"I think we will be more determined this time; we have to do things better," Heiskanen said. "We have a new coach and there will be new players, so I think it might be a different tournament for us than [in 2017]."

Video: Heiskanen reacts to being chosen 3rd overall

Four of Heiskanen's teammates from the Finland national junior team were drafted in the first round: forwards Kristian Vesalainen (No. 24, Winnipeg Jets) and Eeli Tolvanen (No. 30, Nashville Predators), and defensemen Juuso Valimaki (No. 16, Calgary Flames) and Urho Vaakanainen (No. 18, Boston Bruins).

Defenseman Henri Jokiharju, who wasn't on the national junior team, was the fifth Finn drafted in the first round, taken one spot ahead of Tolvanen by the Chicago Blackhawks at No. 29.

All six first-round picks began playing hockey in Finland, but only Heiskanen (HIFK) and Vaakanainen (JYP), who were a defense pair in the 2016 WJC and for silver-medal winning Finland at the 2017 World Under-18 Championship, played in Liiga, Finland's top league. Vesalainen (Frolunda) played in the Swedish Hockey League, Valimaki (Tri-City) and Jokiharju (Portland) in the Western Hockey League, and Tolvanen (Sioux City) in the United States Hockey League.

"Finland had some poor draft years about 10 or 12 years ago and their junior national teams lost ground," Stubb said. "At that point, the association had a big meeting involving coaches, managers, older players, agents and NHL scouts. They changed their whole schooling and training system and started to concentrate on individual skills in all age groups. I think the result of those meetings have been seen at the drafts in recent years."

Video: Kristian Vesalainen speaks with Steve Mears

There were six Finland-born players chosen in the second round Saturday: centers Alekski Heponiemi (No. 40, Florida Panthers), Eetu Luostarinen (No. 42, Carolina Hurricanes) and Joni Ikonen (Montreal Canadiens, No. 58), defensemen Eemeli Rasanen (Toronto Maple Leafs, No. 59) and Robin Salo (New York Islanders, No. 46), and goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (Buffalo Sabres, No. 54).

Heponiemi (5-10, 149), who scored 86 points (28 goals, 58 assists) for Swift Current and was named the WHL rookie of the year, was glad to see Finnish hockey getting so much recognition at the draft.

"It's really good for Finnish hockey and I think there are a lot of good Finnish guys coming up next year too," Heponiemi said. "It's a good thing to see."

The previous record of five Finland-born players selected in the first round was set in 2002, when forwards Jesse Niinimaki (No. 15, Edmonton Oilers) and Sean Bergenheim (New York Islanders, No. 22), defenseman Joni Pitkanen (No. 4, Philadelphia Flyers), and goaltenders Kari Lehtonen (Atlanta Thrashers, No. 2) and Hannu Toivonen (Boston Bruins, No. 29) were chosen.

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