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NHL prospects emerging as stars in SM-Liiga

by Bill Meltzer
For much of the mid-1990s through mid-2000s, Finland's SM-Liiga was dominated by experienced veterans and import players. In more recent seasons, though, there has been an increased emphasis on cheaper, younger players due in part to financial necessity and in part to the championship success teams like HPK Hämeenlinna and JYP Jyväskylä have attained by using this approach.

The shift in emphasis has given young players an opportunity to receive more ice time than they may have in the not-too-distant past, when NHL prospects frequently would come to North America with one season or less of full-time experience as an SM-Liiga regular. Following are three young NHL hopefuls who have been making names for themselves as rising stars in Finland's top league. Two have been drafted in the last two years, while the other has yet to be selected.

Sami Vatanen, D, JYP Jyväskylä -- Selected by the Anaheim Ducks in the fourth round of the 2009 Entry Draft, Vatanen, 19, already is a surprisingly polished, puck-moving defenseman. Last season he shattered the league scoring record for rookie defensemen with 30 points (7 goals, 23 assists) in 55 games. The 19-year-old has been even better this season, already matching last season's goal output and adding 7 assists for 14 points in his first 20 games.

Vatanen entered his first pro season in 2009-10 with the goal of merely earning a spot in the line-up. He did much more that, eventually finding himself on JYP's top defensive pairing and first power-play for a club that entered the season as the league's defending champions and had arguably the deepest defense corps in the league. Crowning Vatanen's banner rookie season was his selection for Team Finland for the IIHF World Championships in Germany.

"It was an exciting year, and I owe it to my coaches and teammates," said Vatanen. "I know there are areas I need to work on to get better. Every player's goal is to play in the NHL, of course, but I have to take things one step at a time."

Vatanen has drawn widespread attention not only because of his statistics, but for his style of play. Unlike many young pro players, Vatanen wants to have the puck on his stick as much as possible, shoots the puck willingly and likes to join the rush.
"He's an aggressive player, even though he's a little bit on the small side," said a European-based scout for an NHL Western Conference team. "I don't believe in comparing prospects to established (players), so I will just say that he has a skill level that should make him a good NHL player as he matures. He sees the ice very well, skates well, makes a good first pass and has a good shot."

While this scout declined to identify NHL comparables for Vatanen, others have thrown out some rather lofty NHL names at similar points of development, ranging from Kimmo Timonen and Tobias Enstrom to Brian Rafalski and even Nicklas Lidstrom. That is not to say, of course, that Vatanen will have a similar career to any of them, but his early career progression has been ahead of the curve for most in his draft class. 

The biggest question mark about Vatanen always has been his size (5-foot-9, 163 pounds) and his lack of muscle. He still is learning his craft in his own of the ice. On a defense corps in which all of the other regular starters were plus-rated at even strength and three were double-digit plusses, Vatanen was the lone minus-rated defender (-1) last season.
"This is not a big concern. Most of Vatanen's mistakes are caused by over-aggressiveness. He wants to hit despite being small, and although he needs to add muscle, he mixes it up along the boards and in front of the net with grown men," said Finnish hockey writer Teemu Hytönen.

Coming off such a strong rookie season, there has been pressure on Vatanen to carry more of the load this season, and so far he's handled it flawlessly. It was to be expected that the teenager lost his fair share of defensive battles in his rookie season, but he already has shown vast improvement in the trenches in his second season. Through his first 20 games in 2010-11, Vatanen boasts a stellar plus-15 rating.

Teemu Pulkkinen, LW, Jokerit Helsinki -- Heading into the 2009-10 season, Pulkkinen was considered a likely first-round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, but injuries (he underwent a pair of surgeries) and inconsistency on the ice pushed him down one round after another.

"When the regular season started, we played bad," Pulkkinen told "We were losing lots of games and then I broke my wrist. I had surgery and they put a pin in my wrist. … (Also) I had (shoulder) surgery four weeks before the (NHL Scouting) Combine."

Pulkkinen, who had undergone knee surgery the previous season, was in danger of being labeled a fragile player. The Detroit Red Wings, an organization with a history of identifying European gems, grabbed Pulkkinen in the fourth round (No. 111). So far this season, the 5-foot-11, 183-pounder has looked like a steal. He's been healthy and very productive, and has started to tap into the potential that had some comparing him to fellow Jokerit product Teemu Selanne during his junior career.

After being limited to a dozen SM-Liiga games last season, Pulkkinen has played all 20 games to date for Jokerit. Still a rookie, the right-shooting sniper has averaged nearly a point per game (8 goals, 11 assists) and has shown no ill effects from the surgeries.

"Teemu can play either wing, but he has a tremendous shot from the off-wing. He's a scorer with skills you can't teach, but he also works hard. Learning the defensive parts of the game, adding strength, these things take time, but he has not looked out of place," said Jokerit general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

Antti Raanta, G, Lukko Rauma -- There has been something of a market correction with Finnish goaltenders the last few seasons. While the developmental pipeline still is producing its fair share of fine goaltending prospects, the pace has slowed and NHL teams no longer are grabbing every Finnish goalie with even an outside shot at a career in North America. Still just 21 and considered an NHL free agent, Raanta made his SM-Liiga debut in 2008 and was a starter for the Finnish national U20 team at the Mestis (minor-league) level.

Raanta split last season between Lukko's J20 team (15 games, 2.20 goals-against average, .928 save percentage) and the SM-Liiga (15 games, 2.66 GAA, .918 save percentage, 2 shutouts). So far this season, he has been backing up veteran Miika Wiikman, who returned to Europe this season after three AHL seasons. In seven games this season, Raanta (2.42 GAA, .908 save percentage) has outplayed Wiikman (15 games, 3.04 GAA, .893 save percentage).

The biggest knock on Raanta is his size. Although listed at 6-feet tall, he appears at least two inches shorter. In an era where big goalies rule, even talented, smaller goalies often struggle to gain attention.

"If he was 6-2, I don't think there's a question he'd be drafted," said the European-based NHL scout. "He's technically pretty solid and he has a good mental approach. But he leaves room upstairs and the good shooters are going to find the holes."

Even so, it is hardly unprecedented for undrafted goalies to catch the eyes of scouts. Raanta is just starting to come into his own, and at the minimum, has the potential to emerge as a fine SM-Liiga goaltender as he gains additional playing time.
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