Antti Suomela made the most of minimal ice time in Finland's top professional league last season, and the forward is proving he can succeed in a similar role his first season in North America as a rookie with the San Jose Sharks.
Suomela, 24, gained the attention of the Sharks after leading Liiga in scoring with 60 points (21 goals, 39 assists) and finishing second with six game-winning goals in 59 games while averaging 15:47 in ice time with JYP in 2017-18.
"I played about 15 minutes a game in Finland," Suomela said. "Now with the Sharks, I'm playing the same type role so I'm comfortable and it's good for me because I feel fresh, ready to go, all the time."
Suomela (6-foot, 175 pounds) has averaged 10:58 in ice time as third-line center between left wing Marcus Sorensen and countryman Joonas Donskoi in eight games for the Sharks.
Video: NYI@SJS: Donskoi, Suomela combine for slick goal
"I met him the first time when he came to San Jose, but I watched some of his games from last year in the Finnish league and I knew he was extremely skillful," Donskoi said. "He's been playing professionally in Finland for many years so he's not the normal young guy jumping into the big League. He has some experience and it's been impressive how fast he's been learning to play in NHL. This is his first time on the smaller rink, actually his first time in the United States, so it's been impressive how fast he's been able to pick it up."
The Sharks signed the undrafted, unrestricted free agent center, to a one-year, entry-level contract on June 6. Sharks assistant general manager Joe Will feels Suomela has benefitted from playing with Donskoi.
"Not only being on the same team, but playing on the same line," Will said. "I think that helped him through training camp. We thought he was very close throughout his development in the Finnish league and, by close, I mean he'd be able to play and compete for an NHL job. He came in among the big group of centers that we had and earned it in training camp.
"He played a lot of roles in Finland so he was really adaptable when he came here because there are very few guys who just step into a top-six role in the NHL, so he was ready to play third or fourth line here."
Suomela has three assists, a plus-3 rating, and 20 shots on goal for the Sharks. Most impressive is the fact San Jose controls 66.3 percent of all shots attempted at even strength with Suomela on the ice, which ranks second among NHL rookies (minimum five games), and sixth in the NHL.
"You're always looking for guys who can create offense," coach Peter DeBoer said. "It's such a hard League to score in. Even deep into your lineup, you can't just have energy guys who bang around or just guys who go out and fight. You need guys who can play on any line and help create offense and I think the nice thing about him is he's an older rookie."
Video: NYI@SJS: Lehner makes big save on Suomela
Suomela had 131 points (56 goals, 75 assists) and a plus-34 rating in 169 games in Finland's top league.
"He's played pro hockey and led the Finnish league in scoring so we know he can create offense and guys want to play with him," DeBoer said. "He can do that and still be good defensively because he's not 20 years old, learning how to play against men; he's been there and has done a good job."
The Sharks have allowed one of 13 even-strength goals when Suomela has been on the ice.
Suomela has done his part for a team projected to challenge for the Stanley Cup, even though he might not be a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy.
He said one area he wishes to improve are face-offs. Suomela, who is winning 42.1 percent of his draws (32-for-76), said he's picking up things from watching center Joe Pavelski (56.1 percent).
"There are so many good centers in the NHL and the rules are different here than in Finland," Suomela said. "In Finland, you just touch the puck, but here it's like stick-on-stick so you need to be stronger. I want to learn, so I go to [Pavelski] and he's helped me."