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Urho Vaakanainen of Bruins likened to Scott Niedermayer

Prospect has skating skills reminiscent of Hall of Fame defenseman

by Matt Kalman / Correspondent

BOSTON -- Boston Bruins defenseman prospect Urho Vaakanainen made an impression fit for a Hockey Hall of Famer when he competed for the first time at Boston's development camp last week.

Bruins player development coordinator Jamie Langenbrunner and assistant general manager Scott Bradley drew a daunting comparison between Vaakanainen, the 18th player selected at the 2017 NHL Draft, and an all-time great when they watched the 18-year-old skate.

"I think Scott mentioned to me ... Scott Niedermayer, which I thought was high praise for a guy that could effortlessly skate around the rink," Langenbrunner said. "[Vaakanainen] seems to have a little bit of those tendencies that he kind of floats on his skates a little bit, and it's something that I don't believe you can really teach. ...

"Fluid, you're almost floating on the ice, you're not exerting extra effort to get to the same place. It's effortless, where you think a guy like that could play 50 minutes in a game and not be tired, which Niedermayer probably could have."

Niedermayer played 1,263 games in his NHL career and won the Stanley Cup four times. It won't be easy for Vaakanainen to match the Hall of Fame defenseman's all-around career; Niedermayer had 740 points (172 goals, 568 assists) with the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Ducks. In his first season in Liiga, the top professional league in Finland, Vaakanainen had six points (two goals, four assists) in 41 games.

The Bruins are hoping Vaakanainen will blossom into a player who can skate on a top-two pair in the NHL. Skating looks to be one part of his game that won't need much work; it seems to come naturally.

Playing against men for the first time, Vaakanainen (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) was able to hold his own in top-four minutes for JYP HT Jyvaskyla, so the Bruins are satisfied his defensive game is advanced beyond his years and his offensive game will come around.

"You're talking about a 17-year-old kid that played in [Liiga], so for him to put up huge offensive numbers I think would be pretty tough," Langenbrunner said. "I think now going into his second year there, he'll be a little more confident."

Though he's looking forward to beginning his NHL career in the near future, Vaakanainen is eager for his first stop, a return to Liiga and reunion with a former coach. He will play for SaiPa and new coach Tero Lehtera, the uncle of Philadelphia Flyers forward Jori Lehtera and a fixture of the Finnish league and national team in his playing days. Lehtera coached Vaakanainen as a junior, then briefly as an assistant with Espoo in 2015-16.

"When they revealed that Tero was going to be the coach, that's the moment that I knew I was going to go there," Vaakanainen said. "He keeps it real. He's a passionate coach, I like his personality, the way he coaches."

Vaakanainen had one goal in six games for Finland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship and had three goals and three assists in five games during a silver-medal run at the 2016 U-18 World Junior Championship. He's not sweating the offensive side of the game, because he believes he has the necessary skills to produce and Lehtera's confidence in him will expand the defenseman's role. The hope is more minutes will translate into more points.

"I don't think it's hard," Vaakanainen said. "If you play big minutes, of course you expect to get some points. So I just try to play my game and help the team win. I like to play the puck a lot. I think I'm a good passer. So I think it won't be hard."

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