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On the Wings of Tomorrow

Saarijarvi can't beat Santa, world juniors selections and more in the first edition of the Red Wings prospect report

by Bob Duff / Special to

Were he to outdistance Nicklas Lidstrom in Norris Trophy wins, or capture more NHL scoring titles than Bobby Orr, Grand Rapids Griffins defenseman Vili Saarijarvi knows that he still would never be the biggest deal back home.

That's because Saarijarvi's home town of Rovaniemi, Finland is billed as the official hometown of Santa Claus.

"Santa," Saarijarvi said. "My boy."

And before you ask, yes, back home, Saarijarvi has met jolly old St. Nick on many occasions.

"Santa, he's a great guy," Saarijarvi said. "When I was younger, I went many times to see Santa. When I was little, I went twice a year to see him."

The capital of Lapland in northern Finland, Rovaniemi's Santa Claus Village, situated directly on the Arctic Circle, is a year-round attraction that draws 300,000 tourists annually to the city.

"It's huge," Saarijarvi said. "It's a big thing. People come from all over the world to see Santa, especially in the wintertime. It's a special thing that my home town has. That's how my hometown is known in Finland. It's a pretty big thing in my hometown."

And what would the official home of Santa Claus be without another attraction that brings out the Christmas spirit all year round - Santa's reindeer. In Rovaniemi, they're everywhere, freely roaming through the streets.

"There's a lot of reindeer," said Saarijarvi, who gets plenty of good-natured ribbing from his teammates about Rovaniemi. "They are always teasing me about it."

In his second pro season, Saarijarvi, 21, is finding the pace of play more to his liking. He's discovering a comfort level that didn't exist last season, a campaign he split between Grand Rapids (42 games) and the ECHL's Toledo Walleye (10 games).

"At first, I had a little bit of expectations, what to expect, when I went in," Saarijarvi said of his rookie campaign. "I had a little rough start. I was able to go down to Toledo and have big minutes there and kind of get used to playing against pro guys. That was huge for me. I got my confidence up and when I went back to GR, I felt really good."

This season, the difference in his game is tangible. Saarijarvi is second among Griffins defensemen with 1-5-6 totals. He's playing a lot and being counted on in key situations.

"I think on the ice, I feel way more comfortable," Saarijarvi said. "The other thing is probably that the game has slowed down for me in my head, so I can control it more and I'm more comfortable to make plays and stuff like that. Then I improved my speed this summer, so that's been another good thing that's been helping me."

While it was a big deal in Rovaniemi when the Red Wings selected Saarijarvi with the 73rd pick of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, with the legend such that is Santa Claus already residing where he's from, Saarijarvi accepts the reality that he'll forever be a B-list celebrity around town.

"He's the most famous guy in my hometown and he's going to be the most famous guy, no matter what happens, no matter who does anything," Saarijarvi said.

World Juniors
Both of Detroit's 2018 first-round draft picks figure to be performing at the upcoming World Junior Championship from Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.

Drummondville Voltigeurs center Joseph Veleno was among 34 players invited to Team Canada's selection camp from Dec. 11-14 in Victoria, B.C., while Red Wings general manager Ken Holland confirmed that the team would loan their top first-round choice, right wing Filip Zadina, from Grand Rapids to play for the Czech Republic.

Zadina, 19, selected sixth overall in the 2018 NHL Draft, is third on the Griffins with seven goals and sixth with five assists in 23 games. He tied for the tournament lead last year with seven goals in seven games.

Veleno, 18, selected 30th overall, has been tearing up the QMJHL. He was named player of the week for the week ending Nov. 25, collecting 11 points in three games, including a 3-3-6 night against the Moncton Wildcats.

He followed that up with a 1-4-5 performance against the Blainville-Boisibriand Armada, one of 12 multi-point games he's enjoyed this season. Veleno is fifth in league scoring with 20-26-46 numbers through 26 games and has potted a league-leading five shorthanded goals.

Veleno is also enacting on the instructions that were imparted to him when he departed NHL camp last fall.

"I think he's closer than we suspected coming into camp for sure," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "We told him, have a focus of trying to make the team next year. It starts by going and having a great year.

"My understanding is Team Canada wants him to make sure he's great defensively if he wants to make the world junior team so it's good for us. It goes hand in hand."

Halifax Mooseheads defenseman Jared McIsaac, selected 36th overall by the Wings in the 2018 NHL Draft, was also invited to Canada's camp. McIsaac leads all Halifax defensemen in scoring with 7-14-21 totals in 20 games. He is one of four QMJHL defensemen producing above a point-per-game average. McIsaac has points in each of his last four games and in eight of the last nine games.

Defenseman Malte Setkov, Detroit's 100th overall choice in the 2017 Draft, will play for Denmark. Setkov is with the Malmo Redhawks of the Swedish League. Right winger Jonatan Berggren of Skelleftea AIK of the Swedish League was earmarked for a spot on Sweden's team until a back injury late last month put him on the shelf for three months. Detroit selected Berggren 33rd in the 2018 Draft.

In 1938, GM Jack Adams took the Red Wings on a postseason tour of England and France, playing a series of barnstorming exhibition tilts against the Montreal Canadiens. Eighty years later, Union College, the team of Red Wings prospect Jack Adams, also trekked to Europe for some hockey action, and he played a starring role.

Adams, Detroit's 162nd overall choice in the 2017 Draft, picked up a goal and an assist in two games to help the Dutchmen win the Friendship Four, a four-school NCAA tournament on Thanksgiving weekend in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The sophomore right wing created a neutral-zone turnover that led to the winning goal in Union's 2-1 victory over the Boston University Terriers and fellow Red Wings prospect Kasper Kotkansalo in the tournament championship game.

International Opportunity
Ryan O'Reilly of the United States Hockey League's Fargo Force was named to the U.S. Junior Select Team that will participate in the 2018 World Junior A Challenge from Dec. 9-16 in Bonnyville, Alberta. O'Reilly, a right wing drafted 98th overall in 2018, posted a season-high three points (2-1-3) and was named first star on Nov. 24 at Omaha. O'Reilly netted the winning goal in Fargo's 4-3 victory over the Lancers.

His NHL namesake, St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, admitted that he did a double take when the Wings selected O'Reilly last June.

"The day he got drafted, I remember seeing it go across the ticker," the Blues' O'Reilly said. "I thought, 'Is that possible? I was released and re-drafted?' But great name, though."

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