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On the Wings of Tomorrow

Kivenmaki thinks big, hoping to follow other smaller players to the NHL; World Junior Summer Showcase returns to Plymouth and more in the July prospect report

by Bob Duff @asktheduffer / Special to

The way Otto Kivenmaki looks at things, the key to success for him on the ice is to think big.

"You've just got to know what you'll do before you get the puck," Kivenmaki explained. "You can't stand around and protect the puck, because they will knock it out, so you've just got to move a lot and outsmart them.

"I think I've just gotta be smarter and quicker."

There's a theory regarding pro hockey players that's seemingly been around the game for as long as they've whacked pucks around the ice while wearing skates.

The big man will need to prove that he can't. The little man must prove that he can.

Kivenmaki, selected 191st overall by the Detroit Red Wings during the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, sized up this reality of life a long time ago.

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: Forward had a solid first pro season for Assat.By the Numbers Prospects - Otto Kivenmaki:

The yearbook lists the Finnish forward as 5-foot-8 and 137 pounds.

No, that's not a typo.

It's also not the correct math. Kivenmaki has bulked up in the year since he's become a Red Wings prospect.

Well, he's bulked up about as bulky as a guy his size can.

"I've put on like eight kilos since last year," he said proudly, a broad smile forming across Kivenmaki's face.

For those not fluent in the metric system, that's 17.6 pounds. Kivenmaki now tips the scales at 154 pounds.

"I think I've gotten bigger and stronger," Kivenmaki said. "I think it's good. I noticed this summer when we had training with my team in Pori that just being in the corners, I wouldn't fall so easily. I think that helps a lot.

"Obviously I need to get bigger. I still don't weigh much compared to the other guys, so there's still improvement to be made, yeah."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: 2018 7th round pick Otto Kivenmaki following day 1 of development camp. @Odilkkini | #DRWDC

The diminutive Finn enjoyed a strong late-season push with Assat Pori in the SM-Liiga, Finland's top league. He recorded 13 points in his final 13 games of the campaign. For the season, Kivenmaki registered 2-14-16 totals in 34 games.

He had just three assists in the first three months of the season.

"With the men I wasn't playing so much at first, that was a lot tougher," Kivenmaki said.

He collected the first goal of his SM-Liiga career on March 2 in a game against Lukko. Kivenmaki followed that up with another goal in the next game against Tappara on March 6.

Kivenmaki enjoyed a five-game assist streak Feb. 2-22, including a three-assist performance against the Lahti Pelicans.

"I think he's come a long way since last year," Red Wings director of player development Shawn Horcoff said. "He's put some work in this summer. It's still early in the summer, he's got a long ways to go but he really finished the season well last year.

"He's definitely a project and is going to take some time."

For players like Kivenmaki, the key to success and survival on the ice is their hockey IQ. Smaller players are almost required to be hockey savants. They need to quickly calculate where the play is going next and get to that spot before their larger opponent.

For the most part, if they arrive at the same time and the battle turns into a test of strength, the odds are stacked against Kivenmaki emerging victorious from these outcomes.

"But at the same time, if you want to win, you've got to get in those hard areas, right?" Horcoff said. "But the only way to do that is to be strong enough to take the pounding against these bigger guys in the league."

That doesn't mean Kivenmaki needs to knock these behemoths over. It merely means he must develop the requisite core strength to hold off the physical challenge they present to him.

Kivenmaki could feel that he was making steady strides in his ability to compete against and fend off bigger players as they sought to separate him from the puck.

"They said that things are getting better every day," he mentioned of the Wings' development staff. "They saw me getting bigger and stronger."

He lists the nutritional and strength-training advice provided to him by the Detroit staff as a key element in spawning the changes to his body.

"I did eat a lot better last year than the year before," Kivenmaki said. "They gave me a lot of help about that stuff."

Kivenmaki's peers also took note of his escapability during the club's development camp at Little Caesars Arena in June.

"The little guy, Otto, he has some hockey sense," forward prospect Jack Adams said. "He reminds me of Pavel (Datsyuk) a little bit."

The Red Wings rolled the dice on another small forward with their second-to-last pick of the 2019 Draft.

They spent the 190th overall selection on Russian left-winger Kirill Tyutyayev, who played for Yekaterinburg of the KHL, the same team that produced Datsyuk.

Just 5-foot-9 and 146 pounds in 2017-18, Tyutyayev led the Russian under-18 league in scoring with 114 points in just 31 games.

"We thought he was a sleeper," Detroit's director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright said. "We really liked him. He's not a very big guy but another guy that's got skill, that's got sense."

Center Ethan Phillips is also an undersized prospect that the Wings went for in a big way with the 90th overall pick of this spring's draft. He's 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds.

"I've always kind of been a smaller guy," said Phillips, headed for Boston University in the fall. "I try to play to my strengths. I'm not going to be intimidated by anybody. You see their strength and that's their advantage. My advantage is skating, so I'm going to use that."

Solid evidence exists that there is a place for the little guy to come up big in today's NHL.

Minnesota Wild left-winger Mats Zuccarello (5-8, 184 pounds) has proven to be an effective NHLer for nine seasons. Alex DeBrincat (5-7, 165) of the Chicago Blackhawks scored 41 goals in 2018-19. Calgary Flames star Johnny Gaudreau, who registered 99 points last season, is 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds.

"Growing up, for him, everyone said you're too small to play, so to see what he's done in this game is really impressive," Wings forward Darren Helm said of Gaudreau. "You kind of see that more and more with some of the smaller players, being able to take control of the game and be a big part of teams."

Whether Tyutyayev, Phillips or Kivenmaki achieve this level of greatness, well, that's a question still to be answered.

"He definitely has natural smarts, he's got natural ability and for him it's just going to be, can he be strong enough, can he develop a strong enough core and lower body to able to protect the puck in traffic?" Horcoff explained of Kivenmaki. "Can he develop his legs to get enough speed to get up in the play?

"There's plenty of guys who have proven they can do that night in and night out and it's going to be up to Otto to prove that he can."

The big difference today for the little guy is that they know they will be offered the chance to show that they can measure up.

"There's more and more small players playing," Wright said. "But you've got to be fast, you've got to be quick, you've got to have skill. "If these guys play, they're going to be impact players. Whether they will or not, that's still to be determined yet."

WORLD JUNIOR SUMMER SHOWCASE IN METRO DETROIT: The future of the Wings will be well represented when the World Junior Summer Showcase comes to USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth from July 26-Aug. 4.

The top prospects for this season's world junior championship will be on the ice in the four-team tournament that includes Canada, Sweden, Finland and the United States.

Kivenmaki will play for Finland. Goalie Jesper Eliasson (84th, 2018) and forward Jonatan Berggren (33rd, 2018) are part of the Swedish team. Forward Joe Veleno (30th, 2018) and defenseman Jared McIsaac (36th, 2018) are on the Canadian roster, although shoulder surgery will keep McIsaac out of the tournament.

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: 2018 2nd round pick Jonatan Berggren did not skate today, but he'll be ready to go tomorrow. @Jberggren48 | #DRWDC

Defenseman Alec Regula (67th, 2018) and forward Robert Mastrosimone (54th, 2019) are on the USA roster. Mastrosimone suffered a broken ankle at the Wings' development camp, so he'll also be out of action.

Michigan State goalie Drew DeRidder, who attended the Wings development camp as a free agent, is also part of the USA team.

Tournament action gets underway July 27 and continues through Aug. 3.

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