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Draft notebook: Finnish prospects learned from defeat at World Juniors

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

If there's one thing the 2017 NHL Draft isn't short on, it's first-round Finnish talent. Take a look at the prospect rankings from NHL Central Scouting Services. Three of the top 10 European prospects - Miro Heiskanen, Kristian Vesalainen and Urho Vaakanainen - are Fins. Two more (Eeli Tolvanen and Juuso Valimaki) can be found in the Top 11 prospects hailing from North American junior leagues. 

All of those players represented Finland at the World Junior Championship in Canada this past January, which begs the question: With all of that talent, how did the tournament go so wrong? 

First, a refresher for those unaware of how that tournament played out. The Fins lost all but one of their preliminary-round games, placing them in a best-of-three relegation series with Latvia. It was the first time in tournament history that a reigning champion had to play relegation games. 

The poor outcome resulted with the team firing its coach mid-tournament, with U-18 coach Jussi Ahokas replacing Jukka Rautakorpi prior to the relegation series.

Needless to say, it was a learning experience for the players involved, many of whom had won gold at the U-18 World Juniors a year prior. Now five months removed from the tournament, the prospects at the NHL Scouting Combine seemed to be in agreement that the lessons learned there should serve them well as they approach pro careers.  

"For sure," Tolvanen said. "We won the 18's last year and now we're in the relegation game. You see it both ways, the winning and losing. Now you know how it feels when you go all the way down."

"Of course you grew up as a person," Vaakanainen said. "Anything can happen. That's what you learn there."

It could serve them well even sooner. Finland did win its relegation series against Latvia, and all five of Heiskanen, Vesalainen, Vaakanainen, Tolvanen and Valimaki are eligible to be on the team again in 2018 when the World Junior Championship comes to Buffalo. 

Here's some more info on this group:

  • Heiskanen, who Kris Baker ranked at No. 6 on his Top 31 list, has appeared in most mock drafts as the first defenseman off the board. A reliable two-way defenseman who says he models his game after Chicago's Duncan Keith, Heiskanen scored 10 points (5+5) in 37 games last season for HIFK in Finland.

  You can watch his 1-on-1 conversation with Brian Duff below.

Video: 1-on-1 with Miro Heiskanen

  • Tolvanen, who checks in at No. 11 on Baker's list, followed in the footsteps of his older brother Atte, leaving Finland to play junior hockey in North America until he could take his talents to the NCAA. After scoring 54 points (30+24) in his second season with Sioux City in the USHL, the winger will begin his collegiate career at Boston College next season.

  He models himself after Vladimir Tarasenko and describes himself as such. 

  "I'm a goal scorer," he said. "Just an all-around offensive guy."

  • Valimaki shows up at No. 15 on Baker's list, and like Tolvanen, he too left Finland early to grow accustomed to the North American game. The defenseman scored 61 points (19+42) in 60 games in his second season with Tri-City of the WHL.

  We previously wrote about how Valimaki was aided by his relationship with fellow top prospect and Tri-City teammate Michael Rasmussen. You can find that story here.

  • Vaakanainen (No. 23), another defenseman, said he tries to model his game after Nashville's Roman Josi.

  "I'm a great skater, good with the puck, have a good first pass," he said. "I think I'm a complete package."

 

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