When you walked through the concourse of Buffalo’s HarborCenter rink at this week’s NHL Scouting Combine, you’d be easily convinced if someone said it was actually just a reunion for Finland’s dominant under-18 and under-17 national teams of the last couple of years.
Everywhere you looked, they were together. They interviewed together, they ran tests together, they stretched together. And there were a lot of them — more than ever before.
Last year, when Finns Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi were two of the 2016 NHL Draft’s top-four selections, the hockey world took note. This year, Finland is putting the hockey world on notice. In Buffalo, a dozen of the 104 players who were tested at the HarborCenter — adjacent to the Sabres’ KeyBank Center — were Finns. By contrast, there were only nine Swedes.
This group of 1998 and 1999-born Finnish players have long been heralded as special. It’s rare for a World Juniors team to carry more than one or two draft-eligible players but this group is so strong for Finland that half of the prospects at the Scouting Combine made the under-20 team this year.
Many of them are part of a new, young wave of high-end Finnish defencemen. When top WHL prospect Henri Jokiharju met Sami Vatanen (who is only 26) in a gym last year, he says it was one of the best days of his life.
That kind of trickle down effect will be true of these soon-to-be draftees for the next generation of Finnish talent too.
“It’s good for Finnish hockey and some little kids can look up to some of these players,” said Juuso Valimaki, another WHL star and surefire first-round pick.
Finnish standout Miro Heiskanen is widely regarded by many scouts as the best defenceman in the 2017 class and a candidate for third overall. He calls himself a two-way defenceman who has always liked to play an offensive game, and believes he’s ready to play in the NHL next year after playing professionally in Finland.
“It’s sometimes easier to play with men because I think they’re smarter,” said Heiskanen, who spoke with 28 teams, including the Leafs, after soaring up draft rankings in the second half of the season. “It’s a really big class (for Finland) and I might be (the best defenceman in the class). Almost everything goes really well this year.”
Heiskanen, Valimaki, and Jokiharju were joined by Finnish defencemen Eemeli Rasanen, Urho Vaakanainen, and Robin Salo, all of whom could go in the draft’s first two rounds.
There’s a chance Valimaki goes in the draft’s top-10 with Heiskanen and Finnish forward Eeli Tolvanen. He thinks he’s NHL ready, too.
“It’s great to have a lot of great players from Finland here,” said Valimkai, who spoke with every NHL team except Minnesota and Dallas. “The last couple of years have been really good for Finnish hockey. Always, for Finnish hockey, the biggest thing is being a team but for these last couple of years there’s been a lot of individual talent and that has helped a lot.”
The groups is spread across the world’s best junior and pro leagues. Some came to North America to develop. Others stayed in Europe to play in Finland’s Liiga or the Swedish Hockey League.
“I really enjoyed playing in North America, it has been really good for me,” said Valimaki, panting after just completing his VO2max test. “I thought it was the best way for me to get to the NHL. I wanted to learn the style of play here. I haven’t regretted it for one second.”
Rasanen starred on a weak Kingston Frontenacs team in the Ontario Hockey League. He came to North America for the physical, faster style of play he prefers.
“I like to hit people,” the 6-foot-7 defenceman said with a smile, laughing.
Rasanen has competed with Finland internationally and knows firsthand how they’ve dominated the class.
“I know almost everyone really well from the national team. It has been way easier (going through the process with them). There’s 12 guys here so [the 2017 draft] going to be good [for Finland],” he insisted.
There’s diversity in their styles, too. Vaakanainen takes pride in defending with his stick rather than playing physically like Rasanen. He credits Finland for developing so many high-end players, which has made the draft process a little more comfortable for each of them.
“We have a lot of Finns here so it has been pretty easy for me,” said Vaakanainen, who spoke with every team except the Arizona Coyotes and the New York Islanders.
“It’s easier to hang out with those guys and just spend time with those guys, it makes it more fun to be here,” echoed Tolvanen, who played in the United States Hockey League in order to take the NCAA route with Boston College next season. “I haven’t seen some of these guys in 10 months.”
He chose the USHL route so that he could live by himself, learn English, and mature. And he describes his game plainly.
“I’m a goal scorer and all-around offensive guy,” said Tolvanen, who led Finland in scoring at the World Juniors and helped push them to under-18 Silver and Gold in back-to-back years. “I just need to get bigger and stronger and work on my skating.”
“It’s pretty funny to have the same guys you played with on the international team so it’s nice,” added Kristian Vesalainen, another Finnish standout who spoke with every NHL team except the Islanders.
Vesalainen is a 6-foot-3 winger who has been dominant internationally. Last year, he was named under-18 Worlds MVP after he posted 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in just seven games. But unlike the other Finns in this class, Vesalainen’s season didn’t go as planned. After beginning the year with Frolunda in the SHL, Vesalainen returned to Finland to play for HPK in Liiga.
“I had a pretty tough season this year and I learned a lot,” he said. “I want to use my size a little better and go harder to the net. It was pretty tough mentally, I had some tough times in Sweden. I was alone there. It was pretty tough.”
Finland continues to produce high-end goalie prospects too. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen models his game after compatriot Pekka Rinne. He’s among a handful of the 2017 draft’s best goalies.
“This is a once in a lifetime chance,” Lukkonen, who spoke with 24 teams (the Leafs included), said of the combine and the draft.
He knows this class of Finns is unique.
“It’s great to have guys here you know, especially in this kind of a week when it’s new to all of us, it’s great to have someone to talk to. I’d say we have great guys from Finland this year. We’ve won Gold medals. There’s great players in this group.”
Note: As a collective, the Finns performed well in the Scouting Combine’s fitness testing.
Valimaki lasted the fifth-longest on the bike, too, surviving 15:57 and finished third in the left side of the pro agility drill. Jokiharju finished eighth in the force plate’s vertical jump testing and seventh in the standing long jump. Salo and Valimaki also performed well on the force plate, finishing 10th and 16th. Valimaki and Vaakanainen were also near the top of the class in grip strength in both hands. Aleksi Heponiemi, the WHL’s Rookie of the Year and the second-lightest player at the combine (149 pounds) did the seventh-most pull ups with 11. Heponiemi, Valimaki and Salo finished 8th, 13th and 21st in VO2max output respectively. And Luukkonen had the longest wingspan among the goalies at the Scouting Combine.