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2021 NHL Draft Profile: Samu Salminen

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A big, skilled but flawed Finnish center who may be the next Leafs’ project

NHL: NHL Draft Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, I profiled William Villeneuve ahead of the draft. He was a big-ish QMJHL RHD who led the league in points by defenseman. The Leafs ultimately drafted him in the fourth round, which made me feel awfully smart.

The thing is, though, that his pick was a gamble. Having looked into prospects more, I’m cooler on him than I was at the time. I was more willing to overlook his shortcomings, which I did see more of as I watched him this year.

What I had also said, which was more correct, is that William Villeneuve would be a big developmental project that could pay off in the long run. He had some excellent skills, especially offensively. But he also had some flaws in his decision making, defensive awareness, and most of all... his skating.

But the skill was there, and if the Leafs’ developmental coaches could work on his skating and instill some better decision making without the puck, the rest of his offensive skill could be enough to make him a valuable defenseman in the NHL. It’s a long shot, but not a bad idea to bet on skill in the fourth round.

And that’s where I bring this all back to Samu Salminen.

THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT

Samu Salminen is big. He’s listed on elite prospects as 6’3” and 190 lbs.

He also just simply puts up points wherever he goes. At the U20 Finnish junior level this year, he led the draft eligible players in points per game with 1.53 (26 points in 17 games). I use points per game, because his team (Jokerit) only played 17 games due to the pandemic, where most of his peers played twice as many.

Salminen has also had success in international tournaments for Finland. At the U18 tournament this year, he was tied for third with 7 goals, and 11th in points. Last year in various U17 aged tournaments, he had 13 points in 17 games. Two years ago, he had 22 points in 14 games in various U16 tournaments.

You might see his size and see those points and think he’s a classic case of a guy who had his growth spurt early on and simply racked up points. And while he was certainly never small, I’ve read that his big growth spurt to reach his current size was relatively recent. In his case, that’s been both a blessing and a curse. Both of which is very evident in both his strengths and his weaknesses.

Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:

  • Bob McKenzie: 72nd (mid-season rankings)
  • Will Scouch: 29th
  • Scott Wheeler: 39th (mid-season rankings)
  • Elite Prospects: 44th
  • Dobber Prospects: 48th
  • Smaht Scouting: 36th

THE GOOD: SIZE, SKILL, SMART

It’s no secret that being bigger can make your life easier in the NHL. It’s not as easy to be pushed around when you’re bigger, heavier, and (in theory) stronger than your opponents. It also gives you physical tools that smaller players can’t match, such as physical reach, easier puck protection, vision, and so on.

The most important things that we should care about, if he were to become a Leafs’ draft pick, is his offensive skill. Perhaps the best offensive skill he has is his shot. In the U18 tournament, it’s what stood out the most to me in his games that I watched. He has a good wrist shot that can have some power, he can rip one timers, and he can take quick snap shots that have accuracy and that he can elevate in tight.

Salminen is by no means just a goal scorer. He can be an effective play maker too, both because he’s smart at reading the play, has good vision to spot passing lanes, and can use his size to draw attention from the defense and open up his teammates.

Here’s a good summary of his offensive game from Tony Ferrari at Dobber Prospects:

Salminen is an incredibly smart player who has a knack for being in the right spot at the right time at both ends of the ice. At the offensive end of the ice, Salminen can be very impressive. He has a good shot from the faceoff dots and he has quick hands that elevate in tight. He is very crafty around the net and can display some interesting moves as he tries to create from the net front or beside the net. When he spots an open man across the zone, he has the soft touch to feather a pass through traffic and find his teammates. He works the cycle well at the junior level and shows some decent strength around the walls but hasn’t played against men to show how he’d fair against that level like many of his European counterparts.

Here’s a scouting report from Brandon Holmes at Future Considerations (paywalled) after one of his games in Finland’s U20 league:

Salminen clearly has some offensive talent in the package of skills that he brings to the ice, showing equal ability as both a scorer and playmaker. When given time to shoot, as what happened on his first goal of the game, Salminen can get good power behind his shot when he puts his weight into it and he’s capable of picking a corner on a netminder from the circles. He displays some good puck skills for a player his size, he can protect the puck from checkers with his reach and can use that reach to angle the puck around defenders to find teammates in the offensive zone

Both reports touch on Salminen being a smart or clever player, and now we’re touching on how he uses his size to his advantage. He is crafty with his positioning. He has a good sense for where he needs to be, mostly offensively. That pays dividends for him around the net, and on the powerplay, where he can put himself in a spot to receive a pass, keep defenders at bay, or get open for a quick shot. In this sense, he reminds me a bit of James van Riemsdyk in terms of having a lot of offensive skill, size, and cleverness around the net.

The other thing I’ll note about Salminen being “smart” is that it is a trait that the Leafs seem to really like in their prospects. They talk about it a lot during Dubas’ tenure as GM. It’s another reason why I wanted to write this profile on Salminen, because his set of skills do seem like the kind of thing Dubas likes... except for the fact that he’s 3 inches over 6 feet, instead of being 3 inches under it.

THE FLAWS: SKATING, DEFENSIVE AWARENESS

The usual flaw for a hockey player that’s big is their skating. The bigger you are, the harder it is to maintain smooth and efficient skating strides through every part of your legs. It takes a lot of balance and fine motor coordination, which is harder when your limbs are longer. Now, it’s not impossible for a big guy to be a good skater, but as a stereotype it is at least true for Samu Salminen. Virtually every scouting report on Salminen will at least note that his skating and mobility is not good, and likely tops out as average right now at best.

Here are two breakdowns of his skating issues, one from the same Brandon Holmes’ report linked above:

His skating stride, at the moment, is quite clunky and will need to be an area of improvement moving forward. His ankle flexion causes his feet to be flat and his posture to be too upright while skating, causing issues in his first step acceleration and overall balance on the ice. There were multiple occasions where Salminen was a step behind the play in his own zone due to his lack of speed, and in turn, he had to rely on his reach to salvage defensive plays.

The other is from a Derek Neumeier report who also writes for Future Considerations:

He was very awkward and uncoordinated, and really struggled overall to leave much of an impact. Has long skating strides, but his edgework is soft and lacks balance, getting knocked off of his feet far too easily. Nothing impressive about his footwork or top gear. Gets pushed around surprisingly easily for such a big player.

I’m not a skating mechanics expert, but I can confirm that when I watched him skate at the U18s he looked... ordinary. You would not see quick cuts from him. He doesn’t have a lot of maneuverability, quickness, or top speed. His reach and positional awareness can save him at times, but even at his level now he is held back by his skating. That would only be exacerbated once he plays at higher levels, and his size becomes more ordinary and the competition becomes faster.

You can see his skating for yourself in this video that shows all of his shifts in a Team Finland U18 inter-squad game (he’s #18 in blue):

The other bigger issue is that while he shows good awareness and anticipation for how he reads play and positions himself accordingly in the offensive zone, it isn’t as strong in the defensive zone. Not on any consistent basis. That’s not as much of a problem for a forward as it is a defenseman, but is is more of an issue for a center. Between that and his skating, he seems more likely to become a winger as he plays in higher levels.

All of these issues are why Salminen — despite being a big guy with a pretty exciting array of physical and offensive tools — is ranked in the third round in Bob McKenzie’s latest rankings. Though he did have a strong U18 tournament, so I would not be surprised if he got at least a little bump.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

The Leafs’ second round pick will be in the mid to high 50’s, and there is reason to believe that Salminen is a worthy gamble in terms of his development. He is still very raw, and as I mentioned above he sounds to have had his big growth spurt more recently. His physical development is said to be a bit behind as he matures and learns how to move more efficiently and effectively.

A team like the Leafs does make the most sense for Salminen’s sake, but does he make sense for the Leafs to pick? If the Leafs want to take a swing with their second round picks that have the most potential and upside, it could be him. Some guys with bigger potential fall because they’re smaller (Robertson, DeBrincat), and others because they have a major flaw (skating usually). Salminen is a case where his big flaw may scare teams away, where he’d otherwise be a first rounder. Him being Finnish and playing so few games this year probably didn’t help either.

But like I said with Villeneuve, if the Leafs can work on fixing some of his flaws enough, to the point that he can be just good enough as a skater at professional levels, the rest of his strengths can provide the rest of the value. When he’s big and strong enough, and has a long reach, and can read the play to be where he needs to be, he doesn’t have to be the fastest skater. Having a 6’3” center/winger in your bottom six who can be a poor man’s JVR in front of the net and on the powerplay ain’t nothing.

However, as much as his size and offensive skill is intriguing, he would not be my first choice for the Leafs’ second round pick. There are several others I would prefer who should also be available around the same spot. It doesn’t make much sense take on a risky project with their top pick in the draft, especially since they don’t pick again until the fifth round.

However, there are enough interesting prospects who are ranked into the third round by Bob McKenzie that I am not at all averse to the Leafs trading down. The Leafs did it last year, and took a pair of Finns in Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemelä. If they do this again, and have a shot at someone else who is a better all-round prospect with less risk and take a shot on Salminen? Now you’re talking.

Poll

Would you take Samu Salminen with the Leafs’ second round pick?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Straight up, yes
    (22 votes)
  • 43%
    Only if we trade down
    (46 votes)
  • 35%
    No, those skating issues scare me
    (37 votes)
105 votes total Vote Now