Okay I exaggerate a bit with the comparison to Robertson. Couldn’t help myself!

I’ve written about two prospects who may be going into the 2020 draft as well underrated, due to various reasons.

Tristen Robins was a case of having a late breakout, due to his history being a very small forward and not being given a real chance until this season. William Villeneuve is the opposite — he was a top QMJHL draft pick and finished the season leading his team and all defensemen in points. Despite that, knocks on his skating and strength seem to be what’s being held against him.

So what happens when a pretty highly regarded prospect takes an unusual development path?

Meet Veeti Miettinen, a small Finnish winger who probably could played some professional hockey this season — along with former teammate Roni Hirvonen and other top Finnish prospect Kasper Simontaival — but chose not to.

As a result, there is doubt about how good Miettinen really is, despite having an exceptional season. The more I look at these sorts of prospects, the more I realize that what leads to a player becoming a “sleeper” is something creating doubt.

If he’s small, can he do it in higher levels against bigger and stronger opposition?

If he’s older, is he just further along in terms of development?

If he only had a breakout for the last half the season, was it real or just a lucky hot streak?

If he had a lot of points but his skating looks weird, will that hold him back from cutting it in the NHL?

If he had exceptional numbers, but it wasn’t at as high a level or as competitive a league as his peers, how does that translate?

Veeti Miettinen actually checks a few of these boxes, so let’s talk about why all the doubt about him could lead to him becoming a steal in this year’s draft.

Veeti Miettinen’s Backstory

Miettinen is one of a few pretty high profile Finnish forwards in this draft. Anton Lundell is a potential top-10 pick, and Roni Hirvonen and Kasper Simontaival could both be taken in the late first round.

Hirvonen and Simontaival are both interesting players to compare to Miettinen, because all three of them are 5’9” who put up great numbers in Finnish leagues and internationally for Team Finland.

The comparison to Hirvonen is especially interesting, because they were both teammates in the Liiga U20 junior league for the 2018/19 season last year. They both played on the top line as well, with Hirvonen the center. Miettinen had a breakout year as a prospect, leading the U20 team as a 17 year old with 61 points in 48 games. In fact, he finished 4th in the league and just 3 points off of the leader, with all three players ahead of him being 2+ years older than him.

By comparison, Hirvonen was second on the team with 55 points in 50 games. Together they helped lead their team to a 2nd place finish in the regular season, and a loss in the playoff finals.

Miettinen would also play on Finland’s U18 team internationally, totalling 25 points in 34 games. Hirvonen had only 9 points in 19 games for the U18 team, since he was also playing some games for their U17 team. Simontaival led the U18 team with 38 points in 33 games for Finland. He also played in 21 games in the Mestis and 5 in the Liiga, playing in higher levels and holding his own.

Veeti Miettinen is an older prospect. Born on September 20th, 2001 he was almost eligible for last year’s draft. In fact, he’s only 9 days younger than Nick Robertson. Hirvonen and Simontaival, on the other hand, are both January birthdays — so around four months younger.

You’d think that the three would be considered close together, with Simontaival having an edge due to his professional experience. Going into this year, however, Hirvonen moved to playing the full season in the Liiga and mostly for the U18 team again. Simontaival played mostly in the U20 league again, with fewer games in the Mestis and Liiga than he had the season before.

But Veeti Miettinen? He had made a decision. He wanted to play in the NCAA for the 2020/21 season, attending St. Cloud University where apparently a few players from Finland have gone in recent years. In order to preserve his eligibility for the NCAA, he had to stay in junior — he could not play any professional games.

This not only seemed to cost him better opportunities to play professionally this year and likely improve his rankings, but also likely cost him consideration for Finland’s roster at the World Juniors since they don’t usually take players still in junior levels, even if by choice. That lack of major international exposure likely hurt his draft stock even more.

But now we get to the crux of the problem. Hirvonen and Simontaival both have professional experience. All three of them also put up great numbers for Team Finland. But when it comes to production at the same level in Finland’s junior leagues, Miettinen stands head and shoulders above them both.

This year, back in the U20 league on the same team, Miettinen played on a much worse team than the year before. Hirvonen was gone, as were some of their better and older players. Where they finished second the season before, this year they missed the playoffs and fell to the “lower continuation series”. That meant he lost even more exposure.

But despite the inferior team and teammates, Miettinen crushed the league. He led his team in goals with 42, doubling the next closest teammate who had 21. He also led the team in points with 73, above the next closest teammate by 24.

He not only led the league in goals (by 14) and points (by 12), he set the league’s single season record for goals. He also set the league’s career record with 138 across three seasons. Despite all of those numbers, he did not win any major awards or accolades due to the Connor McDavid problem — putting up goofy numbers on a bad team that missed the playoffs.

What Scouts Say About Veeti Miettinen

Back when I wrote about Tristen Robins, I noted that the biggest knock against him were that he was still small-ish and needed to get stronger. A lot of people said he didn’t have any one elite skill, but also didn’t really have a major weakness either. He might not have had any A+ grades but he didn’t have anything below a B+ either.

Miettinen is sort of the same, with some slight differences. First, he does have an elite skill — he can absolutely rip a wrist and snap shot. You don’t lap the rest of the league in goal scoring without it.

Here are some quotes from various public scouts about his shot:

  • From Scott Wheeler at The Athletic: “When I watch him play, I see one of the best releases in the draft.”
  • From Marco Bombino at McKeen’s Hockey: “He has a dangerous wrist shot and snapshot with excellent velocity and accuracy. The release is very quick and gives goalies little time to set up. He has the ability to pick his spots well even from a distance.”
  • From Jokke Nevalainen at Dobber Prospects: “He has an excellent wrist shot which he can release quickly and accurately. He can also change the angle of the shot to make it even more difficult for the goalie.”/

Here’s a twitter thread with four examples of him sniping a wrist shot in various situations:

He’s also a very good skater in every way you would want a smaller forward to be — he has very good acceleration, can stop/start quickly, has good footwork and edges. So he’s speedy and mobile, though he could still get a bit faster to increase his chances at succeeding at the NHL level.

Here are some quotes from various public scouts about his skating:

  • From Marco Bombino at McKeen’s Hockey: “Miettinen is a strong skater who possesses very good acceleration. His quick first few strides enable him to gain separation and create more room to make plays on the rush.”
  • From Ben Kerr at Last Word on Hockey: “He has an explosive first step and good acceleration. He reaches his top-end speed quickly and is fast enough to beat defenders, generating odd-man rushes or getting past them and heading to the front of the net. Miettinen also has very good lateral agility and edgework. He can change directions on a dime and makes tight turns.”
  • From Alex Taxman at Future Scope Hockey: “Miettinen’s skating ability is elite, his feet are some of the quickest amongst draft eligibles, as is his agility in tight spaces. When he accelerates, it looks like he’s hopping, and his top speed is fantastic.”/

And despite being smaller, he can be effective defensively. By no means an elite defensive forward, he was still heavily used in all situations by his team. He uses his speed to apply pressure on puck carriers, and his anticipation to break up or intercept passes. He was on his team’s top penalty kill unit where he was used in the same way as Mitch Marner in the NHL, or Nick Robertson in the OHL where they can become a threat to score. What might be most impressive, and indicative of his skills and smarts, is that he only had 6 penalty minutes all year. Not penalties taken, total minutes.

And despite being a prolific goal scorer, he’s also a skilled playmaker. He can stick handle in tight spaces, something that Auston Matthews is renowned for, but he doesn’t often try to dangle around defenders. He can make accurate passes to use his teammates, and then slip into open parts of the ice to make use of his shot from anywhere. Most importantly, he can make plays at full speed, whether it’s shooting, stick handling or passing.

Now, the other difference between Miettinen and Robins is that while both are said to need to get stronger, Robins is incredibly tenacious at going to the “dirty” areas if need be. He might have bigger defenders try and shove him around, but he uses crafty skating and balance to shed them or even knock THEM down.

Miettinen, while willing to go to dirty areas, does seem to get pushed around more easily. Robins being 25 lbs heavier and bulkier likely helps, and that is something Miettinen will need to work on.

Why His Size and Lack of Professional Experience Doesn’t Matter

Here’s the thing. When Mitch Marner was sent back to the OHL after being drafted, we all knew he was too good for that level. But he wasn’t ready for the NHL. What we all wanted to see from him was utter dominance to show that he was still developing, and he did just that.

Veeti Miettinen was one of the best players in the U20 league LAST year. He made a choice that led to him having to stay at the same level despite being too good, and on an even worse team he put up a historically good season for the level. He got better, and he dominated which is all you could ask of him.

Does he have flaws? Yes, as do most prospects outside of the cream of the crop. But just like with Robins, I think his flaws are exacerbated by a lack of significant exposure. Roni Hirvonen might have played in the Liiga all year, and Simontaival might have some professional experience, but that isn’t to say they are dramatically better as prospects. They might not even be better at all in the end, it’s just more difficult to compare them.

Hirvonen and Simontaival might have had more points in international play this year, but they both were still in U18 for Finland — Miettinen was playing with the U20 team.

A Note on Birth Months and Draft Age

So one thing that I’ve seen come up when looking at Robins and now again with Miettinen, is how them being born later in the year and being “older” is something to hold against them. That is, since they are older than most other draft eligible players they are more developed, and some mental adjustments are applied to their numbers with some skepticism.

I can argue this is sort of the case with Miettinen, especially when it comes to his comparison to Hirvonen and Simontaival. I’m going to refer back to this excellent article that Katya wrote two years ago:

We know about size bias in drafting, but do we understand age bias?

It talked about a study looking at how a player’s birth month (grouped into four quarters of the year) affected how people think about a prospect. The TL;DR is that there is an age bias in favour of players born in the first quarter of the year (January to March), with slow decline in favour for each other quarter of the year.

The issue is that, while the NHL draft has its cutoff as September 15th, making players born from September 16th to December 31st the oldest players in a draft year, that same cutoff is not used throughout junior levels of hockey. So Miettinen was always one of the youngest players as a kid growing up when playing against his peers, and the study found that this led to him always playing catch up in terms of opportunities. All that mental penalization and skepticism given to “older” players in a draft born from September 16 to December 31st is actually very misguided.

The study also found that players born early in the year typically get drafted more, but generally underperform their rankings. Players born in the second half of the year, however, get drafted less but outperform expectations based on draft positions and rankings.

Why? Because as one of the youngest players growing up, when 9 months difference can be huge in terms of development, Miettinen had to face more challenge, fight to get more attention, and learn to adapt against older and bigger peers than someone born in January.

Take international play, and what I had said about Miettinen vs Simontaival and Hirvonen above. The latter two had great numbers in more prominent roles for Team Finland’s U18 team. But Miettinen, born the same year, was playing for the U20 team.

Side note: I must give props to Hirvonen, who I might also write about, because he was good enough to also be used for a few games on the U20 team. Kid’s legit, I’m not in this case arguing that Miettinen should be considered better than Hirvonen. Just that the difference between the two is not equal to multiple rounds in the draft.

Miettinen’s Uncertain Future

It’s worth noting that Miettinen’s future plans, which arguably hurt his stock going into this draft and cost him more prominent exposure in professional and international play, are kind of in doubt now. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically the mess that America is in compared to, say, Finland, he might also lose out on playing hockey for a good chunk of the next season.

While he committed to play in the NCAA, some colleges have already announced they’re pushing back the start of their fall sports at least to 2021 and maybe as late as the spring. I will be fascinated to see how he, and other European players like him, decide their futures for next season. Danil Gushchin, a Russian who played in the USHL last season, already announced he will play in the OHL for Niagara next season.

In addition, there’s the human element... how comfortable would he and his family be if he goes across the ocean to a country that has not handled the pandemic very well? How willing will he be to put his development on hold and wait until NCAA hockey returns? Will he be fine returning once again to Finland’s junior league to keep playing?

By the time the 2020 NHL draft comes along, it will be October and Miettinen will still be some months away from playing in the NCAA. The Liiga has their 2020/21 season scheduled to start in October, and their pre-season in August. Perhaps the Leafs can entice him to come to Canada instead of the US, or to keep developing in Finland at higher professional leagues. It would make the future of his development more flexible than being in the NCAA for at least a few years.

My larger point in all of this is not so much that Miettinen should be considered as a potential late first round pick along with the other two. It’s more that he could be an absolute steal if he falls into later rounds, as it looks like he might just do. If the Leafs could get him in the fourth round they’d be laughing. Why wouldn’t you gamble on a later round pick on a forward who can skate well and score goals? If the Leafs wind up accumulating more picks in, say, the late 2nd or 3rd round, I’d still be laughing if he fell to them.

What round would you consider taking Miettinen if he’s available when the Leafs have a pick?

2nd round, if no one else ranked higher falls to them83
3rd round78
4th round27
5th round or later7