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2017 Top 25 Under 25: Miro Aaltonen arrives at 21

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He was the first free agent signing by the Leafs this summer, and he’s still the least known player in the system.

Karpat Oulu v Frolunda Gothenburg  - Champions Hockey League Final Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

Who is Miro Aaltonen?

He is, unlike the other two free agents, Calle Rosén and Andreas Borgman, a formerly drafted player. He was taken in the sixth round in 2013 by the Anaheim Ducks, and NHL Central Scouting had him ranked that year right in with Andreas Johnsson and Andreas Borgman in the 33 to 40 range for European skaters, which is not where you usually find NHL players. He was an overager at the time — 20, to their 18.

He did not even so much as join the Ducks on an ATO in the minors, and he passed out of their control as he stayed in Finland and then spent one year in the KHL. It was a very splashy KHL season, and he was signed by the Leafs to a one-year deal. (ELC length is dictated by age.)

I ranked him higher than most of our voters, and that is mostly due to his years of pro experience and his proven ability to play at the KHL level. He should be overpowered for the AHL. But enough to bridge the gap to the NHL?

Background

Aaltonen is from Joensuu in eastern Finland, near the Russian border in an area where the main industry is forestry. The town is modestly sized and dominated by its student population. He started out in the local club team, the same one that launched Eemeli Räsänen, as it happens.

Aaltonen didn’t stay there long, however. When he was 16 he moved to Espoo to play for the Blues. Espoo is part of the large southern urban area that includes Helsinki.

He very quickly moved from the U18 team to the U20 team, and he very quickly moved from the U17 level on the national team to the U18. His U20 play in Finland was very good, and he got a lot of points at a young age.

The next step, the move up out of junior and to the men’s league, didn’t happen as easily. At 18, when the NHL draft comes around, a European skater almost always has to be too advanced for junior hockey to be a top draft pick. Aaltonen wasn’t there yet and he was passed over.

When he was 19, he played a few games in the Liiga, and wasn’t a factor. No one was being foolish passing him by for two years. He didn’t look then like a likely prospect to ever leave Finland.

In the year before his draft, at age 19 and 20, he finally made the step. He had 11 goals and five assists in 32 games, and was one of the lowest scoring forwards on his team. Four of those 16 points came on the power play.

That got him his 177th overall draft selection from Anaheim in the summer. But the pace of his scoring was good enough for a full-time job on the Blues, and he kept up the modest half a point per game from his first year over a full 60 games with eight of his 29 points coming on the power play.

The next year he put up 37 points in 57 games. This is a top-20 result for forwards in the Liiga, a very good performance at that level.

His play was good enough to get him a move to Kärpät for the 2015-2016 seasaon. They were a better team, the top team in the Liiga at that time, and with presumably better linemates, Aaltonen put up nearly identical numbers, 35 points in 58 games (17 points were on the power play). He was still in the top 30 in forwards, but on the same team as Sebastian Aho, a teenager scoring at a point per game, the difference between standout NHL level play and very good for the Liiga was right there on the ice to see.

But Aaltonen was very good for the Liiga, and the usual thing that happens to the top players there is that the SHL or the KHL comes calling. Aaltonen moved to Vityaz in the KHL last year.

European hockey is not all of a piece. The KHL is, in general, faster and more wide open than the more carefully constructed and practised Finnish game. There are, however, a lot of Finns in the KHL, more than there are in the NHL. When Jokerit moved from the Liiga to the KHL, they did very well, and continue to do well with a largely Finnish roster. Kunlun Red Star surprised everyone by making the playoffs their first year with a team that was half Finnish. Clearly, the Finnish game finds a comfortable home in their neighbour’s league.

Aaltonen had 44 points in 59 games for Vityaz, a team good enough to finish seventh in the West and make the playoffs. There were only good enough to get swept in the first round by one of the top teams, however. That is .75 points per game, and a marked increase on his Liiga pace that topped out at .65. Is that improvement, though? Has he continued to develop, or just shown a consistent style and level of offensive production that blipped up on a good Russian team?

The more wide-open style of the KHL leads to more scoring in general, and 12 of Aaltonen’s 19 goals came on the power play. The KHL doesn’t think we need to know about assists, so we are left in the dark there. In total points, Aaltonen was top 20 in the KHL, and that seems good. But remember that Brandon Kozun (who has a KHL-style game in its purest form) was top 10 and got most of his glory at five-on-five.

Have a perusal of his stats, and see what you think. (Details of his Liiga play can be found at liiga.fi and they offer Corsi data, if you want to dig into it.)

Stats

Miro Aaltonen via Elite Prospects

Season Team League GP G A TP PIM Playoffs GP G A TP PIM
Season Team League GP G A TP PIM Playoffs GP G A TP PIM
2008-2009 Jokipojat U16 Jr. C SM-sarja Q 10 12 14 26 24
Jokipojat U16 Jr. C SM-sarja 20 25 23 48 20
Jokipojat U18 Jr. B II-divisioona 1 3 1 4 0
Finland U16 (all) International-Jr 15 9 7 16 6
2009-2010 Blues U18 Jr. B SM-sarja Q 1 2 1 3 0
Blues U18 Jr. B SM-sarja 7 2 11 13 8 Playoffs 10 6 7 13 6
Blues U20 Jr. A SM-liiga 40 12 15 27 18
Finland U17 WHC-17 5 0 3 3 2
Finland U17 (all) International-Jr 11 2 6 8 4
Finland U18 (all) International-Jr 4 0 0 0 0
2010-2011 Blues U18 Jr. B SM-sarja 2 0 3 3 2 Playoffs 2 3 1 4 2
Blues U20 Jr. A SM-liiga 12 3 5 8 6 Playoffs 13 5 6 11 2
Finland U18 WJC-18 6 4 0 4 2
Finland U18 (all) International-Jr 12 6 2 8 6
2011-2012 Blues U20 Jr. A SM-liiga 14 10 17 27 14 Playoffs 4 2 3 5 2
Blues Liiga 26 1 1 2 2 Playoffs 10 1 1 2 2
Jokipojat Mestis 4 2 3 5 0
Finland U20 WJC-20 7 1 3 4 0
Finland U20 (all) International-Jr 19 6 5 11 4
2012-2013 Blues U20 Jr. A SM-liiga 0 0 0 0 0 Playoffs 8 4 9 13 4
Blues Liiga 32 11 5 16 22
Finland U20 WJC-20 1 2 1 3 0
Finland U20 (all) International-Jr 8 3 4 7 4
2013-2014 Blues Liiga 60 13 16 29 12 Playoffs 7 3 4 7 0
2014-2015 Blues Liiga 57 16 21 37 14 Playoffs 4 1 1 2 0
2015-2016 Kärpät Liiga 58 15 20 35 51 Playoffs 8 0 3 3 0
Kärpät Champions HL 13 1 6 7 6
2016-2017 Vityaz Podolsk KHL 59 19 25 44 38 Playoffs 4 0 0 0 7
Finland EHT 9 7 1 8 4
Finland WC 8 0 0 0 2
Finland (all) International 22 8 4 12 8
2017-2018 Toronto Marlies AHL - - - - -

Marlies or Leafs?

Is there enough there to make a step up from the KHL to the NHL? Or is a lateral move to a top AHL team what Aaltonen can muster in a move to North America? In making this move, he might have an advantage over the two Swedish defenders that we keep insisting on seeing as a group of three similar free agents.

Oscar Fantenberg, an SHL standout defender who was signed by the Los Angeles Kings, is facing the same question: Can he crack the NHL roster, or is he looking at a year in the AHL?

Oscar Fantenberg believes he is benefiting from having a KHL season behind him as he moves to North America. In Russia, he quickly learned to deal with circumstances that could never happen in Sweden.

"You ended up outside your comfort zone with all that means. It was a different culture and, above all, another coaching culture and another type of hockey. You bring that experience.

"At home in Sweden you are safe, but there I had to manage myself. This means that you have to dare to believe in yourself a little more. I feel I'm going over [to Los Angeles] with a little more meat on my legs and stronger backbone now.

Aaltonen’s year in Vityaz is an experience that Calle Rosén and Andreas Borgman don’t have. He’s also older, and is a fully mature player in his prime. If any of the three of them are to crack the NHL this year, it should be Aaltonen, and that’s why I ranked him higher.

He also has a way in to the Leafs roster that the two defenders don’t. Aaltonen is a both a centre and a winger in a way that makes him more of a hybrid player. He is good at faceoffs, passable in the defensive zone, moves through the neutral zone like a winger and plays largely like a winger in the offensive zone. As a fourth line utility player, that’s not a bad set of skills, but does his game that got him top line play in Europe really translate to the fourth line on the Leafs?

Aaltonen is not Nikita Soshnikov, who plays like Matt Martin’s more talented Russian brother. He’s got a quiet, physically bland game that relies on positioning and passing to score goals. He does not, in my very, very limited chances to see him on the Finnish national team this spring, seem to stand up well to pressure.

I confess to being a little mystified by this signing. At the time, it made sense if Aaltonen, who really is Josh Leivo Lite, was there to be a backup power play specialist after Leivo went to Vegas. Leivo went nowhere. And I am not certain what the point of Aaltonen is other than to be a waiver exempt depth prospect. Any free agent signing of this type costs only an SPC, so it’s virtually risk free, however. But the need is for a true centre, and he’s not that.

Janik Beichler, our newest writer, said this about him:

Creative goal scorer who developed well and consistently over the past few years while producing at the highest level in Europe. Will need time to adjust but I think he could become a solid secondary scorer with the right linemates.

If you ask the abstract question: Could he make an NHL roster? The answer is clearly yes, perhaps with a year in the AHL first. Colorado, Vegas, Vancouver all spring to mind. But the Leafs? Where? There would need to be a fairly long list of either players traded or injured to see that happen, including Leivo.

But training camp will be the proof. Aaltonen’s most recent hockey experience was a poor one where he failed to crack a weak Finnish national team at the World Championships with a coach doing strange things with his lineup. Leafs training camp is at least likely to be more rational than that episode in his life. And he can make of this opportunity whatever he is capable of.

What do you think? Free depth, so whatever happens is fine, or do you think he’s better than we realize?