In 2021-22, the Boston Bruins’ defense has seen its share of highs and lows. There are the obvious highs of Charlie McAvoy and his continued ascent to becoming an elite NHL defenseman. Then there have been the lows. Jakub Zboril‘s season is over after he tore his ACL in December, a blow to the team that was already struggling with depth. Yet, while some players have struggled, the door has been opened for Urho Vaakanainen to cement his spot in Boston.
Before this season, the 2017 draft pick had played 16 NHL games and had failed to make an impression. He’s suffered some untimely injuries that affected his opportunities, and after losing the final roster spot to Zboril last season, many started to write him off or assumed he would find a better opportunity elsewhere.
Given how well he has played in13 games this season, everyone has noticed Vaakanainen. In recent games, he has been rewarded with more ice time as his star continues to rise. Even if he is eventually traded, this stretch has surely increased his value and interest from around the NHL.
Journey to the NHL Draft
Vaakanainen was born on Jan. 1, 1999 in Joensuu, Finland. The left-shot defenseman stands at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds. He’s a bit of a middle-ground defenseman. He isn’t the shifty Torey Krug/Mike Reilly type, but he isn’t as big as Brandon Carlo. He was known for being a bit undersized leading up to the draft, but he makes up for it with great skating and a skilled ability to move the puck.
In 2012-13, he played for the U16 team and U18 team in Jokipojat, Finland, and then moved to the Espoo Blues’ U16 and U18 teams in the 2013-14 season. He made the move to play with the Blues’ U20 team in 2014-15 as a 16-year-old. In 30 games in the U20 SM-liiga, he registered four goals and 12 points and was a plus-20.
Vaakanainen also played for Team Finland’s U17 and U18 teams. In 2017, he represented Finland at the World Junior Championship and registered one goal in six games.
After an impressive 2016-17 season that saw him play 41 games for JYP in Liiga, the top professional hockey league in Finland, Vaakanainen was selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Level Draft. He went 18th overall to the Boston Bruins.
Finding Success with the Providence Bruins
Following the draft, Vaakanainen played for SaiPa in the Liiga, where he registered 11 points in 43 games, including four goals, and was a plus-24. In 2018-19, he moved to North America and played for the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League (AHL) as a 19-year-old. In 30 games that season, he registered four goals and 14 points. Despite adjusting the smaller ice, which can sometimes be tough for young European skaters, he improved on his last season in Finland.
In 2018-19, he took time away from the AHL to compete for Finland at World Juniors and won the gold medal with a talented lineup that included Anton Lundell, Ville Heinola, Kaapo Kakko, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in goal. Vaakanainen wore the “A” for his team and contributed four assists; he’s the last Bruins prospect to win a gold medal at the tournament.
He continued to find success in Providence in the difficult 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. He had another 14-point season in 2019-20 in 54 games and three points in 11 games in the AHL last season. In last year’s shortened season, he split his time between Providence and Boston but struggled to find his footing and spent a fair amount of time on the taxi squad.
Cementing Playing Time in Boston
Vaakanainen made his NHL debut in his first season in North America. He played two games in the 2018-19 season before a concussion cut his call-up short. He played five more games the following season and nine games in 2020-21.
Vaakanainen finally seems to be solidifying his role in Boston this season. In 13 games, he’s averaging 20:16 of ice time, almost a minute and a half more than the nine games he played last season and three minutes more than the five games he played in 2019-20.
While he has yet to score that elusive first NHL goal – and has struggled to produce offensively -Vaakanainen has still found ways to make an impact. He’s playing with confidence and isn’t afraid to take charge and quarterback the offense.
It has taken him time to develop, but he only has 28 games of NHL experience under his belt, and it can take anywhere from 50 to 100 games to really gauge a player’s ceiling. Vaakanainen isn’t on the same level as fellow 2017 first-round selections Cale Makar and Miro Heiskanen, but nor is he a bust.
Slowly but surely, he is carving out a spot for himself in the NHL. Now that he’s been given the opportunity to play more than one or two games, Vaakanainen can push himself to become a full-time player at the NHL level; let’s hope the hit from Yanni Gourde in Tuesday’s game against the Seattle Kraken when he left the game early, doesn’t prove to be a serious injury.
Where Do the Bruins Go Moving Forward?
Vaakanainen brings a spark to a Bruins’ blue line that has struggled this season, and his impressive play has likely raised his trade value. While I don’t think the team should give up on a first-round selection so quickly, it’s possible Boston isn’t the right spot for him, and he might flourish elsewhere while bringing in pieces that the team needs.
After Jake DeBrusk’s trade request earlier in the season, Vaakanainen could be another piece to sweeten that trade and get either a more experienced defenseman or a center in return. Of course, Vaakanainen hasn’t requested a trade, and general manager Don Sweeney hasn’t said anything to the media.
Vaakanainen should be part of the Bruins’ plans as we reach the halfway point and as the trade deadline creeps closer. Either he’s part of a deal to get something the team needs in return or he should get a serious shot at NHL playing time. But first, we can hope that any possible injury he may have suffered last night is not serious. Losing Vaakanainen for a long stretch would be a tough blow for the Bruins.
I’m Hannah Garfield, a graduate of Elon University with degrees in Film and Media Analytics. Currently, I’m pursuing my MFA in Screenwriting at Boston University. I’m a lifelong, passionate Boston sports fan and love all things Bruins.