On May 18, 2018, the Carolina Hurricanes signed Finnish winger Saku Maenalanen to a one-year entry-level contract (ELC) at a value of $925,000, plus potential performance bonuses. Originally a fifth-round pick by the Nashville Predators back in 2013, Maenalanen returned to his SM-Liiga team, Karpat, in Finland after his draft day to continue his development, and he ultimately became an NHL free agent. This past May, Maenalanen officially signed his first NHL contract with the Hurricanes a week before his 24th birthday.
There is plenty of reason to believe that this signing may actually prove to be impactful on the Hurricanes’ roster during the 2018-19 season. With the flurry of moves happening in and around the Canes organization since the end of the regular season, it isn’t at all surprising how this signing flew under the radar, but Maenalanen may not be some guy they signed just to play in Charlotte with the Checkers. Here we will break down Maenalanen’s pedigree, his road to the NHL, and his potential impact in North America.
Standing Out Early
Saku Maenalanen lit up Finnish U-18 leagues leading up to his draft. Both in Junior B and Junior A, Maenalanen was well over a point per game from 2010 to 2013 and even had a strong showing in international stints during his draft year. As mentioned previously, his abilities convinced an organization that has proven to have strong scouting employees in the Nashville Predators to take him in the fifth round, 125th overall, at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. It was after his draft day, however, that Maenalanen faltered.
Maenalanen seemed to struggle to find the same offensive production he enjoyed with Karpat’s U-18 and U-20 squads during his stints with the senior team, as he even spent considerable time on loan stints between 2013 and 2015. Whenever he returned to Karpat’s junior team, Maenalanen was a force offensively, but he failed early on to make a comparable impact in lesser roles playing with men. Presumably, it was for this reason in particular that Maenalanen never earned a contract with the Predators, and he continued his career in Finland.
Rise to Prominence
After a loan assignment with Lahti in Liiga and Kajaani in the Mestis league, Finland’s second-tier league behind Liiga, Maenalanen finally settled into a full-time position with the Karpat senior club in late 2015, and it was with Karpat that he began to reach his potential, improving his points per game ratio every year since 2015.
Maenalanen really showed his prowess as a more of a complete offensive threat for both his club and country during the 2017-18 campaign, where he was 11th in Liiga in scoring, produced four points in four Champions League games, and had a strong showing with Finland’s IIHF World Championship squad playing with his future teammates Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. Maenalanen appears like he could be a bit of a late bloomer, as his game has matured vastly in just a few short years.
Welcome, Saku Maenalanen! pic.twitter.com/qUVzS2rrV3
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) May 18, 2018
As reported by Chip Alexander of the News & Observer back in May, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said this of Maenalanen: “Saku is a big, strong winger who can really skate…Our scouting staff has been tracking this player for a long time.” There is clearly a level of excitement toward being able to bring in not only a player that plays like Maenalanen, but who has shown so much improvement over the past few years. Considering he just turned 24, Maenalanen is also entering the prime of his life when it comes to physical status.
Maenalanen a Roster Player?
The details concerning Maenalanen’s contract cannot be overlooked when it comes to projecting his status with the team and his place on the pecking order. A one-year, maximum value contract (for an ELC) for a guy leaving behind a likely larger payday in Europe does not line up with a season with the Charlotte Checkers for Maenalanen. Of course, every player, including Maenalanen, will have to earn their spot on the Hurricanes roster, but considering all of the young players—and specifically young wingers—projected to have a legitimate shot, Maenalanen must be in the cards as well.
Also, while Canes are expecting/hoping Svechnikov and Necas will be on their opening night roster and be impact players this season, Brind'Amour said prospects such as Valentin Zykov, Warren Foegele and Saku Maenalanen will have to earn jobs in camp. No guarantees.
— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) July 27, 2018
It is entirely in the realm of possibility that Maenalanen beats out guys like Warren Foegele, Phil Di Giuseppe, and Valentin Zykov for a chance to play for the Hurricanes if he impresses at camp. Especially with Jeff Skinner now gone, the door on the wing is wide open for Maenalanen to make some noise. He is also exactly what the Hurricanes need more of, too: A true power forward.
A disclaimer in all of this is that not all of the guys who play for the Hurricanes on opening day against the New York Islanders will play all 82 games for the Hurricanes. Injuries, performance, and losing streaks can all shake up the roster. Maenalanen has a good chance at making the roster for day one, but whether he does or does not, his status in not set in stone.
Saku Maenalanen has the potential to make a decent impact in the National Hockey League, and it would not be surprising if the Canes’ brass would like to test that theory out.
*All statistics from EliteProspects.com.