In the category of players you may not have heard of, let me introduce you to Saku Maenalanen — an offseason signing of the Winnipeg Jets, who until recently has stealthily flown under the radar compared to other newcomers trying to make the team. That was, until they started playing preseason games.
He has boldly played himself into the “who could crack the roster” conversation after only two exhibition games. Following the Jets’ first preseason match in Edmonton, he was scheduled to be a scratch for the their next game two nights later — a home game against the Ottawa Senators — but that changed.
#NHLJets Saku Maenalanen has been very good again tonight. I chatted with the 28-year-old Finn earlier today and have a story in tomorrow’s @WinnipegNews on him. Rick Bowness said Maenalanen wasn’t slated to play tonight, but plans changed based on strong game Sunday.— Mike McIntyre (@mikemcintyrewpg) September 28, 2022
Head coach Rick Bowness reconsidered and inserted him into the lineup. “The more we watch him, the more we like. Was he scheduled to play? No. But he played really well in Edmonton.” They clearly wanted to get another look at him in game conditions and he didn’t disappoint.
Maenalanen is Betting on Himself
This is the second attempt at the NHL for the 6-foot-4, left-handed forward. He was selected in the fifth round of the 2013 Entry Draft by the Nashville Predators. However, they never signed him, so he remained in Finland to continue improving his game. In May of 2018, he signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. He started the 2018-19 season with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League (AHL) and after 23 games was called up to the Hurricanes. In 34 regular-season games, he scored eight points (four goals, four assists), had 20 minutes in penalties and had a noticeable impact on the team. Due to an upper-body injury, he only made nine playoff appearances during the Hurricanes’ run to the Eastern Conference Final managing only one assist.
As a restricted free agent, Maenalanen was unable to come to terms with the Hurricanes and chose to return to Finland. He spent the next two seasons with Jokerit (Helsinki) who were, at the time, members of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia. He returned to the Finnish Elite League (Liiga) last season when he joined Karpat and had a successful season.
Last season was a memorable one for Meanalanen. He scored 13 goals and added 28 assists in 41 games, and was Karpat’s leading scorer. His point totals placed him in the top 15 in Liiga, and earned him a place on the Finnish National Team, the same team that went on to win gold medals at both the Olympic Games and the World Championships last winter.
Maenalanen’s Last Chance at the NHL
According to Maenalanen himself, “I wanted to play in the NHL. This is my last chance. I’m 28 years old. That’s why I’m here. I’m a much better player. That’s why I went back to Europe to play games, and now I’m ready. This is a good chance for me.”
You can expect Maenalanen to get several more looks based on how he’s played through the first two #NHLJets preseason games.— Ken Wiebe (@WiebesWorld) September 28, 2022
He signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Jets in the offseason. His hope is to make an impression with the coaching staff for one of the few available forward spots. The downside for the Jets is he would have to clear waivers before he could be reassigned to the Manitoba Moose of the AHL.
“There’s plenty to like about the player. His 6-4, 207-pound frame certainly stands out, especially on a Winnipeg roster that doesn’t have a ton of size up front. He’s versatile, a left-hand shot who can play any forward position. He’s also hungry, after getting a taste of the NHL in the form of 34 games during the 2018-19 season in which he scored four goals and added four assists with the Carolina Hurricanes. He believes he can be an effective two-way player, something the Jets tried to get a closer look at Tuesday night.”– Mike McIntyre (from: Big Finnish forward turning heads in bid to make Jets, Winnipeg Free Press, 28/09/2022)
For Maenalanen to claim one of the available forward spots, or dislodge someone already pencilled in, he is going to have to continually impress. He’s obviously done that thus far, but camp is far from over and there are too many candidates to fit the few available spots.
His upside is size and versatility. He can play any of the forward positions, is not afraid to be physical and his penalty-killing skills, which he improved while in Europe, would be a real asset.The Jets do have a history for adding low-cost depth to round out their roster, so don’t discount him from being in the lineup for the Jets’ season opener.