As we covered in the previous installment of this series, shortly after the draft, the Chicago Blackhawks acquired defenseman Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes for Anton Forsberg and Gustav Forsling. This time we are going to take a look at the other piece of that trade – forward Aleksi Saarela.
Blackhawks Improve Their Prospect Pool
Saarela could be a diamond in the rough and should not be looked like just a “throw-in” type of player. The 22-year-old is coming off a career season with the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL that ended with a Calder Cup championship. He scored 30 goals and 54 points in 69 regular-season games. In his 17 playoff games, he lit the lamp seven times while piling up eight assists.
“You’ve got to be mentally tough and it’s a tough series playing against the best teams in the league and playing against top lines every night,” Saarela told the Blackhawks official website about his playoff experience. “You have to be ready in every situation for what’s going on on the ice and I felt like it was kind of a learning experience at the start, but once I stepped in, I felt comfortable to deal with that.”
Related – Meet the New Blackhawks: Dominik Kubalik
The Hurricanes have a deep pool of offensive prospects, which is part of the reason Saalera has spent nearly all of his time in the AHL. He did make his NHL debut in Game 5 of the Hurricanes’ first-round playoff series versus the Washington Capitals but did not find the scoresheet.
He will get every chance to earn an NHL spot with the Blackhawks, as they do not have nearly as many prospects upfront as Carolina does. At the very least, he will be a big fish in a small pond if he has to spend time with the Rockford IceHogs this season.
Saarela’s Shot Is Down Right Deadly
Whether you read scouting reports or hear it directly from coaches, the first thing that comes to mind about Saarela is his shot.
The Athletic’s prospect analyst Corey Pronman on Saarela: “Saarela had a strong second season in the AHL, as a top scorer for the top team in the league. Saarela is a talented player with speed and skill, but what makes him deadly is his shot. He’s got a 70 if not an 80 grade wrist shot that he can absolutely rip to the top corner from any spot in the offensive zone. His above-average speed and skill allow him to create space to make the most of that shot. My issues with Saarela are, while he’s skilled, it’s not high-end skill; he’s small and he leans on his shot too much, refusing to play between the dots. He may not have enough dimensions for the NHL but the talent is there and the production, so I think he could make it.”
From “NHL Trade Grades: What the Calvin de Haan swap means for the Blackhawks and Hurricanes,” The Athletic – 6/24/19
I got to watch Saarela closely during the Calder Cup Final in June. He is an intriguing prospect who can play both the center and left-wing position. He creates plenty of scoring chances, either with his passing or his very good shot. He is a fluid and fast skater and has the hands to match is active feet.
He scored one of the biggest goals of the AHL’s championship series. The Chicago Wolves built an early 3-1 lead, in Game 4, before Saarela completed the comeback with a wicked shot that beat goaltender Oscar Dansk to the short side.
The Checkers went on to win the contest and took a 3-1 series lead, winning the Calder Cup one game later.
“He’s dangerous from all over the ice, no matter where he shoots from,” former Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci said of Saarela after the Game 4 win. “(His shot) is heavy, it’s quick. It catches you by surprise.
“I had an argument with Steve Smith in Carolina last year. He thought Justin Faulk’s wrist shot was harder. I said ‘No, I think his (Saarela) is.’ It’s the hardest shot I’ve seen. It’s an unbelievable release.”
The Plan Is to Play in the NHL From Day One
Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell gave some insight on why he decided to include Saarela in the de Haan trade to John Dietz of the Daily Herald.
While Saarela definitely has some upside, he still has a lot of work to do in order to make the permanent jump to the NHL.
“Obviously it’s my goal to play in the NHL every game,” Saarela said. “It was a cool experience to play that one playoff game in Washington and I’m going to work my ass off during the summer so I can be even closer to making the dream come true.”
If he cannot make the opening night roster out of training camp, Saarela will be a welcomed addition to the IceHogs lineup. Rockford was the lowest-scoring team in the entire AHL last season and did not have a single player score 20 goals for them.