At this year’s NHL Combine, 31 teams will analyze every square inch of fat and muscle on 104 player attendees and of course, each player will be asked hockey’s most important off-ice questions in an effort to shed light on who they are outside the game.
Filled With Finns
The first group of players who started the combine’s physical tests were mostly of Finnish heritage, with nine out of 12 visiting from Finland. For some Finns in particular, the 2016-17 season was an excellent year for getting quality exposure. Look at Miro Heiskanen for instance.
He’s a defenseman who spent the season playing for HIFK of the Liiga. A lot of the industry’s top scouting services didn’t even have him ranked on their lists of Top 31 prospects at the beginning of the year but now they’re all projecting him to go somewhere in the top 10. In fact, Sportsnet and McKeen’s Hockey actually think he’ll be taken at number three overall, which means the Dallas Stars would get the guy that many are calling the best defenseman in the draft.
Kristian Vesalainen is another Finnish attendee at this year’s NHL Combine and he absolutely agrees that Heiskanen is the best blueliner in this summer’s draft. “He’s a great guy — a great player,” he told reporters Saturday morning at the HarborCentre in Buffalo, NY, following his own physical tests. “I think he’s going to be an NHL star pretty soon”.
Vesalainen plays both sides of the wing and spent most of the 2016-17 season with Frölunda of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). “Yeah, it was pretty tough mentally actually,” he admitted. “I had some tough times in Sweden. My family lived in Finland so I was alone there, so it was pretty tough”.
Unlike Heiskanen, Vesalainen was selected in the 2016 CHL Import Draft in the second round at no. 68 by the Flint Firebirds. He decided to hone his skills in Europe though, and will likely continue to do so with HPK for the 2017-18 season. For Vesalainen, there’s at least one area of his game he’s looking to improve going forward.
“I want to just use my size a little better,” he said. “I’m a big guy, so I want to be stronger in the corners and go a little bit harder on the net”. And on that note, when asked about this year’s season, he said there wasn’t anything he would have done differently.
Interestingly, McKeen’s Hockey ranked Vesalainen at number nine in their Top 31 prospect rankings for the month of May, which means they believe he’ll be selected by the Detroit Red Wings come draft day. Compared to the other scouting organization’s top 31 lists though, McKeen’s has been rather generous with his ranking.
With the exception of NHL Central Scouting, who have two lists, one for North American skaters and another for Europeans, everyone else ranked him between no. 30 and no. 19 in their most recent rankings. What’s even more interesting is that a whopping 30 NHL teams had already talked to him this week and the only team who didn’t were the New York Islanders.
NHL Combine Unites Vesalainen & Vaakanainen Again
Although Vesalainen played 26 games in the SHL this year, he was loaned to HPK of the Liiga for a total of nine games and that’s when he played against Urho Vaakanainen, a fellow Finn at the NHL Combine.
On Nov. 24, 2016, they both saw a decent amount of ice time and although neither scored any points, it did allow them to get some good looks at each other. Vaakanainen played on defense for JYP and he also participated in this morning’s first group of 12 for physical testing alongside Vesalainen.
Similarly, Vaakanainen was drafted in the 2016 CHL Import Draft during the first round at no. 41 by the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. And like Vesalainen, he remained in Europe to further his development with the Finnish league.
McKeen’s Hockey ranked him at no. 13 on their list of Top 31 prospect rankings for May and if they’re right about him, the Winnipeg Jets will unite him with fellow Finn Patrik Laine, the no. 2 pick from the 2016 Draft, and thereby mark the start of a Finnish invasion in Winnipeg.
Again, McKeen’s Hockey ranked Vaakanainen well above the other scouting service organizations (with the exception of NHL Central Scouting who uses two lists). Furthermore, 29 NHL teams spoke to Vaakanainen thus far and the only two who didn’t are the Arizona Coyotes and the New York Islanders.
Finnish Athletes Excelling Everywhere
It seems that Finnish athletes are indeed gaining a lot of good exposure this year and it’s happening in both Europe and North America. In fact, there’s actually a Finnish guy who’s going to go in the top five in the NBA this year. “Yeah, Markkanen,” Vaakanainen told reporters in his post-NHL Combine testing media scrum on Saturday. “I’ve been watching his games. He’s a really good player.”
It seems that the Finns have been making huge strides in their pursuit to total North American athletic dominance in recent years. It was only four years ago when Jarmo Kekäläinen, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ current general manager became the NHL’s first European GM. Finland’s national junior team won gold in both the 2016 and 2014 World Junior Championships (WJC) and their local fan base absolutely loved it, having just short of half the country’s population tuned in for at least part of the 2016 WJC’s final game when Finland beat Russia 4-3 in overtime.
Talk about support.
The 2017 NHL Draft will surely showcase a slew of high-end Finnish boys in just a few weeks, catapulting Finland’s growing reputation for top-tier athletic performers even further.
I’m a Hockey Journalist based out of Barrie, Ontario, a Contributing Writer for The Hockey Writers covering OHL, and NHL prospects with an insatiable thirst for all things LA Kings, and PR gal for Abel Sports Management.