The early group at the NHL Combine was laced with Finnish-grown talent. From Miro Heiskanen to Eeli Tolvanen, it would’ve taken less time to list those that weren’t born in the European country than those who were.
Among the group, though, there was one Finnish defenceman that hasn’t had his name published as often as some of his countrymen that stood alongside him in Buffalo. His name is Urho Vaakanainen.
Who is Vaakanainen?
At nearly six-foot-three and weighing in at roughly 190 pounds, Vaakanainen still has some filling out to do. But assuming he can fill out that tall frame, he has the potential to be a force on the blue line for any NHL club.
While his offensive numbers weren’t really anything to write home about with Liiga’s JYP – scoring two goals and four assists in 41 games – his size and ability to play in his own end is much more intriguing to a team looking for a big, stay-at-home defenceman.
Ranked anywhere from 18 to 29, the consensus is clear. This Finnish defenceman will soon be an first-round pick at the NHL Entry Draft. But, with that said, is it possible that his name gets lost within the jumble of other high-end blue line talent in this years prospect class?
The Forgotten Finn
While some might question how a possible first-round pick could remotely be considered underrated, think about this for a second.
Cale Makar, Juuso Valimaki, Callan Foote, Miro Heiskanen and Timothy Liljegren are all listed above Vaakanainen on the NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings. Even Erik Brannstrom and Nic Hague are close behind the Finnish defender in terms of how coveted they are in this year’s draft.
While there has been a history of first-round defenceman not working out, recent years counteracts that assumption with players like Aaron Ekblad, Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski becoming staples for their respective clubs.
For Vaakanainen, he may be one of the better defensemen in the draft not being talked about. But, like many ready to find out their NHL fate at the draft in Chicago, Vaakanainen knows that nothing is set in stone – a valuable lesson he learned at the World Junior Championship.
“Anything can happen,” he said when asked about the WJC. “That’s what you learn there.”
The same thing can be said for the draft. Simply think back to last year when the Blue Jackets took Pierre-Luc Dubois. Many believed that Jesse Puljujarvi was surely the best option at third overall. Still, Jarmo Kekalainen decided to select Dubois and the rest is history.
While Vaakanainen is likely going to go in the mid-20 range in the first round, it is possible that anything can happen – especially with the need for defence on so many teams.
But that wasn’t the only lesson he learned as part of the Finnish team at last year’s WJC. The Finns were ousted from the tournament and had to play in the relegation round. In the process, the team fired their head coach in a surprise move.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” he said. “It was the first time in history that we fired a coach in the middle of a tournament.”
Vaakanainen explained that the experience at the WJC taught him more about the game and what he needs to become an NHL caliber defenceman. It’s simple – hunger.
Being in Buffalo, there were obviously questions regarding their own Finnish blueliner in Rasmus Ristolainen.
“I’m not like Ristolainen,” said Vaakanainen when asked to compare his game with the current NHLer. “He’s big, and everyone would like to be like him.”
So, what should make this young blueliner appealing to teams as they make their first-round selections? It’s simple. He’s hungry for the puck.
“I like Roman Josi,” said Vaakanainen in trying to find a comparable to his type of game. “My style is not to play so physical, but I can be physical if I need to. I like to defend with my stick and take the puck away.”
While he likely won’t jump over some of the top defensemen in this draft, don’t be surprised to see Vaakanainen’s stock increase on Draft Day. He had interviews with 29 teams over the week with Arizona and the New York Islanders being the only two to pass on the Finnish product.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.