Future Watch: 10 NHL prospects thriving in Europe in 2019-20

0
78


This doesn’t qualify as a bold statement, but the future of hockey is bright in Finland.

Since 2014, the Finns have won gold and silver (twice) at the World Championship, gold (three times) at the World Junior Championship and gold (twice) and silver (twice) at the U-18 World Championship. Throw in a couple of Four Nations championships and a host of high-end talent at each age group and it’s hard to find many countries with as successful of a track record across all the major men’s tournaments as Finland has achieved.

On the draft side of things, New York Rangers right winger Kaapo Kakko is starting to find his way after going No. 2 behind Jack Hughes in the 2019 NHL draft. Aatu Raty is the early favorite to go first overall in 2021 and the 2022 draft will be highlighted by the arrival of Brad Lambert, who’s one of the top prospects to ever come from the nation. That’s not to ignore that Aleksander Barkov was a top-10 scorer last year and that Mikko Rantanen would have joined him had a late-season injury not limited him to 87 points.

So it’s not a surprise that, with Finland playing so well at every international level, that many of the top European prospects in the NHL hail from the Nordic country. In fact, you’ll notice a rather Northern European theme in this list of 10 prospects having a hot start overseas this season:

Justus Annunen, G, 19 (Colorado)
Few prospects around the world have made as much noise this season as Annunen, a third-round pick of the Avalanche in 2018 (64th overall). The big goaltender, listed at 6-foot-4 and 217 pounds, recorded the longest shutout streak in Finnish Liiga history at 302 minutes and five seconds earlier this season, beating the previous record by about 42 minutes. With a 9-0-2 record with five shutouts and a .950 save percentage through 11 games, Annunen has been nearly perfect in his first season of Liiga action and has simply outplayed Detroit Red Wings prospect Patrik Rybar in the Karpat net. Annunen will be Finland’s starting goaltender at the World Junior Championship and is a leading candidate to win the top goaltender award.

Petrus Palmu, LW, 22 (Vancouver)
While Vasily Podkolzin is still trying to find his way in Europe, Palmu has assumed the role of Vancouver’s most interesting prospect playing overseas. Since joining JYP in the Finnish Liiga this season, Palmu has put up 17 points in 11 games while skating on a line with Julius Nattinen and Jerry Turkulainen, two of the better forwards in the league. A solid goal-scorer in junior, with a 40-goal, 98-point campaign rounding out his three-year OHL career in Owen Sound, Palmu only had one point in 12 AHL games last season before getting shipped out to TPS for a 29-game, 18-point stint. He nearly surpassed that in 18 fewer games this season, so the sky is the limit for the future middle-six winger.

Santeri Virtanen, C, 20 (Winnipeg)
An injury to kick off the season kept Virtanen out for about a month, but it’s been smooth sailing ever since. The SaiPa winger has six points through his first seven games after immediately stepping into a major scoring role, closing in on his 10-point output in 40 games as a Liiga rookie last season. Virtanen was one of Finland’s best U-20 players last year, and while he seemingly came out of nowhere before the Jets picked him in the fourth round in 2017 (105th overall), it looks like we still haven’t seen what Virtanen is fully capable of.

Nils Lundkvist, D, 19 (NY Rangers)
Lundkvist has been the best U-20 NHL-drafted prospect in the SHL with two goals and 10 points – his eight assists are more than any other contender has points. A first-round pick in 2018 (28th overall), Lundkvist has spent considerable time on Lulea’s top pairing during his third season with the club, a solid feat for any U-20 defender. Lundkvist will be one of Sweden’s key defensemen at the World Junior Championship, and while he’s still a few years away from being an NHLer, he does have top-four upside.

Ilya Sorokin, G, 24 (NY Islanders)
Gee, Sorokin is near the top of the goaltending race in the KHL. What else is new? Through 16 games, Sorokin’s .941 SP is good for second among netminders with at least 10 games played and his 10 wins with CSKA Moscow puts him seventh in the league, but second among goalies with fewer than 20 starts (his four shutouts are good for second among all goaltenders). Sorokin could head to North America next summer after his contract ends in April and he could immediately jump in behind veteran Semyon Varlamov and learn the ropes from his Russian counterpart for a couple of years.

Kirill Kaprizov, LW, 22 (Minnesota)
‘Kirill the Thrill’ brought joy to Wild fans earlier this month when it was noted that he had intentions of joining the team at the conclusion of his KHL contract this season. That’s huge for a club in desperate need of help, with Kaprizov sitting second in KHL scoring with 26 points. Kaprizov’s 186 points puts him 10th among all KHLers in scoring over the past five years and far beyond what any U-24 player has achieved in that time frame. His strong campaign is nothing new, but there might finally be a light at the end of the tunnel for Wild fans.

Matias Maccelli, LW, 19 (Arizona)
It was immediately apparent that the Coyotes had a steal in Maccelli when they snagged him in the fourth round of the 2019 draft (98th overall). Since June, Maccelli was one of Arizona’s best players at the rookie tournament during the summer and has hovered around the point-per-game mark with Ilves in the Finnish Liiga, a big positive for a 19-year-old rookie pro. He’s been a prolific point-producer throughout his career and after leading all U-20 players with 14 points in 15 games, there’s not much more he can do at this point to prove he’s a legitimate top-six option for the Coyotes in a couple of years.

Victor Soderstrom, D, 18 (Arizona)
The second Coyote to appear on this list, Soderstrom sits second behind Lundkvist for points by a U-20 defenseman in the Swedish league and his 0.40 points-per-game average would have been good for first in the same age group last year. With four points in 10 games, Soderstrom isn’t far off of tying his seven-point output 44 games as a rookie last year in Brynas. Arizona’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft (11th overall), Soderstrom has upped his two-way play in Sweden and can play against any team’s top line without losing a beat. He’s the top prospect in the Coyotes’ system, and it might not be long until he makes the trip over to North America to showcase why that is.

Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, 21 (Edmonton)
If Puljujarvi plays another game in the NHL, it’s unlikely to be with the Oilers. But at least his trade value has picked up a bit thanks to a great run in Finland, with the big winger battling for the league scoring title with 20 points through 18 games. Puljujarvi simply wasn’t comfortable with his limited role on the Oilers and now that he’s looking relaxed, re-energized and at the top of his game, it’s worth a team making a low-risk move to acquire him. The first-round pick in 2016 (fourth overall) still has a lot to offer at 21 and even though he’s staying back home for the rest of the year, it won’t be surprising if a team picks him up soon to avoid his value going up higher if he ends up winning the scoring race.

Samuel Fagemo, LW, 19 (Los Angeles)
Fagemo hasn’t exactly taken huge steps to further his offensive production this season, with the winger on pace to finish near the 25-point mark he had as a rookie last season in Frolunda. Still, Fagemo is a creative forward with a terrific shot, and some great showings with Sweden’s U-20 team in international play – highlighted by five goals in seven games – has shown there’s nothing really to worry about. Fagemo has the makings of a middle-six forward who needs a good setup man to get the most out of him, but he’s still tracking well right now.

Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.