With the way our prospect pool looks right now, the New Jersey Devils' management might as well be wearing "Talented Forwards Wanted" signs around their necks at the upcoming NHL Draft. Once you get to the later rounds, there are chances that you might strike gold; however, there is no guarantee that anyone you draft here will ever wind up being a consistent producer at the NHL level. With the lack of impact forwards coming up through our system, the Devils need to look for "boom or bust" type prospects to try and fill out the pool a bit; today we investigate to see if Aleksi Saarela fits that bill.
Who is Aleksi Saarela?
Born in Helsinki, Finland on January 7th, 1997, Aleksi Saarela is a youngster who has played his entire professional career so far in his native country. After passing through the junior system, he has made his way into Liiga (Finnish Elite League) which is the top hockey league in Finland. While he put up some impressive numbers playing for Lukko's U16, U18 and U20 teams, he has yet to be able to replicate those results with Lukko and Assat; here are his complete stats courtesy of Elite Prospects:
As you can see above, his point totals were pretty good for the U16, U18 and U20 teams and having a goal and an assist in 3 games with Lukko in 2012-13 is pretty good too. From there, Aleksi's ability level has been murkier; he would play 12 games for Lukko in 2013-14 and only registered 2 assists; he would join Assat for this past season and recorded 6 goals and 6 assists in 51 games. Granted these stats do not take into account just how much (or how little) ice time he is receiving. It's also strange that while he posted 9 points in 8 games for the international U18 team, he went pointless in 7 games for the international U20.
What Others Have Said About Saarela
Information on Saarela isn't as readily available as it is on other prospects probably due in part to where he plays and also in part to the fact that he is projected to be drafted somewhere after the third round. Curtis Joe of Elite Prospects scouted Saarela though and sees him as a winger who creates a good amount of scoring chances with the energy he brings on the ice.
A dangerous offensive winger that creates energy through scoring chances. Possesses good hockey sense as well as good hands and stickhandling ability. A smooth and speedy skater who has a lot of jump in his step. Not very large in stature; however, his diminutive size doesn't deter his scoring prowess, and that is what he will have to rely upon to be successful.
Curtis has watched Aleksi closer than I have, but from his stats alone, if he is generating scoring chances, they can't be very good ones. While he was a good point producer in the junior leagues, that success hasn't really translatde over to his time in Lukko or Assat, at least not yet. I do have to say that the part about his smooth skating stood out to me, especially after reading this report from Bill Placzek of NHL Draft Site:
A "tweeter" who so far teases with good puck control, good defensive skills, good effort away from the puck but seems to be an average skater with short choppy strides and does create separation and hasn't shown solid offensive instincts.
Color me confused; we have one report stating that Saarella is a smooth skater, and another stating basically that his strides need work. While he is ranked 31st out of all European skaters for the upcoming draft, Placzek has him going early in the sixth round, which could mean a number of things: maybe he's regressed; maybe teams are scared off by his lack of numbers; maybe there's that many North American players that will be drafted ahead of European players (doubtful, but you never know) this year.
A Little Video
First up, we have a video that is a bit hard to see, but shows Saarela scoring his first Liiga goal in his first game ever for them; the pass to Aleksi is good, and he wisely uses the defender in front of him as a way of screening the goalie:
His shot here was a nice quick release and accurate to boot. I do have to say if I were judging solely based on this video that Placzek seems right in saying that his skating could use some work; while he's taking slow, small strides from the boards towards the slot, he slogs his feet along as he goes. I would have to watch more closely to form an effective opinion, though his skating again isn't as smooth in this next video which highlights an Assat/JYP game from this past season; to get a good look at Saarela, fast forward to a 1:30 and watch as he makes the pass that leads to Assat's first of the game:
Aleksi makes a nice, sharp, crisp pass here, and his movement behind the net got the goalie just out of position for his teammate Jarno Karki to net a goal.
An Opinion of Sorts
Due to past trades, our Devils only have two picks after the first three rounds this year: a fourth and a sixth rounder. Provided that one or both are not traded with other assets to try to improve the team, our scouts will have to make a couple of careful decisions with who they pick.
If I were part of the scouting team, I don't think I would have Saarela high on my list, even in terms of late round guys. He strikes me as more of the same as what we have in the system already: bottom-6 forwards that may not even get to the NHL. While he has flashes of brilliance, his point totals tell me that these are few and far between; that or he's playing with the Liiga equivalent of Dainius Zubrus and Tuomo Ruutu. Either way, he's already playing in a league against men, which to me is a good measure of whether or not he would be an effective NHLer; maybe he just needs some more size and experience, but to me, the answer is no.
As I said earlier in this article, New Jersey needs to be targeting "boom or bust" guys with these picks; if they pan out, excellent, if they don't, no big deal either as it was a late round pick. We need to try and find a few guys with those picks that have had their stock tail off for one reason or another (injury or personal, not skill-related) and help them to turn it around within our system. While Saarela might turn out to be an okay player, I don't think he's the right fit for our team.
Now I'd like to hear your thoughts on Aleksi Saarela; do you like what you have seen/heard of him? Do you think it would be wise for the Devils to spend a late round pick on him? Do you dislike any/all of his game? Do you think there will be better options for New Jersey to take with the fourth and sixth round picks? Leave any and all comments below, and as always thank you for reading!