Robin Salo is a solid left handed defenseman hailing from Espoo, Finland. He has had himself a very solid career in Finland up until this point; I would have said junior career, and that is still largely accurate, but he has legitimately played the entire season this year in the main Finish professional league, the Liiga, as well as playing 16 games there last year as well. He has spent a year and a half playing hockey amongst men considerably older in one of the best professional leagues in Europe, arguably the best outside of the KHL (the SHL in Sweden would have something to say about that, but they are both very good).
Unlike some other European players who decided to play their draft season in the Canadian juniors so that they could be seen playing the game over here, Salo took the route of playing a full year in his home country’s pro league. There is no definitive method that works better, and some certainly would argue that playing with professionals and adults is better experience than playing with kids in junior leagues. I guess we will see on June 23rd what teams think about Robin given his path.
Who is Robin Salo?
Salo has played his entire career in the Finnish organization Sport, which is located in Vaasa, on the western coast of Finland. They were relegated out of the Liiga (then known as SM-Liiga) in 1976, and were only recently promoted back into the top Finnish league at the start of the 2014-15 season, so they are relatively new in the ranks of the top Finnish pros. Because of this, they were quite terrible in the Liiga this year during Salo’s first full year there, going 16-28-5-11, finishing 14th of 15 teams in the league.
Despite that, Salo had himself a quality season. He produced 16 points in 54 games, good for just under 0.3 points per game. That does not sound like anything special, but remember that this is a 17/18 year old playing in a men’s professional league in Finland, which regularly produces NHL-level talent. Given that, what he produced is quite a positive. Those 16 points ranked him tied for 34th amongst all Liiga defensemen, and was tied for 3rd amongst all defensemen on his team. Furthermore, just amongst undrafted defense prospects playing in the Liiga this year, Salo was ranked 1st with those 16 points, ahead of top defensive prospect Miro Heiskanen (although Salo did play in 17 more Liiga games than Heiskanen did). Again, this is all good. (Fun fact: Heiskanen is also from Espoo).
Furthermore, Salo has quality experience playing with Finland in international play. He had played 36 games at the International Juniors, 15 of them for the U20 team. He also has 14 games of experience at the WJC and another 5 games played at the Hlinka Memorial. His point production in those games has been almost nonexistent, with a grand total of 6 points spread across all of those tournaments, but again that does not mean he was awful in all of those games. The experience alone is a benefit. And when you combine a heavy amount of games played internationally, along with a full season plus in the Liiga, it means a lot of excellent game tape and experience he has for scouts to see.
Where is Salo Ranked?
Perhaps due to his experience, Salo has some pretty favorable rankings. Central Scouting has him as their 20th ranked European skater entering the draft, a touch down from 17th, where they had him at the midterm ranking. That is a solid ranking either way, good most likely for a second round draft position or somewhere near.
To supplement the idea of Robin being looked at as a second rounder, Future Considerations has him as their 34th ranked player entering the draft, which would equate to not only a second round selection, but a very high one. The Draft Analyst agrees with Future Considerations and has Salo as the 33rd ranked player in this year’s draft. The site had him as the 38th player back in February, but has since moved him up the list.
Craig Button, however, only has Salo ranked as his 100th best player entering the draft, a significant drop from where the others are ranking him. It is hard to exactly say why, but given the fact that the general consensus seems to have him higher than this, I would still project Salo as most likely a second rounder, not a third. Is there a chance he could fall, however? Absolutely.
What Others Have Said About Salo
The Hockey Writers wrote up a draft profile on Salo a couple weeks ago, on May 5th. The writer, Zachary Devine, notes instantly some positives about his stay in the Liiga this year. Despite being a rookie, he played on Sport’s top pairing and played considerable minutes, being responsible for shutting down the opposition’s top line. So he has experience already in a professional league playing against top competition. Furthermore, he had this to say about his game:
Hallmarks of Salo’s game start with responsible and effective defensive zone play. He is positionally sound and reads the play well to keep his positioning on the ice where it pushes attacking forward to the board. Salo has a smart and active stick which helps him separate the puck from the opposition. Additionally, he possesses a good shot from the point and launches the puck quickly…His decisions with the puck no matter if it is a shot or a pass are quick and his zone exit passes to move the play up ice are dependable.
There are some great positives there to note. What Devine really says about him paints him as a defensively sound d-man. He plays smart in his own zone, has a good ability to keep opposing forwards away, and also has a good ability to make zone exit passes. If you want a defenseman who can log big minutes and play sound defensively within the system, Salo is your guy. For negatives, THW writes that his shot, while nice, is not overly accurate, his footwork is only average, and he would do well to add another gear to his top speed. But those seem minor as compared to the positives that they paint as him being a defensively sound d-man. THW seems to agree with this, giving the overall concluding statement that Salo is a “Dependable and traditional two-way defender that will get little attention, which is good for a defenseman, but consistently chip in offensively.”
The Last Word on Hockey also did a profile of Salo, released four days after THW’s profile. They had this to say about his overall defensive game:
Robin Salo projects as a top four defenceman, if he can work on his weaknesses. He may never be a big-time scorer, but a solid second unit power play player, and the ability to be used on the penalty kill could be in his future. Salo has a lot of the skills you want in a young defenceman, he just is not dominant at any one aspect. Overall he can become a well-rounded defenceman used in all situations.
As for those weaknesses, they paint a similar picture that THW did. They do not like his skating, they say his stride is “very choppy and awkward.” They also agree that his top speed is lacking. However, given that, they still come to some very promising conclusions. They compare his game to Niklas Hjalmarsson, saying that he plays a smart game, both offensively and defensively, has great positioning, and can anticipate the play well. Overall, considering they project him as a top 4 type of guy, he is certainly someone to target, especially for a Devils team that does not have a large number of top 4 defensive prospects anymore.
Draft Site has Salo projected to go 72nd overall to Los Angeles in the draft, which is a third rounder. They seem to split the middle somewhat between Button’s projection and everyone else’s. In the write up, Bill Placzek wrote:
Finnish defender with prototypical size, who plays a solid and steady game with good positioning, good reads and a quick stick. At this juncture doesn’t project as impact up ice offensive performer, but has many tools that are on an uptick. He is a solid stickhandler and can handle the reception of hard passes even on the fly. Doesn’t rush in his end when the puck comes to him for its trek back to the offensive side; he will start his feet moving before trying to rush it off his stick if there is the time to start moving out. He then finds the best outlet into the attack zone. Has upside with time.
Again, Placzek seems to say the same as the others. Steady defender. Has some offense, but does not project as an offensive defenseman. Plays smart, and perhaps most importantly for a defensive defenseman, has a strong ability to create zone exits with his passing. The upside is enticing: a solid defender you never question when he is out there.
A Little Video
The first, and really only quality video I could find, turns out to be a great one to watch if you want to analyze his game. It is a highlight video, but not a normal one that just shows plays that lead to goals. They show many of Salo’s shots, passes, keep-ins, etc. from the U18 Championships last year. If you want to check out some real plays that showcase his game, watch this one:
Here are two assists he made in a game for Sport back in October. They are not particularly exciting to watch, but they do show him playing in the Liiga, and doing so successfully.
While not rated quite as highly, and his game is not quite the same, Salo reminds me of a prospect like Steven Santini when the Devils took him several years ago. He is a solid defensive prospect who does not seem to be a major risk. He has upside, he is defensively sound, and selecting him in the second round or so would bring about a high chance of paying some dividends sooner rather than later. Santini was rated higher in 2013, and many thought he could be a first round choice, while no one really projects Salo as a first rounder. But Salo has a similar vibe about him, and perhaps even brings with him a slightly better offensive game.
What makes me think that he could easily be a second round choice, amongst all of the other positives that were mentioned about his game, is that he played successfully at such a young age in the Liiga. It is not easy to play against adults and career professionals when you are a 17/18 year old looking to get drafted. Yet he did so, and did it as a top pairing guy playing major minutes against the best competition that the top Finnish league has to offer. And not only was he not terrible, but he was actually pretty darn successful. While no one doubts that there is a major jump between the Liiga and the NHL, it is just a strong indicator that he has the ability to play at a high level, and if he continues to improve as he enters his early 20s, there is no reason that he cannot become a solid top 4 d-man at the NHL level.
The Devils pick at 36 and 49 in the second round, the 49th selection coming from Boston thanks to the Lee Stempniak trade. They also pick at 63rd and 67th in the third round, the former coming from Colorado thanks to the Eric Gelinas trade. Despite what Draft Site and Craig Button project, I most likely would not wait until the third round to see if Salo is still available. I know that the Devils need offense and need scoring, even scoring from the blue line, but they also just need strong, solid defensive prospects as well. The pipeline is thin at the defensive position, and Salo would boost it instantly. He may not be flashy, he may not have that Gelinas shot, but he also does not give up breakaways like Gelinas did. Salo is the defender that you don’t want to notice out on the ice, because it generally means he is doing his job effectively. The Devils could absolutely use that kind of security. I don’t see any reason as to why Ray Shero should not take him at 49 if he is available at that point. Taking him at 36 would not even bother me, although I do think there is a decent chance they could snag him at 49 if they are willing to risk it. To me, taking someone like Salo, just like when they took Santini, is a safe play, and that is not a bad thing at all. New Jersey doesn’t need flashy players that don’t pan out. They need solid players that form the backbone of this team. Salo could be that type of guy if he continues to grow.
Now that you’ve read up on Salo and have also read my opinion, what do you think? Do you agree that the Devils could use someone like Robin Salo in the pipeline? Or, do you think that they should go after more forwards and offensive defensemen instead, given the team’s lack of scoring abilities? What about Salo’s game do you like, and where are you nervous about him? Where would you want him to be taken, given what picks the Devils have? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading another prospect profile at AATJ!