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Antti Saarela: 2019 NHL Draft Prospect Profile: Finnish RW With Pro Experience

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In today’s prospect profile, come check out a Finnish winger who has quality experience in the Liiga. That will undoubtedly help him get drafted and perhaps get to the NHL sooner if he keeps growing as a player.

For today’s prospect profile at AATJ, we have a young, well-sized Finnish forward with a good amount of pro hockey experience over in his home country. He has played center, but analysts project him as most likely a right winger in the pros. Antti Saarela is listed as 5’11” and weighs 183 pounds as a 17 year old, which speaks well to filling out his frame and becoming properly sized to play pro hockey long term. I mentioned he is young, and will be one of the youngest skaters in this year’s draft. His birthday is June 27th, and will still be 17 when the draft takes place in Vancouver on the 21st and 22nd.

Despite his youth, Saarela has risen quickly through the Finnish hockey system, already playing a little over half of this past season in the Finnish pro league, the Liiga. European skaters who decide to stay in their home countries and play pro hockey as a teenager tend to have suppressed stats which make them seem less desirable than North American skaters who play junior hockey and have dominant numbers, but don’t let that fool you: his numbers might not be insane, but playing in a quality pro league against men as a 17 year old is no joke, and not only has he done that, but he did it for a good amount this year. That bodes well for his draft prospects, which could be a mid-rounder, perhaps 3rd given his rankings. Let’s dive in.

Who is Antti Saarela?

-LINK TO ELITE PROSPECTS STATS-

Antti Saarela, it is worth noting, has some good bloodlines. His father, Pasi Saarela, had a very long career as a right winger in the Liiga, getting the call up for 8 games in the 1990-1991 season, and playing there almost solely after that with two short exceptions. He had a long a successful career in the league, his last season coming in 2008-2009. Overall, in 775 career Liiga games, Pasi had 496 points, 264 of them coming as goals. Antti’s father isn’t his only link to good bloodlines, however. His uncle, while not nearly as successful as his father, did play several seasons in the Finnish junior leagues, and had a cup of coffee in the Liiga as well. But his best connection, perhaps, is with his brother, Aleksi, who is currently a member of the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Aleksi was drafted 89th overall by the New York Rangers in 2015, and has played significantly in the AHL over the last two seasons for Charlotte, posting 107 points in 147 career AHL games. He even apparently got an appearance in this year’s playoffs for the Canes for one game, although I did not know this without seeing the data on Elite Prospects. Either way, it seems that Carolina likes Aleksi, and he could become an NHL regular soon.

Antti will look to beat his brother and be drafted sooner than 89th, and he has a shot in my opinion, perhaps a toss of the coin one way or the other. Over the last two seasons, Antti has split his time between the top junior league in Finland, Jr. A, and the Liiga itself. In 2017-18 he only played one game in the Liiga, for Lukko, a team that both his father and brother played significant time for. His father was even a captain for Lukko in his last season there. In the juniors that year, Antti produced 15 points in 25 games. Those are not eye popping numbers, but it was enough for a promotion. In 2018-19, he played over half of his season for Lukko in the Liiga, producing 10 points in 24 games. Again, given this is a pro league and Antti was a 17 year old, this is really quite good. He also produced 15 points in 21 Jr. A league games this past season to round out his on ice performance. Next year, assuming he keeps playing in the Liiga instead of moving to North America, it seems that he will not be playing for Lukko anymore. According to Elite Prospects, he is now on a different team, Ilves.

Antti also has ample international experience over the last three seasons. He played at the international juniors each of the last three seasons, played at the world U-17 championships two years ago, and played at the World Juniors this past season. And his international stats are his best of the bunch. In 57 games spread across different years, ages, and tournaments, he has produced 38 points, 19 coming as goals. That is quality stuff.

Where is Saarela Ranked?

Central Scouting has held steady on Saarela throughout this season. He was ranked as the 23rd European skater at the midterms, and in the final rankings, was moved to 24th. Him and Karl Henriksson, whom I profiled last week, swapped positions.

-Future Considerations does not have Saarela all that close to Henriksson, however. Saarela is ranked #91 with FC, a late 3rd round ranking. Henriksson, however, is at #66.

-The Draft Analyst is the opposite of FC here. He has Saarela at #60 on his overall rankings, improved from 69 when he ranked back in December. Henriksson, meanwhile, is ranked #110 here.

-The Hockey Writers, for their April rankings, have essentially mimicked Central Scouting. Saarela is ranked 93rd, last pick of the 3rd round, and Henriksson is ranked 94th, first pick of the fourth.

-Draft Site has the Fin mocked to Vegas with the 82nd overall pick, two picks after New Jersey.

-Dobber Prospects, for their April rankings, had Saarela at #80 overall, 2 slots behind Henriksson. The two are interlinked in many of these rankings.

What Others Have Said About Saarela

Dobber Prospects has an awesome overview profile page of Saarela. Observations from March of this year are positive for sure. Some good tidbits include: “plays a fearless style of game and isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty”...”great skater who can create offensive opportunities because of his speed”...”his puck-skills are very good which makes him very dangerous in one-on-one situations”...”plays a reliable defensive game as well”. Not all of the quotes are purely praise, however. A couple of the drawbacks: “more of a complementary player than someone who drives the offense”...”besides skating, his tools don’t appear to be high end”...”projects to be a complementary third-line winger”.

Despite that last comment, Dobber also has a chart for PNHLe, which they say is a value that “projects a prospect’s point potential at the NHL level.” For that, they have Saarela’s PNHLe at around 42 points, which they claim is around 2nd line potential. So you’re talking about a prospect with anywhere from 3rd-2nd line potential as a right winger, which you could never complain about from a prospect taken in the 3rd round, which is where he is projected to go.

Finn Prospects has a nice page on Saarela. There is not any overall profile or prospectus on the forward, but at different times throughout the year there have been updates and views given on him. The last update came on April 21st as a discussion on what he did at the U18 World Championships. The writer, Lassi Alanen, wrote that Antti “is an above-average skater and uses a very upward stance...his first few steps are not the most explosive and he doesn’t have blazing speed, but I don’t think that the skating is holding him back. Saarela is usually regarded as a smart player and plays on both special teams, but I have started to question how good his offensive instincts are. His hands are also above-average, as he is able to pull off good dekes from time to time.” Not the most effusive praise you will see for someone, but again, as a third round projection, you would not expect all positives to be written about someone who is being honest. But there seems to be enough to like about him as well, and if he is considered a smart player, that should help him as well to learn to improve.

The Hockey News doesn’t have a full-grade profile on him, but does have an interesting tidbit of information that is useful to know about the forward. They note that Antti was ravaged by concussions earlier in his career. It would explain why he only played 31 games in 2017-18 not including international play. That could definitely be a concern for some teams, but he did play many more games this season, 48 before international play, so that is a good sign in his favor.

A Little Video

Here are highlights from a Jr. A game where he had a goal and an assist:

Here you can see Saarela score a penalty shot goal in the Liiga from February (around 2:50):

Here you can start at 1:35 to see a snapper of a goal this season in the Liiga back in December:

Here you can see a sweet assist to set up a breakaway goal, start at around 1:18:

My Take

Honestly, my take for this week is going to be similar to my take last week, with a little exception. If I had to choose between Henriksson and Saarela to draft in the third round for the New Jersey Devils, I would probably take Saarela, but I am not sure that the difference is major. I agree with Central Scouting that the two are similarly ranked. Why I would pick Saarela comes down, probably stupidly, to position. Henriksson is a center, and if Shero takes Jack Hughes as is expected, it would be better to take a right winger here, especially since that is a position of need for the team. Saarela won’t be ready for a few seasons, that’s to be certain, but even then, the odds of the team being in need of a bottom 9 right winger a few years from now is still strong. And even then, he has experience at center as well if that became a position of need instead.

I also like that Saarela has good experience playing in the pro Liiga, and will almost certainly get a full year of experience there next season. That bodes well for his growth, especially at a young age. It is teaching him how to play against adults, and to learn that at a younger age is a bonus. The concussion history scares me for sure, but I don’t think it would make me take him off my board.

However, like I said with last week’s profile and I will say again, neither position is in as much need as defense. With the team undoubtedly drafting a forward at one overall, and earlier picks of course providing better prospects with greater odds of becoming regular pros, stacking more picks on defensemen in rounds two and three makes more sense to me. If they feel a strong forward falls to them who should be higher ranked, then of course take what the draft provides, but I am not sure that Saarela is someone like that. If NJ has Saarela similarly ranked to some other defensemen near the end of the third, and at least one of those d-men are available, I would probably take that guy. Again, this is not to say that I dislike Saarela at that position, and if Shero gets him even at the start of round 4, that would be a great spot to land this guy, especially since right wing is also a need. I just don’t think it is as big of a need as defense.

Your Take

Now that you have read up on him, what do you think about Antti Saarela? Do you agree with me that he would be a decent round three selection, but perhaps not a must draft player? Or, do you think NJ should take a stronger look at him, given his experience in the Liiga and his position at right wing? Do you have someone else in mind you think will be there that NJ should also seriously consider around the end of round three? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading another prospect profile here at AATJ!