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Sami Vatanen: The Best Finnish New Jersey Devils Player So Far?

Sami Vatanen, who is now with the Carolina Hurricanes, played a lot for the New Jersey Devils in the last 3 seasons. Was it enough to be the best Finnish-born Devils player in franchise history? This post looks at the competition, Vatanen’s time in New Jersey, and answers the question.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New Jersey Devils
Sami Vatanen: The best Finnish Devils player of all time? I think so!
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Yesterday, the National Hockey League paused the 2019-20 regular season. This meant, among other things, that the New Jersey Devils were not going to play against the Carolina Hurricanes. Even if there was no global pandemic, Vatanen was not expected to play anyway as he remains out injured. The temporarily suspended season does give him a chance to recover and perhaps be able to play when the league resumes. That assumes that the Carolina coaching staff will find a spot for him at that point. Regardless, I wanted to ask and answer one question related to now-Hurricane defenseman Sami Vatanen. Is he the best Finnish New Jersey Devil so far in franchise history?

Finnish-Born Devils Before Vatanen

There have been plenty of notable names representing various European countries in the history of the franchise. Patrik Elias, Bobby Holik, and Petr Sykora stand out among the Czechs. Russian Devils include Slava Fetisov, Sergei Brylin, and Alexander Mogilny among many other memorable names. Notable Swedish Devils include Tommy Albelin, Patrik Sundstrom, and Adam Larsson (who is worth Taylor Hall in a one for one). Switzerland has the rising star that is Nico Hischier. But one major hockey nation has not been well represented in Devils history: Finland.

The Devils have not really shied away from Finnish players. They just have not been particularly successful with whomever they acquired. By my count of the team’s draft history at HockeyDB, New Jersey has drafted thirteen players out of a Finnish league. It is too soon to cast judgment on Eetu Pakkila (2018 seventh rounder) and Aarne Talvitie (2017 sixth rounder, now with Penn State). The other eleven have failed to even make a hundred appearances in the NHL. Six of them never even dressed for one game, including 1999 first round pick goaltender Ari Ahonen.

The most successful of the Finnish selections by New Jersey was center Janne Ojanen from the third round of 1986 NHL Draft. He played just 98 games with the Devils per his Elite Prospects profile. After being drafted and playing another season with Tappara, Ojanen came to North America in the 1988-89 season. He spent most of that season with the team’s minor league affiliate in Utica. He also made three appearances with New Jersey. Ojanen appeared to have carved out a regular spot in the 1989-90 season with 64 games and 30 points. Then he went back to Finland and played with Tappara for two more seasons. He came back to the Devils for the 1992-93 season, played in 31 games and earned 13 points, and then went back to Finland for good after that season. Ojanen hardly became an important player for New Jersey. And I question what made him want to go back to Tappara, come back for another season, and then return. He has since been the New Jersey’s most successful draft pick out of Finland.

He also has been second to defenseman Tapio Levo as the most prolific Finnish Devil in franchise history. The word franchise is key here. Levo was drafted in the sixth round in 1975 by Kansas City. Levo presumably had contractual agreements with Assat Pori as well as not much of a desire to join Kansas City/Colorado. However, he did come over for the 1981-82 season per Elite Prospects. The defenseman at least made an offensive impact with 22 points in 34 games with the Rockies. He stuck around for the move to New Jersey, dressed for 73 games, and put up 47 points. That would be it for his career in the NHL. His profile at Elite Prospects shows that Levo returned to Finland with authority. Levo would re-join Assat, win the award for being the best defenseman in SM-Liiga for two straight seasons, have a very successful career throughout the 1980s, and be named to the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame. If we include the entire franchise, Levo is the most successful Finnish player drafted - and that is with just 107 games played with the franchise and 69 points back in the higher-scoring early 1980s.

That is the “high bar” for Finnish Devils through the draft. If you include other Finns they acquired, it is not much better. Here is a list of Finnish-born skaters in Devils franchise history at Hockey-Reference. Colorado gave opportunities to Jukka Porvari and Veli-Pekka Ketola. They were one season and done and did not do much in their short time with the organization. Defenseman Anssi Salmela has the distinction of being signed in 2008, being traded to Atlanta in 2009, and then coming back from Atlanta in the Kovalchuk trade in 2010. He also has heard of this blog. He did not stick around on a crowded blueline back then. Esa Tikkanen easily had the best career of everyone Finnish player mentioned in this post. He played just nine games with the Devils, so he cannot be the best Finnish New Jersey Devil player.

The previously most recent acquisition was Tuomo Ruutu. He and his big contract came to New Jersey from Carolina in exchange for Andrei Loktionov. Ruutu was kept to a bottom six role and really did not move the needle all that much. He was not a bad player in 5-on-5 but he was not all that impressive in his three seasons with New Jersey per Natural Stat Trick. He certainly was not very productive. He had all of 12 goals, 10 assists, and 134 shots in 129 games with the Devils per Hockey-Reference. His final season in New Jersey in 2015-16 was his last in the NHL. Per Elite Prospects, he signed with HC Davos for 2016-17 and he would call it a career after that. Seeing that Ruutu carried $4.75 million cap hit and Carolina only retained 20% of his salary per CapFriendly, it is easy to mark Ruutu as a disappointment in New Jersey. In retrospect, the Devils should have kept Loktionov. The tougher pill to swallow is that Ruutu became the most prolific Finnish player in Devils franchise history even with his lack of impact on most games.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned goaltenders up until now. There really is no reason to do so. Per Hockey-Reference, only two Finnish-born netminders even saw a game with the Devils. Jari Kaarela played in five games with Colorado and posted an overall save percentage of 80.9%. That is not a typo. That is indeed eighty point nine. Hannu Kampuri fared better with New Jersey in the 1984-85 season. He made 13 appearances and posted up an overall save percentage of 84.5%. That has been it. I know comparing skaters and goalies is akin to comparing apples and oranges. The oranges in this metaphor were not good. We can stick with the apples only.

This is all to say that the bar for being the best Finnish-born Devil is not a high one to clear. Did Sami Vatanen clear it? Let us look at what he did for the Devils to find out. (Spoiler: Yes.)

Sami Vatanen as a New Jersey Devil

Sami Vatanen became a New Jersey Devil on November 30, 2017. Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi, and a third round pick were sent to Anaheim for Vatanen and a conditional third. At the time, it was seen as an even trade. The Devils needed a right-sided defenseman like Vatanen. The Ducks needed a center like Henrique. Henrique has continued to be a useful player with Anaheim. Vatanen is now a Hurricane as he was traded while injured at the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline last month.

Injuries have undercut Vatanen’s three seasons with the Devils. In 2017-18, Vatanen played in 57 games and only missed one game due to rest after the Devils clinched a playoff spot. He was kept out of Game 5 against Tampa Bay due to a concussion. Since then, it has been rougher for the defender. In 2018-19, he missed about a week in November due to a lower body injury and missed about a month when a hit by Derick Brassard led to facial lacerations and a concussion. Vatanen also missed a large part of March’s games that season due to illness. Vatanen only played in 50 games that season. In 2019-20, Vatanen missed time due to an upper body injury sustained in Edmonton back in November and has been out since the first game of February with a lower body injury sustained from a shot block against Dallas. He played 47 games in his final season with the Devils. While he did not miss a whole lot of a season, he was unavailable for more than just a handful of times.

Even with all of that happened to him, Vatanen did suit up for 154 regular season games with the Devils and four playoff games. That alone makes Vatanen the leader in games played in regular season, playoff appearances (Ojanen played in three playoff games in 1992), and combined among Finnish-born Devils players.

Of course, there is more to life than showing up. What did Vatanen do on the ice? According to the combined last three seasons of 5-on-5 play at Natural Stat Trick, Vatanen’s combined 48.4% CF% and 48.8% xGF% are not that good on its own but they rate among the top twenty Devils skaters. That speaks more to the quality of the Devils in 5-on-5 play over the last three seasons. If you break it down by season and by defensemen, then you get a better look. Vatanen’s on-ice rates in 2017-18 were not so hot but he did play a lot and mostly with Andy Greene, who was drowning in the run of play more often than not in that season. Vatanen’s 2018-19 was better from the standpoint of 5-on-5 hockey and rated better among Devils defenders. Those same rates took a hit in 2019-20 - thanks Hynes & Nasreddine - but he still rates well among most of the other defenders. It is fair to say that he did not really lock things down or push the play that much forward. However, he was far from the worst or a detriment to the defensive effort.

Vatanen’s on-ice relative rates with New Jersey are kinder. They were not favorable to the Devils when he stepped on the ice in 2017-18 but they were worlds better than the impact provided when Greene - Vatanen’s most common teammate that season - took a shift. They were more favorable in 2018-19. Not so much in terms of scoring chances or expected goals, but definitely in attempts and shots. For someone who still played a lot of minutes, suffered injuries, and did it on a team spiraling out that season, that is not half-bad. In this season so far, the relative rates were not favorable in terms of generating a better proportion of attempts, shots, expected goals, or chances for the Devils. However, when Vatanen stepped on the ice, the on-ice rates against the Devils did improve. It was a matter of the on-ice rates by the Devils - the offense, if you will - being even more unfavorable. If you have to decide, I would prefer the defenseman who at least reduces the rates of their opponents even if the offense suffers. Better that then the defenseman who helps the offense but costs their team at the same time (Will Butcher’s season so far).

In terms of production, Vatanen provided a decent amount of it. In total, he provided 68 points in 154 regular season games and one playoff goal. He finished just shy of a half of point per game average in his first two seasons in New Jersey per His points were split between the power play and even strength. It was impressive to see him take over on the first power play unit ahead of P.K. Subban, Will Butcher, and Damon Severson during this season. I do not know if that was a good idea or if it was effective; but that is on the coaching staff and not Vatanen. Vatanen put up roughly two shots per game in each of his three seasons in New Jersey, so he was no stranger to attacking. It was never enough to make anyone take notice based on his points alone. However, he was far from someone who would get on the scoresheet once in a blue moon either or someone you would never want to see on a power play.

Vatanen was also someone who did not force the Devils to kill a lot of penalties. The most times he has been in the box in New Jersey was in 2017-18 when he took 16 penalties for 32 minutes per Vatanen did draw ten penalties, so his net count for that season was -6. In 2018-19, Vatanen not only lowered his taken count to eleven but he drew fourteen calls. A defenseman drawing more calls than taking them is always a plus and Vatanen was a +3 in that respect. Prior to his injury in February in 2019-20, Vatanen took ten penalties (including one double minor) and drew seven. While he was no longer positive, it was a respectable amount. Over the last three seasons, other Devils were problematic with respect to penalties (Wood, Severson). Vatanen was not one of them and that is something to appreciate for someone who played as much as he did on defense.

Overall, I would say that Vatanen was an OK player for the Devils. I think he benefits from other defensemen displaying more visible issues in his time in New Jersey. Vatanen was not nearly as aggressive as Severson or John Moore. Vatanen was clearly more mobile than Ben Lovejoy. Vatanen could clearly handle tougher situations and longer shifts than the Muellers and Santinis and others if/when they get pinned back. Were his numbers all that impressive? On their own, no. Compared to the other Devils, you can see him sticking out in a better way. He added a decent level of production of his own. He played in multiple situations. He was not a penalty machine. I think had he been healthier, been on better coached and just plain better Devils rosters, he would have thrived more. I see Vatanen similar to what Henrique was in New Jersey. He is someone you like to have in your lineup but he was not really suited to be the minutes leader or the star of his position. In the bigger picture, there are definitely better and more effective defensemen in the league. At the same time, I do not think he was terrible or holding back on what the Devils were trying to do.

So Is Vatanen the Best Finnish Devil So Far?

You may disagree and think Vatanen was not anywhere close to a bag of chips, nevermind being all that and a bag of chips. Fine. However, the main question is not whether Vatanen was good. Establishing whether he was or not is to help answer the main question: Is he better than the other Finnish players who have played for the Devils franchise?

In my view, the answer is an unqualified yes. Most of the other Finnish players to have dressed for the franchise did not even play for a half season’s worth of games in their time with New Jersey. The five that did were: A third-pairing-at-best defenseman in Anssi Salmela. A center who did not stick around long in New Jersey and was much more known for his seasons with Tappara in Janne Ojanen. A defenseman who scored a bunch of points in a higher scoring era before going back to become a Finnish hockey legend in Tapio Levo. A bottom-six forward with a hefty contract he could not and did not live up to in Tuomo Ruutu. This is not a murderer’s row of competition.

By the nature of Vatanen playing significant minutes as a defenseman, he is ahead of this group. Vatanen played a larger role and for longer than these other four players. Even the simple fact that he appeared in many more games than all of these players, he is ahead of this group. While Vatanen was not particularly great in the run of play or a dominant defenseman, he was not hurting the team with his presence or his contract. Plus, I am fairly confident Vatanen will stay in the NHL when his contract runs out for 2019-20. That reflects better than Ojanen and Levo, who went back to Finland after being in the NHL for a season or two. I do not think there is really much of an argument that Vatanen is the best Finnish-born Devil in franchise history in these respects.

It may seem like faint praise to claim that for Vatanen. It kind of is. The proverbial bar was not a high one to clear. Vatanen being a top-four defenseman for three seasons, injuries aside, and appearing in four playoff games was enough to clear it. It does lead to this other question: Is anyone next?

The Future of Finnish Devils

There are three Devils in the system who are Finnish and may have a future in this league. As previously mentioned, there are the recent draft picks of Pakkila and Talvitie. Both are long shots to a degree. However, there is some reason to have hope. Pakkila has averaged over 11 minutes per game in 39 games with Ilves in the Finnish Liiga. While eleven points may not be a lot, it is tied for eleventh-most among rookies in the league. He has another season left on his current contract so it will be interesting to see how he builds on that as he turns 21 for 2020-21. Talvitie made the jump to North American hockey last season by joining Penn State. He was having a great 2018-19 season before tearing his ACL in the gold medal game at the 2019 World Junior Championships. Talvitie has played in 30 games for Penn State as a sophomore. While his rate of production did not match his awesome freshman half-season (19 in 30 compared to 16 in 17), he is someone to keep tabs on.

The next best hope for a Finnish player to become a notable player for the Devils is Janne Kuokkanen. He was selected in the second round in 2016 by Carolina and he was the main piece sent back in the Vatanen deal. The winger was very productive in the AHL in this season with Charlotte and jumped right into supporting Binghamton’s run for the playoffs with three goals and three assists in four games. New Jersey wanted a closer look and after some call ups, he finally dressed for his first game as a New Jersey Devil against the Penguins on March 10. He did not do much, but neither did the rest of the Devils that night. There is still plenty to like about the 21-year old and he should be in the mix for a roster spot next season. From there, he will be the latest Finnish player to make a mark on the Devils. Given the past history of other Finnish players with the franchise, just making one will put him ahead of most of the pack.

Bonus Question: Who’s the Best Devil to Come out of the Finnish Leagues?

If I was to expand the question to ask who was the best Devil to come out of the Finnish leagues, then the answer would be Brian Rafalski and it would not even be a competition. That’s right, the most success the Devils had in plucking talent out of Finland in franchise history was a 26-year old undrafted American who was in the SM-Liiga for three seasons after one season in Sweden and four seasons at Wisconsin. Rafalski became an instant success in New Jersey, a first-pairing defender, and a point machine right up until his last full NHL season. It is not even a remotely fair to Rafalski to Vatanen (who the Devils traded for), much less any other player from or based out of Finland. It is fair to state that Rafalski may be the best find for the Devils out of Finland in franchise history. It also reflects poorly on most other attempts to draft and/or sign players from Finnish leagues. They have had one big hit out of a lot of misses.

Your Take

The history of Finnish players for the Devils franchise does not have a long list and most did not really make a significant mark for the franchise. I think Sami Vatanen did enough to be the best one in franchise history. Do you agree? If not, who was better and why? Do you think Kuokkanen, Talvitie, or Pakkila has a realistic chance of being more memorable than past Finnish players in the organization? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Vatanen as well as Finnish players for the Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.