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The Curious Case of the New Jersey Devils History of Drafting Finnish Players

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The New Jersey Devils have been participants in the NHL Entry Draft since 1982. Since then, they have drafted 363 players with just 13 of those players coming from Finland. This post will take a look back on the Devils lack of success with those prospects, while also looking towards the future of how Finnish players could help the team move forward.

New Jersey Devils v Montreal Canadiens
Ilkka Pikkarainen was drafted by the Devils in the 7th round of the 2002 draft. He was the 10th Finnish player drafted by the Devils in the club’s history. While he has long been forgotten by fans, his 31 games played (all coming during the 2009-10 season) and 4 points are actually the 2nd most among all the Finnish players New Jersey has ever selected.
Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils have not had a lot of success when it comes to Finnish players in the team’s history. Whether it was players that were signed, traded for, or drafted, the list of success is surprisingly minimal for a team that has been around since 1982. The most successful Finnish player in Devils history is actually Sami Vatanen. The defenseman leads all Finnish players in team history with 154 games and 68 points. The only other Finn to play over 100 games for the Devils is Tuomo Ruutu who reached 129 games and 22 points. In total, only 16 Finnish players have ever dressed for the Devils with 15 of those players actually making an appearance. The Devils have only drafted 13 Finnish players since moving to New Jersey. Only 5 of those draft picks ever dressed for the Devils, 4 of them actually played for a combined total of 145 games and 50 points. The Devils currently have 2 of those draft picks developing in forwards Aarne Talvitie and Eetu Pakkila. This post will focus on the Devils history of drafting Finnish players, their current Finnish prospects, and those Finnish prospects that they could select in the upcoming 2020 NHL Draft.

Finnish Players Drafted by the Devils

Finnish players drafted by the Devils via EliteProspects.com

When looking at the Devils Finnish draft history, I want to first focus on those players that actually made it to New Jersey or the NHL. After touching on those players, we’ll look at the players that never appeared for either the Devils or in the NHL, going in order of their draft year. Since Aarne Talvitie and Eetu Pakkila are recent draft picks and still developing, we’ll talk about them in another section.

Thanks to the information via Elite Prospects, we can see that C Janne Ojanen was the most succesful Finnish draft pick the Devils had in their history. He was a 3rd round pick in 1986 after standing out for Tappara at the U20 level. Ojanen would put up 2 strong seasons with Tappara in Liiga as well as 2 succesful WJC campaigns as the captain of Finland’s U20 team prior to coming over to North America for the 1988-89 season. Ojanen would make only 3 appearances for New Jersey that season putting up an assist. He spent most of the season in the AHL with Utica where he was 4th on the team in scoring with 60 points in 72 games. Ojanen spent the entire 1989-90 season with New Jersey, finishing 10th on the team in scoring with 30 points in 64 games. However, Ojanen would return to Tappara for the next 2 seasons where he was comfortably a point per game player in Liiga. He did return to New Jersey for the 1992 NHL Playoffs where he had 2 assists in 3 games. The 1992-93 season would prove to be his last with New Jersey and North American hockey. He had 13 points in 31 games with the Devils and also put up 9 points in 7 games with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL. He would then return to Europe, spending most of his seasons with Tappara. He even captained Tappara from 2000 to 2010 to close out his career. The Devils did well to identify a talented player that had a long professional career. They were unable to develop his talents into being a long term contributor to New Jersey.

The next most succesful Finnish draft pick in Devils history is RW Ilkka Pikkarainen. I’ll always remember Pikkarainen for being the player that the Devils signed in July of 2009 after reports came out that they were signing a “mystery player”. He was a 7th round pick in 2002 after becoming a regular for HIFK in Liiga as a 20 year old. He would spend another season with HIFK before making his way over to North America for the 2003-04 season. That was the first of 3 seasons he would spend with Albany in the AHL where he would appear in 196 games and put up 29 goals and 33 assists. After failing to crack New Jersey’s roster, he returned to HIFK for the next 3 seasons from 2006-09 where he became a solid contributor. After putting up 37 points in 54 games in Liiga in 2008-09, New Jersey would opt to sign him ahead of the 2009-10 season, his age 28 season. Pikkarainen finally made the NHL but wouldn’t be able to make it last, putting up just 4 points in 31 games while averaging 8:09 per game. He played in one AHL game for Lowell and finished out the season on loan to CSKA Moscow in the KHL. He’s spent the rest of his career with short stops in Sweden and Germany while mainly playing in his native Finland. He just crushed it this past season for IPK in the 2nd tier Mestis with 45 points in 43 games though.

Next we have LW Tuomas Pihlman, a 2nd round pick in 2001. Pihlman had carved out a regular role as an 18 year old for JYP in Liiga in the 2000-01 season while also being on Finland’s U20 team in the WJC. He’d repeat those feats, with greater production, in the 2001-02 season. The 2002-03 season would see him take a step forward for JYP with 34 points in 53 games. That performance was enough for the Devils to bring him over for the 2003-04 season. He played just twice for the NHL team but was 5th in scoring for Albany in the AHL with 29 points in 73 games. His production would slip for Albany in the 2004-05 season, a year when the quality of play in the AHL rose due to the NHL lockout. That season he put up just 22 points in 68 games, finishing 9th in scoring on the team, just one spot behind Pikkarainen. Pihlman would end up being a regular for Albany over the next 2 seasons, getting in to just 13 games with 2 points for New Jersey. He spent the rest of his career in Finland, mainly with JYP.

G Ari Ahonen was a 1st round pick in the 1999 draft after putting up 10-10-1 record with a 2.90 GAA and .906 SV% for JYP U20 in the 1998-99 season. He moved to HIFK for the 1999-00 season, splitting time between the U20 league and Liiga. He impressed at the junior level with a .929 SV% in 11 games for HIFK U20 and a .910 SV% for Finland in the WJC. At the pro level he went 11-9-1 with a 3.11 GAA and .901 SV% in Liiga. The 2000-01 season would see him establish himself for HIFK in Liiga with a 18-12-4 record and 2.77 GAA and .920 SV%. He was excellent at the WJC for Finland’s U20 team with a 5-1 record and 1.34 GAA and .933 SV% as they won a Silver Medal. The Devils would bring over the promising prospect for the 2001-02 season, the first of 5 straight AHL seasons with Albany. He would have mixed results over those 5 seasons from putting up a .914 SV% in 36 games in 2001-02, to a .898 SV% in 38 games in 2002-03, to a .902 SV% in 50 games in 2003-04, to a .910 SV% in 38 games in 2004-05, and finally a .892 SV% in 16 games in 2005-06. As NHL Backups notes, Ahonen was recalled 5 times to New Jersey over 3 seasons, dressing for 18 NHL games, though never making an appearance. Ahonen returned to Europe in 2006 and would stay there until his career ended in 2018. He spent time between Liiga, SHL, KHL, and Denmark.

Finally, we get to D Mikko Jokela, a 4th round pick in 1998. He never actually played for the Devils, though he did spend the 2001-02 season with Albany in the AHL and half of the 2002-03 season with them. He was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for Steve Kariya and managed to get into one NHL game for them in a season and a half. He returned to Liiga in 2004-05 and spent most of the rest of his career in Finland.

Now we’ll quickly move on to those Finnish players drafted by the Devils that never played in New Jersey or the NHL. First we have F Jarkko Piiparinen, an 11th round pick in 1984 and the first Finnish player selected by the Devils. He spent his draft season of 1983-84 and the following year in Liiga before spending almost the entire rest of his career in the lower divisions.

It would take until 1996 for the Devils to select a 3rd Finnish player, when they selected D Pasi Petriläinen in the 9th round. While he never made it to North America, he had a long career in Liiga (438 regular season games) and had some stops in Sweden, Slovenia, and France. This draft year would actually start a mini-run on Finnish players for the Devils as they selected 8 Finns from 1996 to 2002.

Next we have C/LW Marko Ahosilta, an 8th round pick in 1998. He had a decent junior career in Finland and was able to turn it into a long career in Mestis, the 2nd division. He did manage to get into some Liiga games late in his career after helping KalPa get promotoed to the top tier.

D Teemu Kesä was a 4th round pick of the Devils in 1999. He spent a few seasons in Liiga before coming over to play for Albany in the AHL from 2004 to 2006. He put up 12 points in 79 AHL games and returned to Europe in 2006-07. He spent the majority of his career in Finland with stops in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland.

LW Teemu Laine was a 2nd round pick in 2000. He never came over to North America, instead spending the 1st half of his career in Liiga before finishing his career across the SHL and KHL.

Finally, we get to RW Vili Sopanen, a 6th round pick in 2007 and the last Finnish player drafted by the Devils until Aarne Talvitie would break a 10 year gap in 2017. Sopanen has played in over 500 Liiga games in his career with some quick stops in Sweden and Germany. He was still actively playing for Lukko as of 2019-20.j

The Devils Current Finnish Prospects

Kuokkanen’s development via the hockeyprospecting.com NHLe comparison tool.
A comparison of Talvitie’s and Pakkila’s development via hockeyprospecting.com.

Now let’s take a look at the 3 Finnish prospects the Devils currently have. Aarne Talvitie and Eetu Pakkila were draft picks in recent years and represent the Devils reaching out to Finland after Director of Amateur Scouting Paul Castron took over ahead of the 2015-16 season. They also have Janne Kuokkanen in the fold now after Interim GM Tom Fitzgerald acquired him in the Sami Vatanen trade with the Carolina Hurricanes at the deadline.

LW Janne Kuokkanen is a recently turned 22 year old that has already put up 126 points in 164 AHL games (0.77 Pts/GP). Like most Finns that reach the NHL, he came up through the top junior leagues in Finland and had some brief pro experience before coming over to North America. He made the jump early, heading to the London Knights of the OHL for his post-draft season where he put up a solid 62 points in 60 games. He spent the following season playing for the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL where he had a strong 40 points in 60 games as a rookie in the AHL. He even managed to get into 4 NHL games with Carolina that season. In 2018-19 he had 38 points in 48 games for Charlotte and managed to get into 7 NHL games for Carolina. Last season he continued to show progress with 42 points in 52 games with Charlotte before being traded to New Jersey. He joined Binghamton where he quickly made an impression with 6 points in 4 games. He even got into a NHL game with the Devils before the season ended. As you can see from Byron Bader’s NHLe Player Comparison tool above, Kuokkanen has consistently improved since his draft season of 2015-16. As of his draft+3 season of 2018-19, he has raised his NHLer probability (200+ games) by 7% from 37% to 44%. He should have a real shot at being a regular in New Jersey’s line up whenever the next season takes place.

C/LW Aarne Talvitie was a 6th round pick of the Devils in the 2017 draft. He was a standout player for the Espoo Blues U20 team in his draft season of 2016-17 and in 2017-18. He captained Finland’s U18 team in his draft season, captained his club team in his draft+1 season while also playing for Finland’s U20 team, and captained Finland’s U20 team to WJC Gold in his draft+2 season while a freshman at Penn State University. As has been well documented, Talvitie suffered a torn ACL and had season ending surgery after the WJC. His numbers for his sophomore season in 2019-20 are a bit pedestrian at 19 points in 30 games, though it’s worth noting he really cooled off after a hot start. Hopefully he can be a more consistent contributor as a junior where he will also serve as an Alternate Captain. According to the Hockey Prospecting model, his NHLer probability has fallen 21% from 37% to 16% though he will hopefully get back on track with a strong junior season for Penn State.

LW Eetu Pakkila was a 7th round pick in the 2018 draft. Over his draft season in 2017-18 and draft+1 in 2018-19, he established himself as a strong goal scorer in Finland’s top U20 league with 23 goals in 48 games and 38 goals in 52 games respectively. Overall, across those 2 seasons he had 40 points in 48 games and 60 points in 52 games respectively. He made the move to become a full time pro last season by moving to Ilves. In 39 Liiga games with them he had 11 points while he impressed on loan to KOOVEe in the Mestis with 14 points in 18 games. The Hockey Prospecting NHLe model may have soured on him a bit, as it tends to do for most prospects since their draft year. His NHLer probability has gone down 20% from 37% to 17% though he is about to enter his critical draft+3 season which can really change his outlook. He’ll enter his 2nd season with Ilves with a lot more experience under his belt and I expect him to take a step forward in his development next year.

Finnish Prospects of Note in the 2020 Draft

Elite Prospect’s Draft Center has this list of Finns available for the upcoming draft. In the top prospects category they list C Anton Lundell, C Roni Hirvonen, and RW Kasper Simontaival. Lundell is expected to go in the 1st round, Hirvonen in the 1st/2nd round range, and Simontaival in the 1st/2nd round range. Hockey Prospecting really rates Lundell giving him a 10% Star probability (greater than 0.70 Pts/GP) and 53% chance of making the NHL as a regular. For Hirvonen they give him a 4% Star probablity and 37% chance of being a regular NHLer. They also list D Topi Niemla and D Eemil Viro. Both of these defenseman played their draft seasons in Liiga with Niemla expected to go in the 1st/2nd round range and Viro in the 2nd/3rd round range. Hockey Prospecting gives Niemla a 37% chance of becoming a NHL regular while giving Viro a 28% chance.

Other names to keep an eye out for that figure to go in the later rounds are RW Veeti Miettinen and LW Roby Jarventie who have excelled in the top U20 junior league in Finland. Hockey Prospecting gives Miettinen a 53% chance of making it as a regular and gives Jarventie a 37% chance. Jarventie has been on my radar for a bit as he is one of the younger players in this draft (turns 18 in August), is already 6’2”, 185 lbs., and was a teammate of Pakkila’s last season. Also, keep an eye out for F Oliver Suni and D Ruben Rafkin that spent their draft seasons in the OHL. Hockey Prospecting gives Suni a 37% chance of becoming a NHL regular and Rafkin a 46% chance. In terms of goaltenders, Joel Blomqvist is the one that stands out the most with his 6’1”, 205 lbs. frame, his .931 SV% in 34 games in Finland’s top U20 league, and he already has 2 games of Liiga experience.

How Can the Devils Target and Develop Finnish Talent

The nature of the draft is that you’re going to miss a lot more than you hit. While the Devils have had their ups and downs, especially their downs in the latter part of former Director of Scouting David Conte’s time with the team, things to appear to be trending up under Paul Castron. When looking back at New Jersey’s draft history as a whole, it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of players come from Canada and the United States. When it comes to European countries they have selected 33 players from Russia, 18 players from Sweden, 13 players from Finland, and 10 players from the Czech Republic. There are a few other countries they have selected from but that is just a handful of players. While the Devils have had a lack of success with Finnish draft picks, the sample size just isn’t that large. Right now 2 of those 13 picks are still active in their developmental stages and could turn into something for New Jersey. I think as long as the Devils try to focus on players that perform well compared to their peers they will be bound to eventually hit on prospects from Finland. As I mentioned in the previous section, there are some intriguing options both in the early part of the draft but also the latter rounds. Castron’s focus on skilled players that can skate well should eventually lead him to finding some legitimate NHL talent from Finland for this organization. Of course drafting is just one part of the equation and they will need to develop these prospects in Binghamton eventually. That’s where you hope that Mark Dennehy, Binghamton coach the past 2 seasons, and the other coaches in the organization can step in and help these players reach their potential.

Your Take

What do you make of the Devils track record when it comes to drafting players from Finland? What about their lack of success with Finns overall? Did you have high hopes for any of their past Finnish draft picks? What do you think of Kuokkanen, Talvitie, and Pakkila as prospects? Are there any Finns you hope the Devils target in this upcoming draft? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!