The New Jersey Devils selected second defenseman of in their class of the 2021 NHL Draft with the first pick of the fifth round. They went back to Finland, but this time they sought out a player from the Liiga. The Devils selected defenseman Topias Vilén of Pelicans.
According to his profile at Elite Prospects, Vilén is a left-handed defenseman who was born on April 1, 2003 and hails from Lahti. He is listed at 6’1” and 194 pounds, which suggests his frame is already on its way to being filled out. His current contract lasts until 2022-23 with Pelicans due to an extension he signed yesterday. He came up through their youth team and played the majority of his 2020-21 season with the first team in Liiga. Vilén played in 35 games with Pelicans (averaged 12:44 per game) and six games with Peliitat in the Mestis on a loan. He was also wore an ‘A’ for Finland’s World U-18 Championship team too. The list of rankings on his profile all had him going earlier than 129th, so there is a reason to think this is good value.
There is also far more information available about the player. As Vilén played for the Finnish national team at the World U-18s, there was a chance that Steve Kournianos included him in his recap of the tournament from a prospect profile. And he was. Here is what Kournianos thought of the player at Frisco this year:
One of the better positional defenders in his draft class, Vilen’s tournament got off to a rough start, as he and jittery partner Jimi Suomi were victimized for a pair of early goals in each of Finland’s first two games. The fact that it was Suomi who was taken off the top pairing (replaced by Aleksi Heimosalmi) for the final five matches says more about the trust Vilen’s staff had in him, and in turn he was on the ice for only one power-play goal of the 16 tallies Finland surrendered in their three medal-round games. Vilen’s strengths are his stick use and breakout passes, with the latter being so critical in Finland’s ability to quickly transition from defense to offense. He seems a lot taller on the ice than his 6-foot-long measurement indicates, but Vilen remained physical throughout the competition and used his powerful leg drive and upper-body strength to angle quick forwards into the boards. He finished with four assists and 11 shots in seven games but it’s crazy to think how much worse it could of been for Finland had Vilen not been there.
Finland finished fourth in the tourney so this reads well for Vilén. While the Finns conceded a lot of goals in the tournament part of the U18s, it was not because of Vilén making errors or anything like that. This was a positive assessment for one of the more heavily used defenders on the team.
Kournianos and The Draft Analyst did like Vilén this season. He was ranked 54th in their free draft guide and projected him as a middle-pairing shutdown defender. Which tracks given his lack of production in 2020-21 and in his career. The profile praises Vilén’s skating (always a good thing) and his work on defense. While he is left-handed, the profile does note that he could play either side of the pairing and can stay back when his partner activates. That may ease some fans who wish this pick was for a right-handed defenseman (e.g. Jack Bar). Those who expected a defenseman with an offensive game, well, this profile will not satisfy you - he does not have much of one.
This is echoed by Colby Guy’s profile of Vilén at The Hockey Writers. Guy calls him a “prototypical defensive defenseman” and notes that he could lose puck on offense. His opinion is that his offensive game could hold his potential back and it will need some improvement. He may not be a producer, but at the least he needs to be secure if he does get the puck in an offensive situation.
As he is Finnish, here are two quotes from the Finnish prospect-focused FinnProspects about Vilén. He was ranked tenth among draft eligible prospects from Finland. Here are those quotes:
“Good season in Pelicans’ Liiga roster. Balanced, defensive-minded defender. Skating speed and pace of the game caused some problems from time to time but for his age has very good physicality and solid defensive game. On-puck game is good enough, but there’s really not that much offensive upside.” – Eetu Siltanen
“A traditional stay-at-home defenceman who likes to keep his game very simple with the puck and does his job at the own end of the ice. Doesn’t shy away from contacts and positions well.” – Miika Arponen
I think the low ranking may be a function of his role and the lack of offensive upside to go with it. But the quotes are what you expect to see about the type of player that Vilén represents. It is a limited role, but it is a role that teams do need and set players up for.
For a fifth round pick, I think this is pretty good. While I would have preferred the right-handed defenseman Jack Bar or forward and meme-jersey seller Robert Orr, this is not at all a bad pick. He knows how to defend and he does it well without getting into penalty trouble. Like a lot of teams, the Devils clearly focused on the World U18s for this draft class and they came away impressed with Finland’s team as they picked their captain Samu Salminen. Now they have their alternate captain in Vilén. He may be limited in his upside. It may come down to whether he can defend at the pro level in North America and he can be at least be passable when he is not defending at the pro level. But he has a pedigree, he has already broken into having regular minutes on a pro team in Liiga, and he will have time to develop further. For 129th overall, this is a fine selection - limited as Topias Vilén may be now and at the next level.
I welcome Topias Vilén to the Devils organization and I wish him the best as he continues his career with Pelicans in Liiga.
Now that you know what I think about the player, I want to know what you think of the selection. What do you like about Topias Vilén? What are your concerns? What do you expect from Vilén going forward? Please leave your thoughts about the player in the comments and please also vote in the poll as part of community reaction I will put together tomorrow. Thank you for reading.
The Devils drafted Topias Vilén at 129th Overall. What do you think of the pick?
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