Finland Stock Watch: Roni Hirvonen quietly putting together strong season with HIFK
This is the post-World Juniors edition of the Finland Stock Watch, so naturally, we'll be looking at quite a few players who suited up for Finland at that event. Especially because things have been pretty stale in Liiga over the past month as it relates to NHL-relevant prospects.
There have been a few 2023 draft eligibles making moves and earning the spotlight, though, and we'll get to them here.
Roni Hirvonen, LW, HIFK (Toronto Maple Leafs)
If you took just a cursory glance at Roni Hirvonen's Elite Prospects page, it would leave you with the impression that he was having a down year just based on his production – just 15 points to show for 34 games.
Context is needed, though. HIFK is the lowest-scoring team in the entire Liiga as of this writing, making Hirvonen's 15 points comfortably enough the fourth-highest mark on the team. Things are starting to heat up of late too, with the 20-year-old centre finding the back of the net in each of his last three games.
Hirvonen's game remains projectable and well-suited to the pro ranks. He's a crafty off-puck threat around the net, consistently sneaking his way to the net-front with a perfect sense of timing for passes from the boards or behind the net. He's diligent on the defensive side of the puck, too, intercepting passes in the slot and creating steals on the forecheck. There's still room for growth physically and as a skater, but he remains one of the better prospects playing in Liiga and should make his way to North America for next season.
Rasmus Kumpulainen, C, Pelicans U20 (2023 NHL Draft)
After an intriguing performance at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Rasmus Kumpulainen struggled at the start of the season with the Pelicans' U20 program. Not only did his point totals lag behind, but his offensive contributions weren't on a level where he warranted a better fate on the scoresheet.
In recent months, Kumpulainen has started to pick things up again, showcasing more skill and determination with the puck while maintaining his two-way presence.
According to my tracking data (five games minimum for each player), Kumpulainen compares very favourably to many of his more highly-touted contemporaries. He created a ton of advantages with his defensive play, helping his defenders to build things up with smart cross-lane passes and carries. The handling skill rates as above-average and he's started to look more crafty in the net-front area as a finisher. His skating remains a weak point in his game, but there's a lot to work with in other areas, especially given how young he is for this year's draft.
Aleksi Heimosalmi, D, Ässät (Carolina Hurricanes)
Aleksi Heimosalmi's World Juniors weren't anything special, but I still thought he was arguably Finland's best overall defenceman. He was especially potent defending the rush and breaking up plays in the defensive zone. Meanwhile, Heimosalmi's off-puck game has continued to evolve with Ässät back home in Finland.
At the same time, the system he plays under in Liiga doesn't necessarily allow for much creativity from their defencemen. The impact this has had on Heimosalmi's game was evident in his play at the World Juniors. It's difficult to instantly change your playing style after you've become accustomed to one way of playing with your club team. It'll be interesting to follow Heimosalmi as he makes the transition to North America, probably in time for next season.
Lenni Hämeenaho, LW, Ässät (2023 NHL Draft)
Lenni Hämeenaho probably didn't catch the eyes of many at the World Juniors. He wasn't necessarily bad, just a bit invisible during most games, especially offensively. Off-puck, he actually did quite well, which has been a visible trend in his Liiga play, too. As a sub-par skater, Hämeenaho has learned to rely on his smarts and instincts as far as play-killing and effective neutral zone defending goes.
Recently receiving an A-grade (indicating a first-round talent) by the NHL Central Scouting, Hämeenaho remains one of the hardest evaluations in the draft. He has clear tool limitations stemming from his skating and handling posture, but on the other hand, he's probably the smartest player out of Finland for this year's draft.
Joakim Kemell, RW, JYP (Nashville Predators)
I should qualify this by saying that Joakim Kemell's position in the stock falling section isn't solely because of his play at the World Juniors. If anything, he was Finland's best forward if you take a wide lens look at the tournament.
This has more to do with the overall trend and the lack of progress in Kemell's game this season. His previous World Juniors in August were quite promising, and it looked like he had added new elements to his game, most notably as a playmaker.
With JYP, though, it's been a pretty rough first half of the season for Kemell. He played just under 10 minutes and was listed on the fourth line in two of his most recent Liiga games before leaving for the Maritimes.
Though he's still generating offence well enough and is a threat on the power play, he has really struggled to generate much offensively or in transition at 5-on-5, sometimes reverting to his older, less projectable habits.
Kasper Halttunen, RW, HIFK (2023 Eligible)
Once touted as a potential top-15 talent for this year's draft, Kasper Halttunen's season has been difficult in many respects. He's bounced between Liiga and U20 SM-sarja, not scoring much in the former while already having been one of the top players last season in the latter. Worse still, Halttunen's play at the U20 level has arguably been worse this season compared to 2021–22.
Though he generates a lot of chances, Halttunen has failed to expand his game, instead relying even more on his shot and dekes off the rush. To his credit, he has improved his work rate and forechecking game from last season, but the hockey sense questions are still notable, even if you consider that he likely isn't very motivated to play at the junior level anymore. Don't be surprised if Halttunen drops a bit on our next board.