Finland Stock Watch: Niko Huuhtanen's NHL chances looking better than ever in Jukurit
The final stretches of the regular season are starting to take place at every level of Finnish hockey.
Ilves and Tappara, both located in Tampere, are leading the way in Liiga, with Jukurit sitting in third and having outplayed many of the more expensive squads like HIFK and Kärpät. In a bit of a surprising fashion, KooKoo is currently the top-ranked team at the U20 level, followed by Kärpät and Tappara who are used to success at this level.
Let's dive into some of the prospects who have moved the needle – one way or the other – over the past month.
Stock Rising 📈
Niko Huuhtanen, RW, Jukurit (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Niko Huuhtanen's progress over the past few years has been steady, and we're now at a point where he's legitimately one of the most dangerous forwards in Liiga. In January, he added 13 points in 11 appearances, which was the fourth-best mark among all Liiga skaters. Though he only scored four times, his 55 shots on goal was also the third-most among all forwards.
In addition to the player itself, Jukurit and their head coach, Olli Jokinen, also deserve quite a bit of credit for Huuhtanen's success. He's been used in smart ways and been put in positions to succeed offensively while expanding his skill set in subtle ways. At his core, Huuhtanen is still a shooter first, but his playmaking has taken clear steps under Jokinen's tutelage.
Huuhtanen's destination for next season remains unclear. It's possible that the Lightning will sign him in the summer and bring him to the AHL, but there have also been rumours about him moving to the SHL. Whatever the decision is going to be, Huuhtanen's odds of eventually playing games in the NHL are looking better than ever.
Heikki Ruohonen, C, Kiekko-Espoo U20 (2024 NHL Draft)
There isn't a hotter player in the Finnish U20 circuit at the moment than Heikki Ruohonen. The 6-foot-1 pivot has been relied upon as more of a defensive presence with the U18 national team this season, but it's his offence that has exploded over the past few months. In January, he was the most productive player in the U20 league and has added 13 points in his previous five games.
What makes Ruohonen's production even more impressive is that he's not playing on a particularly good offensive squad; it's Ruohonen himself who's been driving the bus. At the moment of writing this, he has over 20 points more compared to the third-most productive member of his team.
Ruohonen's surge as one of the top producers at the U20 level should force a more critical examination of his role from the national team coaching staff, too. He's on track to be one of the more interesting mid-round options from Finland in this year's draft.
You can read more about Ruohonen's game in my recent Scout's Notebook article.
Jere Lassila, C, JYP (2024 NHL Draft, re-entry)
The World Juniors have proven to be a turning point in Jere Lassila's season. He's been on an absolute heater lately, having added eight points in his last five games, bringing him to a respectable 20 points in 37 games with JYP. That's good for the fourth-highest mark among all U20 skaters in Liiga.
While JYP has been mired in turmoil over the past few months, Lassila has served as the top-line pivot and recently was named one of the alternate captains, which is an extremely rare feat for a player his age. Of course, Lassila's leadership qualities have never been in doubt, as he served as the captain for Finland's 2004-born age group for a long time, including at the recent World Juniors.
Lassila has already gone undrafted twice, and while it's unlikely things will change next summer, his recent league play and heroic efforts in the most important international games could make him a potential late-round target for some NHL teams.
Stock Steady ↔️
Veeti Väisänen, D, KooKoo (2024 NHL Draft)
Veeti Väisänen ultimately didn't get to showcase his game in front of hundreds of scouts at the World Juniors, ending up being the last cut from Finland's defence corps. Instead, he returned to Liiga and ended up upgrading his minutes, having logged over 11 minutes in every one of his games with KooKoo since January 13.
Skating remains Väisänen's best asset, grading out as at least slightly above average projection-wise on our scale. At the U20 level, he's been a dominant defensive presence, standing out due to his gap control and physicality, which has been ingrained in his game with the Liiga experience. Against men, he doesn't have a similar advantage just yet, but he's on track to become a strong defensive presence there, too.
The main question with Väisänen is how much offence is he going to provide at the next level. So far, he's left to be desired in this area when he's been down at the U20 level. Even so, I still rate him as the second-best blueliner prospect out of Finland in this year's class.
Stock Falling 📉
Aleksi Heimosalmi, D, Ässät (Carolina Hurricanes)
Aleksi Heimosalmi would've been AHL-bound for this season were it not for the Hurricanes' lack of an affiliated team, which has forced many of the organization's prospects back to Europe. Instead, Heimosalmi had to return to Ässät for his third season, and the results haven't been flattering.
Heimosalmi's role with the team has fluctuated a lot, having only recently started to play big minutes on a consistent basis, in large part due to injuries on Ässät's blueline. His production has stagnated, only having gotten to the scoresheet in five of the previous 20 outings.
A lot has been said about Heimosalmi's strengths not fitting in with Ässät's structure and preferred play style; there's a chance he'll be able to bounce back in a different environment. As things are standing now, however, the first Finnish prospect to be taken in the 2021 draft has been overtaken by many of his comparables from that class.
Emil Järventie, LW, KOOVEE (Pittsburgh Penguins)
It's been a rough season for Emil Järventie. His production in Mestis has improved from last season, but only slightly. Given how the league quality has trended over the recent years, a drafted U19 forward – mostly known for his offensive skill – should be putting up better counting stats than 17 points in 35 games, even if he's playing on a weaker team.
In addition to the counting stats, Järventie's underlying metrics have also been weaker than expected, even when adjusted for his teammates. At the U20 level, he has just one point in five games and hasn't looked very inspiring whenever I've had the chance of catching him there. He still has time to bounce back, but based on the current trajectory, he'll have to fight hard for a spot on next year's WJC roster.