We’re back with another installment of the B’s prospect series. This time, we’ll swing back over to a player who is closer to playing NHL games, and the 2017 first-round selection’s time could be closer than we think.
Urho Vaakanainen (Kirk Luedeke photo)
Urho Vaakanainen, LD
Born Jan. 1, 1999 (Finland)
6-1/185 Shoots: Left
The 18th overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft was a bit of a surprise pick by the Bruins given that there were some higher profile players on the board at the time, including Finnish countrymen Kristian Vesalainen (24- Winnipeg) and Eeli Tolvanen (30- Nashville), dynamic scoring forward Kailer Yamamoto (22- Edmonton), heavy/skilled forward Ryan Poehling (25- Montreal) and impressive 2-way center Robert Thomas (20- St. Louis). However, the 19-year-old entering his fourth season of pro hockey serves as yet another example of the B’s sticking with their own process and how they evaluate talent.
Unlike many of his peers, Vaakanainen had played in the Finnish SM-Liiga (pro) at age 16 and 17, competing against men while the bulk of his fellow draft picks were playing junior hockey (he first played 25 pro games with the Espoo Blues in 2015-16 before switching to JyP for the 2016-17 campaign). The left-shot defender was just one of three skaters on his JyP HT Jyvaskyla squad under age 20 (Sami Niku-19, Jerry Turkulainen– 17) with a fourth teen being goalie Vaini Vehvilainen (also 17). Although billed as a two-way defender, Vaakanainen’s point totals were (understandably) modest in his rookie pro season (41 gp 2-4-6 +5), but the B’s praised his skating, mobility and potential in Chicago after making the selection.
Shifting over to SaiPa Lappeenranta last season, Vaakanainen was the youngest regular on the roster by a couple of years. He upped his production to 11 points (43 games) and got a liberal share of playing time for one so young, leading all SaiPa D with a +8 rating.
CBS Boston reporter Matt Kalman has a good article published in June that covers Vaakanainen’s season with SaiPa and speaks to several of his veteran pro teammates for an interesting perspective on him. It’s worth checking out here.
Scouting Post first saw him in Grand Forks, N.D. as a member of the eventual gold medal-winning squad at the 2016 Under-18 World Championship. He put up a respectable 1-2-3 line in 7 games and was part of a larger core of late 1998 and 1999-born players comprising that Finnish defense a year before their NHL draft (Miro Heiskanen, Juuso Valimaki, Oskari Laaksonen) . He also earned silver at the 2017 U18 tourney, doubling his production to 6 points in 5 games. The rare player who skated for his country in both the World Junior (U20) and U18 tournaments in the same season (2017), also played for Finland at the 2018 WJC.
The B’s signed him to a three-year entry level contract on June 13 and he is expected to spend the year in Providence of the AHL, but the door is open for him to potentially win a spot on the NHL club either out of camp or at some point this season.
Although not overly tall and having a relatively lean build, Vaakanainen plays with a long stick and uses his reach effectively. He’s got fluid feet: very good initial burst, an effortless stride and is crisp and balanced on his edges. This is a player who can move well in all directions- what is known as a “compass skater” in scouting parlance- and has the explosive first couple of steps and quick, smooth direction change that translates well in the short area game, something becoming more and more critical for NHL defenders going forward. Forwards who try to drive wide on him with speed will almost always run out of room to the far wall before they can make that sharp net drive- his feet are simply too good for that.
Intelligent and poised, UV sees the ice and is capable of defending the rush and keeping opponents away from the front of his net with an active stick. An economy of motion player, he is patient and will often allow skaters to take themselves out of lanes because he moves so well and keeps his stick in passing lanes.
Vaakanainen is not an exceptional player with the puck on his stick. When we scouted him at the U-18s two years ago, he moved pucks efficiently, but kept it pretty simple with higher percentage breakouts, a style in stark contrast to Charlie McAvoy, who is dynamic when in possession of the puck and can carry it out on his own when he has ice in front of him. This is not to say UV doesn’t have any skill, but he tends bring a simplified approach- he gets back quickly on retrievals and can then move the puck to the right areas. Where we have seen him get into trouble is when an aggressive forecheck either with an explosive F1 or 2-skater attack gets in on him quickly and forces UV to make faster decisions. In order to maximize his impressive skating, he’s going to have to be more decisive and avoid the temptation to hold onto the puck too long or just try the blind rim, which can lead to d-zone turnovers. He doesn’t have a heavy or overpowering shot- he tends to score by using a quick-release snap shot that he gets off his stick quickly versus an exaggerated windup and clapper. We’d like to see him try and get more pucks to the net, however.
Not a physical defender, UV manages his gaps well, using his lateral agility and long reach to angle effectively and close off skating lanes in the middle of the ice, where attacking forwards are at their most dangerous. The lack of physicality and bulk means that he’ll likely need support from his forwards when the puck gets down low and along the walls.
Overall, the offensive projection is still a work in progress- the B’s don’t need him to shoot the lights out or rack up assists as long as he can help speed the transition game to break pucks out while also keeping the opposition to the outside. His pro experience gives him a refined game, maturity and poise beyond where many of his peers are- he doesn’t turn 20 until January and many of the guys picked in the same draft are going back to junior for one more year.
Signs point to an AHL campaign with Providence, a level of competition comparable to what he’s spent the last two full seasons skating in. This means that there shouldn’t be a huge learning curve- he’ll have to transition to playing on the smaller ice surface where he won’t have as much time and space to read, process and react, but Vaakanainen’s natural confidence and adaptability to the pace/tempo, an aspect that often confounds junior-to-pro players, isn’t expected to be a factor.
Don’t rule out UV breaking camp with the big club, either, especially if some unforeseen injuries take a toll as was the case a couple of years ago because of the aforementioned pro experience in his native Finland. The B’s won’t force the issue, but the thinking here is that the Boston brain trust will be more comfortable will trying him out if he gets off to a strong start and can make consistent plays at both ends.
The smart money says that developing him in Providence makes the most sense, but the player should get a vote here, and the expectation is that he might not look that out of place. GM Don Sweeney alluded to the fact that he might not have been in ideal condition for the development camp in late June, so that will be something to watch.
At the end of the day, we think UV is a safe selection- he’s going to play in the NHL, and even if he doesn’t reach the desired production Boston sees him capable of providing, he’s probably going to be a solid middle-of-the-roster player who gives them success at the 18th overall spot of the draft. If you wanted more boom potential from the pick, you’re left wanting more, but he’s a good player.
(Here’s SportsNet’s analysis after the B’s made the pick- some interesting observations)
Urho Vaakanainen factoids
Born in Joensuu, but raised in Jyväskylä. Father, Harri, played pro hockey in Finland.
Vaakanainen’s coach at SaiPa, Tero Lehtera, is the uncle of NHL forward (PHI in 2017-18) Jori Lehtera.
In pre-draft interviews, Vaakanainen said that he patterns his game after Hampus Lindholm and Roman Josi.
His 109 total games in the Finnish SM-Liiga (comparable to the AHL) is 41 more than Jakub Zboril’s AHL total of 68 last season…the B’s 2015 1st-rounder is 2 years older than Vaakanainen.