Urho Vaakanainen: Then & Now

The prospect series returns on Tuesday with a then and now look at Boston’s top selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.- KL

Urho Vaakanainen: Then

June 24, 2017:

A smooth-skating defender who describes his own playing style of one similar to NHL All-Star Roman Josi, Vaakanainen has spent the last two seasons playing pro hockey in the Finnish SM-Liiga. Tall, with a thin build, the 18-year-old was a member of Finland’s gold medal and silver medal-winning U18 teams in 2016-17, and also played on the 2017 WJC (U20) squad that woefully underperformed in Canada last winter.

Described by one NHL scout as a player whose “skating is first-rate; he can pivot and cut decisively in tight spaces and change direction on a dime,” the same talent evaluator also said that Vaakanainen “may not possess the high-level hands and offensive hockey IQ to be a top scoring presence on an NHL blue line.”

In going with Vaakanainen, the B’s bolstered the left side of their blue line while passing on some popular names up front who were projected to be good fits in pre-draft analysis, namely the big and talented Vesalainen (whose slide ended with Winnipeg at 24), Ryan Poehling (Montreal) and Robert Thomas (St. Louis).

“I’m a great skater, I can move the puck, I have a great first pass,” Vaakanainen said after his selection. “I’m a complete package- a two-way defenseman and steady guy.”

August 9, 2018:

Talent Analysis

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.

Urho Vaakanainen now:

Two years into his North American pro career, Vaakanainen has been a mixed bag so far.

His rookie pro season, split between Providence of the AHL and Boston was derailed with concussion issues, but he showed promise, putting up nearly a half a point per game in the AHL with the Baby B’s- solid production for a player in his first campaign. That was likely a reflection of his several years in the Finnish SM-Liiga, which compares favorably to the level of play seen in the AHL, so unlike junior players who face a transition to pro hockey, Vaakanainen’s transition was more in line with the smaller ice surfaces here versus what he competed on at home.

He made his NHL debut, playing sparingly in Boston before getting hurt (thanks to a dirty Mark Borowiecki elbow when Vaakanainen went to the net looking for a rebound), and missing a bulk of the 18-19 hockey season, with just 32 total appearances split between the show and minor league.

He played more games in 19-20 with Providence, getting into 54 before the AHL season was postponed in March due to COVID-19 (it was officially canceled yesterday). His production. however, was down significantly from where it was the year before, with the same amount of points, but with 24 more games played. He got into five NHL games with the B’s, again playing sparingly as a depth piece during his call up.

When drafted, Vaakanainen was talked about by the team as a 2-way defenseman and other hockey sources touted his offensive upside, but to be frank- we never really saw it. He’s more of a smooth, efficient defender who can chip in offensively and is mobile in retrievals and breakouts, but isn’t the prototype 2-way defender who joins the rush, quarterbacks the power play and is a consistent impact performer at both ends of the ice.

That is not a knock on him, but at the same time, he was not a significant offensive presence in 84 pro league games with JYP and SaiPa in his native Finland, and we’re doubtful that his point production is going to be all that significant at the NHL level. That is not to say that he won’t be a successful defenseman, but expectations should be tempered.

He can skate and move pucks, and has a good stick- those attributes will all help him establish himself as an everyday D at the highest level. We would like to see more of a competitive side and edge to his play- at times, the pace looks pretty average and he’s not all that tough a player to go up against. There are some intriguing positives, and his superb skating is a top carry tool. But we’d be lying if we said we didn’t expect more from him in year two. Granted, the injuries have set him back, but at some point, potential needs to translate into tangible results.

Outlook:

At this stage, he looks to project as more of a middle-of-the-roster depth player than a true blue 1/2 NHL D. You can certainly take that, but given where he was drafted and what some of the other options were at the time, if we redid the 2017 draft’s 1st round, he’s a bubble guy in our view.

The 20-21 is going to be a critical one for Vaakanainen. Smooth and efficient is fine- but on a relatively crowded Boston blue line, you’d like to see some more assertiveness and pop to be comfortable projecting that he’ll develop into an NHL regular. He’s still plenty young and there’s a lot to like, but he’s got his work cut out for him.

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Sportsnet Clip then: When B’s selected Vaakanainen (note the comments after the pick- not much about offensive upside- all about his defense/stay-at-home acumen as Miro Heiskanen’s D partner in international competition)

NESN video on his 2018 development camp

Here’s the Borowiecki elbow- no call. Bravo to Billy Jaffe for calling out the officials’ incompetence on this one. Ladies and gentlemen- your moern NHL referees- where they can stand mere feet away and watch a flagrant foul but since it happens to some unknown Finnish rookie? No call. But boy- hook some 1st class NHL citizen away from the play with no impact, and you’d better believe the whistle is coming out…gross.