Bruins prospect of the week 3: Urho Vaakanainen

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.

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Urho Vaakanainen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Urho Vaakanainen, LD

Born Jan. 1, 1999 (Finland)

6-1/185 Shoots: Left

Background Summary

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.

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.

2018-19 Projection

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.

 

3 Amigos Podcast Ep. 11: Bruins NHL Draft recap with 2nd-rounder Jack Studnicka & Free Agency preview

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The 3 Amigos are back with our post- 2017 NHL Entry Draft wrap-up show featuring Boston’s 2nd-round selection (53rd overall) Jack Studnicka, center for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals.

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Jack Studnicka (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Dominic Tiano worked with the Gennies to have Jack join us, and he talks about myriad topics, including his final U16 season (before being a 1st-round OHL draft pick) with Belle Tire under coach Kyle Krug, father of B’s D Torey.

Reed Duthie, Dom and myself not only interview Jack, but also break down all of Boston’s picks and discuss possible free agent targets as the annual open market derby begins Saturday, July 1.

We didn’t talk Noel Acciari’s 2-year contract extension announced yesterday, but Acciari has been a solid undrafted free agent addition, and he even showed an ability to generate some important offense down the stretch last season.

Here’s the audio- it clocks in at a little over 90 minutes. We know the audio isn’t the greatest but again- this is three guys doing this because we enjoy it- not because we’re the highest-tech operation. We appreciate your time and support in listening- we know there are plenty of other podcast options out there.

 

 

2017 Bruins Draft Review: More Steak than Sizzle

CHICAGO- The Boston Bruins entered the 2017 NHL Entry Draft with six selections and just three in the first three 111 slots after making a total of nine picks in the first two rounds in the previous pair of years. The B’s held onto all of their picks, but didn’t come away with a lot of draft excitement and buzz, even if several of the players they chose appear to have the talent and potential to one day play for the parent club.

Assistant GM Scott Bradley returned to the helm of running the B’s draft with previous amateur scouting director Keith Gretzky leaving Boston last August to take the same position with the Edmonton Oilers, where he was reunited with former Bruins boss who hired him, Peter Chiarelli. This draft class reflects Bradley’s value-based philosophy and willingness to take less risk in favor of drafting players who embrace the team’s style and represent better potential roster fits.

Here’s a quick recap of all of Boston’s picks in the draft’s two days and what fans might expect from the new arrivals down the road:

Urho Vaakanainen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Urho Vaakanainen, Rd 1.- pick 18

Left defense; 6-1/181; 01 Jan 99; JyP Jyvaskyla (Finland- SM Liiga)

Central Scouting rank: 8- Europe; Red Line Report: 50 ISS: 34 Hockey Prospect: 11

Talent analysis: Good height and long limbs; plus-skater who can move with speed, quickness and agility. Breaks out pucks efficiently with head up. Will join the rush and can handle the puck effectively from the blue line when the play is in the offensive zone. Smart defensive player who uses his length and reach to deny paths to the net. Not overly physical and prefers to use angles, gap work and  a quick stick to keep opponents from generating scoring chances. Six points for JyP in his second pro season in the SM-Liiga, but could be on the verge of breaking out offensively with SaiPa next season.

Pick analysis: Vaakanainen was the eighth-ranked European skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service and projected to go around where the B’s drafted him. Some public lists had him closer to 11-13 range, while others had him solidly in the second round. The Bruins were looking to add a quality left-shot defenseman and when countryman Juuso Valimaki went off the board to the Calgary Flames at 16, the team went with another of Finland’s quality young D who was a member of both of his country’s successful two most recent U18 squads (gold, silver in 2016-17) and the very disappointing 2017 U20 World Jr. Team. Vaakanainen is not all that flashy or dynamic a player, but he is mobile, skilled and represents a potential blossoming offensive upside that may not be reflected in his pedestrian stats. He’s probably not a high-end prospect, but a solid complementary kind of player who further strengthens the future left side and gives GM Don Sweeney more options to move some of the prospects out in potential packages for NHL-level trades.

On the board at 18: F- Kristian Vesalainen; F- Ryan Poehling; F- Kailer Yamamoto; F- Eeli Tolvanen; F- Klim Kostin; F- Robert Thomas; D- Nic Hague; F- Filip Chytil; D- Connor Timmins; F- Isaac Ratcliffe; D- Pierre-Olivier Joseph; G- Jake Oettinger

Jack Studnicka (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Jack Studnicka, Rd 2.- pick 53

Center; 6-1/172; 18 Feb 99; Oshawa Generals (OHL)

Central Scouting rank: 120- North America; Red Line Report: 68; ISS: 41; Hockey Prospect: 73

Talent analysis: Rangy center’s stock really came on after a disappointing regular season got a surge with strong OHL playoff and subsequent World Under-18 tournament performances. His thin, reedy build will require significant off-ice conditioning work to add some mass and strength to. Above average skater who has the quick-burst to get to pucks in short areas and can also beat defenders in open ice. Handles and shoots the puck well; has the offensive tool kit to put up bigger numbers in the OHL next year and beyond. A smart, hard-working two-way center who is good on faceoffs and understands the importance of three-zone hockey. Solid citizen and leader type- will have a letter on his jersey at some point.

Pick analysis: Doesn’t project as a top-line offensive threat but has the potential to develop into a solid third-line center with a second-line ceiling if he can take another step in his development. Rankings for Studnicka were all over the map, but the reality is- he was a late-rising player whose ability to step up in key moments with the Gennies and Team Canada (albeit in disappointing Hlinka and U18 finishes) speaks well to his pro potential. More Jack-of-all-Trades versus sleek, sexy scoring forward, but there is always value to having these kinds of players on your NHL roster if he can earn a spot one day. There weren’t many complete players of Studnicka’s ability on the board at 53, but there were some prospects with a bigger risk-reward factors, so time will tell if going the safer route was the right decision.

On the board at 53: G- Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen; G- Michael DiPietro; G- Keith Petruzzelli; F- Joni Ikonen; F- Matthew Strome; D- Josh Brook; F- Morgan Geekie; G- Matthew Villalta; D- Ben Mirageas; D- Reilly Walsh;

 

Jeremy Swayman, Rd 4.- pick 111

Goaltender; 6-2/190; 24 Nov 98; Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL)

Central Scouting rank: 12- North America; Red Line Report: NR; Hockey Prospect: NR

Talent analysis: High-end athlete with good size who probably isn’t finished growing (his dad is 6-6) checks all the boxes for a developmental project goalie. Excellent quickness and great hands- glove and blocker are effective at catching pucks or directing them away from danger areas. Gets a good lateral push and tracks pucks well. Put up very good save percentage and GAA numbers (.914, 2.90) on a non-playoff USHL club, and was often lost in the spotlight of other bigger-name goalies playing in that league. Needs to be more patient at times- gets caught trying to do too much and will have to put in the work to refine his game and keep getting better. Says all the right things, but the proof will be in the continued progression and body of work.

Pick analysis: Textbook case of the perception of the “shallow” 2017 NHL draft, where many of the more conventional and established names on public lists were passed on by teams who scouted their own players and went with a lesser known commodity in Swayman, an Alaska native who played for a tougher-to-see USHL club. Originally thought to be spending another year in junior, TSP confirmed that Swayman will play at the University of Maine next season. That may or may not be the best for his development, but the B’s and fans will likely have to get used to what could be a bit of a rollercoaster for him in terms of strong vs. shaky outings and stretches of play. Swayman’s pure physical package means that he’s bound to have some quality starts that will generate buzz, but he’s also likely to have some rougher stretches that will underscore the time and patience needed to properly develop a goaltender in this day and age.

On the board at 111: F- Kyle Olson; D- Michael Karow; F- Noah Cates; G- Cayden Primeau; F- Nick Campoli

 

Cedric Pare, Rd. 6- pick 173

Center; 6-2/205; 24 Jan 99; Saint John Sea Dogs

Central Scouting Rank: 146- North America

Talent analysis: Big-bodied, toolsy center who didn’t see a lot of playing time on a stacked, veteran team that won the QMJHL championship and played for the 2017 Memorial Cup. Strong below the dots and in the corners, but skating needs to improve mainly in the first steps and lateral agility to boost an effective short-area game. Hard shot, but needs to get it off faster. Grinds for pucks and does well to shield them in possession but not overly skilled or creative. At his best when driving the net and using his size to box out defenders.

Pick analysis: This is a pure project selection that drew a mixed bag of reviews, as several NHL scouts informally polled either liked the pick or didn’t. Conventional thought is that Pare, who resembles a blend of Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Spooner in terms of his looks, has a chance to play a more prominent role in Saint John next season. He’s not flashy, but plays that heavy-on-pucks style the Bruins like. Time will tell if they were ahead of the curve in terms of a budding offensive game, or if he’s going to be another in a glut of bottom-line prospects.

On the board at 173: F- Morgan Barron, F- Sasha Chmelevski; F- Cole Guttman; G- Dylan Ferguson

Cedric Pare (Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

5. Victor Berglund, Rd. 7- pick 195

Right Defense; 6-0/165; 02 Aug 99; MoDo (Sweden)

Central Scouting Rank: 109- Europe

Talent analysis: Small, skilled defender was a total stealth/under the radar pick, as no one we were with at the draft knew who he was. We’ll let Bradley describe him thus: “Our Swedish guys were on top of him. They think he’s a mobile D. He’s skilled, ultra-skilled, and he skates well. Small. Six-footer, but [European scouts] P.J. [Axelsson] and Sven [Svensson] and Victor [Nybladh], they were pounding the table for him and we went along with it and I think we might have something there. Talking to his strength coach after the pick, he’s got him working on putting some muscle and weight on so we look forward to seeing him, too, at development camp.”

Pick analysis: It’s the seventh round. Why not?

On the board at 195: G- Cayden Primeau; F- Sammy Walker; F- Logan Cockerill; D- Croix Evingson; D- Phil Kemp

 

6. Daniel Bukac, Rd. 7- pick 204

Right Defense; 6-4/195; 29 Apr 99; Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)

Central Scouting Rank: 173; Red Line Report: 97

Talent analysis: Big, rangy Czech defender is raw and needs a lot of development, but could have a decent payoff down the road. Good skater for his size who will get better and more powerful in his stride as he adds lower leg strength. Long stick- terrific reach. Didn’t put up many points, but had a tough transition to North America with the Wheaties and came on strong at the end. More from Bradley: “He’s raw. He’s a project. Kid from the Czech Republic that played in the Western Hockey League. At the start of the year – he’s come leaps and bounds with his development. Talking to the people – the coaches, the management, and the GM in Brandon, they’re very excited about him coming back to Brandon. They’re expecting big things from him. We look forward to seeing him in camp.”

Pick analysis: When you’re picking this late, taking a project D with size and upside is a pretty good way to go.

On the board at 204: G- Dayton Rasmussen; F- Nick Swaney; D- Dylan Coghlan

 

 

 

 

Quick Hitter: B’s go with Finnish 2-way D in 1st

Urho Vaakanainen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

The Boston Bruins passed on several high-profile players including touted Finnish forward Kristian Vesalainen to select countryman and left-shooting D Urho Vaakanainen in the first round of Friday’s NHL Entry Draft in Chicago.

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.”

The newest Bruin said he expected to be a first-round selection but admitted that Boston was a surprise in that he’d had little contact with the team outside of the draft and scouting combine interview he had with the club in Buffalo late last month.

“Just try to get some strength and get my shot better,” he said when asked about areas of improvement. “Working on the offensive blue line.”

His 2 goals and 6 points last season speaks to some of the reasons Vaakanainen might have been under the radar as a 2-way defender, but he had a productive U18 tournament this spring and you can bet that the B’s are banking on him to perhaps develop a more prolific offensive element this coming year when he is expected to play a key role with SaiPa in his third pro season before his NHL teams looks at possibly bringing him over.

Vaakanainen has the measurables of a modern NHL D-man, and in fairness was ranked as a first-rounder in several draft publications and lists while also finishing (no pun intended) as the 8th European skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service. He might not have had some of the buzz surrounding some of his other peers, but the Bruins quietly tabbed him as their man and were able to get him.

Day 2 begins at 9 local in Chicago with the B’s currently set to make 5 more selections in the 2nd, 4th, 6th & 7th rounds (they own Florida’s seventh pick in addition to their own).