There has been a lot of hype surrounding this season’s crop of American imports to the OHL. Looking at just the London Knights; Max Jones, JJ Piccinich and Matthew Tkachuk are three highly touted Americans who have been brought to the OHL for pivotal development seasons. Being lost in the hype however is the amount of talent coming into the OHL this season from Finland. There were a record nine Fins taken in this year’s CHL import draft with 5 in the OHL alone. Of those there are three highly talented defenders that are making their debuts at OHL training camps this week this week; 2015 Detroit Red Wings 3rd round pick Vili Saarijarvi, and draft eligible prospects Markus Niemelainen and Olli Juolevi.
Vili Saarijarvi – Flint Firebirds
Vili Saarijarvi is the oldest of the three and the only one who has experience playing in North America. Saarijarvi was taken 73 overall by the Red Wings last season after playing a season in the USHL for the Green Bay Gamblers. Shortly after being drafted into the NHL he was taken 9th overall in the Import Draft but the Flint Firebirds, presumably with the an agreement already in place that he would make the jump to the OHL to continue his development. In their first season after moving from Plymouth the Firebirds look as though they could be in for a bit of a rocky season and the addition of Saarijarvi may not be enough to get near the playoff conversation. Saarijarvi is an undersized offensively minded defender that looks to help Flint improve on a very lackluster offense from a season ago. Saarijarvi led all finish defenders with 12 points in 12 games with the U-18 team last season and has shown flashes of being the type of defender you want leading your team’s break out. He led the Gamblers in PP assist last season and will likely get a look as the quarterback of the number one power play unit this season. While already being drafted Saarijarvi is a long way off from being on the NHL radar. At only 5’9 160lbs, Saarijarvi us small for a forward and incredibly small for a defender. He’s going to need time to develop physically as well as mentally, playing against bigger guys this season will help him learn what he can and can’t get away with and provide the experience young defenders need in order to succeed despite a lack of size. While undersized, Saarijarvi doesn’t shy away from the physical aspects of the game “When you look at him he’s not a very big guy but he plays strong” Grand Rapids Griffins Head Coach Todd Nelson told reporters at the Red Wings prospect camp. “He’s a strong skater, he’s not timid at all, and he goes into the corners with passion”. He sees the move to the OHL as a chance for him to learn and grow and with a likely large role on a below average Flint team, Saarijarvi will have the chance to show the full depths of his skill.
“It’s North American hockey, I like it more, and of course in Finland it’s pro hockey but I want to play here someday, in the NHL, so I think I think it’s better for me to go to Flint and play in the OHL”
Markus Niemelainen – Saginaw Spirit
At the other end of the spectrum you have Markus Niemelainen who this summer was taken 18th in the CHL Import draft and is one of the higher end defensive prospects for next summer’s NHL Entry Draft. Niemelainen is a big boy. He’s nearly 6’6 and has a wing span that seems even longer. Like Saarijarvi, Niemelainen was a part of the Finish U-18 program, although with vastly different stat production. With no points in his 12 games, Niemelainen may have arguably had a bigger impact on the team. Niemelainen is the type of defender that plays against the opposition’s top line. He’s big, smart and has a knack for frustrating players who think they can out-skill him. While most describe Niemelainen as a defensive defender, he is not the kind of big, immobile player who does nothing but punish players in his own zone. While he is incredibly physical, Niemelainen is a cerebral player who has a knack knowing exactly when he should make a quick pass or when he should use his well above skating ability to move the puck out of his zone. He is smart and with a great first pass he has the type of unsung offensive potential that could surprise people down the road.
Really impressed with @SpiritHockey import pick Markus Niemelainen. Plays defense with poise and maturity. Huge find.
— Joey Battaino (@jbattaino) August 31, 2015
Currently seen by many scouts as a second round pick, Niemelainen can use this season in Saginaw to show he is more of a three-zone player than some people think. Playing in the Western conference, he will get a healthy dose of the high end London Knights forwards like Marner, Dvorak, Tkachuk, etc., giving him ample opportunity to show his worth to a team. The comparison to Rasmus Ristolainen of the Buffalo Sabres has been made and it seems pretty apt. Niemelainen is a player that you could see sneaking up into the mid-first round before next June.
Olli Juolevi – London Knights
Speaking of the London Knights, with all the key additions they’ve made this offseason one that often gets forgotten is Olli Juolevi. Juolevi was a later pick in the import draft because many thought he might stay in Finland to play for Jokerit. His addition was lost in the hype of the big time forwards that London was bringing in but it is no less significant. Now the last time a 6’2 Finnish defenseman jumped from the U20 league to the London Knights it worked out pretty well. Taking the identical path as Olli Maata is bound to draw comparisons that they’re not necessarily unfair. Juolevi plays a very similar game to Maata but may even be a little more advanced at the same age. Playing as a 16 year old in the U20 league, Juolevi had far more offensive production than Maata did. He is a tremendous skaters and knows what to do when the puck is on his stick. Many think that Juolevi has the potential to be a number one, 25+ minute a game, all situation defender in the NHL. He has the all-around skills needed to succeed at the pro level and a hockey IQ that can turn those raw skills into star potential. Currently ranked in the 15 range, Juolevi has the potential to move up and push the likes of Kale Clague, Chad Krys and Dante Fabbro as the second defenseman taken in next June’s draft. While the eyes of most scouts will be on Tkachuk and Jones going into Knights games, Juolevi has the potential to steal the spotlight.
After watching him live over parts of the last three days, safe to say Olli Juolevi is going to receive a bump in my #2016NHLDraft rankings
— Brendan Ross (@RossyYoungblood) September 3, 2015