The Journey: Breakout Candidates in Finland
Last season in the Liiga, we saw breakout seasons from young players like Miro Heiskanen, Kristian Vesalainen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Which players could be breaking out this season? Let’s look at some candidates to find out.
Rasmus Kupari – Los Angeles Kings
Florida’s prospect Aleksi Heponiemi may have been an obvious choice for this article but I believe almost everyone is already familiar with him after a monstrous 118-point season in the WHL last season. So instead, I chose his linemate from the Kärpät team.
Kupari was a full-time player in the Liiga already last season but his role was pretty limited. He only got to play 12:05 per game, with about one minute of that coming on the power play. But this season, Kupari’s ice time is up to 15:14 per game with over two minutes of that coming with the man advantage.
Besides added ice time, Kupari also gets to enjoy having a super talented offensive player on his line. Kupari is playing at center with Heponiemi on his right side, and those two have had instant chemistry. On some shifts, they look unstoppable. They seem to be glued to each other as they get very similar usage, and they’re ready to dominate the league.
So far, Kupari has scored just four points in nine games but I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up being close to the point-per-game mark at the end of the season. Kupari has also won 53% of his faceoffs which is a nice improvement from last season’s 50.4% mark.
Kupari was drafted 20th overall this past summer, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he was knocking on the door for an NHL opportunity next season. Kupari should be a lock for the World Juniors after already playing a depth role there last year, and it would make a lot of sense to keep Heponiemi on his wing there as well.
Oskari Laaksonen – Buffalo Sabres
Laaksonen was drafted 89th overall a year ago. He spent most of his draft year at Jr. A SM-liiga which is the top junior league in Finland. He scored six goals and nine points in 27 games which is nice production for a defenseman but it’s nothing special. He also played ten games at a lower level where he was a point-per-game player.
Last season, Laaksonen played 40 games at Jr. A, and his production remained at a similar level (15 points) but he also got the play 21 games in the Liiga. He only played an average of 11:21 in those games but managed to score four points which was an encouraging sign.
This season, Laaksonen is a full-time Liiga player, and he’s had a hot start to his season. He’s leading his team in scoring by a defenseman with six points in 11 games. He’s also playing an average of 19:06 per game which is second-most on his team among defensemen.
Laaksonen needs to improve his defensive game and add some muscle to his thin frame before he can play at the NHL level but there’s a lot to like. His Ilves team is giving him the freedom to play to his strengths and not worry about mistakes which will pay dividends in the long-term.
Henri Jokiharju was expected to be the top offensive defenseman for Team Finland at the World Juniors but it’s looking like he’s staying with the Blackhawks, so the national team needs to find another player to fill that role. If Laaksonen continues playing at a high level, he could be the one earning that prime opportunity to showcase his talents at the world stage.
Jesse Ylönen – Montreal Canadiens
Ylönen spent his draft year at the second-highest level in the Mestis where he scored 14 goals and 27 points in 48 games – good numbers against men but not good enough to go in the first round as the Canadiens took him 35th overall this past summer.
This season, Ylönen is playing in the Liiga with Pelicans, a team coached by former NHL player Ville Nieminen. Ylönen has scored three goals in 11 games so far but hasn’t had any assists even though he’s a good playmaker in addition to being a good goal-scorer as well. Ylönen has played an average of 12:51 per game with 1:34 of that coming on the power play. That usage is very good considering it’s his rookie season at the Liiga level.
Ylönen will likely require a bit of time to get used to the higher level of competition but once he gets used to it, he could be more like his usual self and start doing some serious damage offensively. He should be a lock for the World Juniors, and a good tournament there could give him a serious boost of confidence that could lead to a breakout offensively.
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Feel free to add comments below. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
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