For me, there is nothing more satisfying than picking up a free agent that makes other GM’s ask “Who?” then seeing that guy become a valuable fantasy commodity. There will always be hits and misses, lord knows I’ve had my fair share of both. Here are three guys currently playing in Finland that, two or three years from now, you might wish you would have grabbed.
Joni Tuulola – CHI
Unless you’re a Chicago Blackhawks fan or follow the goings-on of the Liiga very closely, you may not be very familiar with Tuulola. But he should most definitely be on your radar. Drafted as a 19-year old by the Hawks with the last pick of the sixth round in 2015, Tuulola comes from a pretty strong hockey family. His father Marko played professionally for 25 years in Europe, mostly in Finland but had stints in Sweden and Switzerland as well, and his brother Eetu is a Calgary Flames prospect, also a sixth rounder but in 2016. In his draft year, Tuulola found success with both the U18 and U20 HPK programs and earned a promotion to the big club for a pair of games in which the then-18-year old for a defensive pairing with his 43 year old pops. But evidently this wasn’t enough to get him selected. From 2014- to 2017 he played three seasons for HPK with varying degrees of success posting point totals of 10, 14 and 8 which translate to 0.31, 0.26 and 0.15 points-per-game, respectively. He represented his home land at the 2016 WJHC where he managed one assist and a plus-five in seven games. But most notably he brought home the gold medal. It seems as though Dobber’s fourth-year breakout theory holds true on the other side of the Atlantic as Tuulola is absolutely crushing it this year. He leads Vaasan Sport in assists with 21, is first among team blue liners in scoring with 25 points and is tied for tenth in the league in defensive scoring with four goals and 21 helpers in 49 games. He’s only shooting at a 2.9% clip, but this is actually a big improvement over the past two years. All of these numbers are even more impressive when you consider that his team is firmly planted in the basement and he’s one of only a handful of players on Sport that is on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger, sporting a plus-one. One of the reason for the newfound success was a move from being a fixture on the penalty kill to playing a featured role on the power play this season.
Tuulola boasts good size and skating ability and plays an offensively-focused game from the back end but packs a bit of sandpaper as well. He’s unsigned at this point but given the way he’s played in 2017-18 there an excellent chance the Hawks will lock him up.
Petrus Palmu – VAN
While another 2017 Vancouver Canucks draft pick playing overseas is getting all of the buzz this year, and justifiably so, Petrus Palmu is a player that should be overlooked. Drafted in his second year of eligibility, the Canucks snatched him up in the sixth round in 2017 and it’s looking like a great value pick at this point. Palmu played three years for the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack putting up totals of 42 points in 62 games in his first year and 49 points in 52 games in his second year. But he went nuclear in his third and final campaign, amassing more points than those previous two years combined. In 62 games Palmu scored 40 goals and added 58 assists, finishing fourth in the OHL in both points and points per game with 1.58. He earned OHL second all-star team honours for his efforts. He turned pro after the draft but rather than head to the AHL he decided to go back to his homeland where he signed with TPS. It’s looking like a good decision on his part. In 50 games this season Palmu has put together 13 goals and added 15 helpers making his 28 points the fifth highest forward total on the team. League-wide he is the second highest scoring U21 player behind fellow 2017 draftee Kristian Vesalainen
Palmu is an undersized offensive dynamo and while he may be short – just 5-07 – he’s not small tipping the scales at 179 pounds. I saw Palmu play a couple times live last year and one thing that stuck out to me was that, for a skilled player, he wasn’t afraid to get to the dirty area and battle hard, almost exclusively with players much bigger than him. He’s signed for another year with TPS so we won’t be seeing him in North America until 2019-20 at the earliest.
Teemu Kivihalme – FA
This one is a bit of a longshot at this point, but I still think he's still worth highlighting. Despite what you may think when you hear his name, Kivihalme was born in Minnesota to a Finnish father and American mother and has represented both country at the international level. Kivihalme was drafted way back in 2013 by the Nashville Predators after starring for Burnsville High in Minnesota, alongside Brock Boeser, where he served as captain. Following his draft year, the blue liner played one season for the Fargo Force in the USHL, posting 12 points, and then headed to Colorado College where he played three seasons on some truly awful teams. Things started out rough from the get go for the freshman. He posted five goals and half a dozen helpers but was a minus-19. But to put that in context his teammate Jaccob Slavin, whom some consider one of the best defensive d-men in the NHL, was a team-worst minus-28. There was some positive to his first year as he tied for third on the team in power play points with eight of his 11 points coming with the man advantage. Things got both bad and worse in his sophomore year. Kivihalme led all Colorado College defensemen in points with 15 and led the team in assists, power-play assists and power-play points but was on the ice for 52 goals against at even strength which was the second-worst mark in the NCAA. So was his minus-33. As a junior he once again led the team’s blue liners in points with 10 and posted a downright sparkling, comparatively speaking, minus-8. No doubt sick of all the losing Kivihalme decided to forego his senior year and begin his professional career but it wasn’t with the team that drafted him. Instead he decided to head to the land of his heritage and came to terms with Karpat in the Liiga. So far so good for the rookie as he’s tallied three goals and 15 assists in 38 games for Karpat while averaging nearly 18 minutes per night. Most notably, he is on the positive side of the ledger sporting a plus-17 mark. Karpat is a powerhouse team, 19 points ahead of their nearest competition in the standings and has scored 15% more goals than any other team. That may factor in in his numbers being fairly strong. He’s currently been sidelined for the last few weeks with a lower body injury.
A guy who finished his college career with a mark of minus-60 doesn’t exactly scream future NHL defenseman so why is he worth your attention? First off, he’s an excellent skater with an offensively tilted mindset and isn’t shy about shooting the puck. And despite what the numbers suggest he has come a long way defensively. Signed through the 2018-19 season it will be interesting to see if he catches the eye of any NHL suitors. He’s a name to stash away and keep an eye on.
That’s all for this week edition of the Journey. Thank for checking in. Follow me on Twitter @BradHPhillips. Enjoy your weekend!
Last week from The Journey: Players to watch at the Olympics.
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