Since Finland’s victorious run at the World Junior Championship this year, the interest around their draft-eligible players has intensified. This year they’re churning out some serious defensive talent with players like Lassi Thomson, Ville Heinola and Anttoni Honka.
After being selected 53rd overall in last years CHL Import Draft, Lassi Thomson made his WHL debut this season with the Kelowna Rockets. The opportunity to develop with the Rockets is invaluable to a young defenseman like Thomson. The organization has produced some big-name defensive talent over the years, like Shea Weber and Alexander Edler.
He’s only 18 years old and is sitting at 15th overall among WHL defensemen this season. Thomson has notched 13 goals and 32 points in 51 games. He’s already proving himself to be an offensive force. In October, he netted a highlight reel-worthy goal against the Prince George Cougars that had fans talking for days afterward. Thomson kicked the puck up after losing control of it for a split second, and backhandedly deeked it behind netminder Taylor Gauthier. The play just further cemented the young Finns puck-handling ability.
Like every other prospect, Thomson is still developing. It’s promising that he adapted as quickly as he did to the smaller rink size. His skating and reaction time has improved during his stint with the Rockets. Thomson’s offensive skill and engaging style of play will translate well in the NHL. One thing you’ll hear over and over about Thomson is that he’s “active and mobile,” and if you watch him play, it’s almost immediately clear why.
Sportsnet.ca’s Sam Cosentino ranked Ville Heinola at #23 on his 2019 NHL Draft Prospect Rankings for January. Looking at his performance, it’s not surprising. Heinola started the season with Jr. A SM-liiga but put on such an impressive show he was added to Lukkos roster. Judging by his play, he’s not heading back to the juniors any time soon.
Heinola was a part of the gold-medal winning Finnish WJC team this year. Before he made an early exit after suffering an injury, he tallied two points in five games. While he’s not exactly the heaviest body on the ice, the 17-year-old defenseman possesses an incredible read of his stick. Heinola’s competing in arguably one of the best men’s leagues worldwide, and playing with an astonishing amount of confidence.
At first glance, his six total points across 23 games doesn’t seem too astounding. You have to take into consideration the vast differences in the leagues. The fact that he’s playing between 18 and 20 minutes a night is impressive. He could stand to pick up a little muscle, but overall he’s an excellent two-way player. If he maintains this forward motion of development, he’ll be a solid addition to any NHL teams blue line.
Anttoni Honka is the mystery piece of the draft class. There’s some controversy among critics as to whether he’ll be selected top ten in the first round or more toward the second. Given the unpredictability of his play, he seems more likely to be a late first-round pick.
Last year, Honka made a splash with JYP. He posted nine points in 20 games during a time when the team needed a puck-moving defenseman. Honka eventually proved to be a defensive liability, despite his ability to create offensive plays. He was ultimately sent to the second tier pro-team Mestis after his start with JYP wasn’t as breathtaking this season.
Honka is another smaller defenseman and doesn’t have the heaviest shot. He relies on his skating and puck-handling abilities to avoid being physically overpowered. Both of these skills work in his favor, but his skating is at an elite level. He’s incredibly agile and can find an open lane with ease.
One of the most significant issues Honka has is his potential to get in his own way. He gets caught up looking for highlight-reel goals instead of just playing the game. He needs to build confidence in his natural ability. If he makes the most of his stay with Mestis, Honka could enter the NHL as a stronger defenseman.
Ultimately, Finland can produce some incredibly talented young players. Continuing to follow the development of these young defensemen ahead of the 2019 NHL Draft will be interesting, to say the least.
Feature Image Credit: (Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images)