HIFK plans to attack - Liiga Preview

HIFK plans to attack - Liiga Preview

Markus Nisius08 Sep 2016Markus Nisius»
 

Just a week away from Liiga start Eurohockey introduces the teams, the changes over the summer and what we might expect from them this year. HIFK, Tappara and Kärpät will be favorites again, but other teams are looking to attack as well.

 
 
 
 

It has become customary over the last years that Liiga welcomes new teams every season and so it is not different in 2016. Jukurit Mikkeli got accepted and was supposed to fill up the league to 16 teams, but if we do a quick count we only get to 15 teams. What happened?

Shortly after the champion had been crowned with Tappara Tampere, news started spreading that the Espoo Blues had filed for bankruptcy. As the depth was too big eventually they had to withdraw the team from Liiga leaving a space not only in the hockey scene of the capital region, which is now down to one team in HIFK after Jokerit left to play in the KHL.

But what about the teams that are still running? Eurohockey will take a closer look to each single one of them.

Helsinki IFK:

In the last years HIFK was the team that tried to keep its roster together in order to build around a solid core of players and keep fluctuations at a minimum. If they lost someone important, they always knew how to find a substitute of equal quality. This summer was a perfect example of that strategy.

Goalie Ville Husso decided to go after his chance in the NHL and joined the St. Louis Blues organisation. What seemed to be a big blow for Helsinki could be solved by signing Niklas Bäckström, a proven NHL goalie, who found himself in a backup role in Calgary recently and wanted a new challenge in his hometown.
A second problem seemed to emerge when Yohan Auvitu headed for New Jersey.  The Frenchman was finally substituted with help from the KHL, where HIFK spoke to Teemu Eronen and could convince the mobile defenseman to sign in Finland’s capital.

The offensive line did not see many changes, but again quality left in Teemu Ramstedt and Tomas Zaborsky, who were the leagues’ third and fourth best scorers last season. So where to find replacements for those guys? The IFK management took a look at all the national players for Finland in the last years and lured in two big stars of Finnish hockey: Juhamatti Aaltonen and Lennart Petrell.
All in all, there were important changes, but no loss of quality.  Expect HIFK to attack this season. They proofed to be one of the most consistent teams in recent years and with a squad that knows each other well, it might be Helsinki’s year.

HPK Hämeenlinna:

Unlike in Helsinki the changes came aplenty just 100 km further north. The biggest impact might have the new goalie Nathan Lawson. He played two great seasons in Austria’s EBEL and will get the starter role, that neither Myllyniemi nor Perhonen could claim last season. If that alone will improve the goals against statistic might be questioned since the defense saw only a couple of minor changes, but apart from Oskari Manninen’s arrivel out of Vaasa no significant upgrades over last year’s second worst backend.

Offensively we will see a different team in 2016/17. Despite Antti Miettinen’s career end and the departure of Heikki Liedes, HPK was able to improve in different areas. Niko Kapanen (Jokerit) and Janne Lahti (Lukko) will bring all their experience and leadership to the table. From Stavanger they signed Philippe Cornet, a Canadian with big scoring potential, which he proofed last season with 34 points in only 33 games in Norway and another 11 points on the way to a championship run during the playoffs.

Throw two talents in the mix in Slovakian Filip Krivosik (Chomutov U20) and Oula Palve, who dominated Mestis with 71 points in 43 games for Jukurit and is eager to show his talent on Liiga level now, and you got a pretty promising offense. However, as mentioned this needs to balance out the defensive flaws in order to have a good season and this will be the big question mark for HPK. It will be another tough season, but there is light at the end of the tunnel for HPK.

Ilves Tampere:

When the only team with a worse record than your own is the one that went bankrupt, continuity does not look to be the safe bet to go with in the summer. Nevertheless, Ilves is trying exactly that. Hannu Toivonen will remain in between the pipes and try to improve his 90 percent safe performance, while the rest of the top players stayed with the team as well.

Saku Salmela and Alekis Mäkelä make room for the experiences defenders Teemu Aalto (Tappara) and Arto Laatikainen (Kärpät), whose prospect seemed to be reduced ice-time on their previous teams. Offensively Mitch Wahl, an American spending last season in Oskarshamn in Sweden’s 2nd tier Allsvenskan, is supposed to fill the gap, that Kai Kantola leaves open, but that’s about it in terms of big changes.

It looks like yet another challenging year for the record champion in Finland and it will take much work and also a bit luck to get into the playoffs.

Jukurit Mikkeli:

As the gap between Mestis and Liiga is still quite big, it was obvious that Jukurit will have to go shopping in order to be competitive in the same way Vaasa and Kouvola did it in the previous years. The first acquisition turned out to be the new coach Risto Dufva. After 4 very successful years in Rauma, he took the chance to work closer to his home town Jyväskylä.

In goal they found talented Sami Rajaniemi, who will get a shot to be the starter, an opportunity he had never seen in Oulu.

The heart of the defensive corps will be Miika Koivisto, an arrival from Rauma. With Valtteri Hietanen, Ville Hyvärinen and Antti Jaatinen Jukurit will have a solid defense-first backend. All of those players have Liiga experience and will look to establish themselves with consistent performances.

Offensively Jukurit managed to find a good mix of experience and talent. And they played their cards right. Knowing that they will hardly convince players with the glamorous night life of Mikkeli to join the team, they asked well established players from the region, who had to find their hockey happiness away from home so far due to a lack of teams in middle Finland and were happy to come back. The major transfer was the one of Turo Asplund, in whose hands the main responsibility of providing goals will be. Olli Sipiläinen, Ville Hämäläinen and Jesper Piitulainen will provide the leadership of Liiga veterans, while Topi Nättinen is the talent to watch in this squad.

We can expect some defensive minded games at first as the roster offers a couple of stay at home defenders and 2-way forwards. But it might be a good strategy since all newcomers needed time to adjust to the new level, so don’t expect Jukurit in the playoffs.

JYP Jyväskylä:

Between the pipes there is a good chance 19-year old Veini Vehviläinen will take over from departed Tuomas Tarkki. He already got half of the starts last season and Pekka Tuokkola, who came back to Finland from Klagenfurt, seems to be more like an experienced back-up in case Vehviläinen will hit a rough spot in his development.

Among skaters offense has seen the biggest improvement over the summer. While only one of JYP’s top 8 forwards left the team (Markus Nenonen), they went shopping for quality in Switzerland. Juha-Pekka Hytönen returns as well to Finland as Ossi Louhivaara, who used to play for JYP before he went to the NLA. Together with Arttu Likola, who will provide depth to the roster, the offense looks even more dangerous than last year.

Two of the top defenders left as well with Valtteri Kemiläinen and Mikko Luoma. Here JYP found solid replacement in 2nd tier divisions with Juha Uotila and Kai Lehtinen.

JYP will have a word to say when the playoffs come around and a new champion needs to be found. With the current roster the title is not unreachable for Jyväskylä.

KalPa Kuopio:

Significant changes only came offensively for KalPa and there is a good reason for that. Eero Kilpeläinen and his defenders received the second least goals last season in Liiga, while only Kärpät received one goal less than them. So KalPa certainly did a good job in keeping the backend together.

Goal scoring, however, was a problem. In that category they ended up with the fourth worst record in the league and the second worst powerplay success rate. If this can be improved is a big question. It certainly did not help to loose top scorer Mikael Ruohomaa to Oulu and Patrick Davis to Lappeenranta (and eventually to an early career stopper due to an injury). What KalPa is trying now is to trust its talented youth.

Janne Keränen and Jesse Mankinen will have to carry the biggest workload and might only see immediate help coming from Tommi Jokinen, who returned from SaiPa. Behind that line, talents need to step up. Kuopio found Alexander Ruuttu in Sweden’s second division and got him in, but otherwise they hope for more talents like Jonne Tammela, who will give the NHL a shot in Tampa Bay.

How far can Kilpeläinen carry his team? It should become another season of low score games in Kuopio and that’s the way how they have to pick up points along the way. The Pre-Playoffs should be the aim for KalPa and then see what’s possible.

Kookoo Kouvola:

Kookoo managed to keep its top players and build around them over the summer. Besides a back-up goalie swap, they waved goodbye to a couple of stay at home defenders and signed an offensive minded veteran in Swedish Robin Jacobsson from Leksand.

Up front they could keep their top 3 forwards and add fire power through Jarrko Immonen (Vaasa), Terry Broadhurst (Brynäs) and the experienced power forward Kai Kantola.

With those smart changes Kouvola has now two lines, which are absolutely competitive on a Liiga level. This marks an improvement, that gives them a decent chance to make the playoffs, if injuries don’t hit them.

Kärpät Oulu:

One problem that comes with having a youth development, that works really well, and being a successful team on the national stage is that every summer rich teams from abroad took notice of your players and will give them good arguments to sign elsewhere. Kärpät knows this problem for a while now, but this year the outflow of talent was an unmatched one.

A whole all-star team left Oulu with names like Adam Masuhr, Markus Nutivaara, Esa Pirnes, Ivan Huml, Sebastian Aho, Jesse Puljujärvi and Julius Junttila, just to name a few. Only one of their highest scoring forwards (Mika Pyörälä) is still with the club.

And yet Kärpät managed to get replacements of similar quality. Jesse Saarinen and Jussi Rynnäs come with KHL experience and will improve goal scoring and goal tending respectively. Shaun Heshka made a name for himself in many European top teams already and will lead the defense with returnee Ilkka Mikkola and Norwegian talent Nicolai Bryhnisveen.

The rest of the offense will be put together with Swede Niklas Olausson (from Biel in the NLA), American John Albert (from Manitoba in the AHL, where he scored 36 points in 66 games), Kuopio’s top scorer Mikael Ruohomaa and the two veterans Toni Kähkönen and Mikko Lehtonen, who return from Sweden.

Oulu is probably still looking for offensive help, but they managed to put together a roster, which is still able to compete at the top. There might be a more difficult time at the beginning as the team needs to find itself, but by the end of the season they should be among the favourites for the title again, even though the competition is bigger now.

Lukko Rauma:

Rauma went in two different directions on both ends of the ice during off-season, which might benefit each other. On the back-end under-achievers have been sorted out and replaced by safe bets defensively in Atte Mäkinen and Simo-Pekka Riikola and an offensive minded rear-guard in Canadian Steven Seigo, who joins the team from KHL’s Dinamo Riga.

Improvement of the defense seemed necessary since there are open questions about the quality in net. Although the new duo Kaapo Kähkönen and Antti Karjalainen obviously have talent, they are not to be compared to Ryan Zapolski and Rasmus Rinne, who could help the team win games single-handedly in the last years.

What probably hurt the most in regards to goal production was the departure of second liners Turo Asplund and Teemu Nurmi. They are planned to be replaced by Lauri Tukonen (TPS) and Aleksi Saarela (Ässät), but this needs a bit of luck since Tukonen has not gotten through a full season without injuries in 6 years, while Saarela could be gone sooner than expected if the Carolina Hurricanes take notice of his talent during training camp.

Nevertheless, beyond those critical points Lukko has prepared itself for the future by buying in talents and let go older players. It looks to be a transition year for Lukko, which does not mean they are out of the title race. It just means they don’t expect it this year.

Lahti Pelicans:

Not a lot has changed in Lahti. Janne Juvonen will take over the full-time workload of a Liiga goalie this season, but proofed already that he is prepared for it. With Jan Latvala only one experienced defender left, but he should be replaceable internally.

Top scorer Ryan Potulny decided to leave the Pelicans as well as Miika Roine. Those two guys shall be replaced by the hard working Danish winger Morten Poulsen, who scored steadily in all of his previous stops, and Iikka Kangasniemi.

The Pelicans had developed within last season already, when they made the playoffs thanks to a late season rally. They kept the core of this recently successful team and worked on the few losses they had to suffer. This makes them a candidate for the Pre-Playoffs at least.

SaiPa Lappeenranta:

SaiPa had to deal with a few high-quality losses and time will tell, if they found the right pieces to make the team work again. With Johan Larsson (best +/- ranking on the team) and Sam Lofqvist (top scoring defender) the defense lost two key players. For Larsson SaiPa found another great +/- guy in HIFK’s Lauri Taipalus, but whether 22-year old Jere Sneck can fill in for Lofqvist is doubtful.

Those points will need to be substituted by the offense, where the best 4 scorers of the team were lost as well. So who will do the scoring for SaiPa this year?

The first guess would be Tero Koskiranta, who came over from Vaasa. He has proven to be a good scorer over the past seasons. To support him SaiPa looked, as it is a little tradition by now, after North American forwards and found two interesting guys. American Curtis Hamilton just had a very convincing year with Sparta Prague of the Czech Extraleague, in which he scored 30 points in 43 games. It was his first year in Europe.

In the AHL John McFarland scored 24 points in 56 games for Portland, but the 24-year old 2nd round pick of the Florida Panthers still has plenty of upside to develop. Two jokers might be Eetu Koski and Saku Salminen, both of whome are talents without much ice-time recently. Given the chance to proove themselves, they could be ready for breakthrough seasons.

SaiPa has been in that situation before plenty of times. Loosing key players and finding replacements is nothing new to them. Lappeenranta will certainly go for the playoffs again.

Vaasa Sport:

Looking at the new players on the team you can get the impression that Vaasa is heading into the season with big improvements. Rasmus Rinne is a more than solid back-up goalkeeper, Markus Kankaanperä and Markus Nordlund are two solid defenders and up front you’ll find names that promise offensive output. Ville Viitaluoma returns from Örebro, JYP’s talent Markus Nenonen joined Vaasa as well and the journeyman Mike Vaskivuo wants to proof that his great scoring touch he showed in Italy, Denmark and France can be translated into Finnish top-tier hockey.

Sounds good, but that is without looking at the departures. On both ends Vaasa lost its top 2 players and this applies pressure both on management and the new players. They have to replace the big guns from last season.

Sport will have to battle hard, if they want to get near the playoffs since their competitors did not sleep over the summer.

Tappara Tampere:

It was a safe guess in the last years to assume that Tappara will lose some of its top talent to the KHL or NHL. Well, if you did again, you were right. At the latest after the NHL draft it was clear that Patrick Laine would head over the pond, but Russia also pulled key players out. Goalie Tomi Karhunen, defenders Nick Plastino and Tuukka Mäntylä along with Liiga top scorer Kristian Kuusela all left in that direction.

So once again the management in Tampere had to be creative and find solutions. The goalie position was filled with TPS keeper Teemu Lassila, who will bring in lots of experience from Sweden and Russia, but he might have to battle for the starter job since backup Dominik Hrachovina also raised some eyebrows last season and is ready to take over if provided the chance.

On defense the champion found solid replacements. JYP’s rising star Valtteri Kemiläinen joined the team as well as the veterans Otso Rantakari (Modo) and Tapio Sammalkangas (Ässät), who will give Tappara’s backend an even stronger setup.

Up front it will be up to Teemu Nurmi to provide the lost scoring, while Norwegian Martin Röymark will improve the physicality of the team.

Despite the departures of well-known players, it doesn’t look like Tampere lost too much quality. The replacement all have something to bring to the table and so defending the title is definitely the goal for the season

TPS Turku:

Continuity is a relatively new term in Turku. In the last off-season it became a habit to welcome one big star after another in Finland’s far southwest, while others were bid farewell. This year they actually kept their core group of key players. Besides a couple of rental players and those, who could not contribute to the team as planned due to injuries, the only big loss is Petteri Nummelin. The aged star defender headed over to Norway and wants to win one last title with Storhamar.

On the plus side TPS added some pieces to the puzzle that could make a difference. Ilkka Heikkinen will proof to be a big hire. The 31-year old d-man has put up impressive numbers over the last three year, which he spent with European top clubs in Växjö, Ufa and Lugano. Jesse Dudas might turn out to be a steal as well. The Hungaro-Canadian has never played on a level like Liiga has it, but he has excelled as an offensive minded rear guard in all his previous clubs.

As they are pretty well set in offense, Turku just added Swede Erik Thorell, who showed a great development in Allsvenskan over the last time and is ready for an elite league, and as the icing on the cake they will give two of the TuTo forwards a chance in Jasper Lindsten and Topi Taavitsainen.

A solid team to start with got improved with a few quality players. Star player acquisitions might have tricked you into betting on TPS in the last summers, but this year it might be worth a try again. This team looks like it can make a deep playoff run.

Ässät Pori:

Sure, Aleksi Saarela will be missed in Pori. There is no doubt about that. But looking at the new team you get the feeling this might become a mix of defensive boredom and offensive excitement, which is not really the worst mix to win hockey games.

The gaps left open in the backyard by three of the top 4 defenders leaving, were filled with players, who are not known to make big mistakes, but also did not yet show offensive outbursts. Nevertheless, you can live with a bunch of safety-first d-men, if your forwards can do the job of scoring goals.

And it looks like it. Besides Saarela, the other losses were mainly 3rd and 4th liners respectively under-achievers. The guys coming into Pori on the other side all bring their own story. Charles Bertrand is certainly planned to be the scorer, at least he did so in Vaasa. Ville Korhonen and Jussi Makkonen can also deliver offensively and then there is Simon Suoranta. A guy, who wants to proof that he is more than just a fill-in on a superstar-squad in Oulu.

Although there were some players to replace, Pori did a good job in putting together a great team. The playoffs should be possible, maybe even without having to go via the first round.


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