HELSINKI – For the last couple of years, Finland has been buzzing about two young hockey players: Mikael Granlund and Sami Vatanen. Vatanen, the defenceman, scored a couple of highlight reel worthy goals at the World U20 Championship last year, while Granlund was named Rookie of the Year in the SM-liiga last season, having collected 40 points in 43 games.
Both youngsters were invited to the World Championship camp of the senior national team last spring. That’s where their paths got separated. Vatanen, with his great hockey sense and fearless game on the blueline seemed to adapt to the faster pace better than Granlund, who, as a centre, couldn’t find the time to make his elegant passes.
Vatanen made the team, and became a fan favourite in Finland. The 19-year-old was a daily feature in the Finnish media, and his battles with the Russian superstars were chronicled with great detail.
This season, both Granlund and Vatanen seem to have taken another step in their development. Granlund stared the season as HIFK Helsinki’s number-one centre, and had 11 points in 12 games, playing alongside Ville Peltonen, a Finnish legend.
And that’s where his season took an abrupt turn. Trying to lay a hit on an opposing defenceman, Granlund missed and hit his head on the glass. He was later diagnosed with a concussion and has been sidelined since the incident in mid-October.
Vatanen, on the other hand, leads the league in plus/minus, and has 21 points in 32 games, averaging over 22 minutes a game for the league-leading team, JYP Jyväskylä.
Not that Vatanen’s emergence to the top of the Finnish hockey world has come as a surprise to the experts. Jukka Holtari, a Boston Bruins scout, and the director of scouting at JYP, wrote his name in his black book already in 2006.
The first development camp was over, and Vatanen had been selected to the 44-man strong national team roster as one of the last players.
“Tiny defenceman is excellent in the game flow. Great mobility, stays calm. Plays chess with his teammates (i.e. gets the puck to an empty space), thinks on his feet, got beaten on a one-on-one by a quick kid (Iiro Pakarinen) in the neutral zone. Plays brave hockey which makes him stand out from the masses. Doesn’t just avoid mistakes, and does the little things right. Huge potential, hopefully grows about three feet,” read the note.
“He wasn’t just small, he was tiny. Nobody talked about him as a future superstar. A couple of years later the coaches sometimes used him as a centre for a period or a game,” Holtari says.
But the tiny defenceman kept on working, kept on playing, and kept on competing. Holtari saw Vatanen at an U20 tournament in the fall of 2009, and was impressed.
“Best player of the tournament. Excellent on powerplay, will not just make the SM-liiga roster, will be an asset. Has a cannon shot, moves great. Sees the ice well, is patient and unafraid when has the puck. The Czechs tried to play rough, but Vatanen wouldn’t budge, was the first player to go to corners. Either he or Granlund will be Rookie of the Year,” he wrote in his notes.
In the World Championship last May, Vatanen played 16:45 a game, fifth most of all Finnish defencemen, and according to Holtari, Vatanen was a top-4 defenceman in that tournament.
“He moves really well, and has a great hockey sense. He’s taken a surprisingly big role on the team here, and that’s been good to see,” said Reijo Ruotsalainen, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, who also made his international debut at the age of 18, drawing a lot of comparisons between him and Vatanen.
The tiny defenceman has also grown, but the three feet Holtari was wishing for, were mostly mental ones.
“A couple of years ago the coaches talked about the challenges of being a pro athlete in their development talks with Vatanen. He’s still on that journey,” says Holtari.
Now Vatanen returns to the World Juniors as the captain of Team Finland.
“Of course I’ll try to lead by example. I’ll try to bring some of the things I’ve learned to this team, too. Hopefully I can help the others, if they need help, now that I’ve seen the World Championship,” says Vatanen.
“The games are fast in the World Juniors. Everybody goes to every situation with full speed, and maybe sometimes too much without thinking,” adds the 19-year-old, like a true veteran.