The 19-year-old rookie defenceman was assigned to the AHL’s Providence Bruins to start the 2018/2019 season, but was called up under unusual circumstances. After logging more than 26 minutes in a 4-3 overtime road loss to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on 19 October, Vaakanainen was told by Providence coach Jay Leach that he would head to Vancouver to play against the Canucks the very next day. With American defencemen Charlie McAvoy and Kevan Miller both injured, it was time for this Finn to jump in.
Understandably, it wasn’t a letter-perfect NHL debut for the smooth-skating Joensuu native, who surrendered a goal against on his very first shift partnered with Matt Grzelcyk. The Bruins lost 2-1 in overtime to the Canucks, and Vaakanainen played less than 13 minutes. Tuesday night he played his second game against Ottawa logging less than six minutes.
However, the big picture tells an important story. Vaakanainen, who had 11 points in 43 games with SaiPa Lappeenranta last year, became the ninth Finn to make his NHL debut this season. The 184-cm, 84-kg teen is part of a wave of talented Finnish defencemen aged 20 or under currently breaking into the league, joining Dallas’s Miro Heiskanen, Chicago’s Henri Jokiharju, and Calgary’s Juuso Valimaki. All four first-round picks suited up at the 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo, and will likely become senior-team mainstays, as Finland has had to rely heavily on steady but unspectacular KHL and Liiga blueliners at recent IIHF tournaments.
Vaakanainen said he was optimistic Finland would do well at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria where the 19-year-old would still be eligible to play. The Finns, who came ninth in 2017 and sixth in 2018, are questing for their first gold medal since 2016 in Helsinki.
“They have a good team this year,” he said. “They have a good team every year. You just have to win the right games. We lost to the Czechs in the quarter-finals last year even though we dominated the game. But I think they’ll have a good team.”
He is also excited that Espoo, where he played between the ages of 14 and 16, will host the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in April. It will be the first Women’s Worlds to feature 10 teams, and Finland will be looking to medal at the 6,982-capacity Metro Areena.
“It’s great,” Vaakanainen said. “Espoo has had a pretty rough few years here. They got bankrupt. Then they had a new team, and it went bankrupt too. Especially the rink is really good in Espoo. It’s kind of a shame that there’s no men’s team there at the highest level now.”
His Boston teammates and coaching staff seem confident that this two-way defender can adapt successfully to NHL hockey in the long term. And that goes beyond playing Fortnite with his young Finnish buddies around the league.
“I think he’ll be fine,” add Boston head coach Bruce Cassidy. “He didn’t seem to get himself in a lot of trouble. I think he’ll have net-front battles, corner and below the goal line battles, that will be new for him here. These are big men. But all in all, I thought he was fine.”
If you’re superstitious, it’s hard not to think something good lies ahead for Vaakanainen this season. Why? Well, Slovakia will host the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in May, and the last time Slovakia hosted, in 2011, Finland won the gold medal and the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.
He certainly has a promising opportunity. After all, the Zdeno Chara-captained club had 112 points last season – just nine shy of the all-time team record of 121 (1971) – and lost four games to one to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the playoffs.
All we’re saying is that Urho Vaakanainen should sleep soundly at night.