Robin Salo is a two-way defencemen that played his entire 2016-17 campaign in the top Finnish league – an excellent sign. He’s also played stints there as a 17-year old and even as a 16-year old, as his calm game, high level of intelligence, and his sturdiness have allowed him to survive in the pro game for some time already.
Perhaps one of the better compliments that I can give to Salo – he’s not nearly as far off of fellow Finn Miro Heiskanen as the rankings would have you think. And, from a statistical standpoint at least, he’s actually superior in some areas. Today, Salo checks in at number 51 on our Top 100 list.
- Age: 18 – October 13th, 1998
- Birthplace: Espoo, FIN
- Frame: 6’0″ / 185 lbs
- Position: Defence
- Handedness: Left
- Draft Year Team: Sport
- Accomplishments/Awards: U18 WJC Gold Medal (15/16); U18 WJC Silver Medal, Jr. A Liiga Rookie of the Month (January) (14/15)
Being an 18-year old in a pro league, Salo doesn’t have all that many statistical comparables. The two that fit the bill and stuck around in the NHL did so as point producing defencemen: both Teppo Numminen and Janne Niinimaa produced at roughly 40 era-adjusted points per 82 games during their NHL career. One more bright side: Salo is younger and more productive that either of those players were at roughly the same age.
A do-it-all type of rearguard…a guy the coach can rely upon in key situations…skates well with very strong balance and overall mobility…has impressive vision reading the forecheck and poise when pressured…excellent ability handling and distributing the puck…makes crisp breakout passes…sees the ice well and does not force pucks into bad situations…will rush the puck, but is more effective making the pass and then skating hard to follow up the play…plays with a physical side even though he is not overly large…his defensive play is constantly strong, utilizing positioning and his stick to disrupt his opponent…uses his frame to separate the attacker from the puck…his defensive anticipation is outstanding as he steps up to disrupt passes…has a heavy point shot that is a real weapon to score or deflect…upside of a stable top-four NHL defender.
On the surface, Salo looks like a meat-and-potatoes defender who focuses more on his side of the redline. But he loves to shoot the puck, and as a teenager led all Sport defensemen with a +53 shot differential. He has a hard shot, good size and a developing offensive game.
From Marco Bombino of McKeen’s Hockey (Excerpt of summary only – full article behind pay wall):
Salo is strong all-around and has a great deal of two-way potential. He plays in all situations for Sport in the men’s league. He is already extremely reliable in the defensive zone, has a high hockey IQ and makes few mistakes with the puck. Skating is certainly an area for improvement.
From Corey Pronman of ESPN (Excerpt only – full article behind pay wall):
Salo was a useful top-four defenseman for Sport this season and has been impressive in international play during his career. Salo skates very well, with an easy, powerful stride and great edge work. His skill level is somewhat above average, with the offense coming more from his vision and feet. Salo can play the game with pace, and stayed above his head versus men this season while maintaining an offensive role. Salo has average size, but he’s a hard worker who can win puck battles. His IQ allows him to get in lanes and his feet allow him to close gaps efficiently.
Robin Salo is an interesting case. He spent his entire season in the top tier Finnish league . He was the only first time eligible Finnish besides the highly touted Miro Heiskanen to not spend any time in lower leagues, but he doesn’t get nearly the same amount of attention as Heiskanen does, likely owing to the fact that he didn’t get to represent Finland in any high profile tournaments. He was passed over for the World Juniors and, due to his October birthday, deemed to old to participate in the U18’s in Slovakia, where Heiskanen shined.
From a numbers standpoint, I take issue with this. Performances at these international tournaments get weighted so heavily, despite clear flaws in such logic. They only last 5-7 games, and depending on the tournament and where the player is coming from, they could have significantly lower competition than the players get in their regular seasons. Coming from Liiga, I believe that to be the case with Heiskanen – seven games against 18-year olds (and not even the best 18-year olds, given that some were held out to play in their league playoffs) is inexplicably given more value than 40+ games of professional hockey against men in one of Europe’s stronger leagues.
Which leads me to my actual point: Robin Salo may not have had any fancy international success this season, but his Liiga numbers are pretty damn good – comparable, and in some cases, superior to those of Heiskanen.
Heiskanen’s main advantage is that he got more goals – he scored five compared to Salo’s one solitary goal. That doesn’t tell the whole picture in terms of offence though, as Salo had more total shots, more shots on net, and a superior individual shot rate after accounting for time on ice. Speaking of time on ice, Salo averaged about a minute and a half more minutes per game than Heiskanen. Though Heiskanen had more power play time per game, Salo averaged a whole lot more penalty kill time.
Salo also posted a better 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes rate than Heiskanen (0.97 to 0.82). Luckily for us, Liiga also tracks shot metrics and posts them out their website, so we can also note that Salo posted a Corsi-For percentage of 51.9%. Although it’s 1% lower than Heiskanen’s (52.9%), Salo had a 2.5% lower Zone Start Radio, having started 250 more times than Heiskanen did during the 2016-17 season.
Now, all this isn’t too say that Salo is better than Heiskanen, as Heiskanen has certainly earned top ten consideration, and Salo isn’t really in that echelon. What I’m getting at however, is that the difference might not be as great as we thought. I believe that he’s been criminally underrated by a number of services, and belongs closer to the beginning of the second round, or even the end of the first round, rather than any subsequent round after that. Even 51 seems a bit low for my tastes – I had Salo ranked 31st on my personal list.
I understand why scouts are a little hesitant on Salo – his skating is good, but it’s not nearly as good as Heiskanen’s. The same can really be said about his shot or his passing. His intelligence and vision however are top notch, and for what he lacks in quick-twitch reactionary speed, he makes up for with anticipation and sublime decision making. Salo is also the more physical player of the two, and is proficient at grinding down opposing forwards.
Where Salo ends up falling, we won’t know until draft day. But if he stays on the board as long as some of the mainstream lists think he will (into the 80’s or 90’s), someone is going to have a steal on their hands. Personally, given that the information that I alluded to here is all publicly available, I think that some teams are going to realize that he’s been underrated and grab him long before then.