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Photo Credit: SC Bern/CHL via Getty Images

Nation Network 2017 Prospect Profiles: #31 Urho Vaakanainen

Urho Vaakanainen, best known by Hockey Twitter for his name autotranslating to Urho Libra Female, fell from scouts’ good graces throughout the season.

Vaakanainen has been on the scouting seen for quite some while putting up impressive stat lines in Finland’s junior levels at 15 and Liiga 16-years-of-age. However, Urho struggled this season, putting up a similar stat line in nearly double the games as his previous season.

The once ranked mid-first round left-shot defender now sits early in the second with most third-party prospect sites and with our Nations Network Prospect Series, but he is still one to watch out for.

Bio:

  • Age: 18-years-old, 1999-01-01
  • Birthplace: Joensuu, FIN
  • Position: LD
  • Handedness: Left
  • Height: 6’1″
  • Weight: 187 lbs
  • Draft Year Team: JYP – Liiga

Stats:

pGPS S pGPS N pGPS % pGPS P/82 pGPS R
 1  20  5.8  40.6  2.3

Read about pGPS here.

Scouts:

NHL (CSS) FUTURE CONSIDERATIONS HOCKEYPROSPECT MCKENZIE MCKEEN’S
 
ESPN BUTTON DRAFT BUZZ
8 (EU) 29 25 24 13 46 57 20

Mike Morreale – NHL.com:

An intelligent, two-way defender (6-0, 185) who can read the play well, has good vision and a strong skill set that includes skating, passing and an accurate shot. He is a reliable team player and has a sound defensive game.

An intelligent, two-way defender…reads the play really well, has his head up all the time and makes quick decisions with the puck…great at turning the puck up ice with awareness of the play around him… moves the puck with easy plays and shows a solid first pass…possesses an accurate wrist shot from the blueline…is composed and does not panic with the puck when pressured…very little risk to his game and he does all the little things right…a great, smooth and balanced skater, plus he shows excellent speed when getting back to defend after joining the rush…backward skating and edge work are both at a high level…doesn’t play overly aggressively, but boxes out his man with some physicality at times and keeps a good gap…uses his stick actively to close off lanes…complete defender who has some top-four NHL upside.

Shines on the defensive side of the puck at even strength and PK. Has an uncanny ability to get his stick in shooting and passing lanes. Just don’t expect offence. He won’t be out there late in a game to tie it up, but you’ll love him out there protecting a lead.

Our Take:

Urho Vaakanainen carried a lot of hype coming into the 2016-17 season, and for good reason. After a six point in twenty-five game campaign for the Blues, Vaakanainen became the highest point per game 16-year-old in recent Liiga history. The previous best was Rasmus Ristolainen’s 0.20 point per game pace with eight points in forty games in 2011-2012.

Of course, comparing European pro-level scoring for draft prospects, especially with defenders, comes with substantial difficulty. With such low point totals, percentage driven luck can swing results dramatically in either direction. High production has less to do directly with a player’s true ability to produce those points, and more to do with the player being good enough to be given the opportunity to even produce said points.

The big issue for Vaakanainen was that he followed it up with a disappointing season, offensively speaking:

With his step back in point pace, Vaakanainen dropped in the rankings. This also severely impacted his pGPS statistics. Vaakanainen only has one NHL comparable success: Teppo Numminen.

Now, as a former Winnipeger, I understand that Numminen is a pretty impressive cohort to carry but the two are still fairly distant cohorts relatively speaking and Numminen represents the exception, not the rule.

Combining Vaakanainen’s two Liiga seasons to somewhat improve the sample, we see the left-shot defender posted a 0.18 point per game pace. This places him 18th overall for U19 Liiga defenders since the 2000-01 season. However, this may overvalue his offensive game since the more recent result should in theory carry heavier weighting. The more recent season contains more games played but also, with statistical projections, the more recent season contains more information due to developmental curves being slightly unique for each player.

However, offense is not the only thing that matters, especially with defenders.

Vaakanainen has long been well respected for his mature defensive game. There can be a wide scope in true capabilities of a player noted for their “defensive” play, as a fanbase carrying both Chris Tanev and Erik Gudbranson would be well aware. We do have quantitative evidence to support scout’s qualitative inferences.

The Liiga tracks shot differential statistics and publicly posts them. Vaakanainen’s 56.3 Corsi percentage sits 11th highest for Liiga defenders with at least 20 games played. The defender also posted a 55.4 Corsi percentage for score-close situations, ranking him 17th.

Now, statistical outputs are a combination of both a player’s actions and the environment they are deployed in. Vaakanainen’s shot differentials were the strongest on his team, but he was predominately deployed on the third pairing, suggesting potential sheltering effects as well.

Returning to the qualitative side of scouting, Vaakanainen represents the new bread of defensive defenders. While not much of a net front presence with the body of a fridge, Vaakanainen is smart, safe, and mobile.

He has above average hockey intelligence, which is seen in his defensive plays like his gap control and stick checking. He is strong enough to efficiently box out forwards while not overly aggressive. Once he has the puck he is mobile enough to skate it out, but will often default to a quick breakout pass with high efficiency.

While he won’t wow a team with his offensive prowess, there is some upside there with his high hockey IQ and solid wrist shot.

Offensively or defensively Vaakanainen won’t take risks, but he limits the opposition, gains the puck, and moves it forward quickly… cutting him in a somewhat similar stylistic mould of recent Finnish defenders like Olli Maata and Olli Juolevi (but missing the Olli!).

The issue with the lack of large offensive upside, both qualitatively and production-wise, is that offense typically signals future success even for those projected as more defensive defenders. While exceptions always exist (hello Chris Tanev), the most effective defensive defenders in the NHL produced at least respectably in the AHL, major junior, or the NCAA. The best defensive defenders in the those leagues typically scored respectably at lower levels.

Basically, the trend is that the later a player translates from offensive, or two-way, to defensive, the further along they tend to go career-wise.

But… trend, not destiny. There are exceptions to every rule.

Urho Vaakanainen is no plug. He is playing against men and still has put up respectable points with elite shot differentials, all while predominately on the third pair with little-to-no power play usage.

This matters, since Vaakanainen could produce a lot more given the opportunity given his IQ, skating, and wrist-shot skillset, and he may do so as soon as next season with JYP’s second highest power play scoring defender signing a NHL ELC.

Scoring matters, even for exceptional defensive talents like Vaakanainen, but there is a big difference between those that cannot score and those that did not score…