The Vancouver Canucks have explored a number of different avenues when it comes to adding defencemen, dipping their toes in both the unrestricted and college free agent pools, but neglected to select a single defenseman at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The team hasn’t had a tone of success thus far when it comes to drafting defenseman, but recent draftee Toni Utunen looks to buck that trend. Utunen was selected with the 130th pick (5th round) in 2018, and since then he’s been on a steady climb in terms of popularity with fans when it comes to Canucks prospects.
Coming in at number 13, Utunen has been playing overseas in the Finnish’ Liiga and will continue his development with Tappara throughout this upcoming season. At only 19 years old, Utunen has not only found his place in a prestigious European league but has also scored big goals in Rogers Arena.
In keeping with past lists, we’re considering a prospect to be any player who is 25 years of age or younger and who has played less than 25 regular season games at the NHL level. This is a slightly modified and simplified version of the qualifications for the Calder Trophy.
As of the 2018/19 season, both Elias Pettersson and Adam Gaudette have graduated from prospect status.
By The Numbers
Utunen’s stats don’t necessarily pop off the page like a spelling mistake in a CanucksArmy article but his reliable, consistent play was enough to earn him the captaincy of Finland’s U18 team the the most recent Hlinka Gretzky cup, playing alongside his country’s most elite players. I spoke with Jokke Nevalainen, Head of Scouting for DobberProspects, who said Finland typically relies on their captains to be culture carriers:
“In Finnish coaching culture, it is common to choose reliable and smart players who can communicate [the] coach’s message to the team instead of the most talented players who might be leaders on the ice offensively.”
Utunen’s never been an offensive driver, so his success will hinge ability to read plays and be a tenacious defender at even strength and on the penalty kill. Utunen doesn’t project to be in an NHL top four at this stage, but if he continues to be a staple on the penalty kill and can work his way into Tappara’s top four this season he’ll see his stock rise. He should be a very interesting player to see in Utica near the later part of this season or in 2020-21 after playing out his Liiga contract.
When viewed through the lens of Jeremy Davis’ prospect Graduation Probabilities System, Utunen’s odds of reaching the NHL don’t look great. None of the players in his cohort went on to have any sort of NHL success, giving him an expected likelihood of success of 0%.
Things don’t look all that promising for Utunen according to pGPS, but Utunen is still very young and has already had an opportunity to play alongside some of the top professional players in Europe, which we know is predictive of future NHL success. Utunen has a lot of room to grow as the season progresses, so fans would be advised to to keep a closr eye on how he fares with increased pro minutes this year before passing judgment.
Utunen didn’t possess any one elite skill and projects more as an all-around defender. Many scouts have noted the improvements in his skating since last season. The consensus among scouts I’ve spoken to is that he has reinvented his game a bit to be more of a defensive defenceman now instead of being a two-way guy. This could be due to the fact that his offensive game just simply does not have the potential to be elite at the NHL level and thus is focusing on his defence to get him over to North America.
At 5’11” and around 175 pounds, he is definitely not a hulking Finnish monster, but he makes up for it with aggressiveness. This can be seen in this clip, where he is all over the ice on the penalty kill, singlehandedly clearing the puck multiple times before blocking a shot on one heck of a shorthanded shift.
Utunen would have to take some big steps in the next few years to be considered a top prospect for an NHL team, but he has the tools to make it happen. The NHL is moving more and more towards speed and skill but there is still a huge market for the services of the smart, defensive minded puck-mover Utunen projects to be. The biggest hurdle for him will be adjusting from European competition to North America. He’s adjuste his style to become more defensive-minded player and has worked hard this offseason to improve his skating, but only time will tell if that will be enough to be an NHL player one day.
Utunen’s a bit of a wilcard as a prospect, making changes to be more useful in North American at a premium position, and this is reflected in his middling spot on our rankings. Utunen’s reputation precedes him, having earned accolades for his leadership qualities and coachability, so there’s reason to believe he’s got a bright future in hockey ahead of him. If that future is going to be in North America, he will have to grow a lot in certain areas of his game and continue to raise his all around skill-level to adapt to the smaller ice surface.