How 10 NHL players and prospects are faring with European clubs

Sportsnet's Gene Principe and Mark Spector discuss Jesse Puljujarvi staying with the Edmonton Oilers and been given another chance to prove himself.

When composite sticks first flooded the market, one of the comments you’d hear from holdouts was you couldn’t feel the puck quite like you could with a wood twig. It’s a slight stretch, but there’s probably some comparison to be made with scouting in person versus the screen-staring so many bird-hawks are doing now.

“A player misses a chance and the video cuts [away],” says a scout. “When I’m at a game, I want to see how that player handles it; the body language, what happens when he goes back to the bench. That’s the stuff you miss right now.”

While the composites got better and better and eventually won everybody over, it’s safe to say the scouting community is full of people who yearn to slam the laptops shut and get back into frigid barns. Until then, those of us on this side of the Atlantic have to make do with streams from a variety of European leagues that fired up this fall.

Recently, my colleague Mike Shulman highlighted several 2021 draft-eligible prospects skating in Europe, as well some recent draftees playing overseas. The goal here, with the help of a pro scout, is to examine the performance of some early-20s players toiling in Europe who will return to North America once NHL camps open to either compete for or cement big-league jobs. We’ll also glance at some guys who, though they may be in Europe for at least the next 10 or 11 months, are starting to give their NHL squads something to really think about.

Juuso Välimäki, D, Calgary Flames

That sound you hear emanating from Southern Alberta is gathering giddiness over Välimäki’s early-season performance — and it comes on the heels of justifiable concern. Välimäki — who split 2018-19 between the Flames and their AHL affiliate — missed the entire 2019-20 campaign thanks to a knee injury sustained during off-season training in the summer of ’19. So while many players have endured an extended hiatus, this ultra-competitive kid’s patience has really been put to the test.

Any questions about how the long layoff would affect the 22-year-old have been answered by his play for Ives in Finland’s Liiga. The six-foot-two blue-liner has 17 points in 16 contests while averaging more than 23 minutes per night for his club, prompting one close observer from the Finnish media to tell me Välimäki — a smart player who makes a good first pass — is the best player at his position in the league. The 16th overall pick from the 2017 NHL Draft has a spot waiting for him in Calgary and, the way he’s going, could climb his way up the depth chart.

“For him it’s just been getting to play every day, consistently,” the scout said. “I think he’s going to eat minutes for a long, long time and play in the top four. I don’t know that he’s going to run the power play, but he’s going to play on the power play.”

Emil Bemström, LW, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bemström established himself with the Jackets last season, netting 10 goals in 56 games — he missed 12 contests with a rib injury — during his debut North American showing. The 2017 fourth-rounder is building on that promise by being one of the most productive players in Finland so far. Bemström, a 21-year-old Swede, has posted 8-9-17 totals in 15 outings while skating for HIFK, placing him fourth overall in league scoring.

By the time Blue Jackets camp rolls around, Bemström will be on his toes, ready to push for a prime-time role on a team that is perpetually in search of scoring.

“I think he hits the ground running,” said the scout. “They’ve really found something. He’s got a big, heavy shot.”

(By the way, centre Anton Lundell — Bemström’s HIFK teammate and a 2020 Florida Panthers first-rounder — is having a whale of a season with 11 goals in 15 games.)

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C, Montreal Canadiens

There had been some hand-wringing around Kotkaniemi — you didn’t expect Habs fans to stop being obsessed just because there is no season, right? — thanks to his relatively paltry production out of the gate while playing for Ässät. But the third-overall pick from 2018 popped two goals on Wednesday and now has six points in his past five showings. Even before Kotkaniemi started heating up, the scout wasn’t concerned about his play in the ultra-defensive Liiga.

“I like the guy,” the scout said. “I don’t think you judge him on this play.”

Jesse Puljujärvi, RW, Edmonton Oilers

Our trusty Edmonton correspondent, Mark Spector, spoke to Puljujärvi’s centre with Kärpät, Cody Kunyk, the other day to get his take on the guy so many Oilers observers are holding out hope for.

The scout I talked to said it’s always going to be about effort on defence — especially for a guy who will play under Oilers coach Dave Tippett — but there’s no doubt the fourth-overall pick from 2016 has the tools and size to be at least a middle-six contributor in the NHL.

“There will still be questions, but I think he’s learned to pull his game in and not make it such an individual game,” the scout said.

Moritz Seider, D, Detroit Red Wings

Steve Yzerman’s decision to start his GM tenure in Detroit by drafting Seider sixth overall in 2019 has made more and more sense as times whizzes by. The six-foot-four German has put up seven points in eight contests skating for Rögle in the Swedish Hockey League this year.

“I don’t know if they’re going to put him on their team right away, but he certainly has the upside to be a legitimate top-four, if not a top-pair guy,” the scout said. “I just like the balls. A little like [Boston Bruin Charlie McAvoy], just willingness to try to make something happen. [And] I haven’t that seen that be a risk thing, where he’s always [taking risks] to make things happen.”

Filip Zadina, RW, Detroit Red Wings

For kids who grow up filling nets in Europe, dreaming of an NHL career, the reality of starting off in the AHL is — let’s be honest — not something that has them turning backflips. For every Euro prospect who comes over and embraces the bus rides, there are handfuls — especially top-10 draft picks — who find it tough to get fired up.

“You don’t tell them when you draft them, ‘See you in Grand Rapids,’” the scout said.

Zadina, drafted sixth overall in 2018, spent most of his first North American season and a chunk of last year with the AHL’s Griffins before joining the Red Wings. He was starting to hit his stride in Detroit when an ankle injury torpedoed his season in early February. He has five goals in seven contests in his native Czech Republic this year, skating for Trinec Ocelari.

The scout thought Zadina showed something during his time in Detroit last year. While his play away from the puck and work ethic will continue to be scrutinized, he’s on the right track. “His shot and ability; he’ll get all kinds of opportunity in Detroit,” he said.

Ville Heinola, D, Winnipeg Jets

He’s not big; there’s no real wow factor and he hasn’t scored a goal in a calendar year. Sold yet?

Believe it or not, you should be. Heinola, who does have 10 assists in 14 Liiga games with Lukko, is just an efficient, smart player very much in the mold of his Winnipeg teammate, Josh Morrissey. Just as Morrissey never screamed, “I’m a top-pair guy!” in his teen years, the 19-year-old Heinola just goes about his business without jumping off the page.

He played eight games at the start of last year with Winnipeg and will be in a strong position to make the club out of camp this year.

Kristian Vesalainen, RW, Winnipeg Jets

A 2017 first-rounder (24th overall), it’s fair to say things have not gone as planned for Vesalainen in North America. Heck, last September he and countryman Sami Niku were involved in a car accident on Day 1 of training camp. Nobody was hurt, but the airbags went off and the two Finns were left pretty shaken and missed a couple days of practice as a precaution.

Vesalainen has shown well in Finland, going 4-4-8 in seven contests with HPK. Our scout has always liked the 21-year-old’s profile — six-foot-four, comfortable playing along the wall — but at some point he has to make good on the promise over here.

“At the end of the day, I’m not really sure the upside,” the scout said.

Kirill Marchenko, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets

The 20-year-old is starting to look like a second-round steal. He’s under contract to stay in the KHL with St. Pertersburg through 2021-22, but Jackets fans can start a long wick on the cannon ball gun because this six-foot-two right-winger — who has six goals in 19 contest this year — is going to cue a few explosions when he eventually arrives in Ohio.

“This kid looks like he may be [Vladimir] Tarasenko,” said the scout, referencing St. Louis’s Russian sniper.

Arttu Ruotsalainen, C, Buffalo Sabres

A classic late-bloomer, Ruotsalainen signed a three-year deal with the Sabres as an undrafted free agent last May. He just turned 23 and is scoring nearly a goal per game (15 in 16) for Liiga’s Ilves, while also leading the circuit with 23 points. The catch — you knew one was coming — is he’s listed at five-foot-eight and, though quick, isn’t a burner.

“He’s really tiny,” the scout said. “And we’ll see what can come of it. But he’s tiny, talented and smart.”

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