Finland’s Liiga had their own version of the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, only one that has gotten the job done in the playoffs thus far. Karpat, the reigning Liiga champion, has been unstoppable all season long in pursuit of a title defense. Building off the success of their 2017-18 campaign, the team was the regular season champion by 29 points over the next-best competitor and finished with a +106 goal differential while just one other team in the league topped +27. Through the first two rounds of the postseason, Karpat has needed just ten games to dispatch their opponents, all while allowing just 13 goals against. The Liiga Final begins today, as Karpat takes on the No. 5-seeded HPK, a team that they are not expected to have much trouble with.
Given their dominant regular season and early playoff success, it is hard to make a case that Karpat is not undoubtedly the Liiga’s best team this season, regardless of how the final turns out. As usual, the best players on the best team in a major European league are garnering a fair amount of attention. Finnish news source Ilta Sanomat reports that upwards of seven of Karpat’s veteran core players could leave the team for greener pastures. Of that group, the reporter indicates that leading scorer Ville Leskinen and top defensive pair Teemu Kivihalme and Jani Hakanpaa are almost certainly headed to the NHL. The terrific goalie tandem of Veini Vehvilainen and NHL veteran Jussi Rynnas could also be headed to North America. Not mentioned are top NHL prospects Aleksi Heponiemi and Rasmus Kupari, who are both considered likely to join their drafted clubs.
Leskinen, 25, is the big name included on this list as a highly-sought after free agent scorer. An undrafted product who has played in the Karpat system for his entire life, Leskinen’s production has increased exponentially over each of the past few seasons. This year, he tied for the Liiga scoring title and was one of just three qualifying players to finish in the point-per-game range with 57 points in 58 games. He also finished second overall in the league with 29 goals and a +31 rating. He has since added a league-leading five goals in the playoffs to go along with six assists through just ten games. A right-shot winger with decent size and great hands, Leskinen has proven that he can be a star in the Liiga, but is out to show that he can also make an impact in the NHL. Expect many teams to be willing to give him that chance. At 25 years old, Leskinen is still within the laws of the entry-level system, meaning teams will have to find ways other than salary to convince the talented Finn to join them.
Both Kivihalme and Hakanpaa are former NHL prospects who never signed with their teams, but are reportedly going to be in the league after all with deals “in the final stages”. Kivihalme, 23, was curious case due to his commitment to North American hockey. The puck-moving defender spent much of his childhood in Minnesota and even has American citizenship. After a strong high school career, Kivihalme was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2013 and eventually went on to play for Colorado College. However, he did not complete his NCAA eligibility, opting instead to turn pro in Finland after three years. The Predators let his draft rights expire, so Kivihalme is now very much a free agent who should draw considerable interest as Karpat’s top defenseman. Hakanpaa has a very different game and very different story from his pair mate. The 6’5″, 207 lb. 27-year-old was a fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Blues out of the Finnish junior ranks all the way back in 2010. While he never earned a contract from the team, he appeared at several camps, played in the preseason, and spent parts of three seasons with their AHL affiliates. At the end of the day, the opportunity wasn’t there and Hakanpaa returned to Finland. The solid defensive blue liner has had an awakening offensively over the past two seasons and will be returning to North America as a far more well-rounded product.
Of everyone listed in the report, it is fair to be skeptical of the thought of Rynnas returning to the NHL. Despite incredible numbers in the Liiga this season, they were second only to Vehvilainen, who got the bulk of the starts. It may be a hard sell for the 31-year-old, who has already spent four seasons in North America with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ and Dallas Stars’ organizations, to say that he is ready to try again after being a backup in Europe. Perhaps there is an opportunity – Rynnas did have some good AHL seasons – but more likely than not, he will wait to see what happens with Vehvilainen and may prefer to stay with Karpat as the replacement starter.
As for their other top teammates, their immediate NHL futures are largely predetermined. As most know, Kupari and Heponiemi are recent high draft picks and considered top prospects by their organizations. Kupari was the first-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings last year and played on loan with Karpat this year after signing with L.A. The Kings could desperately use an injection of youthful talent, which gives Kupari strong odds of cracking the roster out of camp. Heponiemi was a second-round selection of the Florida Panthers in 2017 who returned to his native Finland this year after two strong seasons with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos. One of the best players at the World Juniors this winter, Heponiemi is definitely ready for the NHL and the Panthers could use the affordable production as they project to be low on cap space after a busy summer. What some might not realize is that starting goalie Vehvilainen is also NHL property. Vehvilainen, 22, was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets just last year as an overage prospect. Yet, the sixth-rounder has already proven to have been a smart gamble by the team. Vehvilainen led the Liiga with a .933 save percentage and 1.58 GAA this year, his second straight season of finishing in the top three in both categories. He has also played better in the postseason both years, which is always a plus for a goaltender. The Ilta Sanomat report claims that Vehvilainen will join Columbus if he is at least guaranteed a top-three spot on the depth chart next season. With Sergei Bobrovsky likely to leave, Vehvilainen could join existing keepers Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins as an inexperienced, but high-upside unit next season.
Karpat was an extremely talented team this season and last with several great core players. It will certainly be worth watching how those former teammates perform in the NHL in the future.