When the Bruins selected Urho Vaakanainen 18th overall in 2017, the collective question was “who?” It was nothing personal, just that few Bruins fans had heard much about the Finnish teenager with the awesome name.
A little over a year later, nearly every fan knows who this kid is, and most expect to seem him sporting the spoked B on a regular basis sooner rather than later.
Vaakanainen’s ascent shouldn’t be a surprise, but the speed of it has opened eyes. When he was drafted, the plan for Vaakanainen was to marinate for a little while over in Finland, letting him earn his stripes against big-league competition in Finland’ SM-liiga.
However, Vaakanainen (and I hate to use this prospect cliche, but here goes...) played against grown men the year he was drafted, skating in 55 SM-liiga games as a 17-turned-18-year-old kid.
He continued his strong play last season with SaiPa, opening eyes here in Boston. In just a year, Vaakanainen went from “we’ll see him eventually” to possibly fighting for a roster spot this month.
Sure, it’s more likely than not that Vaakanainen isn’t on the Bruins’ bench when the season opens against Washington. But it’s pretty remarkable that after just a year, he’s become a kid who is probably in “next man up” territory (along with Jakub Zboril).
His strongest assets, per scouts who have watched him play, are said to be his decision-making and his skating. Both of those are things that can translate to the NHL level without needing “grown man” size.
Vaakanainen’s play opened the eyes of some former NHL players over in Finland last season as well. From a WBZ piece by Matt Kalman:
“He was their best defenseman by far,” Perrin said. “I just remember [him] always being on the ice, doing really good things and that stands out to me. … These little things that we know, usually you say to your guys ‘get on their D, they’re having a hard time.’ But he wasn’t one of those guys that we were talking about. It was other guys. So we knew we had to kind of more keep an eye on him, because he joined the rush, things like that, that we had to stay aware about him at all times.
The question going forward for Vaakanainen is a pretty big one: where is he going to play?
As mentioned above, he’s probably not going to make the Bruins’ roster out of camp. He’s signed to his entry-level contract, and the Bruins could choose to assign him to Providence, or could have him go back home to play in Finland.
Having him in Providence would let him get more acclimated to the North American game, and would also make him available for a call-up if needed.
In any case, it’s more likely than not that he’ll be in the mix in Boston very soon. Better learn to spell his name!
Rankings so far:
10. Jeremy Swayman
9. Ryan Fitzgerald
8. Trent Frederic
7. Peter Cehlarik
6. Jeremy Lauzon
5. Jakub Zboril
4. Urho Vaakanainen