Player: Urho Vaakanainen
Last Season: Providence Bruins
Stats: 54GP, 5G, 9A, 14 PTS
Acquired: 2017 Draft - 1st Round, 18th Overall
Checking in as the top defense prospect on the list, Urho Vaakanainen is a guy whose stock has steadily risen since he was taken in the first round back in 2017.
The 21-year-old Finnish blue liner completed his second North American tour this past season, skating in 54 games for Providence and 5 games for the big club.
It’s been a fast ascent for Vaakanainen, who started grabbing eyeballs when he won the World Junior Championship with Finland in 2018 and really got noticed when he skated at his first training camp with the Bruins.
While he didn’t make the NHL roster, he certainly showed that he belonged, no small feat for a kid who had never played in North America.
For Vaakanainen, there’s no more “under the radar” play. It’s all about further development, and rounding out all aspects of his game.
Vaakanainen wasn’t really ever projected to be an offensive dynamo like Torey Krug; instead, the hope was that he’d use his smooth skating and intelligence to turn into a well-rounded defenseman.
After 14 points in 30 games in his first AHL season, Vaakanainen recorded the same number in 54 games last season.
Disappointing? Not according to his coach, Jay Leach, who had this to say (via NESN.com):
He’s always going to have that defensive aspect to his game, he’s always going to be competitive, but I think the offensive stuff is starting to come a bit more naturally to him, and that’s just fine with us obviously, and hopefully it will continue.
To sum it up: while his points total didn’t grow, his overall game did.
Perhaps even more impressive is how Vaakanainen looked in his 5 games with the Bruins. While Vaakanainen didn’t fill up a highlight reel, he did what you want a young defenseman to do: he fit in.
That’s to say he didn’t make any egregious mistakes, didn’t look nervous, didn’t look lost...he looked like he belonged.
It’s entirely possible (for the sake of argument, let’s assume there will be something close to a normal training camp) that Vaakanainen blows coaches away next training camp and forces himself onto the NHL roster.
However, there’s not much room at the inn for Boston blue liners. Barring multiple departures, there will probably only be one or two spots available.
Vaakanainen will be battling with at least one far more established player (Connor Clifton), one slightly more established player (Jeremy Lauzon), and one fellow “seeking a breakthrough guy (Jakub Zboril).
As is the case with some of the Bruins forward prospects, Vaakanainen probably would have already made the NHL jump in another organization.
However, in Boston, there’s too much talent in front of them for that to be realistic right now, and the Bruins aren’t in the position of giving away ice time for the sake of development.
Vaakanainen has been good since arriving in North America, but at this point, it’s no longer a pleasant surprise: it’s the expectation.
His first AHL season saw him play sound defense and produce at a near-0.5 PPG pace. His second AHL season saw him gain confidence in skating with the puck and making plays, while keeping that sound defense in place.
His third AHL season will be key. If he’s to seriously challenge for an NHL roster spot at any point next season, he’ll need his game to continue to evolve, both in the offensive zone and in the defensive zone.
It’s hard to be disappointed with Vaakanainen’s progression thus far. Drafted when he was just over 18, he has improved at every level every year since the Bruins chose him.
Coincidentally, he’s moved up our rankings every year we’ve done them too.
A steady first year. A steady second year. While a steady third year would be fine, here’s to hoping the third year is the one where he takes that well-rounded game to the next level.
Projection for next season: Heavy minutes in Providence, with 8-12 NHL games (unless the Bruins lose a defenseman or two...then it might be more).