Oilers Jesse Puljujarvi and Flames Juuso Valimaki thriving in Liiga

Thanks to a delayed NHL season and the COVID-19 pandemic, quite a few players chose to play in Europe in the fall. The Finnish Liiga had its share as well.

Finland was nearly COVID-free in the summer, but in the fall, things started spiraling out of control. The Liiga decided to go on pause in early December. The games will resume on December 20th at the earliest.

Some takeaways from the Liiga season, you say? Well, here goes…

5. Aatu Raty, Karpat Oulu / 2021 NHL Draft Prospect

It’s been tough sledding lately for Aatu Raty, the forward once predicted to go first overall in the 2021 NHL Draft. He only managed six games and two goals before the Liiga went on pause.

More bad news followed in early December; Raty wasn’t included in Team Finland’s shortlist for the World Junior Championships. His big brother, Aku, who was picked, felt bad for the younger Raty.

“Somehow I think the decision was wrong but I’m sure the coaches had their reasons. Be as it may, all this doesn’t make him worse as a player,” Aku Raty told the Kaleva newspaper.

4. Ville Heinola, Lukko Rauma / Winnipeg Jets

After a surprising start and eight NHL games with the Jets in early 2019-20, Heinola returned to Finland to play for Lukko. He has played in 19 Liiga games this season and been one of the leading defensemen in the league.

Heinola collected one goal, 14 points, and a plus-22 rating before the pause.

Soon Heinola will represent Finland at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton. Finland’s U20 head coach Antti Pennanen ranks him as the team’s leading defenseman. “We have a very good team, but as for individuals, Ville Heinola and Anton Lundell are our biggest stars,” says Pennanen.

3. Jesse Puljujarvi, Karpat Oulu / Edmonton Oilers

jesse puljujarvi
Jesse Puljujarvi (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Easily the most talked-about player when it comes to Finns playing abroad. No one needs to be reminded of what happened in his first North American tour (including Puljujarvi himself). The Edmonton Oilers hope the winger is the real deal this time.

Puljujarvi went wild in the preseason, scoring at will. That form carried over to the season. He posted five goals and seven points in the four first Liiga games. It wasn’t to last. When the Liiga went on pause, he had seven goals and just 12 points in 16 games.

What if he fails again with the Oilers? Misery. The Oilers will be gutted. Puljujarvi will be gutted. He’s not going to North America to play AHL hockey.

“What I found out in the AHL, is that competition is really tough there. I also found out that I don’t want to go there ever again,” Puljujarvi told me in 2018.

2. Anton Lundell, HIFK Helsinki / Florida Panthers

Lundell is probably a year away from the NHL but the Panthers can rest assured the first-rounder will become an asset. 

As for scoring, Lundell had a lot to prove in the fall, and the 19-year-old delivered. He leads HIFK in goals (12) and points (20). His displays included a six-pointer (two goals, four assists against Jukurit) and a four-goal extravaganza against SaiPa.

Lundell may become an international star at the WJC, and his time will come with the senior squad soon enough. Jukka Jalonen, head coach of the Finnish “A” team, has his sights set on Lundell.

”I’ve watched him since his days in the U16s, and I’ve always liked his game a lot,” Jalonen said Monday in a press briefing. “He’s an excellent all-round player. I like his attitude, he has a good head on his shoulders. I believe he’s going to achieve a spot in the NHL before long.”

1. Juuso Valimaki, Ilves Tampere / Calgary Flames

Rejoice, Flame fans. Valimaki was a revelation in the Liiga. He led all defensemen in points (19) and assists (17). And his league-leading plus-29 rating wasn’t too shabby, either.

Valimaki surprised everyone in 2018, taking a spot on the Flames as a 20-year-old. Due to injury, he hasn’t appeared in the NHL since April 3rd, 2019. Unfortunate, for sure, but he’s ready to come back in a big way.

“In the NHL, hockey is fast, and that’s the biggest thing,” Valimaki told me in his rookie season. “My skating has improved, so I can keep up with the pace. In the NHL, you always play against the best. There’s no margin for error.”

”You have to show your best every night if you want to keep your spot on the team. That’s my goal. There’s been no patting on the back, though. You really have to take care of yourself on and off the ice. That’s the business side of the NHL.”

Valimaki has what it takes to become an NHL regular. He has good size (6′ 2″, 212 lb) and he moves his body fairly well. Above all, he is an intelligent player with great hockey sense.