Finnish Elite League Teammates, Opponents Impressed With Bruins Prospect Urho Vaakanainen
By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Brett Carson is a 32-year-old defenseman with 90 games of NHL experience.
This past season he played for SaiPa in the Finnish Elite League and had no problem communicating on a regular basis with his defense partner, Bruins 2017 first-round draft pick Urho Vaakanainen.
"We'd go back and forth and talk about things. He'd tell me something he wanted me to do and I'd do the same with him," Carson told CBS Boston this week. "Sometimes young guys wouldn't say that much, but he wasn't afraid. We helped each other out. And even just the way he presents himself at the rink, comes in and works. You could see he knew what he had to do to be a professional."
Vaakanainen's confidence to go back and forth with his teammate about strategies and his maturity to stand up to the rigors of playing at such a high level of the sport impressed Carson even more because Vaakanainen didn't turn 19 until Jan. 1.
"You wouldn't have even thought that he was even that young of a kid," Carson said. "I had to keep reminding myself that he was still a junior-age kid, an 18-year-old kid."
Coming off a 43-game season with SaiPa that saw him notch 11 points (four goals, seven assists) and average around 23 minutes of ice time per game (Bruins general manager Don Sweeney's estimate), the Bruins are looking forward to bringing Vaakanainen to North America for the upcoming season. Sweeney said Thursday the plan is to get the 2017 18th overall selection signed soon, and add him to the mix for a spot in Boston or Providence this fall.
Cody Kunyk, a 28-year-old forward for SaiPa with one NHL game of experience, was as impressed as Carson was by Vaakanainen's play.
"He's very poised for being such a young guy," Kunyk said. "When he chooses to skate end to end, it almost looks effortless. And I feel like just playing in the American League and playing in Finland now, the two leagues are very, very similar. Obviously in North America you get more physical for sure, but he's such a smooth skater and his smarts and he makes unbelievable great first passes and stuff like that. For being that young, it's honest unbelievable."
Unbiased reports from SM-liiga can be hard to come by, but veteran forward Eric Perrin played against Vaakanainen in the 2018 playoffs. Perrin, a 42-year-old with 245 games of NHL experience with Tampa Bay and Atlanta, played for the heavily favored TPS Turku. His team won, but the young SaiPa squad gave them a hard time in a six-game series. Few players on SaiPa were as difficult for Perrin to deal with as Vaakanainen.
"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.
"He was reliable both sides of the ice. It wasn't just offensively, he did a pretty good job as a young guy. Maybe physically not all the way developed yet, but he had a really good effort on defense as well," added Perrin.
Players who witnessed Vaakanainen play this season unanimously said his skating is NHL caliber. He still has to fill out his 6-foot frame and work on his shot, so no one wanted to guarantee a 2018-19 NHL arrival.
But there's no telling what this summer will provide in terms of Vaakanainen's development, and Perrin didn't want to rule anything out as far as the defenseman getting to the NHL within a year.
"He has all the tools, that's for sure," Perrin said.
The Finnish League is tough. But as Kunyk put it, "the American League ... it's also pretty different with guys running around trying to prove themselves every night just to get a call-up." Like many defensemen, Vaakanainen could probably use a little more seasoning, and it wouldn't hurt if he matched up against the physicality of the AHL before trying to skate on a pair with Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo.
Nonetheless, it appears the Bruins have again hit with a draft pick that was initially described as a reach by draft pundits when the pick was made. And those panicking about the Bruins' lack of depth on the left side of their defense corps behind Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug may have their worries calmed pretty soon because there's a mature 19-year-old on his way.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.
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