The Chicago Blackhawks took the fifth Finnish prospect in the last three years, selecting forward Antti Saarela with the 123rd overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft. The 2001 born forward was ranked 8th in my final draft ranking which includes Finland-based prospects. Soon after the draft, the Blackhawks acquired his older brother Aleksi Saarela in a trade from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Saarela started last season with Lukko’s U20 team, but was quite promptly promoted to the Liiga team. He put up two goals and eight assists in 23 games while averaging 12:06 of ice-time per game. He showed a lot of promise as a 17-year-old rookie.
There were many positives when I watched Saarela play in the Liiga this past season. First of all, with his strong skating he was able to more than keep up with the pace. He got up and down the ice well and his good acceleration allowed him to get to pucks quickly. Secondly, his physicality and willingness to battle stood out. At 5’11” and 183 lbs, he may not be big in stature, but he is sturdy, gritty and can deliver solid hits. He did not get outmuscled at all in my viewings.
Saarela was sidelined for nearly a month due to injury which occurred in late December, but he made an immediate impact after returning to game action in January against Sport. He set up the overtime winner in a 2-1 win with a great play after the face-off win. He does a great job of hiding the pass in this sequence.
Saarela has been a prolific scorer at the junior level, one who has the ability to drive the play and create a lot of offense. I watched him play for Lukko U16 a few years ago and he was the team’s best player as an underager in my opinion. Even at the international level he has shown strong offensive abilities, especially with the U16 and U17 national teams. I did expect more from him at this year’s U18 World Championship, but at the same time the Finnish team did not play well as a whole, so I wouldn’t make too big conclusions about his play there.
Saarela is a good offensive talent, but seems to lack a dominant trait in his skill set. However, he does have a hard, accurate wrist shot and slap shot, making for a solid shot selection. He has good passing skills and he can set up his teammates for scoring chances. He can also carry the puck up the ice effectively and make good plays at high speed from time to time.
All in all, Antti Saarela is a balanced, versatile and strong skating forward who brings energy and can play up and down the lineup. He has been primarily a center but can also play wing. I’m interested to see which position he will play going forward. Personally, I think his style of play might be better suited for wing. He will suit up for Ilves in the Liiga this upcoming season and I think he has a very realistic chance to break through at the men’s level. Ilves is a young team with a lot of talent and I think it’s a good environment for Saarela to develop his game further.