Antti Saarela is a prospect whose development has been interesting to monitor. Despite his young age, the 19-year-old forward has already played 121 games in the Liiga, Finland’s top professional league. In the juniors, he was an offensively productive center with strong skating ability and an ability to contribute at both ends of the ice. Although he hasn’t truly broke out in the Liiga yet, the potential he displayed in the Finnish junior leagues has not disappeared anywhere. After watching shift-by-shift video from the past season, I took a closer look at the Chicago Blackhawks prospect: what he does currently well and what areas he needs to work on, so that he could earn a bigger role next season and really become one of the top forwards for Ilves in the Liiga.
Strengths in Saarela’s game
Skating is definitely one of Antti Saarela’s calling cards, if not the most significant one. He is fairly explosive from a standstill, he accelerates quickly and does not need many strides to reach top speed. His balance is strong and he has very good stamina, as he is able to play an energetic game without getting tired, even towards the end of his shifts and late in games. However, he could work on tight turns and cuts.
Another thing I really like about Saarela is his work ethic. Also, his physical game is strong considering his age. He is sturdy on his skates, he knows how to make effective contact and he times his hits well. Despite not being the biggest of forwards, he has solid physical tools to work with. There were some moments when he did not play particularly well in the past season, but it was not due to a lack of effort, or willingness to pay the price physically to help his team win games.
Here is a look at some of his best moments against TPS in the early stages of the past season. Saarela, number 25 in yellow, was really good in the game: he made simple and effective puck plays, had several takeaways, and moved up and down the ice well. At 1:23 mark, he made a nice backhanded bank pass in transition to create a 2-on-1. Additionally, Saarela threw a few solid hits in this game. Overall, it was a very solid performance from him and displayed some of his strongest attributes as a player.
Areas for Improvement
Needs to get into high-scoring areas more often. I think one of the main reasons for Saarela’s low goal total last season was that he did not shoot the puck a whole lot, specifically from high danger areas. However, his shooting ability in itself is not an issue. In fact, he was a proficient finisher at the junior level, possessing a quality wrist shot and one-timer, enabling him to beat goalies even from a distance. Moreover, he needs to shoot with a purpose more frequently, as I think that could help him translate his scoring from the juniors to the Liiga level.
Better execution offensively and more deception. At times his execution in the offensive zone left a lot to be desired last season. I think part of the issue was that he did not show a ton of deception. His intentions were occasionally too predictable and easy for opponents to read. Deception is not an easy skill to master by any means, but I think in Saarela’s case his skating could be a big advantage, especially if he can change speeds more often to gain momentum. If he is able to mask his intentions better, I think we will see a more multidimensional forward.
In the next clip, Saarela makes himself available for the drop pass after the zone entry in transition. He attempts to make a pass to a teammate moving to the back door but is unable to connet. This is one example of a situation in the offensive zone where his execution could have been much better.
On this occasion Saarela does a nice job on intercepting a careless D-to-D pass, but his pass to the front of the net misses its target. These are moments when he definitely needs to be sharper going forward.
One thing that should not be overlooked is that Antti Saarela was one of the better Ilves forwards in the Liiga playoffs and got on the scoresheet with a few points. He also showed improvement at face-offs and will need to continue to do so, as he won only 42.5 percentage of his face-offs in the regular season. When a young player is able to elevate his game at an important time of the season, I think it’s a very promising sign.
I believe Saarela has a realistic chance to put up 30+ points for Ilves in the Liiga next season, as he will have the opportunity to move up in the lineup. Scoring a lot of points won’t be easy without considerable power play time, but on the other hand, I think he’s a player who can help a team win games in many other ways than by scoring. With his skating, high work rate and solid puck skills, Saarela has all the tools to develop into a dependable, quality 200-foot center. I’m very interested to see how plays in 2021-22 and will keep monitoring his development closely.
Cover photo: Jukka Ritola
All videos courtesy of InStat Hockey