Going into the 15-16 World Junior Championships everyone knew that Finland was one of the favorites to claim a gold medal. We all knew who their key players were going to be: Mikko Rantanen, Sebastien Aho, Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine & Olli Juolevi. However, there was one other player who opened eyes for the Gold Medalists that few knew before the tournament, Vili Saarijarvi.
The undersized yet extremely skilled defenseman turned into one of Finland’s most dynamic players at the tournament and on what might go down as one of the best World Jr. teams ever assembled, that’s really saying something.
Saarijarvi may not be the Wings top prospect but at this point in the franchise flux, he may be the most important. One of the things the Wings are in short supply of currently are mobile defenseman with high offensive upside and the way the game is currently played, there is a high importance for this type of player.
During the World Juniors he made one play that really stuck out in my mind that showcases his creativity and skill set and exactly why Wings fans should be excited about this guy.
Here he is, in the biggest game of his life. The Gold Medal game, in his home country, against the eternally powerful Russians, late game powerplay with under 2.5 minutes left, tied. He receives a pass at the point but the Russian defender has the lane well blocked yet as the puck is still on route to him, instead of one-timing it he makes up his mind to fake the one-timer and in one motion step back the other way and get a smart shot through an open lane in perfect position to be tipped. Sure enough Rantanen gets a stick on it and gives Finland the 3-2 lead. Incredible.
However, this is only one play but there are many more reasons to be excited.
He has produced at every level he has competed at. He had a particularly strong U18 championship in which he put up 9 points in 7 games and was named the tournament’s top defenseman. He finished his first OHL season for the Flint Firebords with 43 points in 59 games despite Flint being the biggest train wreck the OHL has seen in a long time. That was good for 9th among all OHL defensemen.
Vili was traded from Flint Firebirds to the Mississauga Steelheads in the offseason, which should help his development greatly. Mississauga is a stronger team and should not have all the off-ice distractions that Flint had.
Given that he is only listed at 5’9”, 163 pounds there will always be the question mark of whether or not he’ll be able to make the jump to the NHL. He did put up 4 points in 5 games with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye at the end of last season so that’s a small positive about his size concerns transitioning to men’s leagues. Being a Red Wings’ prospect he will have the benefit of time. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t spend next season in the OHL and then at least two years in Grand Rapids. It’s a long wait for Vili but if he pans out, the Wings may have their own Sami Vatanen.