Vili Saarijarvi – Grand Rapids Griffins Defenseman Vying for Chance in the NHL

Vili Saarijarvi is quickly becoming a household name within the Detroit Red Wings organization. Hailing from Rovaniemi, Finland, Saarijarvi brings an international flair to his on-ice performance. Vili couldn’t help but draw some attention during his IIHF U16-U20 junior years. The good natured defenseman left Finland leaving behind four playoff runs with his U16, U18 and U20 teams as well as two World Junior Championship invites. Having now spent time in four separate leagues in the US, Vili has developed into a strong two-way player and shows no signs of slowing down.

Getting his skating legs under him in his homeland, Vili was in his comfort zone. Putting up the points and making the blue-line his own, Saarijarvi was a key factor throughout his junior seasons. Former Finnish U20 coach, Juuka Jalonen spoke with WingsNation about Vili’s on and off ice demeanor, “Vili is a very positive person off the ice and excellent offensively on the ice. He is calm with the puck under the pressure and on the blueline.” It’s no doubt that Saarijarvi’s ability to keep his cool created the defensive control needed when battling it out. Despite finishing out his IIHF years in Finland averaging almost a point per game, Saarijarvi admits he has a ways to go, “I can still improve. You’re never too good at anything,” stated Vili.

Improve he did. Saarijarvi made the journey to the US to team up with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers for the 2014-2015 season. His distinct style and disposition were noted by Gamblers head coach Patrick Mikesch. “Vili came to Green Bay as a 17 year old player for his first year of hockey in North America.” Mikesch told WingsNation. “He immediately proved that he had elite offensive skills and played will great poise.” Holding his line and ever improving on his offensive game, as a defenseman, Vili notched 23 points in 59 USHL games played.

Saarijarvi’s passionate play gained the attention of the OHL who picked up the young Finnish-native and sent him to the Flint Firebirds. Racking up an impressive 43 points in 59 games, Vili was well on his way to gaining much sought after notoriety. His relaxed persona and off-ice work ethic collided to create the OHL career that few dream of. Jukka Jalonen summarized the product of Vili’s passion and peace as coming together into “Offensive skills on the ice and laid back mentality off the ice.” A dangerous combination for any opponent, Vili had become the secret defensive weapon during his stay with the OHL’s Firebirds 2015-2016 and the Mississauga Steelheads 2016-2017.

Vili Saarijarvi Grand Rapids Griffins
Grand Rapids Griffins Defenseman Vili Saarijarvi

Following his time in the OHL, the Detroit Red Wings extended Saarijarvi a Prospect Tournament invite. Saarijarvi, following his own advice to “embrace it and have fun as much as possible,” made the most of his Prospect and Training Camp days. Earning two consecutive invites, Vili finally gained the foothold he had been working for. Getting the opportunity to train with the Red Wings gave Vili the chance to glean from their experience and get familiar with the conditioning that would be required of him.

Saarijarvi was signed to an entry level contract with Detroit following the 2015 Prospect Tournament. Initially not having a place with the Grand Rapids Griffins, Saarijarvi was sent to Toledo to play for the ECHL affiliate, the Walleye. Saarijarvi’s easy-going personality made the transition much easier than it is for most. Only spending fifteen total games with the Walleye, Saarijarvi got the call to head back to Grand Rapids.

Now finding himself among the AHL’s best, Vili is taking every opportunity to grow in his position and beyond. When asked about how he’s handling playing with his new teammates, Saarijarvi told WingsNation, “The biggest thing is probably to get more experience. On the ice, to play against older guys (and) bigger guys, that’s been (a) big thing for me. You have to be good every night you play here.” Vili only stands 5’10” so adapting to playing against full grown men will likely always present a challenge. However, Saarijarvi possesses an impenetrable positive disposition, and is willing to do what it takes to meet the standard. Griffins Strength and Conditioning Coach, Marcus Kinney, attributes Vili’s contagious work ethic to his methodical style and ability to learn quickly. “I never have to tell him the same thing twice” said Marcus, “he does everything with a smile.”

Vili also has had the advantage of top notch on-ice supervision, “At the beginning of the season, I played with Reno (Renouf) then I played with Lash (Lashoff). So now mixing with Russo and Mac (McIlrath) and Hicketts as well…I think it’s been good for me to go out there and play with everyone.” Having the ability to throw Saarijarvi on any defensive pairing with ease has been a vital part of the Griffin’s successes. Moving forward, Vili knows he has more work to be done when it comes to puck protection and his offensive game. On the ice, Saarijarvi is focusing on the finer details of his game to coincide with his big picture, “I think in the defensive zone I’m smarter when I go and when I stick back a little bit.” said Vili, “How I put my stick positioning when I go in the corners and try move the forwards where I want them go.”

Saarijarvi has keen defensive insight as well as a strong offensive foresight. Knowing the flow of a play prior to it transpiring is what makes his development with the Griffins so obvious. Accepting the challenge of vying for his spot in the lineup has given Vili the motivation he needs to keep improving. “Mentally I think it’s been a huge year for me. Everyone wants to play and it’s tough when you’re out of the lineup or you get sent down,” Vili confessed, “(but) I think that’s helping me mentally.”

Saarijarvi Grand Rapids Griffins

So where does this young defenseman fit into Detroit’s grand rebuild scheme? Front and center, or thereabouts. Saarijarvi possesses the ethic on and off the ice that leads to success. Saarijarvi is teachable, strong in his position and willing to work. Coach Jukka of Finland heartily testified to Saarijarvi’s capability, “For sure he has long-term potential to play in AHL/NHL” with the understanding that there is room to grow. Detroit needs consistent defensemen, rather, Detroit needs consistency.

Saarijarvi has exquisite skating ability and vision that has earned him numerous awards throughout his career. As a result of learning to slow his game down and control it, Vili’s puck handling has also improved since last September’s training camp. Though still small, Vili has managed to put on some weight since joining the Griffins (according to Marcus Kinney) and continues to improve defensively. Taking his AHL career in stride, Saarijarvi is looking ahead to the playoff race, “All upcoming games are going to be huge games for us. We’re in a really tight division so if there’s anything I can do to make this team better and help win games.”

By the numbers, Saarijarvi is a win for Detroit. Younger men have made big differences in their NHL careers. All Vili needs is the chance to prove himself. For now however, he will strive to grow and revel in the experience.