The Year Of The Teemu

The developmental curve for young forwards dreaming of the NHL is a steep and treacherous downhill race. Imagine standing at the top of a grassy plateau (draft day), you look down the steep embankment with wonder (donning the jersey), you lean forward (sign contract), bend your knees (head to AHL), and head furlong towards the bottom (toiling away for a shot in the big leagues). Somewhere, typically mid-hill, your legs pump so quickly that you teeter dangerously on the verge of face-planting the rest of the way down or surviving with sore muscles, a stiff back, and scars to prove you made it in one piece. To carry the analogy even further – surviving the hill is something that rarely happens. Just ask these guys.

Cultivating an NHL caliber forward through the affiliated AHL farm team is a process worth exploring, but one that most organizations use incorrectly. Meaning, they don’t have the patience to see players mature properly, or they place them in the minors so long that they get jumbled up in the mix. However, so many players come to a league un-prepared, and unable to face the rigors of the NHL life. And I’m not just talking about play on the ice. This also means handling money, proper public savoir-faire, living in foreign conditions, and the duties that come along with playing for a professional brand. All of these things, and, yes, the play on the ice can sometimes be enunciated before the time is right. *see trading well for a quicker solution

The Oilers are dedicated to a process. A process of re-building, re-tooling, and re-jiggering a franchise that has hit rock bottom for at least two consecutive season. Whether you fall into the category that believes this to be The Way or you think that monkeys could manage players better; either way the development process “on the farm” will be key to the future. There is no escaping this.

That brings me to Oklahoma and one prospect in particular. It’s hard to give Teemu Hartikainen the once over and not find his play dynamically different from the other forwards around him. Oklahoma City hockey fans have had the pleasure of watching him play for nearly a full season. Besides being a fan favorite, he’s the most promising heir to the first call-up next season at the forward position. He’s unlike any player the Oilers currently have, and he certainly fits a need as the re-build continues.

How will the Oilers handle the boy wonder next season? Does he stay in the minors or does he make the big club?

I’m going to assume for just a moment that Hartikainen stays in Oklahoma City. It certainly wouldn’t hurt. He also seems to embrace the process and kind of enjoys life in Oklahoma City. He’s the anti-Omark, if you will. Where Omark laments about being stuck on the farm, Teemu embraces it. And by sticking in the minors another season it might do #35 some good, and also prolong his time as an Oiler. Omark might find himself on a very young, prospect heavy roster where he becomes trade bait more than anything else.

The term power forward essentially came from the basketball world, but has been transferred to the hockey arena as well. By definition, a power forward is an offensive player with equal parts scoring, and equal parts muscle. Like the basketball counterpart, the hockey power forward is strong, smart, savvy, intense, valuable, and rare. They don’t settle for mediocrity at one end of the ice – it’s all or nothing. This, in turn, is the summation of Hartikainen’s game.

Now that the lust-fest for the Finnish Phenom is over, let’s get to the point. He will be the key to any success the Barons have in season number two.

The team opted to not renew contracts for scoring leaders, and what is left are a few vets, and even more youngsters. This is really how farm teams should look, and the Oilers are banking on the young prospects to step up. The linchpin in the wheel will be discovering if Teemu Hartikainen can score goals, lead his team, and prove that he’s the next viable power forward.  That’s a tall order for a kid to endure, but he’s up to the task.

Over the span of his infant career, Hartikainen continues to get better as the leagues get better. In 08-09, his rookie season with KalPa he had 23 total points (17 G & 6 A) through 50+ games. The next season that number increased by 10 (33pts; 15 G & 18A). He heads to Oklahoma City, a more NHL-like league, and jumps again to 42 points (17 G & 15 A). Granted he played 66 games which was nearly 15 more than in the Finnish league, but the production was there, and in a very foreign/different playing surface and environment.

His international play looked quite similar for three consecutive season. Playing for Finland in World Juniors U18 & U20, he played the same number of games (6), and went 3-9-6 in point totals. Although the point production dips in 2010, he scored 4 goals for a not-so-great team that finished fifth that year. Add to that the adaptability he has to different rink sizes, team dynamics, and playing partners; Teemu is the real deal.

He’ll not wear the “C” this year, but he’s every bit the heart and soul of the Barons in season two. He certainly has some things to focus on in the off-season. His shot totals ended around 132 which were over 100 fewer than leading scorers Brad Moran and Alex Giroux. His points per game average was around .64%, which certainly will need to rise. However, in the end it’s the way in which he plays that casues the most commotion.

I’ll not pigeon hole Hartikainen into being something he’s not. He certainly will not be the AHL leading goal scorer, but he could be. He won’t razzle dazzle all the time, but he might. He’s every bit a player that notches his own destiny, whether that’s in the goal scoring department, the rugged third liner, or the assist monster that makes every one around him increasingly better. He’ll carve a name in the lore of Oilers prospect history if he can rise above and continue to impress. Let the year of the Teemu begin.

Photo courtesy of Steven Christy Photography