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A Pessimistic Look at Prospects, Part One: Teemu Hartikainen

Friday marked my twenty-third birthday, and it was a success. I saw a lot of family members I hadn't seen in a while, and we asked each other the usual questions about oh what are you up to these days. Among the things I mentioned was this little blog, of which I am inordinately fond, and my modest role in its success. Never mind the fact that I'm pretty sure Derek and Bruce had me confused with someone else when they wanted me to write here, I am one of nature's gloaters and I gloated like hell on this one.

Why am I mentioning this? So I can alert any family members or friends reading the Copper & Blue for the first time: you may never see me write for this site again. No, I didn't sleep with a writer from Bleacher Report. I didn't get drunk on a road trip and call James Mirtle "the Mike Milbury of the Globe & Mail". No, it was because of this very article in which I shall dissect blog manager Derek Zona's sacred cow.

I am going to tell you everything that's wrong with Teemu Hartikainen.

This will, provided Derek doesn't buy me a desk just so he can tell me to clean it out, be the first in a series where I abandon all hope and make us all feel as miserable for the Oilers' future as we currently feel for their present. I'm not going to tell you that none of these guys will ever make the NHL for sure or I'll eat my text, but I am going to poke holes in bubbles, bust myths, destroy fantasies, and generally make everyone miserable. Teemu Hartikainen might very well become a serviceable NHL player someday, but he probably won't be Shawn Horcoff. Hell, he won't even be Jon Sim.

And here's why.

My problem with Teemu Hartikainen has a lot to do with my problem with Toby Petersen, or Ryan Potulny, or Brian Swanson, or any of their ilk to ply their trade here over the last decade. It's not that they're crummy hockey players. They don't backcheck like Pavel Bure and they don't score like Ladislav Smid. A lot of them have gotten a long way on wits and guile rather than classic physical ability and some have had nice runs in the NHL for their trouble.

Very few players become NHLers without at least one decisive skill that swings the odds in their favour, something they can lean on to get their foot in the door and survive with while rounding out their game. This is why a guy in the WHL can pick up seventy points and miss getting drafted while his teammate can get thirty but be a great faceoff man and an effective agitator and wind up with a shot at the NHL. If you can provide a specific set of in-demand skills, you'll likely translate a lot better to the NHL. A guy who gets 70 WHL points with smoke and mirrors won't get 70 points in the NHL, but the agitator will be just as annoying.

Looking at Hartikainen's toolbox is not encouraging. At 6'1" and 198 pounds, he's about average for an NHL forward but well above average for the SM-liiga, meaning he may be used to imposing himself physically in Finland in a way that won't translate to North America. His reputation was built last season when he scored 17 goals in 51 games in one of the five best leagues in the world: an exemplary performance. One which almost masked his frankly bizarre lack of assists (six) and his highly disconcerting plus/minus (-8, second-worst on a very good team).

0.33 goals per game in 2008-09 was by far Hartikainen's best mark at any league. In 2007-08 he came closest, recording ten goals in thirty-seven games in the Finnish 'A' junior division. He is not so much a finisher as a bombarder who just gets the puck on goal any way he can do it and who may have just gotten the breaks last year. Certainly, his shooting percentages have gone down this year. He didn't get "get it" and learn how to be Jari Kurri. His World Junior Championships have been good, but as Jani Rita could tell you, a short tournament against erratic competition is a hell of a way to evaluate prospects.

So far in 2009-10, he is mostly treading water. His goals per game is down to 0.14, although his assists per game is well up (the shots that went in last year are producing rebounds this year). He is -1 on an exceptionally good team, tied with Sami Kapanen (yes, that Sami Kapanen) near the bottom of the team but not as miserable as last season. For all the fancy numbers, he's taking more off the table than he's putting on.

Which is worrying, because one of the highlights of Hartikainen's play, we're told, is his defense. In his terrific interview with the Copper & Blue, Hartikainen mentioned that he emphasizes his defense. Certainly KalPa plays a defensive style, and KalPa's coach Pekka Virta spent almost a decade in Finland and abroad as quite a good two-way forward. But to put up counting numbers like Hartikainen's and come out on the minus side of the ledger on a team as good as KalPa implies something worrying. When you're second-worst on the team in plus/minus, it's hard to blame anybody but yourself for that number. We don't have advanced statistics for the SM-liiga, which is a pity since we could rule out the goaltender simply not liking Hartikainen or other such percentage-based causes. But it's a dangerous indication.

Hartikainen's managed to be a slightly inferior player for a superior team in a good league at the age of nineteen, and there's nothing wrong with that. But what skill has he got to get him into the NHL? He is, by Finnish standards, a high-volume shooter but not that high. He's a worse-than-average playmaker. Getting a hundred shots off is a lot easier when you're bigger than most of your opponents compared to when you're going against defensemen you can't outmuscle, particularly when combined with Hartikainen's lack of skating ability. He is, by the numbers, a poor defender. He is strong for his size, but so is everyone in the NHL. He's also very clever, which is his greatest asset, but that's another very common NHL strength.

What in that package gets him to the NHL? Maybe he has a journeyman's career in the AHL, learns an assortment of pitches to compensate for a missing fastball, comes up, and becomes Fernando Pisani. Or maybe he stays down and becomes Colin McDonald. Either way, "exciting prospect" and "hopefully Fernando Pisani" do not belong together.