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Tampa Bay Lightning Top 25 Under 25: #20 Niko Huuhtanen should be a top 10 prospect

Why was this guy a seventh round pick?

Tampa Bay Lightning Headshots
TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 22: Niko Huuhtanen #73 of the Tampa Bay Lightning poses for his official headshot for the 2021-2022 season on September 22, 2021 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Casey Brooke Lawson/NHLI via Getty Images

I’ll just come out and say it. You are all sleeping hard on Niko Huuhtanen. This 19-year-old, 6’2” power forward with speed and poise is a top prospect in the WHL, and should be considered a top prospect for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Player

Huuhtanen played in the WHL last season as an 18-year-old. Here’s some comparative numbers just to give you a sense of what kind of season he had.

  1. 9th in WHL points among U19 skaters
  2. 4th in WHL goals among U19 skaters
  3. 8th in points per game among U19 skaters
  4. 5th in even strength goals among D+1 forwards

He’s in the top-20 in all these categories when you compare him to all U20 skaters from the league. He’s even ahead of a few first round picks from his own draft! This was, to say the least, a breakout year for this seventh round pick drafted out of the Finnish junior league. Yeah, you might have just found out he was a seventh round pick in 2021.

When researching Huuhtanen, I had to look into his even-strength production and shooting just in case he was a recipient of heavy power play points and a shooting spike. Seeing his even strength rate that high was both encouraging and a relief. As for his shooting percentage, he shot 16% in the WHL, which is about 5% higher than the average for his draft class, but not an outlier by any means.

Finishing up Huuhtanen’s past before we get to his future. The right winger played in Finland’s U20 league for a couple seasons where he scored at approximately a point per game pace even there. He was selected for Finland’s U18 team and put up five points in seven games for them. And this year he was selected for the U20 Four Nations Cup team and he scored a goal with four points in three games.

Looking at the Penalties

One thing I noticed in Huuhtanen’s box scores was his high penalty numbers. After looking into it, he has seven fights in the WHL which raked up 65 penalty minutes all on their own due to the game misconducts and offsetting penalties. So really, in 65 games he only really took 10 penalties that put his team down a skater. I’m pretty good with that, especially when you know this guy brings snarl and energy to the game. I also found it interesting that he’s only taken eight penalties in 33 international tournament games playing for Finland. So it seems those extra penalties go away when things get serious, which is the right attitude to have.

Next season, Huuhtanen will head back to Finland, having been promoted up to the top tier Liiga team. Jukurit was the second best team in the Liiga last season, so Huuhtanen is going to be on a competitive team with good teammates. Last year, Islanders 2021 first round pick Aatu Raty scored 40 points in 41 games. That’ll be the bar for me to see if Huuhtanen is as good in a men’s league as he was playing junior hockey against his peers.

Looking at his SHOT! (Highlights)

I think the piece of Huuhtanen’s game that becomes clear right away is his booming shot. He can absolutely wire it on the power play with both a quick release and lightning quick velocity. His highlights when he scores from the backdoor aren’t lazy tap-ins, but he moves with quickness and timing to put the puck in right away.

The next thing I see from Huuhtanen is his size and ability to use it. He is very clever down low in terms of using his size to overpower the opponent, but also with good timing to be open up space when the pass is ready to come.

His vision and creativity are also very evident in his goals, with his ability to dangle very wide and make a quick pass within the same motion. It’s very good and very deceptive for a big fella. It’ll come in handy when asked to work within tight spaces in front of the net at the pro level. We’ll see him begin his pro career next season, but I hope to see him in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch ASAP. I firmly believe this kid has an NHL future.

Here’s the same goal in full-frame.

Negatives (help)

So all of this praise begs the question. Why was this guy not taken until the seventh round? Did he not show any of this talent in the Finnish junior league (which NHL scouts absolutely watch all the time) or did it really just take big point totals?

I honestly have no idea, which is why I’m reaching out here who has read or knows why this prospect was drafted so late. Does he contractually refuse to play in the defensive zone? Are there off-ice issues? What’s going on here? Any help or insight would be appreciated.