If you only watched Toni Utunen when he played against Canada on the international stage, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s an offensive dynamo, projected to rack up points in the NHL. Instead, he’s more of a defensive defencemen, who can also efficiently move the puck up ice, but rarely put points on the board.
Utunen must love playing against Canada: in the last calendar year, Utunen has scored four goals total across all competitions. Three of them have come against the Canadian U20 team, including two in Finland’s 8-3 rout of Canada at the 2019 World Junior Summer Showcase on Wednesday.
Utunen’s first goal against Canada this year was a dagger that ended Canada’s tournament in the quarterfinals at the World Junior Championships. It was a smart play by a smart player, as Utunen recognized an opportunity to jump up ice, then looped behind his teammate to shake his check and create enough space for a wrist shot past fellow Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro.
The World Junior Summer Showcase is a much more low-stakes event than the World Juniors. For players that might be on the bubble for their U20 teams, it’s a chance to impress the coaching staff and make an argument for making the team. For Utunen, who was already on the Finnish World Junior team as an 18 year old last year, his spot on the team is pretty much assured.
That’s particularly true when you look at how his ice time grew at last year’s tournament. By the gold medal game, Utunen was on the top pairing with Henri Jokiharju, playing 21:57 against Team USA. Finland took home the gold medal with Utunen playing a key role, and he is likely to take on that role right from the first game of next year’s World Juniors.
In fact, Utunen is wearing the captain’s “C” at the Summer Showcase, which makes sense; he was also the captain of Finland at the World Under-18 Championships back in 2018 and has been groomed for this role since his first international tournament when he was 14. The Summer Shocase, then, is less about making the team than it is proving he deserves to take on that leadership role.
Scoring a couple goals certainly doesn’t hurt.
Utunen opened the scoring for Finland with a seeing-eye shot from the left point that beat a screened Colten Ellis. It wasn’t the hardest shot, but it was smartly placed, going just inside the far post.
Finland made a statement early, taking a 5-0 lead in the first period against a somewhat-undermanned Canadian squad, then kept it going in the second period. Utunen was (incorrectly) credited with an assist on the 6-0 goal early in the middle frame.
After Finland made it 7-0, Canada finally responded, with a little help from another Canucks prospect defenceman: Jett Woo. Woo fed the puck up to Serron Noel, who did the rest, darting between the Finnish defenders to score Canada’s first goal.
Canada scored three straight two more before the end of the second period to make it 7-3, but Utunen scored the only goal of the third period. It was another smart play from the defenceman, jumping into the high slot as Finland cycled the puck off the boards. His quick one-time shot beat goaltender Alexis Gravel cleanly.
Toni Utunen with his second goal of the day. He reads the play, jumps to the spot, gets down on one knee and finishes with the wrister.— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) July 31, 2019
Utunen finishes with 2+1 and 2 shots in Finland's 8-3 victory over Canada #WJSS #Canucks pic.twitter.com/eUkWuJvmST
If nothing else, scoring a couple goals at the Summer Showcase might give Utunen a little more confidence in the offensive side of his game heading into the Liiga season. Last season, Utunen had just 1 goal and 2 assists in 43 regular season Liiga games, and was held off the scoresheet in 11 playoff games.
Utunen played a minor role as an 18 year old last season, however, averaging just 12:21 per game. Another year older, Utunen could play a larger role for Tappara and show a little more offence. He has the hockey IQ to know when to jump up in the play, but has a tendency to play it safe more often than not. With a little more confidence, maybe he can put up a few more points this season.
Unlike Jett Woo, Utunen has yet to actually sign with the Canucks. At the moment, there's no rush to get Utunen signed, as the Canucks hold his rights through 2022, but they'll likely want to bring him to North America to play in the AHL for the 2020-21 season, particularly if he has a strong season with Tappara.