You can tell by Toni Utunen’s international experience that the Finnish Ice Hockey Association believes in the young Canucks prospect. He’s been representing Finland in international tournaments since he was 14, when he played in the World Selects Invitational.
Since then, Utunen has played in the 2016 Youth Olympic Games, two World Under-18 tournaments, and two Hlinka Gretzky Cups for Finland. He was the Captain of two of those teams, including when he helped lead Finland to a gold medal in 2018.
Those accomplishments pale in comparison to taking home World Junior gold this year.
At just 18, Utunen was on the younger end of the Finnish roster, with just four players younger than him, all of whom are eligible for the 2019 NHL draft. Early in the tournament, it seemed like he was primarily on the roster to game some experience for next year’s World Junior Tournament.
Utunen was on the third pairing early in the tournament and his ice time dropped after Anttoni Honka joined the roster. Since international rules allow teams to dress seven defencemen, it looked like Utunen would be shuffled in and out of the third pair, taking on more of the defensive duties, while Honka got the offensive zone starts.
Everything changed, however, in Finland’s quarterfinal matchup against Canada. When top four defenceman Ville Heinola was injured in the second period on a hit by Canada’s Maxime Comtois, that meant extra minutes for Utunen and defence partner Otto Latvala.
If Heinola didn’t have to leave the game, perhaps Utunen and Latvala wouldn’t have even been on the ice for the overtime shift that led to Utunen scoring the game-winning goal.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the first time Utunen had scored an overtime goal that eventually led Finland to a gold medal game against Team USA. That’s a pretty unique set of circumstances, but Utunen scored the overtime game-winner against Russia with a power play blast in the semifinals of the 2017 Under-18 tournament to set up a gold medal game against the Americans.
In this year’s tournament, Utunen was promoted to the top pairing in Heinola’s place for the semifinal and gold medal game, playing with Chicago Blackhawks prospect Henri Jokiharju. Against Team USA in the final, Utunen played 21:57, the third highest ice time on Finland, and a far cry from the paltry nine minutes he played in the second game of the tournament.
Utunen went from gaining experience for next year to playing a key role in winning gold this year.
It’s understandable that Canucks fans would gain a new appreciation for Utunen after such a performance, particularly since the World Junior tournament was the first time most fans even had a chance to watch him play. Some of the optimism went a little far, however.
“Toni Utunen would be the Canucks 5th best defenceman right now,” read one tweet. Other fans crowed about the Canucks finding a hidden gem in the fifth round, while other tweets suggested the Canucks’ questionable prospect depth at defence was no longer an issue with Utunen’s emergence.
Is the optimism unwarranted? On the one hand, Utunen certainly exceeded expectations at the World Juniors, playing solid defence all tournament. On the other hand, Utunen has a long way to go to make the NHL and still has fairly low odds of becoming an impact player for the Canucks.
That’s not a slight against Utunen: the odds are long for any fifth-round pick, particularly when it comes to defencemen, who have to deal with fewer job openings on an NHL team. It’s fantastic that Utunen performed well and took home gold at this year’s World Juniors and there’s a lot to like about his game, but turning that excitement into sudden certainty that he will play in the NHl is a bit much.
That’s a typical tendency in a fanbase, of course — after every draft, you see projected lineups plugging every prospect in the system into a future NHL lineup — but it’s just not realistic.
All that said, there’s still plenty of reasons to be excited about Utunen. One is the trust placed in him by Finnish head coach Jussi Ahokas. In the biggest game of the tournament, he had an 18-year-old defenceman playing big minutes against the toughest competition Team USA had to offer.
That trust stemmed from how solid Utunen was defensively throughout the tournament. He wasn’t on the ice for a single goal against at even-strength heading into the gold medal game, and just one goal against while playing on the penalty kill.
Utunen’s safe, risk-averse game made him a perfect fit for the team game preached by Ahokas. You rarely saw Utunen jump up in the play; instead, he favoured passing the puck out of the offensive zone, which he did effectively all tournament.
In fact, one of the occasions he did jump up in the play illustrated both how he avoided unnecessary risks and his hockey IQ. In the gold medal game, Utunen took an uncharacteristic gamble, dashing up the ice himself to create a shot off the left wing. As Team USA regained the puck however, the horn sounded: Utunen was clearly aware of how much time was left in the period, and timed his rush up the ice to completely avoid any risk of a counter-attack.
The shape of Utunen’s game suggests the potential for Utunen to become a safe third-pairing defender in the NHL that can contribute on the penalty kill. He’s on the small side at 5’11” and 176 lbs, so he’ll have to overcome the lingering bias against small defencemen, but he still has time to bulk up over the next couple years.
In some ways he’s reminiscent of Chris Tanev in his style of play: not a physical, stay-at-home defenceman, but a puck-moving defensive defenceman that uses smart reads and positioning to break up plays and a good first pass to move the puck up ice. That’s not to say he’ll ever be as good as Tanev, a bonafide first-pairing defenceman; it’s a stylistic comparison, not a ceiling.
The question is whether Utunen has anything more in his game that suggests he can be more than a third-pairing defenceman or even suggests he’ll reach that potential. His play in the Finnish Liiga has yet to reveal that player.
At lower levels of play, Utunen has been able to be more aggressive offensively and drive play more effectively.. At higher levels, whether in Liiga or at this year’s World Juniors, Utunen very rarely took those risks. His goal against Canada was the only goal he’s scored this year, as he has just one point, an assist, with Tappara in Liiga.
Let’s put that in context: Utunen isn’t playing much this season, averaging just 11:06 in ice time per game. It’s still a positive that an 18-year-old defenceman is getting any ice time against men in Liiga, but it also suggests he’s not getting much of an opportunity to put up points.
He’s certainly not getting any power play time where he might chip in offensively, but he’s not playing on the penalty kill much either. His ice time has come almost entirely at 5-on-5.
Initially, Utunen’s underlying numbers in Finland look concerning, with a 44.3% corsi that is 114th of the 132 Liiga defencemen that have played at least ten games this season. When you take into account his skewed zone starts, it doesn’t look quite so bad. Only ten other defencemen have a usage skewed more heavily to the defensive zone and the only other rookie defenceman with a similar usage, 19-year-old Kasperi Torikka, has a significantly worse corsi percentage.
So, that’s the picture of Utunen’s season so far: limited usage, largely in the defensive zone, and little results to show for it. Still, he’s not getting lit up in those limited, defensive-zone minutes: he’s currently a plus-2 on the season. While plus/minus isn’t a great statistic, it’s a positive sign that he hasn’t been bleeding goals against with Tappara.
Utunen’s goal after the World Juniors is to start playing a larger role in Tappara and the gold medal should give him the confidence to do it.
Perhaps Canucks fans will have even more reasons to be optimistic about Utunen by the time the Liiga season comes to a close.