Historically, Finnish hockey players and the Detroit Red Wings have rarely gone hand in hand.
In the last 20 NHL Drafts, the Red Wings have selected only 10 Finns compared to 42 Swedish players. Finland’s Valtteri Filppula won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008 and defensemen Eemil Viro and Antti Tuomisto are top prospects.
Viro, 20, will likely make his American Hockey League debut in Grand Rapids this year and Tuomisto, 21, signed a two-year deal with Finnish club TPS after winning a 2022 NCAA title with the Denver Pioneers.
However, the 2022 NHL Draft in Montreal on July 7-8 could see the Red Wings select 18-year-old Joakim Kemell, the top goal-scoring Finnish forward since Patrik Laine of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Ranked as the second-best international prospect in Central Scouting’s final rankings behind Slovakia’s Juraj Slafkovsky, Kemell is a 5-foot-11, 185-pound winger who may be available when the Red Wings pick eighth overall.
Slafkovsky, Kingston’s Shane Wright and USA Hockey’s Logan Cooley are expected to go Nos. 1-2-3 and defensemen Simon Nemec (Slovakia) and David Jiricek (Czech) will probably be off the board early as well.
“He (Kemell) is electrifying,” said former NHL winger Ville Nieminen, who won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 and is now an assistant coach with Kemell’s JYP team in the 15-team Finnish Liiga.
“He has Patrik Laine’s scoring ability (176 goals in six years) but he’s more of a grinder, a 200-foot player. I would compare Joakim to (Red Wings rookie) Lucas Raymond, their overall games. Steve Yzerman likes complete players and Joakim will be ready for the NHL after another year here.”
Kemell burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old last year, scoring 12 goals in the first 16 games in the defensive-oriented men’s league. The youngest player in Liiga history to earn player of the month honors, he also scored a hat trick, including the winner in overtime to eliminate Canada, 6-5, at the U18 world junior championships in Germany.
“If I get the puck, I try to score,” said Kemell, who scored 22 goals in 38 games with SM-Sarja in 2020-21 and six goals in five games for the bronze medalist Finns at the U18 worlds.
“I try and find free space in the offensive zone. I also want to play hard in the defensive zone, take the hits, give the hits. We have tactics for every zone and what he have to do. Everyone plays good defense.”
In a country with only 5.5 million people, Finland is fourth in NHL players with an all-time high of 63 players this year behind Canada (485), the United States (319) and Sweden (106), which has led European countries for 13 consecutive seasons partly because of Detroit’s influence.
Finland is also trying to become the first country since Sweden, led by Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall of the Red Wings in 2006, to win Olympic and world gold medals in the same year.
The Finns, captained by Filppula and playing in front of hometown fans in Tampere, beat the United States, 4-3, in the semifinals on Saturday and will face the winner of the Canada-Czech game (11:20 a.m.) in Sunday’s final.
Finland also won the 2022 Olympic gold medal in Beijing on the final day of the games with a 2-1 victory over Russia.
“Our Finnish development programs are some of the best in the world,” Nieminen said. “One of the strengths of our players is the extra effort we bring to the table. We understand the cooperation skills and tactics needed to play an all-around game within the team game.”
In 2004, Nieminen was suspended for one game against the Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals. Trailing 4-2 in the final seconds of Game 4, Nieminen ran over goalie Curtis Joseph in the crease. The Flames won the next two games by scores of 1-0 to eliminate Detroit from the playoffs.
“When I was a kid, the NHL was my dream,” said Nieminen, who scored 48 goals in 385 career NHL games. “I wanted to play so badly in the NHL that I adapted my play, my character in order to win. I wanted a better life and that was my way to a better life. I was pretty much willing to do anything.”
Finland has produced Hockey Hall of Famers like Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne and young stars like Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers and Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes, but Nieminen said Finnish players aren’t always the “most skilled players.”
“Joakim has that body language, that game face,” Nieminen said. “On the ice, he’s got the goals. Off the ice, he just needs to build his body to be ready for the NHL, put on a few kilos, to bench press, to squat, to dead lift, build his VO2. It’s just part of the process of becoming a pro.”
Kemell said he’s looking forward to next week’s NHL Combine in Buffalo for top draft-eligible prospects from June 1-6, has recovered from a shoulder injury after his fast start in Liiga and would be “excited” to be drafted by a team like the Red Wings.
“No matter who drafts me, I would like to come back one more year and develop here in Finland,” Kemell said. “I want to do whatever I can to help our team make the playoffs this season.”