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Graduated Prospect: Urho Vaakanainen
By Thomas Harrington
Acquired from the Boston Bruins as part of the Hampus Lindholm trade, Urho Vaakanainen was selected by Boston in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, 18th overall. Vaakanainen had played in 16 NHL games over the previous three years and still qualified as a rookie this past season.
After being drafted, Vaakanainen spent a year playing in the Liiga before coming to North America in the 2018-2019 season. He made his NHL debut that season, suiting up for two games with the Bruins, but spent most of the year in the AHL, where he scored four goals and 14 points in 30 games for Providence. The next season he saw five games of NHL action with the Bruins and played in 54 AHL games.
In the 2020-2021 season, he went to Europe and played in two games in the Liiga because of the NHL not starting its season in the fall. It was a choice that a lot of players made. He scored one goal in those two games. When hockey resumed in North America, he played in only nine AHL games and 11 NHL games.
Unfortunately, he was often on Boston’s taxi squad, and didn’t play as much as Boston would have liked. The taxi squad was put in place to try and make things safer for players, but it definitely impacted the development of some players who didn’t play as many games between the NHL and AHL as they usually would have. Before he was traded this season, he played in 15 NHL games and 23 AHL games.
After the trade, Vaakanainen stayed in Anaheim the rest of the season, playing in 14 games and recording two assists. He was used primarily on the second pairing and played a lot with Kevin Shattenkirk when he first joined Anaheim, and then Jamie Drysdale over the final games of the season. He played anywhere from 17 to 21 minutes a night with the Ducks. Overall, he played in a career high 29 NHL games and had six assists.
Vaakanainen is an excellent skater but doesn’t have a huge offensive ceiling. In 45 career NHL games, he has no goals and eight assists. However, some of that lack of offensive production can be attributed to him missing significant development time in the 2020-2021 season. Even with that in mind though, he’s never going to be a 40 or 50 point defenseman. Instead, he uses his size and skating to limit the opposition’s chances. It remains to be seen if he’s a second or third pairing player, but he’s much more NHL ready than Anaheim’s other young defensive prospects and should be with the Ducks going forward. I don’t think he’ll see any games with the Gulls unless his play really falls off.
This coming season, Vaakanainen will probably once again be on Anaheim’s second pairing. It won’t just be handed to him, but as long as he has a strong camp, that appears to be his job to lose, unless the Ducks make a big splash this summer and bring in a defenseman via free agency or trade.
It will be interesting to see if Vaakanainen plays with Shattenkirk or Drysdale again, or someone else if the Ducks do make a move for another defenseman. As one of the bigger parts received in the Lindholm trade, the Ducks clearly expect a lot out of him and he’ll hopefully reward that faith starting next season.
Vaakanainen is a restricted free agent, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be re-signed. He hasn’t shown enough at the NHL level to justify a long-term deal, but I think a two-year, one-way contract would be fair. It would give Vaakanainen a chance to really establish himself as an NHL player over the next two years, and then sign a longer deal when it’s over if he’s earned it.
The next graduated prospect will be on Trevor Zegras.
Graduated Prospect: Simon Benoit
Graduated Prospect: Josh Mahura
Prospect Profile: Pavol Regenda
Prospect Profile: Drew Helleson
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June 19th, 2022