Friday, July 13, 2012

Hakanpaa embraces challenge of becoming NHL defenseman

Finnish-born skater was Blues' fourth round pick in 2010

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Playing in Finland and no experience with the North American style of hockey, prospect Jani Hakanpaa wanted to let Blues fans know one obvious aspect about himself.

"I'm a big guy," the 6-foot-5 Hakanpaa said with a smile.

That goes without question. And throw in the 218-pound frame that the 20-year-old Hakanpaa is listed as, there could be an imposing figure invading the Scottrade Center ice in the not-too-distant future.
(Getty Images)
Jani Hakanpaa competes for his native Finland at the 2012
World Junior Championships in Alberta. 

Chosen in the fourth round (104th overall) in the 2010 NHL Draft, the
Kirkkonummi, Finland native Hakanpaa was in town this past week with fellow Blues prospects getting an orientation and a bit of an indoctrination into life of an NHL player.

When NHL teams draft European-born players, there's always a risk-reward aspect involved. There's always the risk that those players never reach North American soil and there's wasted time and energy an organization places on a particular player. But if you can get such talent here and they give an organization a commitment, the rewards can be very valuable.

So who is Jani Hakanpaa and what kind of a player do the Blues have?

"I like to be physical out there," Hakanpaa said. "That's something I have to do, use my body, use my reach and pretty much try to be an all-around d-man. Of course in their own zone, that's where my strength's at is playing defense. But I'm still trying to work on the first (outlet) pass and get the pucks to the forwards. The main part now is to work on the offensive side and (have) more all-around play."

With Hakanpaa, a defenseman who played in Finland's SM-liiga for the Blues, he has the body to be an NHL defenseman, and his willingness at a young age to come to St. Louis and begin a program suitable to his needs speaks of his desire and willingness to reward the Blues for their faith in him.

"When you started to play as a kid, it's always a dream and a goal to be playing in the NHL," said Hakanpaa, who called his three-year, entry level contract he signed in May, "a dream-come-true."

"It's a step forward," he said. "Of course it's still a dream and there's a lot of work to do, but it certainly keeps you going forward and gives you motivation to work even harder to get there."

Hakanpaa, who will play the upcoming season with the Blues in Finland again after posting five goals and 12 points in 41 games a season ago, is looking to acclimate himself with North America as quickly and as early as he can. His contract calls for a $698,333 salary cap hit.

"To see where I'm at with the conditioning, testing and see what kind of stuff they do over here," Hakanpaa said of his visit this week. "Take that advice back home and work hard there and then next year come here and be better at this. That's the main thing, maybe just look around, get to know the guys and stuff like that."

With the Blues, since there is no organized on-ice camp, it's more informal and working out with weight training and endurance work.

"I think the advantage to them coming in and working out here is the comfort level," Blues Director of Amateur Scouting Bill Armstrong said. "It's good for them to come around and see Petro (Alex Pietrangelo), see David Perron training. See what it takes to be a pro. On the other side, they learn a little bit about St. Louis. They're coming in, they're getting a comfort level and now it doesn't stress them out as much. The more comfortable they are, the better they perform. It gives us as a management staff a better chance to see the real them instead of them being nervous."
(Getty Images)
Jani Hakanpaa (right) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal for
Team Finland last year.

Hakanpaa may be a relatively unknown but if there is a shred of knowledge, it was because of his performance at the 2012 World Junior Championship. Hakanpaa, who had a goal and three points in seven games, was one of Finland's leaders on and off the ice despite a shorter-than-expected stay in Alberta.

"It was a real nice place to play at," Hakanpaa said of Calgary and Edmonton. "The year before, I was the last one to be cut from Team Finland. That was a tough time for me to get cut, but then I just worked hard the next year to get back and be on the team.

"I just tried to do my best out there and help the team win. Unfortunately, we were close to get the medals but not this year. I just tried to help the team as much as I could and it went well. I was pretty happy with the results."

The way Hakanpaa sees it, he'll be back in North America -- for an extended stay -- next summer. He could very well be in Peoria for the 2013-14 season and on a Blues roster in the near future. At least he hopes so after taking his initial steps this week.

"Of course there's going to be some adjustments," Hakanpaa said, noting the 210x98 rink size in Europe compared to the 200x85 NHL rink. "We have the big rink back home and all that kind of stuff. The playing style is a bit different. It's going to take a while to learn how to play here, but I think it will be fine when I come back here. It's going to take a while but it's normal. I'll just have to work hard to get going."

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