Top prospect Barkov leads the Finnish pack

Sami Hoffrén is a freelance sports journalist based in Finland.

By now Aleksander Barkov is getting used to all the hype around him. The autographs, interviews, and the attention from fans and media.

It seems like everybody these days wants a piece of the next Finnish gem.

The 17-year-old centre has been sensational in Finland's SM-liiga in his first full season. Playing with his hometown team Tappara Tampere, Barkov has 14 goals and 14 assists in 28 games, and is sixth-overall in points.

Many scouts will admit that Barkov's impressive campaign has made him a potential contender as the first-overall selection at the 2013 NHL entry draft.

"It's good for the rest of us (Finnish prospects) that Sasha (Barkov) draws all the attention," said Artturi Lehkonen, another likely Finnish first-rounder in the upcoming draft.

In the upcoming draft Finland has, for the first time since the 2004 draft, three almost certain first round picks in Barkov, forward Lehkonen and defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen (a late 1994-born player).

The fact that they are Finnish and finding success in the SM-liiga in their draft years could be the only thing they have in common. All three players are very different on the ice.

In Barkov, a team gets the full package of classic playmaking center. With his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame Barkov hasn't looked out of placed at any point in his short tenure in the pro league. His hockey IQ looks unparalleled and his calm confidence and offensive tools create a lot of scoring chances in every game.

"I need to be more consistent," said Barkov. "There have been some nights where I should've produced more. But overall I think I've played OK."

Barkov has played the entire season in a same line with 2001 Stanley Cup champion Ville Nieminen who has taken youngster nicknamed "Sasha" under his wing.

"Ville is like a personal coach to me," said Barkov whose father, Alexander Barkov, was a former Russian national player.

The senior Barkov is currently an assistant coach with Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL and he played with Nieminen in Tappara back in the mid 1990s.

"I've known Ville since I was a child, but this is the first season I've played with him," said Barkov. "He's been a huge help."

Compared to Barkov, Lehkonen is a contrasting figure. Listed at 5-foot-10, 163-pounder, the winger could be one of the most unknown quantities outside of Finland. Still, with his play, Lehkonen has made an impact and opened many eyes with his skilled, speedy and fearless playing style.

The 17-year-old is playing in his first season for KalPa Kuopio, a team owned by a former NHLer Sami Kapanen. Lehkonen made a bold move in the off-season when he decided to leave his club team TPS — in his native Turku, Finland -- and move some 450-kilometers northeast to Kuopio.

"I just needed a change and KalPa was eager to sign me," said Lehkonen. "In the end it wasn't a hard choice to make."

But the decision also affected his whole family, who moved with him to Kuopio.

"It was purely my decision to come here," Lehkonen said. "My family wanted fully to support me and my hockey career, so they followed me."

Lehkonen has excelled in his new surroundings, scoring eight goals and adding 11 assists in 28 games. Currently Lehkonen is playing on KalPa's top line with the team's leading scorer Sakari Salminen and New York Rangers' centre Derek Stepan.

"I've really enjoyed playing with those two guys," said Lehkonen. "Sakari is a highly skilled player and Derek is just a pure professional at everything he does. In Derek, you get to see what it takes to play in the NHL someday."

Lehkonen said he's a big fan of LA Kings forward Jeff Carter, "because his wrist shot is unbelievable."
But Lehkonen and Barkov aren't the only ones with NHL mentors.

Ristolainen, a 18-year-old Turku native, has also had his share of elite guidance in his second season with TPS. Their team's defence boasts the likes of St. Louis' Kris Russell and Kevin Shattenkirk along with the LA Kings' Alec Martinez. Offensively TPS has hometown heroes Mikko Koivu, the Minnesota Wild captain, and Lauri Korpikoski of the Phoenix Coyotes.

"These players really characterize the meaning of everyday work and devotion," Ristolainen said.

Even with those NHL players locked out, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Ristolainen, is a valuable piece on the blueline, regularly logging 20-minutes a game.

"(The) season started well, but in recent weeks the level of my game has been too unsteady," said
Ristolainen whose playing style has been compared to NHLers Brent Seabrook and Brent Burns.

Finland has never been well-known for producing big-bodied high-end blueline prospects like Ristolainen, which will make him even more useful at the upcoming world junior championships in Ufa, Russia. During last year's tournament in Edmonton and Calgary, Ristolainen was already playing big minutes and showing why he is considered to be a top 10 prospect in 2013.

"I like to play in a smaller rink and be aggressive and physical. That's always been part of my game." said Ristolainen. "In Ufa we will have a relatively young team so we need to be brave and play with a confidence. I think our offense will be really competitive."

In Finland's top six, Barkov and Lehkonen are projected to play on the same line.

"We played well together in Sweden (at the Four Nations tournament in November). I hope we can continue that form in Russia too," said Lehkonen.

Besides being linemates in the national team, Barkov and Lehkonen have also chemistry outside the rink as they are good friends.

"Sasha is a really shy guy, but I got to know him well a few years ago when we were roommates at national junior team camp. He has a good sense of humor," Lehkonen said.

This season they've pushed each other with friendly competition after every game, always letting the other know how many points they have scored.

"Of course I want to score more goals than him. We didn't make a bet (at the beginning of the season) though. I guess I should've made one," Barkov said with a shy smile.

You can follow Sami Hoffrén on Twitter at @shoffern.