As just about any professional hockey player will tell you, the NHL Entry Draft does not define a career. Looking at NHL roster will reveal a healthy blend of high draft picks, but also a good mix of late-round draft picks, undrafted free agents and projects reclaimed from other organizations.
Many high picks will jump right into the NHL, and are well-known by all fans from the age of 18 or 19. Others take a few more years to develop, and it’s not uncommon to hear a broadcaster say the player “came out of nowhere” when he finally makes an impact in the NHL. In reality, that’s rarely the case.
New Grand Rapids Griffins winger Teemu Pulkkinen is a prime example. While most fans are probably familiar with his name as one of the Red Wings’ top prospects, it wasn’t expected that he would make an impact in the AHL this season. But Pulkkinen comes over with a cult-like following from Finland, as a quick YouTube search for “holy slapper” brings up dozens of fan-created compilations of Pulkkinen scoring with his impressive slapshot.
“I heard about that,” Pulkkinen said with a laugh. “But that’s just my style of game. I want to shoot the puck, especially when I have a good opening. That’s just my thing.”
While it remains to be seen if Pulkkinen’s abilities can garner religious monikers in Grand Rapids, it’s obvious that he’s well on his way to becoming known on this side of the pond, too, with five points in his first seven postseason games.
“It’s been nice here so far,” he said. “I like the city and my teammates. It’s especially nice that we have won the games. We just have to keep going and keep battling.”
Every season, the Griffins get a few Red Wings prospects on tryouts once their respective seasons end, but it’s not easy to break into the lineup. While many are ready for the rigors of AHL hockey, coaches generally aren’t comfortable throwing an unproven player into a high-stakes game. But for Pulkkinen, confidence was not an issue, as he had the benefit of 185 regular season and 13 postseason games in Finland’s best professional league.
“I didn’t know [if I would play] when I came over,” said Pulkkinen. “But I was ready to keep going after my season in Finland. Of course I wanted to play, so I was happy to get the chance. I really enjoy playing here.
“I think these leagues are pretty much the same,” he continued. “Of course, the ice is smaller here, so the rink being bigger is one thing. I think the speed is the same, but maybe it’s just a little more physical over here.”
Physicality is a common theme noticed by European players when adjusting to the North American game. But even at 5-foot-10, 180-pounds, Pulkkinen has proven to be more than ready to handle that, regularly standing up defenders who try to separate him from the puck and several times surprising a puck carrier with strong checks of his own.
“I’ve played three seasons in Finland with men,” he explained. “It’s kind of the same here. It’s hockey, you have to be ready to take hits and give hits.”
Detroit’s fourth choice (111th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, those who followed the draft saw the selection as a low risk, with a high reward. Pulkkinen was a phenom in the Finnish junior ranks, setting all kinds of scoring records. Among his more impressive statistical seasons were 90 points in 22 games in the under-16 league, 35 points in nine games at the under-18 level and 115 over 72 total games at various international tournaments.
But injuries and concerns about his size saw him slip from the first round of the draft into Detroit’s lap. He was named the Finnish league’s rookie of the year in 2010-11, proving that he was a worth the pick. His numbers with Helsinki Jokerit this season – 34 points in 59 games – were his lowest in three professional seasons, but a number of factors contributed to that.
“There were troubles in the start of the season,” he recounted. “I didn’t play that good, so I didn’t get much ice time.”
Additionally, Pulkkinen was one of many players affected by the lockout. Finland being a well-paying European league made it a prime destination for NHLers looking for a team. Pulkkinen’s club claimed Erik Karlsson and Valtteri Filppula, who skated alongside his brother, Ilari. Other NHLers in the league included Mikko Koivu, Derek Stepan, Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Turris, Kevin Shattenkirk and Antti Niemi.
“After the lockout, I got more ice time and started playing better,” said Pulkkinen. “But I think it was a good thing to play with better players. Of course, you have to battle for your minutes everywhere you play. We had a great team, and I was able to play against many NHL players.”
Both Filppula brothers have experience playing with the Griffins. Valtteri picked up 74 points in 77 games from 2005-07, and the older Ilari led the team with 64 points in 76 games in 2010-11. Neither told Pulkkinen all that much about the city of Grand Rapids, but he learned enough to know he would like it.
“Ilari told me that it’s nice and there are good guys here, but that’s really the only thing,” he said. “We didn’t talk about it much.”
The late-season tryout has proved valuable in Pulkkinen’s development. In addition to having a better grasp on the lay of the land as he joins the team full-time in 2013-14, he’s helping his teammates in what they hope will be a deep Calder Cup Playoff run. And that not only pays off for him, but for all of the Griffins who helped to end the franchise’s three-year playoff drought.
“It’s my dream to play in the NHL,” he said. “In Finland, you have to first make the SM League, and then build yourself up through the American game. So that was my first step, and now I’m playing here. I want to play so good here that it’s possible to play someday in the NHL.”