By Helene St. James, Detroit Free Press
When the Detroit Red Wings drafted Vili Saarijarvi, his mobility and smarts eclipsed concern over his size.
Two years later, Saarijarvi has done what he can about the latter. He looked good during the development camp the Wings had early this month in Traverse City, showing off his fluid skating. Saarijarvi, a third-round pick, 73rd overall, from 2015 is eyeing his first year with the Grand Rapids Griffins after a couple of standout seasons in the OHL.
“I’m expecting a tough and hard year,” Saarijarvi said. “I try to to work as hard as possible every day. I am excited. It’s a great group of guys there, a great city, great fans, so I am excited.”
An injury limited Saarijarvi, 20, to 34 games this past season with Mississauga, but he packed 31 points and a plus-20 rating, and followed up with 15 points in 20 playoff games. He spent the 2015-16 season with the Flint Firebirds, where he had 43 points and was minus-15 in 59 games.
“I think I have improved a lot, on the ice and off the ice, too, strength-wise,” Saarijarvi said. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger and put some weight on.
“I am not going to get so much taller, so it is about getting stronger. I know I am a good skater, that I can play the game.”
Saarijarvi stands about 5 feet 10. He said he was around 160 pounds when he was drafted, and is now around 175 pounds.
That Saarijarvi shoots right was part of the appeal in drafting him, as right-shot defensemen are rarer than left-shooting ones. Saarijarvi is mobile, makes good decisions with the puck, and has a knack for getting his shot through from the blueline. He’ll have a chance with the Griffins to show he can run a power play in the AHL, as he did in the OHL.
“It is going to be a lot harder to do at the next level but I want to take the challenge and work on it as much as possible,” Saarijarvi said. “I can do a lot of skill stuff.”
Wings director of player development Shawn Horcoff kept an eye on Saarijarvi as the Steelheads went to the OHL Conference finals.
“I was really impressed with his game this year,” Horcoff said. “Coming back from injury he looked great. He is a dynamic defensive player. He is going to have to learn to defend in the pro game, but he has a big upside offensively.”
Saarijarvi got a visual measure of what’s ahead when he spent time with the Griffins during their AHL Conference finals series.
“It was great opportunity for me,” Saarijarvi said. “It’s faster, it’s stronger. Guys are older, so you have to be a lot smarter and stronger and faster on the ice.”