Born: May 15, 1997
Weight: 163 lbs
Drafted: Detroit - 2015 3rd Round, 73rd Overall
Vili Saarijärvi has been on quite the odyssey for a 19-year-old hockey player. Journeying from his native Finland to Green Bay, being drafted by the Red Wings then winding up in one of the strangest team situations we have seen in a long time with the Flint Firebirds, his career has already had a fair amount of turbulence.
Throughout all of this, he has still kept smiling and creating offense from the blue line, which is exactly what we need him to do. So, where has he come from, where is he now, and where is he going?
From the beginning Vili was noted for his happy attitude, and his work ethic. When you add in his quickness and his offensive prowess, he is an easy prospect to root for. Coming in at around 5’9" 163 pounds, Saarijärvi is on the smaller side, but he still has some years to bulk up before he is near the NHL.
If you haven’t already read it, John Curran did a fantastic job profiling Vili Saarijarvi for WiiM back in June, so I will build on his analysis.
Last year, Vili had a solid season in Flint amidst a storm of absurdity where the eye of the storm was a rich man acting like a child. Throughout the situation, Vili kept his head down and played well.
His summer following last season has looked much better. First, he helped lead Finland to a gold medal at the World Junior Championship. Finally, Vili’s time with the Firebirds is officially over following a trade to Mississauga.
While his chapter with Flint has ended, Saarijärvi’s immediate future is still up in the air. He could find himself in the AHL, ECHL, or back in the OHL. The NHL is still a few years away, but it is possible that he could find a place with Grand Rapids - pending the log jam of current defenders there. The OHL to AHL jump is a big one, and it would be interesting to see how Vili would handle the size and the grind of that league if he spends significant time on the Griffins next season.
So far, Saarijärvi has earned a reputation as a quick and crafty offensive-defender who doesn’t back down from the larger bodies while still having fun out on the ice. He will have to keep working on his positioning and tighten up some of his cheeky plays as they leave him exposed with AHL competition.
Where does he fit in with the Red Wings? It’s unclear, but it will certainly take a few seasons to see if he has a shot at making Detroit’s roster.
The future of Detroit’s defense is unclear. There is no clear top-pairing, some questionable contracts, a few painful contracts, and too many solid defensive prospects in Grand Rapids nearing waivers with little space on the Red Wings roster.
Looking past these two groups, Detroit also doesn’t currently have any blue-chip defensive prospects slotted to anchor a top-pairing in the next few years. What Detroit does have, however, are a few prospects with the potential to make a big splash in the NHL, pending further development. Saarijärvi is one of these prospects, and it would be a lot of fun to see a fast, offensively talented defender under 6’0" wearing the Winged Wheel. Flashbacks to Rafalski, anyone? Alright, maybe that isn’t fair, but I can dream.
As it stands, the 2016-17 Red Wings defense does not inspire confidence. I am being generous. You know what can bring a breath of fresh air? A talented prospect with a mischievous smile who is at least a few months away from the harsh judgement of fans and Jim Devellano. This is exactly what we have in Vili Saarijärvi.