Getting To Know Red Wings Draft Pick Vili Saarijarvi
Vili Saarijarvi didn't expect to hear his name called when the Red Wings came up to make their 3rd round choice in this year's draft. When he heard "From the Green Bay Gamblers", he expected teammate Brent Gates' name to follow, so when he heard his own name announced he was pleasantly surprised.
"I told my agent my friend was going to go now, from my team. So I said ‘ Oh yeah I told you' when they said ‘Green Bay Gamblers'. Then they called my name so I was a little surprised, but of course I was so happy that I can be part of the best organization."
It's not hard to see why the Wings chose the Finnish offensive defenseman who spent last season with the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL. He put up 23 points (6g, 17Aa) in 57 games to lead all defensemen on the team and rank him 5th in team scoring. He led his team in power play assists with 8 and fired 109 shots on net, the 3rd most among all players on the team, not just defensemen. Up until 4 year ago Vili was a forward, so his offensive flair and passion seems only natural.
At 5'9" and 161 pounds, Saarijarvi was the smallest defenseman on the Wings Development Camp roster, but he doesn't let his size dictate his attitude or diminish his goal of playing in the NHL.
"I feel very good on the ice because I know I can skate and I have skills, so I can do those things with my skating. I try to use my stick pretty good and of course when there are big guys playing against me I have to be smart and not just running out to try and hit. I don't think it's going to be a big problem that I'm small size."... "Sami Vatanen is small but he can play in the NHL and he's a pretty good skater and an offensive defenseman, and I think I play a little bit like him"
He's not the only one who doesn't see his size as a weakness.
"When you look at him he's not a very big guy but he plays strong" said Grand Rapids Griffins Head Coach Todd Nelson. "He's a strong skater, he's not timid at all, and he goes into the corners with passion"
With a contract already signed with Karpat Oulun in the Finnish league, he didn't expect to sign his first NHL contract right away. However when the Flint Firebirds drafted him 9th overall in the OHL import draft, Saarijarvi was eager to remain in the US to continue preparing for an NHL career.
"It's North American hockey, I like it more, and of course in Finland it's pro hockey but I want to play here someday, in the NHL, so I think I think it's better for me to go to Flint and play in the OHL"
When Flint became an option for Vili, he and the Wings both agreed it would be a better development option for him than returning to Finland. In Green Bay he had been a top 4 defenseman who saw quite a bit of power play time. Going back to Finland on the under 20 team would probably have meant he was the 7th D-man on the ice (they dress 7 defenseman and he gets minimal ice time and mostly at even strength). By going to Flint he'll have more ice time, get to continue playing to his strengths of being offensive and getting power play time, while continuing to learn how to play the North American game on the smaller ice.
Events transpired quickly for Vili in the last couple weeks, as he went from being drafted by the Wings, to being drafted by the Firebirds, to Development Camp all in the span of a week. It was such a whirlwind that the only had his skate with him when he got to Traverse City, everything else was either borrowed or provided by the team.
Before last season, he didn't speak any English, but even the challenge of learning a new language and keeping out of trouble on social media is a welcome experience for the effervescent Saarijarvi. "It's a different language so I'm learning all the time more and more so I like it so far. I'm not too nervous doing that stuff and I'm learning every time; and I need to talk so it's good for my English."
It's going to be an exciting year for the young man who shares a hometown with Santa Clause, and he has plenty to look forward to.
"One big goal I have is World Juniors; it's in Finland so of course I want to play in my home country. Then just play a good season and get bigger and stronger in Flint, and help them to get to the playoffs."
Saarijarvi's confident optimism, easygoing personality, infectious smile, and can-do attitude make him an instant joy to be around and talk with. He has a good work ethic, but also likes to have fun and make people laugh. On the final day of camp while I was talking to fellow defenseman James de Haas, Vili got a mischievous smile on his face as he began to make faces and gestures to try to distract James. When that elicited only a smile and chuckle from the big defenseman, Saarijarvi resorted to a more aggressive tactic and snuck in behind de Haas and poked and pinched him in the back of the legs. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch Vili play this season and follow his continued growth and development in Flint.