CRANBERRY, Pa. -- There are a lot of benefits in letting a European draft pick continue to develop in his home country.
The comfort level off the ice is one of the biggest factors. European prospects in America for the first time often mention the cultural differences, like food, being a big adjustment. European countries also have their own differences in playing style or coaching, too, that can have its benefits.
“The Finns are known for structure, for discipline," Andy Chiodo explained at the Penguins' development camp in Cranberry. "They are well-coached. The coaching in Finland, they’re teachers. If you look at the academic school system in Finland, it’s actually one of the best in the world, and that translates into their coaching. The coaching is strong, the culture is strong, their work ethic is strong."
There are also more options for leagues in which to play.
Defenseman Antti Palojarvi, the Penguins' sixth-round pick in 2017, played in three different leagues last season. He began the season with the Lukko U20 team in the top junior league in Finland, and bounced back and forth between the U20 team and Lukko's team in the top Finnish league for the first half of the season. He scored four goals and nine assists in 29 junior games and two assists in 16 Liiga games.
Palojarvi, 20, was too mature to continue to develop playing for the junior team, but he wasn't quite ready to stick full-time in Liiga. He was playing limited minutes on a third pairing when he needed to be playing regularly.
In January, Lukko announced that Palojarvi would be loaned to SaPKo of the second-tier men's league, Mestis, for the remainder of the season. Palojarvi was able to take on a larger role in the league and still play against grown men. He played in seven regular-season games to finish the season, scoring one goal and two assists. He played in another five games in the postseason, recording two assists.
Palojarvi's main takeaway from his stints between the three leagues is that he believes he's ready to stick in the top professional league next season.
"I think I'm now ready to play in a pro league with men," he told me at development camp. "That's the biggest thing."
Marco Bombino, a reporter covering Finnish junior hockey, described the left-handed Palojarvi in 2017 as a player who “skates well with the puck, has good footwork and makes a solid first pass out of the zone. He could still produce more offensively as he has the ability to do so. With his puck-moving abilities, skating and athleticism, he could end up being a nice haul for the Penguins in the long run, even though he’s a raw prospect and the club will need to be patient.”
Palojarvi, at 6-foot-1, 172 pounds, could stand to put on weight before he moves to North America, and that is one of his goals for next season.
"I want to get more power and be more physical in the games," he said. "But I think the biggest thing is just to stick in the Elite League and play there."
Palojarvi is still quite young, so there's no rush to move him to North America. The Penguins retain his exclusive signing rights until June 2021, and he'll likely develop for another two seasons in Finland before moving to North America.
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