Metaphorically, Toni Utunen has already flexed his muscles this year by captaining Finland to the gold medal at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
Physically, the 18-year-old Tappara Tampere defenceman still has room to grow. He’s currently listed at 180 centimetres and 77 kilograms.
“Of course, I’m not the biggest guy,” Utunen told IIHF.com at the Vancouver Canucks’ summer development camp. “I need to gain some muscles and keep improving my skating. Those are the biggest things I need to work on for next season.”
Chosen this year in the fifth round (130th overall) by the rebuilding NHL club, Utunen might have gone even higher if he’d produced more offensively. He went pointless in 11 Liiga games with Tappara, although he did chip in two assists in a 3-0 Champions Hockey League win over Slovakia’s Banska Bystria on 4 October. Loaned to LeKi, the Finnish second-division club in Lempaala, Utunen picked up his pace (2-10-12 in 28 games).
Asked to sum up his playing style, Utunen spoke modestly: “That’s a hard one. I guess I’m an all-around D. If you can see me in a game, not bad and not good, then it’s like a normal game for me.”
The level-headed approach and low panic threshold of this 2019 World Junior prospect pleases his potential future NHL employers. Utunen isn’t under the same microscope as swift-skating American rearguard Quinn Hughes, taken seventh overall by Vancouver this year, but he’s on the radar.
“I love the way he skates and thinks the game,” said Ryan Johnson, who doubles as Vancouver’s director of player development and the GM of the AHL’s Utica Comets. “He’s going to fill out and obviously get stronger. He’s got a lot to offer in today’s game. A defenceman who can skate the way he does and can make a good first pass is huge. He’s got an exciting year ahead of him.”
He’s also still very young. To put it in perspective, Utunen was born on 26 April, 2000, three days before the start of the IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia, where legendary agitator Esa Tikkanen won bronze in his final Worlds appearance.
This Kokkola-born kid will never run his mouth in “Tik Talk” style. But he has shown some clutch ability, reminiscent of another former Finnish Vancouver defenceman. Sami Salo didn’t score often, but did so at big times.
At the 2017 U18 Worlds in Slovakia, Utunen’s power play drive gave Finland a 2-1 semi-final win over Russia in overtime, but Suomi lost the gold medal game 4-2 to the powerhouse Americans. So this year, it was pure vindication when the Finns, sparked offensively by Niklas Nordgren and Jesper Kotkaniemi, earned a 3-2 gold medal victory over the U.S. in front of a capacity crowd of 7,499 in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
What was the key to that success back in April?
“I think our whole team was so open,” said Utunen. “We could say it if someone did something wrong. Everyone was like a brother to each other. I think that is the biggest thing.”
And head coach Tommi Niemela – smiling, garrulous, and enthusiastic – set the tone. The 35-year-old retired goalie, who will serve as an assistant coach with the Swiss NLA’s Lausanne HC in 2018-19, told reporters after the final: “The players are having an amazing time. They believed in themselves. They understood that if we are ‘we,’ we are going to win against a group of ‘me’s.’ Youngsters are amazing! When you look at them, the joy is real. The sorrow is real, too. There is no pretending.”
“We need those kinds of coaches more,” Utunen said with a smile. “He’s so funny and he’s always positive. I like him a lot.”
To impress World Junior coach Jussi Ahokas, Utunen must now aim to put into practice the new training methods and small-rink mentality he’s absorbed with the Canucks. The two-way blueliner hopes to return to British Columbia over the Christmas holidays to represent Finland, first in Victoria during the group stage and quarter-finals, and ultimately in Vancouver as his nation seeks its first U20 gold since Helsinki (2016). Olli Juolevi, Vancouver’s top European defensive prospect, was a tournament all-star in that run.
Petrus Palmu, who was just named the Liiga Rookie of the Year as Juolevi’s TPS Turku teammate, met Utunen for the first time at the Canucks’ development camp. The 21-year-old winger shares the Vancouver management’s optimism: “I think he’s on a good track. He’s a young guy and he’s a good skater. I think he can develop well.”
So off the ice, how is Utunen fueling his metaphorical engine? He enjoys Finnish rap and prefers PlayStation to TV shows and movies. And his favourite food is “makaronilaatikko,” traditional Finnish macaroni casserole. “It’s the best,” he said.
If he continues on his upward arc, drafting Toni Utunen could be among the better decisions the Canucks have made lately.