In his first season of professional hockey in North America – Mikka Salomaki has fit into the Milwaukee Admirals from the opening puck drop. His style of play is perfectly tuned for the high-tempo atmosphere that the North American game presents. And he has taken to it all rather well.
“I like this style here,” said Miikka Salomaki. “It’s good for me I think.”
Through 50-games for the Admirals this season, Salomaki leads the team in scoring and assists: 33 points (12 goals, 21 assists). He’s a player that has been tasked to do a great deal in only his first season in North America – but he has delivered with a relentless work output when his name is called.
“We’ve talked a lot about Mikka being a big part of our success early in the season,” commented Admirals head coach Dean Evason. “When you can get a guy like that, a rookie, to come in and play first or second line minutes, power-play, penalty kill, he’s played in the middle, he’s played left wing… he’s mature beyond his years on the ice.”
A lot of Salomaki’s high workmanlike attitude can come from his time playing with Oulun Kärpät of the SM-liiga in Finland for three seasons. He would have only been 17-years old in his first full-season of professional hockey. In that first campaign of work with Kärpät he produced 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) and was also a positive player on the ice, +2, through 40 games at Finland’s highest playing level. He had to work extremely hard to earn his minutes then – and he continues doing it today.
In the 2011 NHL Draft, Salomaki was chosen by the Nashville Predators organization in the second round (52nd overall). He played one more professional season with Kärpät before making the leap to North America this season. While those of you who watch him on the ice might think, “it doesn’t look like he’s missed a beat,” the story off the ice has been the real story of development for Salomaki.
When I first spoke with him at the start of the year I felt like I was talking to the middle school version of myself: a kid who looked afraid to speak publicly. My reasons? Confidence. Salomaki’s reasons? Language barrier.
I don’t think we can ever give enough credit to some of the young talented hockey players who come over from Europe to North America. While the main focus for most at a player of his age, 20-years old, is on development and what it takes to make that next leap up to the NHL – players like Salomaki are working hard on learning a second language, adapting to life in a new country, and -like the rest of their teammates- still trying to work hard on the day job. The language barrier was something that made Salomaki quite shy – even to his head coach.
“He’s a pretty shy guy,” said Evason. “So, early on we weren’t sure what we were going to get. Just speaking to him and what have you. But – as soon as he puts pads on – he is a different guy.”
One thing that definitely helps with situations like this is (A) the game speaks for itself and (B) there’s always plenty of Euros in the mix when it comes to the game of hockey. Salomaki has fellow Finns such as Joonas Rask, Joonas Jarvinen, and even Hannu Toivonen to speak to off the ice to allow him to better communicate and get settled in North America.
“It’s good help because my English is not so good,” said Salomaki. “When I came here [my English] was awful. Of course it is good help. I can ask something in Finnish if I don’t know something. But it is getting better all the time – my English. It’s good.”
From that first moment speaking with him to this interview – I can see a huge change in the way he’s taken to socializing in English. He looks really comfortable. He gets to hang out with his fellow Euros a fair bit, but the entire team has taken to him – shy or not.
“He has been more confident,” said Evason of Salomaki’s off ice behavior. “Obviously the language is coming. It’s nice to have a couple of Finnish guys on our team. Probably makes him comfortable but yet they don’t stick together – they’re not click-y. He’s a very well liked guy. Yeah, he doesn’t turn purple anymore when you talk to him. It’s more a pink now.”
There’s probably a great reason why Salomaki is so liked by his teammates and coaches without even having to talk up much: his work ethic. Game after game, shift after shift, Salomaki looks relentless when his name and number is called to hit the ice. He skates fast. He hit hard. And never, and I mean never, shies away from going to the dirty areas. With the language barrier being an issue for him – he’s generated many facewashing scrums all down to his hard plays to the net and boards all season long. It was this playing style that contributed to his head coach referring to him as, “a bull in a china shop.”
“That has always been my style,” said Salomaki of his aggressive style of play. “I just play like that. I’ve always played like that. I just can’t play different ways because that’s just me.”
It’s been clear very early on from my side that the coaching staff absolutely adores his relentless style of play. He doesn’t take a shift off and it is often hard for me to detect where some of the weaknesses are in his game despite being a 20-year old in his first year playing outside of his native Finland. In speaking with head coach Dean Evason he explained to me the areas that he best needs to improve concern being detailed with his game and being able to look after his energy levels.
“You never want to take the ‘bull in a china shop’ away from him because he is going full bore all the time,” said Evason. “What we’ve seen, certainly at our level, is we get into the three-in-three nights and on that third night he doesn’t got a lot of gas. Which, clearly, you want. You want a guy to put it out there every single night – but eventually he’s going to have to find a way to conserve energy in different areas. For now, we are really happy with the way he plays the game each and every night.”
With guys like Taylor Beck, Colton Sissons, and Simon Moser getting the attention of Nashville this season – one wonders when the call might be coming for Salomaki. The truth is – it’s been discussed a few times this season.
“He was in the conversation when Moser got called up, when Beck got called up,” said Evason. “Anytime there is a winger – he is always in the conversation. If the situation warrants, and he plays the way he has been, he’ll get an opportunity.”
So Smashville, future warning, prepare your china shops. As for now, Salomaki continues to grow on and off the ice in the city of Milwaukee – a place that has quickly grown on him.
“I like it really much,” said Salomaki of Milwaukee. “Its not so big. In Finland we don’t really have such big cities like in here. But, I like it. It feels like home already.”
What have you made of Miikka Salomaki’s performance this season? Can he can make it to the NHL this season?