I’ve been politely keeping my distance from this story. For how long? Since early October. It initially brewed on Twitter… but that doesn’t make it accurate. It appeared on the ECHL Transactions page… but, as history has proven in the past, that also doesn’t make it 100% accurate. Now that so much time has elapsed that he is playing with a new team I can make a confirmation on the matter. Mikko Vainonen was placed on unconditional waivers by the Nashville Predators, cleared the waivers process, officially had his contract terminated by the organization, and signed with the Finnish club Ässät of Liiga.
The initial Twitter report cropped up only a few days after Vainonen was sent from the Admirals training camp to Cincinnati to participate in their pre-season regimen that included exhibition games. He participated in one pre-season game back on October 7th and contributed an assist in a 6-1 Cyclones victory. The very next day he would have been put on unconditional waivers. The following day he’d have cleared and had his contract terminated. Where did it all go wrong?
Vainonen was drafted by the Nashville Predators in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Draft. That meant drafting him based on his performances in his native Finland with the HIFK senior and youth academy squads during the 2011-12 season. So, was Vainonen’s release due to a difficulty adjusting to the North American game? I’d say no and say it because he spent the next two seasons after the Predators drafted him with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. In other words, he had quality North American playing experience in junior hockey before he joined the AHL or ECHL ranks. He joined the Admirals at the end of his junior playing career in 2013-14 and played two games. His first full season as a pro last season saw him start the year off with the Cincinnati Cyclones before being loaned back home to Finland for the rest of the season with SaiPa of Liiga. He was back State-side and took part in training camp this pre-season. He was here in Milwaukee before being sent packing to Cincinnati. And now he has been axed by Nashville just prior to the start of this season with this season and next season of his contract being terminated.
So where did it all go wrong you ask? When answering that question look less at Vainonen and more at the competition at defenseman right now. The defensive talent pool is so deep that lifelong defenseman Jaynen Rissling is transitioning to the wing. That experiment started in Nashville’s training camp, continued to Milwaukee’s training camp, and into the regular season for the Cyclones in the ECHL. The you get players who weren’t even drafted, such as Trevor Murphy and Kristian Näkyvä, getting penned to entry level contracts by Nashville and immediately earning their place on the opening night of the regular season for the Admirals. It essentially puts Vainonen as bottom of the deck where he’ll be stuck in Cincinnati with no real hope to break through the glass ceiling that Nashville keeps making more and more dense.
There is some good and bad to this news story. The good being the obvious which is Nashville cutting Vainonen loose so he can continue his playing career elsewhere. The bad being the sloppy way in which the Predators organization handled this case. The Nashville brass should have been well aware of this reality long before pre-season camps were even a thing. He should have had his contract terminated prior to him ever needing to travel to North America once again much less traveling to Milwaukee and then Cincinnati for a pre-season game before needing to look for elsewhere for a job. The European hockey season was already up and running at the time. Delaying his playing career as they effectively did for far more than two months is harsh.
Fortunately, Vainonen’s now eight-games into his new career with Ässät. He is back to playing in his native Finland. While the aspirations of a North American professional playing career aren’t necessarily over for him it sure looks to be the case after his spell with ECHL hockey being as lackluster as it was. Some players just perform better in Europe, I think. That’s not a bad thing. In the words I’m sure were expressed from Nashville to Vainonen: I wish him the best in his future endeavors.