Vili Saarijarvi cracks the top 15 in our top 25 prospect series. The right-handed defenseman appeared to be a solid lock to become a mainstay on the Red Wings blueline just a couple of years ago, but recent draft picks and free-agent signees have leapfrogged the Finnish defenseman.
Drafted: 3rd round, 73rd overall in 2015
Weight: 183 lbs
Birthday: May 15, 1997 (22 years old)
Latest Team: Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
After playing for a number of Karpat teams during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, Saarijarvi made the leap to North America, playing for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers. He scored six goals and added 17 assists in 57 games that season and was named to the USHL All-Rooke Second Team, ranking fifth among league blueliners in points, second in shots (109), eighth in assists and tied for second in goals. He helped Finland win a silver medal in the U18 World Championship after notching nine points (3-6—9) in seven games, leading all defensemen in points, goals and assists.
In 2015-16 at 18 years old, he skated for the OHL’s newest franchise, the Flint Firebirds. Despite a roller-coaster season that involved the coaching staff being fired twice, Saarijarvi posted 12 goals and 31 assists in 59 games. He also made his ECHL debut with the Toledo Walleye, notching three assists in his first game. He played four more games and added a goal. He also helped Finland win a gold medal at the World Junior Championship, scoring four points (0-4—4) in seven games.
Next season, he got out of Flint and played for the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads. He began the season on injured reserve but still tallied 31 points (11-20—31) in 34 games and added 15 more points (5-10—15) in 20 playoff games.
In 2017-18, he split time between the ECHL and AHL. He had six points (4-2—6) with the Walleye and added 11 assists with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, including a point in his AHL debut.
Last season, he played in 70 games for the Griffins, scoring 16 points (2-14—16) and scored one goal in one playoff game.
Projected as an offensive defenseman that could one day quarterback the Red Wings’ power play, Saarijarvi hasn’t shown much since making his AHL debut during the 2017-18 season. His lack of size certainly doesn’t help his case to be a full-time NHLer, although he has added 20 pounds of muscle since he was drafted, but his top-end skating skill and hockey IQ were supposed to put him over the top.
In the small amount of Griffins games I was able to attend in 2018-19, I didn’t notice Saarijarvi make any huge defensive blunders, which is a good sign; the Red Wings wanted his defensive game to improve. However, he also didn’t blow me away with his playmaking abilities or offense, like Filip Hronek did during his time in Grand Rapids.
With Dennis Cholowski and Hronek taking big steps in development last season — not to mention the signing of Oliwer Kaski — Saarijarvi has been pushed down the Red Wings depth chart.
Until Jonathan Ericsson‘s and Trevor Daley‘s contracts come off the books, Saarijarvi is going to have a tough time cementing a full-time spot with the Red Wings. With big improvement during the 2019-20 season, Saarijarvi could make a case for a bottom-two role with the Red Wings, but the odds are stacked against him.
The 2019-20 season will be an important year for the 22-year-old. Kaski and possibly Gustav Lindstrom will be joining the Griffins, and Saarijarvi will have to find a way to make an impression with general manager Steve Yzerman.