The 2021 version of the list beings with a promising, young European defensemen.
#25 Santeri Airola, RD
2020 Ranking: n/a
Age: 21 (June 29, 2000)
Acquired Via: 7th round pick, 2019 draft
Height/Weight: 5’10, 163 pounds
Quite frankly, two days of watching Airola in Cranberry when the Penguins had their last summer prospect development camp were enough to get on my radar. In many ways — smaller frame, good skater, right hand shot, puck moving abilities — Airola was comparable to one of the star prospects of the time in Calen Addison. Addison was much more authoritative in directing a power play and all around a more developed player (that’s why Addison was a second round pick versus Airola being a seventh rounder) but a lot of the same material was there when watching drills and practice to tie the two together as fairly similar to the eye.
2020-21 was a lost season for many, but the European leagues offered a chance to play more games. Airola changed teams last season, joining Ilves. Unfortunately, he suffered an undisclosed injury in preseason that kept him out until January. But he made a splash in his first game for Ilves, notching two assists. (Watch for #6):
Last year, at age-20, Airola pretty much graduated to being a full-time player in the Liiga, Finland’s top pro hockey league, an always impressive sign of a path through the ranks to a high level of competition.
Airola will be back with Ilves in 2021-22, I’ve seen a report there is an option for another season in 2022-23, that time will tell if he stays in Finland or is looking to sign with the Penguins and come over to North America. By that point, it’s probably best for Airola’s potential to make it to the NHL to get into the organization and acclimate to the game as quickly as possible.
Otherwise, a player like Airola is out of mind. Goals are down in the bigger rink and style Europe, so his stats won’t stand out, and news on him is tough to track. For many other organizations, Airola would be just a footnote, and even in Pittsburgh as an unsigned player he’s probably not being counted on as any sort of piece of the puzzle in the future.
Which sort of makes Airola one of those lottery tickets at the end of the NHL draft. Most of those players go about their careers and don’t end up having what it takes to make it all the way to the NHL. But the Pens always have a need for young players, and if anything happens with Airola, it will be a sort of “found money” for the Pens in the future. If it doesn’t work out, he was just a seventh round pick and they’ll have more players in the system to consider. If it does work out, it’s only a bonus if there’s a diamond in the rough or something meaningful that continues to develop and grow.
This is still a longer-term development project, but one worth keeping somewhat on the radar. Airola can skate well and has shown some nice offensive instincts. He’s still got a long way to go, but also recently turned 21 years old. Despite the rocky nature of the world in the last 18ish months, he’s still found a way to make a tangible advance in his career.