Carolina Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell made a number of moves during his first offseason in charge. Many of them, such as the Lindholm/Hanifin/Ferland/Hamilton/Fox and Skinner trades, got plenty of attention.
The signing of Finnish forward Saku Maenalanen to a one-year, two-way deal in May went mostly under the radar. Maenalanen, a friend of Canes forwards Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen who played with them at the World Championship, would add forward depth and compete for a spot on the fourth line.
Following a mid-season callup, however, Maenalanen has emerged as a key cog in the Canes’ bottom six. He’s chipped in four goals and six points in 15 games, and his hard-nosed, grinding style of play has made him a valuable member of the fourth line.
Saku Maenalanen. First NHL goal. Tie game on Long Island. pic.twitter.com/k2FegeH7PJ— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) January 9, 2019
Maenalanen has played that way his whole life, and he’s found it translated well to the NHL game.
“Of course there’s more rink,” Maenalanen said. “But I try to play the same way, working hard, skate hard, play my own game.”
Maenalanen’s play has impressed both of his fellow Finns on this team. He and Aho hail from the same hometown and played together on Karpat’s junior and pro teams.
While the pair’s style of play could not be more different, Carolina’s top-line center appreciates what Maenalanen has brought to the table.
“I think he’s done a pretty good job,” Aho said. “He looks pretty comfortable up here. It helps. He’s a big body who can skate. So it really makes it easier for him. I think he’s doing it right. He’s not cheating on the ice. He just works hard.”
Teravainen, the Canes’ other top scorer who hails from Finland, also knows Maenalanen well.
The two were linemates for team Finland at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Tournament, which saw Teravainen lead all players with 15 points, and Maenalanen was the top goal scorer with seven in seven games for the gold medal-winning Finns.
“He’s a good player; he works hard,” Teravainen said. “He’s a goal scorer, too. He can play a two-way game. He’s strong. He kind of does a little bit of everything. He has some experience playing in the Finnish pro league for many years with the men. Of course it’s a little bit of a new world for him with a new language and the smaller rink. So it’s good to see he can handle all that stuff.”
Saku Maenalanen with his second goal of the night. A deflection in front. His first multi-goal game in the NHL. He has three goals over his last two games. He just keeps making positive impacts. pic.twitter.com/bYSuip5ho2— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) January 16, 2019
While that language barrier is difficult for any player in a new country, having his “Finnish friends” in Aho and Teravainen already on the team has been a help to Maenalanen.
When he was considering signing with Carolina during last year’s World Championship, Maenalanen talked with Aho to get a rundown on playing in Raleigh and what it was like. What his countryman told him must have swayed him.
It’s turned out to be a good choice for Maenalanen, as he’s been a good fit in the Canes’ bottom six, and having two fellow Finns has eased his transition.
“It’s easier to get in the team with obviously we both know him pretty well,” Aho said. “His English is not really strong yet but he’s getting better at that too. It’s good to have Finns here so he can talk with the guys.”
At 24, Maenalanen is the same age as Teravainen and three years older than Aho, but made the jump to North America two years after Aho and five years after Teravainen.
Everyone develops at their own pace, and Maenalanen needed to add size and strength to handle the physicality of North American hockey in smaller rinks. The way he worked his way to the NHL and improved himself is something his Finnish teammates admire.
“It’s a good example,” Teravainen said. “You have to work hard every day to get better. Even if you’re not on the junior national team and stuff, you can still get better.”
Of course, Maenalanen had another step to work his way through to get to the NHL. After a solid training camp, he lost out on the Canes’ numbers game and was sent to Charlotte, where he put up seven goals and 14 points in 31 games ahead of his first recall in December.
Whoa. Saku Maenalanen with an impressive burst and a slick breakaway shorthanded goal for the Checkers. pic.twitter.com/o7GohOHnwP— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) December 31, 2018
Canes head coach Rod Brind’Amour was impressed by Maenalanen in camp, but the team felt he needed more time to adjust to playing in North America. He did that, and has made an impact for Carolina since joining the NHL ranks.
“Everyone looks at goals, but to me, it’s just how he’s playing is the way we needed,” Brind’Amour said. “He may score he may not on those. … But it’s the fact that every shift he’s out there, he’s productive. That’s kind of what he did in training camp too. I don’t know that he scored a bunch in training camp but he was certainly productive in the sense that he was winning his shift. He’s pretty much doing what we hoped we would do.”
Just as Maenalanen worked his way from Finland to North America and from the AHL to the NHL, Brind’Amour expects to see him earn a larger role with the team if he continues to impress with his hard-working style of play.
Saku Maenalanen SNIPES a bouncing puck by Rinne. 2-0 Hurricanes. pic.twitter.com/cM9zcJlpaF— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) January 13, 2019
“He’ll play more as we go along if he continues to do that,” Brind’Amour said. “Obviously you want to get the guys out there that are making things happen. So he’s been good. To me it’s the level of play. He’s competitive and his pace has been really good. That’s something that we need.”
Maenalanen had interest from other NHL teams when he decided to sign with the Canes back in May. He called the Hurricanes, with two of his fellow Finnish players and Finns already signed, “the best fit” for him.
Turns out, he was a pretty good fit for them too.