By Thomas Harrington
A second round pick from 2015, Julius Nattinen completed his junior career this past season and should join the San Diego Gulls this coming season. Nattinen had a rough final year of juniors, and he’ll be looking to rebound in the AHL.
Last summer, Nattinen was traded from the Barrie Colts to the Windsor Spitfires. Barrie was getting ready to enter a rebuild, while Windsor was hoping to be one of the stronger teams in the OHL, and Nattinen was supposed to be one of their key pieces. After scoring over 20 goals and 70 points in the 2015-2016 season, Nattinen only scored 13 goals and 38 points this past season, a big drop for the Finnish center. Nattinen actually had a strong start to the season, but after a disastrous World Junior Tournament for Finland, his play took a significant step back. At one point, he went about a month and half between goals. For a player known more for his playmaking, a drop in goals wouldn’t necessarily be a huge concern. But a decrease of 24 assists for the playmaking center was a definite red flag for last season. However, there were some highlights for Nattinen last year. Despite scoring fewer goals, he did put the puck on net more this season, as he increased his shot total from 103 to 123 shots on goal last season. The willingness to shoot the puck more is a good sign for a young player. He also continued his strong defensive play, seeing time on Windsor’s penalty kill unit and scoring his second career shorthanded goal. Finally, he increased his faceoff winning percentage this past season. After winning 50.9% of his draws with Barrie, Nattinen won 53.9% of his draws with Windsor.
After winning gold at the 2016 World Junior Championships, Finland really struggled at the 2017 World Juniors. In the preliminary round, Finland went 1-3 in four games and had to go to the relegation round. It was the first time in World Junior history that the defending champion failed to qualify for the quarterfinals. Finland went 2-0 in the relegation round and finished ninth in the tournament. Part of Finland’s struggles were because they were without Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi, but their problems went deeper than that. For whatever reason, the team was never able to gel when they were on the ice. Nattinen played in all six games for Finland and recorded only one assist.
Nattinen’s poor showing at the World Juniors clearly had an impact on him when he returned to Windsor. In 22 games before the World Juniors, he had 21 points; in the 29 games after the tournament, Nattinen scored only 17 points.
In the playoffs, Windsor lost in the first round in a seven game series against the London Knights. Nattinen scored one goal and four points in the seven game loss. However, the Spitfires were the host of this year’s Memorial Cup, and Windsor had a great tournament. After not playing for six weeks, Windsor took the ice and went 3-0 in the round robin portion of the tournament. As a result of going undefeated, Windsor was granted an automatic bye into the final game, where they defeated the Erie Otters to claim the Memorial Cup. In those four games, Nattinen scored two goals and four points.
A year ago, I said that I’d like to see Nattinen increase his offensive totals. I was hoping for at least 25 goals and an average of an assist per game. I also hoped that he’d have a bigger offensive impact at the World Juniors. Obviously, he didn’t reach any of those offensive thresholds I set for him. It’s safe to say that Nattinen had the most disappointing season of any Anaheim prospect last season. While others had worse seasons, Nattinen took a huge step back from what he was expected to do.
This coming season, Nattinen will leave juniors behind and join the San Diego Gulls. He actually almost played for the Gulls last season, but the decision was made right before the season started to send him to juniors for one more season. As a European player, he was eligible to play in the AHL, despite being a junior player under 20. After a rough season in juniors, my expectations for him this season are lower than they would have been. The Gulls aren’t the deepest offensive team, especially at center, but they have enough forward depth that Nattinen won’t be counted on to be one of their top centers this coming season. Kalle Kossila and others can handle those responsibilities. Instead, with this being his first professional season, I’d like to see Nattinen see time on the third line and penalty kill unit while stepping into the top six when needed. He’s a good defensive player, and if he can focus on that aspect of his game, he’ll definitely get a good amount of playing time and have success in the AHL.
A year ago, I thought Nattinen was looking like a future second line center. He still could become one, but right now, his potential looks more like a third line checker with a good offensive upside. He’s strong in the faceoff circle and has good defensive instincts, two keys to being successful in Anaheim’s system as a center. I definitely don’t expect him to make his NHL debut this year, but if he has a successful rookie season, he could be making his NHL debut in the 2018-2019 season, with a chance at a full-time NHL job in the 2019-2020 season.
Nattinen will be entering the first year of his entry-level contract this season and will be a restricted free agent in three years. When his contract is up, I do think the Ducks will likely re-sign him. However, this is assuming that his development goes better in the next three years than it did this past season. While Nattinen may not be the playmaking second line center I had hoped for when he was drafted, the Ducks can always use another good defensive center.
My next prospect update will be on Marcus Pettersson.
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July 31th, 2017