The Mississauga Steelheads’ newest defenseman finally made his debut on Friday after a three-month long recovery process from wrist surgery.
Acquired in an offseason trade from the Flint Firebirds, Vili Saarijarvi was expected to bolster Mississauga’s already deep defensive core. But when previous franchise defender Sean Day was shipped off to the Windsor Spitfires early in the season, Saarijarvi became even more important to his new team — and he was still a long way off from skating in a Steelheads jersey.
Now, the Finnish defenseman’s arrival comes at the perfect time. The Steelheads have lost six straight and 11 of their last 12 games, a disheartening statistic seeing as how they were expected to be contenders this year. But that goal seems the furthest away it can possibly be: Mississauga currently sits dead-last in both the Eastern Conference and the entire Ontario Hockey League (though they have some games in hand over most teams).
“It’s been hard to watch these games, but I’m happy to be back and I’ll try to do everything I can to help the team win,” Saarijarvi told Mississauga.com. “That’s the first thing I want to do.
“The first plan was three months (of recovery) and I can start taking slap shots and then it was three months and I could play in a game,” he said. “There’s still things I’ve got to do to make it back as strong as I was before, but I felt pretty good out there.”
It’s going to take Saarijarvi a little while to get up to speed, as he had not played in a single hockey game in months, but two games in, he is already showing flashes of his old self. The 19-year-old defenseman is in his final year of junior eligibility, and the Detroit Red Wings — the team that drafted him in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft — are counting in him to have a breakout 2016-17 campaign.
A right-handed shot, Saarijarvi is just what the Red Wings need at this point, as they have been looking for a right-shot defender for years, and they settled short-term for Mike Green. But everyone knows you don’t build a defense around a free agent signing (unless you’re the Minnesota Wild), so developing a young guy is the best plan of action.
It was ideal that Saarijarvi was not too far away from Detroit when he was playing in Flint last year, but after last year’s debacle within the Firebirds organization became too much for the talented prospect, he refused to report back in 2016-17, demanding a trade to another OHL team and threatening to play in Finland if his wish was not granted. He wasn’t the only one to do this, as Montreal Canadiens prospect and former Firebirds forward Will Bitten made a similar trade request for a similar reason earlier this year, ultimately being sent to the Hamilton Bulldogs.
But there’s a new storyline for Saarijarvi now. Coming from one of the worst teams in the OHL, he was supposed to help put his new team over the top into contention and lead the blue line for the best team in the Eastern Conference. Instead, he watched in the third period of his debut as four Soo Sault Marie goals entered Mississauga’s net and went unanswered.
These are tough times for the Steelheads franchise, but for Saarijarvi, his season is just beginning. In a little over two weeks from now, he will join the Finnish U20 World Junior Championship team (who he helped win a gold medal last season). Luckily for him, he is able to use this time to get back into a rhythm before he begins the competition.
“At one point, the plan was I’d pretty much go straight to camp there, but now nine extra games is good and there’s going to be two exhibition games,” he told Mississauga.com. “I just want to focus here, get back into game shape and help the team win.”
The Red Wings organization is watching, waiting for their prospect to breakout and change the fortune of his junior team. He will be departing from Mississauga soon for the U20 WJC, but perhaps the tournament will be good for him and will fully get him back to the player he was before his wrist injury. And upon his return, we may see one of the biggest second-half performances in the OHL from Saarijarvi.