Wings' prospect Saarijarvi relishes size of task ahead

The Detroit News

Traverse City — Vili Saarijarvi knows he’s not going to get taller, so forget about that.

Defenseman Vili Saarijarvi eyes the puck during a drill at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City.

Listed as 5-foot-10, Saarijarvi isn’t physically imposing, may not see over some opposing teams’ players, so he has to compensate as well.

“I’m probably not going to get so much taller, so it’s about adding size (muscle) and putting on some weight and getting strong,” said Saarijarvi, who is participating in the Red Wings’ development camp. “I know I’m a good skater and I can skate and play that game.

“So it’s about getting stronger.”

Saarijarvi remains one of the Red Wings’ top prospects, after being drafted in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft.

An excellent skater who can quarterback the power play, Saarijarvi will begin the season at Grand Rapids in October after completing a fine junior season at Mississauga (Ontario League).

Sarrijarvi collected 31 points (11 goals) in 34 games despite missing time due to offseason wrist surgery.

“I’m looking forward to seeing him this year,” said Shawn Horcoff, the Red Wings’ director of player development. “I was real impressed with his game, and coming back from the injury, he looked great.

“He had a great season.”

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The NHL game is transitioning to speed, first and foremost, and an offensive defenseman who can be a game-breaker is a huge asset.

Saarijarvi, 20, has that kind of potential.

But being on the smallish side, Saarijarvi will have to be that much better with his stick, in positioning, and maybe outsmart opponents defensively before thinking of the NHL, which at best, is likely still about two years away.

“He’s a dynamic defenseman,” Horcoff said. “He’s like any other player of his size, he’ll have to learn the game a little bit and learn how to defend.

“But he has a big upside.”

Listed as 172 points, Saarijarvi has added approximately 10 to 15 pounds since being drafted. He looks noticeably stronger across his shoulders, and in defensive drills can hold his position and not get overpowered.

“I’m improved on the ice and off the ice, too,” Saarijarvi said. “Strength-wise, a lot stronger, and I’ve put on some weight. It’s been good.

“At the same time I’ve been growing my speed, so it’s been good.”

Saarijarvi’s offensive ability is more than ready for the move to Grand Rapids and the AHL this season.

It’s on the offensive end that Saarijarvi believes he can make the most impact.

“An offensive defenseman, and puck mover, moving the puck to forwards, and try to get my shots at the net every time,” said Saarijarvi of his strengths. “Just skate well and on the power play, I like playing on the power play, and hope now I can take that to the next level.

“It’ll (power-play success) be harder at the next level, but I want to take that challenge and work on it as much as possible.”

Saarijarvi was a "black ace" — junior or minor league players brought up during a playoff run as extras if needed — for the Griffins’ Calder Cup championship campaign this spring and enjoyed the experience.

He believes he’ll benefit from being around the atmosphere.

“It was a great opportunity,” Saarijarvi said. “(The pro game) is faster and stronger and guys are older. You have to be a lot smarter and stronger and faster on the ice. I’m excited to be there. It’s a challenge and opportunity for me.”