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Players entering the final year of their entry level contracts without yet having played in the NHL always have something to prove but Joonas Nattinen may take that mindset to a new level. The Finnish forward has had injuries derail his first two years in Hamilton but he has a skill set that could still be useful to the big club. The lack of experience up front for the Bulldogs will provide him with a chance to prove himself but can he make the most of it?
It's hard to call a 22 year old a hockey nomad but Nattinen certainly can't say his playing days have been felled by complacency. In his final three years in Finland, he suited up for at least three different club teams each season while playing in various international tournaments including the World Juniors. He hasn't been moved around from team-to-team since coming across the pond but Nattinen's tenure with Hamilton has been highlighted by being moved into a wide variety of roles, quite often on a game-to-game basis.
His debut with the Bulldogs in 2011 was delayed by the coaching staff's reluctance to put him into the lineup. When he did play, he almost always was placed on the wing despite being a natural centre. Nattinen was bounced around from the fourth line to the first line regularly and not really given a real chance to thrive in any given role. Just as he was starting to really acclimate himself, he got hurt.
Unfortunately, 2012-13 followed a similar pattern but it was even quicker. He failed to earn the confidence of Sylvain Lefebvre and his staff early on (a real surprise given the dearth of talent the team had). Eventually, injuries and struggles from others bumped him up the depth chart to a top six role. Nattinen was putting up some points (a rarity from anyone last season) while playing strong defensively; it looked like he was starting to show himself as a quality prospect. Then he got hurt...again. This time, a shoulder injury derailed his momentum while simultaneously ending his season after just 24 games.
Generally by the time a prospect hits the third year of his rookie contract, we have a pretty good sense of whether or not the player is a legitimate prospect or minor league filler. That isn't the case with Nattinen as he has missed nearly the equivalent of an entire season so far. Here are three key elements to watch for this upcoming season that will help determine his future; improvements in these will likely keep him in the discussion moving forward while regression or stagnancy will seriously hurt his chances of seeing NHL action.
Skating: If there is one main weakness in Nattinen's game, it's that he isn't particularly fleet of foot. At 6'2, no one is expecting him to be a speedster but he is below average at the AHL level in terms of speed. Given that the Habs play an up-tempo style and that Hamilton tries to mirror the style of their parent club, considerable improvement here is an absolute must for him to have a chance at making the NHL.
Grit: Despite being one of the bigger forward prospects in the organization, Nattinen doesn't bring a lot of nastiness to his game, instead preferring to focus primarily on his positional play. That attention to detail in his positioning is certainly an asset but he needs to assert himself more. There's no way that he will be a top six forward at the next level and timidity in a bottom six forward is something that is frowned upon by coaches. I'm not saying he needs to become a crash-and-bang type of player, just show more of a willingness to get involved in the physical part of the action.
Put the tools together: Nattinen's frequent journey between teams in his final few years in Finland really stalled his offensive development. Accordingly, his upside in that area is still somewhat in question - the tools are there but they haven't yet translated to production. He's not the type of player who is going to thrive in a top line role but for him to show signs of improvement, eclipsing his point total in his first two years combined (30) has to be considered the bare minimum, regardless of what his role with the Bulldogs winds up being.
I've long believed that Nattinen has the potential to be a useful player for the Habs moving forward. His size is an asset, he plays a sound defensive game, and he can play both centre and the wing; these are all aspects of his game that the Canadiens could benefit from. Unfortunately though, his development so far has to be considered a disappointment. The time is now for Nattinen to demonstrate his worth. It's a cliche statement but for him, there is no tomorrow in terms of a new contract. If he gets injured or struggles, he won't be offered a new one and the team will move on with a bevy of players set to join the team from junior or the collegiate ranks for the 2014-15 season. Every player in the AHL has something to prove but it especially rings true for Joonas Nattinen. The pressure will certainly be there and he will be worth keeping an eye on to see how he responds.
- Louis Leblanc: A Player on the Hot Seat posted by B. La Rose