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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.