Most of the time, late round draft selections are project picks. As Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving often phrases it, they’re players with longer “developmental runways” – they’re planes that need more time to get up to the speed where they’re able to take off.
When dealing with young players who may be raring to go, preaching patience with their development often falls on deaf ears. But that’s not the case with 2016 sixth round selection Eetu Tuulola.
A product of Hameenlinna, Finland, Tuulola grew up playing for his hometown team – the much easier to spell HPK, short for Hämeenlinnan Pallokerho – and followed in the footsteps of his father Marko and older brother Joni.
Following a season where he had 14 points in 29 games for HPK’s under-20 squad and made his pro debut in SM-Liiga, Tuulola was selected by the Flames in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Draft. Later that same week he was selected by the Everett Silvertips in the annual Canadian Hockey League Import Draft and was loaned to the WHL squad by HPK. He impressed with 18 goals and 31 points as a WHL rookie, but he ended up returning to Europe to play out the remainder of his first pro contract with HPK: a move Tuulola seems to think paid off.
“I choose to stay in Finland, staying with HPK and I think that was a good decision for me,” said Tuulola at Flames development camp. “I started right away when I get into the lineup with the pro team, it was fun. The coaches trust me, gave me a lot of ice time and I gained confidence, picked up a couple points so it was a great year for me. I think my development got a huge step, especially on the offense side. And it was a great year for me.”
With one full professional season under his belt at the age of 20, Tuulola is simultaneously enthusiastic about the game but also aware of his limitations. His identification of his areas for growth was fairly simple: everything.
“I think defense side, I can get better on the defense side,” said Tuulola. “And offensively I want to improve all. I want to be be a better player. There’s no one area I have to improve, it’s all.”
Tuulola confirmed that he’s under contract with HPK for two more seasons – through the end of the 2019-20 campaign, coinciding with the expiration of his NHL rights with the Flames – but since Finland has a transfer agreement with the NHL there’s always the possibility that he could sign with the Flames earlier.
For what it’s worth, Tuulola is already generating points at a higher rate (0.44 per game) than his older brother did (0.32) before he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks – though his brother is a defenseman. But he doesn’t seem too anxious to head back to North American hockey quite yet, noting he doesn’t have a set timeline in mind for signing an NHL deal.
“I haven’t planned it yet,” said Tuulola. “I’m the type of guy that wants to go year by year. I hadn’t really thought about it yet. Let’s see what happens in the future, I don’t know yet.”
Lots of players are trying to get to the NHL as soon as humanly possible. But Tuulola is aware of his current limitations, and there are worse places to be spending your time when developing your game than playing pro hockey in your hometown.