Niklas Nevalainen was not sure he wanted to play college hockey. The St. Cloud State men’s hockey coaching staff has convinced him otherwise.
Nevalainen, a 19-year-old defenseman from Nakkila, Finland, has verbally committed to play for the Huskies. He said he plans to join the team next season.
“I was there from Sunday through Tuesday,” he said of his recruiting visit. “They really wanted me and (it’s about) who really wants you. The team is going to be good. They’re renovating the rink and it’s going to be nice.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to college. St. Cloud, all the time, (was) talking to me and calling me.”
Nevalainen is in his first season playing juniors for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United
States Hockey League. Dubuque head coach/general manager Jim Montgomery said that the Huskies were the first team to recruit the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Nevalainen and the recruiting started during the Fighting Saints’ training camp.
“He’s a real dynamic defenseman, can run a power play, great hockey sense, a really powerful skater,” Montgomery said. “He’s really adjusted well and is a real good North American player.
“The surprising thing is how good he is defensively. He transitions to offense very well. He’s going to be a dynamite college hockey player.”
In 30 games with Dubuque, Nevalainen has two goals, 16 assists, 14 penalty minutes and is a plus-29. The 18 points are tied for 10th among USHL defenseman and he is fourth among defenseman in assists.
“I like to play with the puck. I think my best part (of my game) is offense,” he said. “I like to play almost like a forward. I like to bring it up and help the team win.
“I’m also a ‘D’ man, of course, so I have to take care around the net.”
The plus-29 mark is second in the USHL among all players and Dubuque has the best record in the league (25-6-2). That plus/minus rating gives an indication of how well he is playing in the defensive zone.
“He’s a real smart hockey player, competes hard,” Montgomery said. “He angles well and doesn’t get beat a lot defensively. He goes through the arms to get the puck and doesn’t try to beat up (opponents). That’s why he’s able to handle a lot of minutes.
“He’s really solid and powerful.”
Montgomery said that Nevalainen has been on the power play since he joined the team, but started to fluorish when he moved him to the left shooting player to the left point. Nevalainen has two goals and eight assists on the power play. The eight assists are tied for fifth among USHL defensemen.
If Nevalainen joins the Huskies next season, he could be the third Finnish player on the roster. Freshman forward Kalle Kossila and freshman backup goalie Rasmus Reijola are both from Finland.
“It was nice to talk Finnish with somebody. There are no Finnish (players) on our team,” Nevalainen said of his recruiting visit to St. Cloud State.
Nevalainen said that he had met Kossila at a tournament in Finland before, but it was the first time he had met Reijola. Last season, Kossila and Reijola were teammates on a junior team in Finland that played in the same league as Nevalainen’s junior team.
Nevalainen played in 52 games (regular season and playoffs) and had 14 goals, 25 assists, 30 penalty minutes and was a plus-22. Nevalainen has played for Finland in international competition on its Under-16 and Under-17 teams.
Taylor Johnson is the lone senior defenseman on the roster this season for St. Cloud State.
The Huskies previously received a verbal commitment from 18-year-old Ben Storm, a defenseman playing for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL. Storm and St. Cloud State recruit Charlie Lindgren (Sioux Falls, goalie) will play for Team East in the USHL’s USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game that will be played Jan. 23 in Muskegon, Mich.