Our T25 under U25 series continues with...
16. Nelli Laitinen | Defender | Team Finland | Kiekko-Espoo
When she wasn’t in China earning her first Olympic medal, she was dominating the Naisten Liiga with Kiekko-Espoo in 2021-22. She led all defenders in the league in both assists (24) and points (31) one season. It was a fourth consecutive standout season in the Naisten Liiga for Laitinen, who only turned 20 on April 29 — remember that everything that Laitinen has done to this point has been done while she’s a teenager.
As great as she was playing in her home country, Laitinen shined far brighter on hockey’s biggest stage. She was outstanding at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
Laitinen finished tied for third in scoring among Finnish skaters and was the highest-scoring defender on the team (2 goals, 5 assists). Yes, she put up more points than the living legend Jenni Hiirikoski. Let that one sink in. Laitinen scored two power-play goals and averaged 18:06 TOI/GP – third among Finland’s defenders. It was the breakout performance many were expecting and hoping to see from Laitinen. She rose to the occasion in an increased role and looks very much like she is the future of Team Finland’s blue line.
- Laitinen won the Päivi Halonen Award as the Naisten Liiga’s top defender in 2020-21 and in 2019-20.
- She was named the Best Defenseman of U18 World Juniors in 2020.
- Laitinen has won a bronze medal at the Worlds in 2021 and a silver in 2019 with Team Finland. She also has a U18 bronze medal from 2019.
- Finished tied for third among all defenders in scoring at the 2022 Olympics with 7 points in 7 GP.
- The only European player to ever be named the Best Defender of the U18 Worlds (2020).
- While in the Naisten Liiga, Laitinen had numerous single-season accomplishments including most points, goals, and assists in a season by a defender./
What Comes Next
Laitinen is committed to the University of Minnesota where she will make an immediate impact not just on the Gophers but on the entire WCHA. Given her credentials and her age, it would not be surprising to see her immediately contend to be the best defender in the nation — though, she will have to adjust to North American ice.
“Nelli is a smooth-skating defenseman that sees the ice well and controls the game with her feet and instincts,” Gophers head coach Brad Frost shared when Minnesota announced she would be joining the program in 2022-23. “She will be an impact player for our team over the next 4 years.”
During and after her time in Minnesota, Laitinen will be a staple on the Finnish national team. She is a key cog in a new young core that is emerging that also includes Petra Nieminen and Anni Keisala. She represents a bright future for one of the true superpowers in hockey. Is it still too early to start thinking of her as the next Hiirikoski? Sure, but if she plays herself into Patty Kaz consideration at Minnesota and continues to shine on the international stage that conversation could begin in earnest.
Too High or Too Low
Considering all that she’s accomplished before the age of 20, the rank of 16 feels too low for Laitinen.
She is one of the brightest young stars in the game and belongs to a very short list of defenders who may have what it takes to be the next true great at her position. I think the odds are stacked against European players making this list because we don’t have enough coverage of them in North America. It also goes without saying that defenders rarely get as many headlines and attention as forwards and goaltenders. Despite all of that, Laitinen received enough votes to make this list. I still think she should have been higher and that is without skewing for her potential. She is already one of the best players in her position in the world at 20.
15. Ronja Savolainen | Defender | Team Finland | Luleå HF
Savolainen won bronze at the 2022 Olympics with Finland . Unfortunately, her most noteworthy moment of the tournament was her awkward collision with Brianna Decker that sidelined the American superstar. Savolainen doesn’t have a history of dirty play but the collision — which some believe was a slewfoot — looked awful.
In 7 GP in Beijing, Savolainen had 2 assists and put just 7 SOG while averaging 23:05 TOI/GP. With Rosa Lindstedt no longer on the national team, Savolainen is the clear shutdown defender even with her offensive upside. The only Finnish defender who clocked more ice was Hiirikoski who was deployed for 23 more shifts (269) than Savolainen (246).
In the SDHL, Savolainen picked up 18 points in 25 regular season GP — a modest total for a defender who scored 20 goals in 36 GP in 2019-20. Still, it was an undeniably successful year for Savolainen. She scored three goals in the playoffs to help Luleå win yet another SM gold.
- Two Olympic bronze medals (2018, 2022).
- One silver (2019) and three bronze (2015, 2017, 2021) World Championship medals.
- Four-time SM gold (SDHL title) winner (2018, 2019, 2021, 2022).
- Naisten-Liiga champion (2015).
- Third-highest goal total (20) in a single SDHL season by a defender (2019)./
What Comes Next
In 2022-23, Savolainen will continue to represent Finland and prowl the blue line for Luleå while she works to take her game to yet another level. Next year, she will have aged out of having a place in our T25 U25 but she is going to be part of Finland’s core for another decade.
She’s already a great player. If Savolainen can continue to build on her game and find more consistency on the offensive side of the puck, she could be a top-five player at her position on the planet. She still has that potential and continues to learn playing alongside and with a master on both her national and pro team in Hiirikoski. You couldn’t ask for a better teacher and, honestly, it’s hard to think of a better student. Savolainen really is a complete package with very few holes in her game.
For a tall defender, Ronja Savolainen has a very smooth stride which she could expand on by using her excellent habits more often.— Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats) March 31, 2022
However, in terms of her backwards pivot, she could develop it in the long run by having her hip lead through the rotation in a quicker fashion. pic.twitter.com/qvaXTyGPB5
Too High or Too Low
This feels about right for Savolainen but I definitely wouldn’t hate if she was as high as 12 on this list.
Savolainen is an elite defender but didn’t have an explosive 2021-22 campaign that demanded the attention of the hockey world. If she put up bigger numbers this year, I’d be campaigning for her to be higher than 15 but I feel like her stock didn’t soar because of Finland’s rocky Olympic tournament. Is it fair to judge a player’s current development and prowess on a 7-game tournament? Nope. Welcome to women’s hockey analysis.
As I mentioned earlier with Laitinen, defenders rarely get as much love as they deserve on lists like this and Savolainen is no exception. Somehow, the 5-foot-9 blueliner rarely gets the attention she deserves. Savolainen didn’t play collegiate hockey in North America and remains underrated because she is, by default, the second-best defender on Team Finland.