There’s certainly some hope for the San Jose Sharks’ blueline in the near future. The flashiest name is obviously that of Ryan Merkley, but names like Artemi Kniazev and Santeri Hatakka fly under the radar. Hatakka, especially, is a prospect that should not be overlooked, despite the lack of name-recognition.
In his 2019 draft year, Hatakka was in the Finnish men’s juniors system, splitting his season between Jokerit’s U18 and U20 squads. He played three games for the U18 team, tallying one assist, but saw much more action with the U20 team, playing in 43 games. While his point total might not have been terribly flashy, finishing with 4 goals and 9 assists, there was still a lot about his game that scouts liked. Asko Huuki of Finn Prospects observed Hatakka’s game against Kiekko-Vantaa in the U20 league and had high praise for his defensive game, noting that “he uses his body well already, he has solid gap control and he is above average in defending with stick.”
His strong defensive play made Hatakka a target for the Sharks, who selected him in the sixth round at 184th overall. The next season, the defender made the jump to the top-tier Liiga, but not with Jokerit, whose men’s team was formerly in the KHL before leaving the league as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hatakka joined Ilves instead for 2019-20, splitting time with the club and KOOVEE of the second-tier Mestis league.
Hatakka made Finland’s World Juniors Championship team in back-to-back seasons during his time with Ilves. In particular, his 2021 campaign with Team Finland turned some heads. Marco Bombino of Finnish Junior Hockey followed Hatakka’s games against Germany and Switzerland in the 2021 World Juniors, in which he played on Finland’s first pairing alongside Winnipeg Jets prospect Ville Heinola. During this tournament, Hatakka showed flashes of his offensive ability. Bombino wrote that “since being drafted by the San Jose Sharks, Hatakka has improved his overall game a lot, especially his ability to create offense up the ice.”
Hatakka signed an entry-level contract with the Sharks on May 12, 2021, and attended the team’s development camp later in the summer. During training camp and pre-season, he was partnered with Erik Karlsson, a testament to how much the coaching staff liked Hatakka’s strong defensive play. Though he did make the opening night roster, he wouldn’t end up playing until Oct. 30, when seven players ended up in the league’s COVID Protocol, including four mainstay defenders in Karlsson, Jake Middleton, Radim Simek and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Hatakka, along with Ryan Merkley, Jaycob Megna and Nicolas Meloche filled in on the blueline during that two-week run, when the group of prospects and Barracuda players nicknamed the “SharkCuda” showed flashes of what they could bring to the NHL.
When all of the regular defensemen exited protocol, however, Hatakka was reassigned to the Barracuda so that he could see more consistent ice time.
What We Like
As mentioned, the best part of Hatakka’s game in his young career is his defensive ability.
Normally, it can be concerning if an NHL prospect had only recorded seven points in a full season with a men’s league, as Hatakka did with Ilves, but he’s proven that he doesn’t need to put the puck in the net to provide strong play. Mitchell Brown of Elite Prospects noted in a report that Hatakka “is all about movement without the puck ... He recognizes his skill set, opting to make an easy pass before launching himself up the ice to become an option or back off the defence.”
Another strength of Hatakka’s game is his skating. In that same game against Keikko-Vantaa mentioned above, Huuki had high marks for Hatakka’s speed, stating: “His wheels are pretty good ... I thought both his agility and top speed looked promising.”
Areas of Improvement
The biggest issue with Hatakka’s game is his offensive skills. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing for defenseman, especially defenseman who are defensively sound, it can still be detrimental to draft stock, as scoring is one of the surest indicators of future success at the highest level of hockey. In his report on Hatakka, Brown wrote that “his inconsistent accuracy and a failure to scan before passing hurt his value.”
As shown by his point totals with Ilves, and what he’s shown with the Barracuda so far, there’s still a lot of room for Hatakka to grow offensively.
This clip from Hatakka’s NHL debut perfectly encapsules what he does well and what he needs to improve.
During the second period against the Jets, a whiffed puck in the offensive zone lead to a breakaway from Nikolaj Ehlers, but Hatakka recovered well and stayed back into the play to break up a sure scoring chance. The next period, the Jets’ Evgeny Svechnikov (71) and Kristian Vesalainen (93) weaved into the offensive zone. Hatakka then forced Vesalainen to the outside before using his body to get the puck free.