Lightning newcomer Waltteri Merela brings winning pedigree from Finland

After helping his team to back-to-back titles in the Finnish Elite League, the forward is hungry for an NHL championship.
Lightning prospect Waltteri Merela, front, participates in the Lightning Development Camp in July at TGH IcePlex in Brandon.
Lightning prospect Waltteri Merela, front, participates in the Lightning Development Camp in July at TGH IcePlex in Brandon. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 14

BRANDON — After winning back-to-back championships in the top professional hockey league in Finland, forward Waltteri Merela began to draw interest from NHL teams. In considering his options, a pair of conversations stood out to him — ones with Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois and head coach Jon Cooper.

“I think the one thing they said was that they felt that I’m a winning type of player, and they wanted me here because of that,” Merela said. “So that was a big thing, because I want to win games. I want to win championships.

“I had a good couple of years winning championships and stuff. So that was one of the biggest things here. This team wants to win this many more years. This team can win, so I want to be a part of that.”

Merela, 25, signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Lightning in June. He headlines an intriguing crop of international players — joining Russian forward Maxim Groshev (a third-round pick in 2020) and Norwegian defenseman Emil Lilleberg (an international free-agent signing) — who will make their North American debuts this season.

The competition to stand out begins at the Southeast Rookie Showcase Friday-Monday at Hertz Arena in Estero, where Lightning prospects will play games against those from the Panthers, Hurricanes and Predators. They will get their first taste of training camp when it opens next week.

“No one’s going to give you anything,” said Merela, who is from Ylojarvi, Finland. “You just need to take it, and you need to be better than other guys. There’s a lot of different things you can do to make the roster. I feel like I have a pretty complete game.

“I can play fourth line, I can play PK. That’s probably my chance to get into the lineup at the start. I just need to be good. There’s three weeks or whatever the time is, but you can be better every day, and there’s a lot of games, the rookie camp first, three games, and then there’s, like, seven exhibition games.”

The Lightning scouted Merela intensely. The fact they signed him to a one-year deal — though a two-way contract that likely will see him begin the season at AHL Syracuse — indicates they believe he can make a swift adjustment from the European game. There, rinks are 15 feet wider, allowing players more time and space to make plays.

Merela enters this week’s showcase already having made an early impression at the team’s development camp in July.

“We watched a lot of video, watched a lot of live games,” said Lightning assistant general manager/director of player development and AHL Syracuse general manager Stacy Roest. “And just the way he plays straight-line hockey, he’s won a lot, he plays hard.

“Even in the summertime in development camp in the 3-on-3, right away he got pretty heated and wanted to win and was very competitive. He’s big, strong and can really shoot a puck. We’ll see how he gets adjusted early in the preseason here, and we really like what we’ve seen so far.”

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Playing for a Tappara team that won Liiga titles the past two seasons in Finland, Merela averaged 18 goals and 39 points per season. During this past year’s championship run, he had eight goals and six assists in 14 postseason games. He then went on to score a goal for Finland in this summer’s World Championships.

“It’s a long season,” Merela said “It’s eight, nine months. It’s going to have some ups and downs. With good teams, you can get through the struggles, and then there’s the playoffs and those are the most important games. I think that’s the biggest thing I learned the last few years. Sometimes, it is so shaky during the first games and everyone is so tired of it, and you just turn those lessons into wins. You need to have mental toughness.”

Entering this week, Merela said he is focused on making an impression while adjusting to a smaller rink and different style of play. He said he thinks his game will fit in North America.

“I think once I get used to it, it probably does because I like to be a net-front guy,” he said. “I like to score goals from the net front, and it’s a lot closer in from the boards and I like the way the game turns so much faster. And that’s probably good for me, also. I like to transition fast and be a little bit more ahead of the play. So I think that’s also good for me.”

Showcase notes:

Center Jack Finley, who missed the end of last season with Syracuse due to a shoulder injury that required surgery, is still recovering with an eye on returning to the Crunch early in the season. He won’t participate in this weekend’s showcase. Finley, the Lightning’s second-round pick in 2020, was playing well toward the end of his first full AHL season (four goals and one assist in his final seven games) before he was sidelined. He finished with 12 goals and nine assists in 67 games. … Defenseman Dylan Gill (shoulder) and forward Daniel Walker (ACL) also are listed on the showcase roster but won’t play.

Southeast Rookie Showcase schedule

(All games at Hertz Arena in Estero)

Friday vs Predators, 4 p.m.

Saturday vs. Hurricanes, 3

Monday vs. Panthers, 1

Games will be streamed on

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