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Photo: Mark Newman

By Dana Wakiji,

DETROIT -- It's going to be a pivotal season for Vili Saarijarvi.

Saarijarvi, who turned 21 on May 15, was the Red Wings' third-round draft pick, 73rd overall, in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

In 2017-18, his first professional season, the young Finnish defenseman spent time with both the ECHL's Toledo Walleye and the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins.

In 42 games with the Griffins, Saarijarvi had 11 assists. In 10 games with the Walleye, he had two goals and four assists.

"I think the start of the year was pretty tough," Saarijarvi said. "I had a hard time getting in the lineup so it was a little battle there. Then I went down to Toledo, played a few games there, got my confidence up, just got minutes to play and gain some experience. Then I came back to GR and I think I played strong there. I learned a lot last year and I think it's going to help me a lot moving forward and going into this year."

The Griffins had a logjam on the blueline and eventually traded Ryan Sproul to the New York Rangers, which eased things a bit.

But Saarijarvi believes that going through that adversity will serve him in the long run.

"I think mentally it was huge, you're battling, you're in the lineup and then you're out of the lineup," Saarijarvi said. "So I think mentally it was a huge year for me. Then I think you just got to stay positive and be patient and keep working hard. Everyone is working hard so you got to work harder than the guy next to you if you want to be in the lineup. You want to play good, you have to play good and work hard every night to stay in the lineup."

On the ice in the AHL, Saarijarvi had to learn to deal with bigger, stronger and more physical players, which can be a significant challenge when you are 5-foot-10, 182 pounds.

"I think with my skating I can kind of get in the right position a little quicker so I think that's going to help me," Saarijarvi said. "Then breaking the puck out, I got to keep moving my feet and that was one thing that we always talk with (Ben Simon) and (Bruce Ramsay) and (Todd Nelson) that keep moving my feet and I'll get out of trouble every time."

Saarijarvi is also working on getting stronger, training once again this summer at Barwis Methods in Plymouth, Mich.

"It's been good there, it's a good group of guys and you get to learn from good players," Saarijarvi said. "You can tell every day why they play in the NHL. They work hard, they come in every day and they put the work in."

As with every player in the summer, Saarijarvi is working to improve in a few areas.

"A little more explosiveness and just strength, explosiveness and speed, those are my big strengths so I think getting those things better and not that strong yet so trying to build some muscles around my bones," Saarijarvi said.

On Friday, Saarijarvi took a little break from his training to help coach at the Red Wings youth camp at the BELFOR Training Center at Little Caesars Arena.

"It was good, a lot of fun," Saarijarvi said. "I think that summer it's good to get out with the kids and have some fun with them, get in the game a little bit with them. So it was a lot of fun."

Kids are always inquisitive and love to ask the Wings players and prospects all kinds of questions.

"What position you play, are you a sniper or a dangler?" Saarijarvi said. "I think those are the two most common questions."

It is the second straight year that Saarijarvi has worked at the youth camp. He also participated in the last one at Joe Louis Arena.

"I was asked to come so I'm here for the summer so it's not a lot for me to just drive here and play with the kids for a few hours. Obviously I love playing with the kids and it's a lot of fun being on the ice with them. I was more than happy to come."

Earlier in the summer, Saarijarvi was back home in Finland when he heard that the Wings had drafted another Finnish player, Otto Kivenmaki, in the seventh round, 191st overall.

"Yeah, that's good for him for sure," Saarijarvi said. "I messaged him and told him congrats. I was going to come here and say hi to him but then my flights got a little bit delayed. I got back the day after the (development) camp ended so I didn't get to see him. But I texted him and I heard he had a pretty good camp and he's a skilled player. I'm looking forward to play with him somewhere in the future."

Along with defenseman Kasper Kotkansalo, taken in the third round, 71st overall, in the 2017 draft, the Finns are slowly gaining some ground on the Wings' many Swedes.

"I think that's a good thing," Saarijarvi said. "I knew Kasper for a couple years now. He's always fun to be around. He had a good season last year in Boston. Hopefully he'll be up here soon, too."

If Saarijarvi ever reaches the NHL, he will be the first player from Rovaniemi, Finland, to make it.

Rovaniemi is most famously known as the hometown of Santa Claus as it is where Santa Claus Village resides.

Last year, the television reality show "The Bachelor" went to Finland near Saarijarvi's hometown.

"They were up north," Saarijarvi said. "I never really watched it but then I heard they were in Lapland, close to my hometown. I watched actually a couple of those episodes. It was pretty funny and kind of cool, too."

It would be cool for Saarijarvi to continue his development and reach a whole new level this coming season.

Like every player, he has lofty goals.

"I don't want to put too much pressure on myself," Saarijarvi said. "Obviously I want to play with the big club. But I just want to have a strong, healthy season, play with my strengths and get better, take baby steps to moving forward. I want to play my best. I'm going to battle for a spot but I've got to be realistic, too. I want to have a strong season in GR and just get big minutes and a lot of experience. So I think that's going to be helpful in the future."