Newark, NJ – It’s easy to forget that Timo Meier didn’t come to New Jersey alone when the Devils traded for him on February 26th. The Devils also acquired forward prospect Timur Ibragimov and defense prospect Santeri Hatakka. Both are attending development camp this week in Newark. Ibragimov just signed a one-year AHL contract with the Utica Comets for the 2023-24 season. Hatakka is in the final year of his entry-level contract he signed with the San Jose Sharks in May 2021. Just two days into summer workouts, Hatakka is leaving a positive impression on the Devils brass. What may have appeared to be a throw-in to a larger deal could actually turn out to be something for New Jersey.
Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald has been observing training camp all week thus far. When the goaltenders and defenseman hit the ice early on Tuesday morning, Fitzgerald’s eyes kept being drawn to Hatakka. As a result, he contacted his brother, Scott Fitzgerald, the Sharks’ Director of Player Personnel, for answers to why they let the left-shot defenseman go.
“I just texted my brother and asked, ‘Why did you give us this guy?'” Fitzgerald explained to New Jersey Hockey Now enthused. “He looks good!”
What Fitzgerald’s brother’s answer was is unknown, but the Devils’ GM is happy to have Hatakka in red and black.
So what do the Devils have exactly in the Finnish defenseman?
“I’m a fast skater,” Hatakka explained, something he’ll need to be if he’s going to eventually fit into New Jersey’s lineup. “(I’m a two-way guy) that can play well in the offensive and defensive zone. I can out-skate guys. I’m a good passer, especially the first pass, and I focus on my own end as well.”
Hatakka’s English is good, although still a little broken. We checked in with San Jose Hockey Now’s Sheng Peng who has had a close look at Hatakka’s game from another perspective.
“Hatakka is a very good skater,” Peng explained. “He’s clear NHL-caliber on his feet, but he’s still got to refine a lot of defensive details to make an NHL impact. He was thrown off track from that last season with his season-ending upper-body injury, so he’ll probably need plenty of AHL time this season to catch up on his details.”
The Finnish defenseman explained he didn’t have a favorite NHL team growing up. He mostly followed Liiga because it was much more accessible to him. However, he does have a favorite NHLer that he believes he styles his game after.
“He’s playing now in Dallas (for the Stars), Esa Lindell,” Hatakka stated. “He was a young guy (in Liiga) when I was growing up in Finland.”
The Sharks drafted Hatakka in the sixth round of the 2019 NHL draft, 184th overall. Much like Lindell, Hatakka spent the majority of his time playing in Finland’s highest professional league, Liiga, following his draft year. At the 2020 U20 World Junior Championships, Hatakka helped Finland capture bronze serving as an alternate captain, scoring a goal and an assist in eight games.
Things picked up for Hatakka in the 2021-22 season. He signed his ELC with the Sharks and skated in 41 games for the Barracudas in the American Hockey League. He scored three goals and 12 points in that span. However, he first got his feet wet in the NHL playing nine games for San Jose. The left-shot defenseman made the Sharks opening night roster in October 2021. He wasn’t a lineup lock, but Hatakka made his NHL debut on Oct. 30th against the Winnipeg Jets.
“It was unreal,” Hatakka said of his NHL debut. “Like a dream come true. I played those nine games and I’ve heard it went pretty well. I was happy with how I played and that I got the experience. It helped me a lot if I’m gonna get a shot here.”
He then spent three quarters of November 2021 with San Jose and tallied his first NHL point, an assist, during a road game against the Calgary Flames on a nice breakout pass to Logan Couture. Hatakka later registered his second NHL point, another assist, exactly four months later in an overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks. It was Hatakka’s first game back with the Sharks on recall after he was sent down to the Barracudas on Dec. 2nd, 2021.
When Hatakka learned he was being traded from the Sharks organization to the Devils, he was spending the day off away from the rink.
“I was actually in San Francisco spending a day off with my girlfriend and I got the call I was traded,” Hatakka explained. “Right after that I drove back to San Jose, packed my stuff, and flew to Jersey. I spent a couple of days here. I got a check-up from the doctor, and everything was fine. Then I drove to Utica. It was super smooth landing here.”
Hatakka received a check-up in New Jersey due to a season-ending upper-body injury that limited him to just AHL games in the 2022-23 season. Despite learning of Fitzgerald’s compliments, Hatakka felt he is on the right track in his recovery, but still has some progress to make.
“It’s fun to skate again and see the boys at the rink and get to know everyone,” Hatakka said. “(For me), it’s getting there. It’s been tough. Last year, it was tough. I only played eight games (due to) a bad injury but I can skate now. So that helps a lot and I feel it’s getting there. I’m on the right track now.”
The last three seasons for Hatakka have been a whirlwind. After crossing the pond from Finland to North America, the Riihimaki native played in three different leagues between the NHL, AHL, and Liiga. As most believe when they make the transition from bigger to smaller ice, the 22-year-old Devils prospect said the speed of the game in North America has been his biggest adjustment.
“Of course the game speed,” Hatakka explained. “The game is so much faster in the small rink than in the Liiga. Ligga is more controlled, you manage the puck all the time and take control of the game. But here like here is like a north/south style. When you have the puck, you always go north. It’s so much faster than in Europe.”
Despite being a left-shot, Hatakka has experience playing on the right side out of necessity in San Jose. His versatility gives Hatakka multiple paths to finding NHL minutes again.
“I have played almost two years on the right side, it’s helped a lot,” Hatakka told San Jose Hockey Now at training camp last September.
At the very least, the Devils have a depth defenseman that can compete for top-pairing minutes in Utica. If necessary, he can be recalled to fill in for the Devils should New Jersey need the depth. However, Hatakka is still just 22 years old. There is plenty of time for him to develop into something more. It’s a crowded blue line in New Jersey, but it’s never a bad thing to have options. The Devils gave up a pretty penny to acquire Meier. Whether Fitzgerald knew it or not, yet, it appears the Devils might have a little something in Hatakka, too.
Hatakka’s mindset hasn’t changed since arriving in North America from Finland. He got his feet wet at the NHL level and wants to return as soon as possible. He’ll likely play out the 2023-24 season in the AHL with Utica, however, has the potential to serve the Devils in a bottom-six role in the future.
Development camp is just the first step on Hatakka’s path to finding regular NHL minutes. He’ll be back in September for training camp looking to continue making a positive impression on the Devils brass. One thing is for sure. Hatakka has caught the attention of Fitzgerald and it’s never a bad thing to be on the GMs good side. His next task will be to make that same impression on Devils head coach Lindy Ruff. If he can accomplish that, we could see Hatakka back in the NHL, this time in a Devils uniform.
“I think I’m ready for that,” said Hatakka. “I already have that first game under my belt.”
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