From unknowns to international success stories with the Lightning

When the Lightning signed Finnish forward Waltteri Merela and Norwegian defenseman Emil Lilleberg to contracts back in June, the moves didn’t receive much attention.

On the surface, the two-way signings seemed to be depth moves with the purpose of stocking inventory at AHL Syracuse with an eye that both play could, but not necessarily earn a role, with the NHL team.

Now, with both players regulars in a Lightning lineup decimated by injuries, the acquisitions show the savviness of the organization’s international pro scouting department.

“You’d have to say it’s kind of helped keep us afloat,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of the additions. Merela and Lilleberg are two of eight rookies who have made their NHL debuts for the team this season.

The players they’re replacing are considered week-to-week. Merela is, in part, filling a forward spot left open by an injury to Tanner Jeannot, and Lilleberg is the Lightning’s third left-shot defenseman with Mikhail Sergachev and Haydn Fleury both on long-term injured reserve. They won’t return until after the All-Star break (Feb. 1-4) at the earliest.

In setting a roster that has lost many key pieces due to cap constraints in recent offseasons, general manager Julien BriseBois has done a tremendous job of finding replacements with similar skill-sets. Doing so with international professionals is more difficult because of the differences between the European game and the North American one: different rink sizes, pace and physicality of the game and the quality of talent, among them. There’s no guarantee players coming from overseas will make the adjustment.

Both Merela and Lilleberg have, and quickly.

“If we go back, less than a year ago, Emil Lilleberg and Waltteri Merela weren’t part of our organization,” BriseBois said. “And now they’re two of our best prospects, two of our best young players.”

Merela liked that the Lightning knew how he could fit into their organization. He had won back-to-back championships in Finland’s top professional league and had played for Finland in the World Championships. Though Merela improved his game in Tappara’s two championship runs, he wasn’t the team’s leading scorer. But what stood out was the two-way game displayed by a plus-44 his last three seasons in Liiga, including a league-best plus-31 in 2021-22.

The Lightning’s Finland scout, Kari Kettunen, initially tracked him and he soon was on the radar of director of player personnel Jamie Pushor. They told Merela what they envisioned his role being, a bottom-six forward who would add speed and strong forechecking to the bottom two lines and play the penalty kill.

“Some of the teams I talked to, they just noticed that I’ve been doing good,” Merela said. “They didn’t actually know what they’re getting or what they’re looking for. They just get a couple of guys from Europe and hope that one of them breaks into the league. It’s more hope versus knowing what the guy can do.

“(The Lightning) know what they’re doing and what type of guys they’re looking for. They don’t just go for maybe the best points guys in Europe. They want to know what type of guy you are and what type of player and what type of skill-set do you have, and that they can adapt here. They knew what they wanted, and they had a really good, really good explanation of those things.”

The path for Lilleberg was slightly different. He’s only the ninth player from Norway to play in the NHL, and the first to make his debut since 2016. At 22, he is three years younger then Merela, so his resume isn’t as deep, but he played well for two seasons in Sweden’s top pro league and had strong international showings representing Norway.

Merela surprisingly made the Lightning roster out of training camp, but after going scoreless in his first 14 games, he was reassigned to Syracuse, where he initially struggled to adapt to the AHL game. Merela has to adjust to playing bigger minutes, and he said that the game is more physical in the AHL, the pace is different because prospects are desperate to make plays, and playing most games on the weekends made the routine different.

Lilleberg stood out in Syracuse with his physicality, and after 31 games, posting one goal and 12 points and a plus-4, he was recalled on Jan. 5. He’s been a regular in the Lightning lineup pretty much ever since. A week after Lilleberg was called up, the Lightning brought up Max Crozier, Lilleberg’s pairing partner in Syracuse, and the two have settled into a rare all-rookie third defensemen pairing.

“We didn’t necessarily expect (Lilleberg) to be here as long as he has been, but he’s been doing well and there’s been no reason to send him back yet,” BriseBois said. “So, he gets to stay in the lineup and help us win games. ...

“In the last few years, we haven’t had a lot of injuries. We haven’t had a lot of opportunities to recall guys. And maybe some of our players were more ready than we thought, but they just weren’t given the opportunity.”

After a slow start, Merela recorded seven points in his first five January games, including four goals, and was recalled from Syracuse a week ago. In his first game back last Thursday, Merela scored his first NHL goal. He’s also been a regular, essentially taking Alex Barre-Boulet’s spot because he fills the grit of a bottom-six role better.

Both still have had growing pains — learning on the fly at the NHL level —— but are now important players for the Lightning.

“The whole staff and their management and staff, they try to help you and they push you to be better all the time,” Merela said. ”I work with (assistant coach Jeff Halpern) every day after practice here on things that are going to make me a better player. I think a lot of those things that we worked on here and didn’t pay off here yet, but I think they paid off in the AHL. And now I hope they’re going to keep developing and pay off here.”

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