Saros heads small group of NHL-drafted Finnish goaltenders

By Tony Piscotta

Juuse Saros - Finland

Photo: HPK Hameenlinna goaltender and Nashville Predators prospect Juuse Saros turned in a stellar performance at the 2014 World Junior Championship, helping to lead Finland to their first gold medal at the U20 WJC since 1998 (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

No country has had as much success developing goaltenders in recent years as Finland.

But with 14 Finland-trained goalies playing in North America and another nine playing in Europe in either the KHL or in Sweden's SHL, the number of drafted prospects playing in Finland's Liiga has dwindled to just five.

Of those five, HPK's 18-year-old Juuse Saros has jumped to the head of the pack as a clear NHL prospect while the other four are very much still projects and have yet to assume a full-time role with a Liiga club.

On the plus side, HIFK's 19-year-old goalie Ville Husso, bypassed in the 2013 NHL Draft, has assumed the starting role for the Helsinki-based club and is likely to go in the 2014 NHL Draft.

Once again assisted by Finland-based goaltending instructor Mikko "Elmo" Eloranta, Hockey's Future takes a look at the pool of goalie prospects.

"As you can see, there is not so much to tell," Eloranta said. "Goalies like Saros, Husso and Korpisalo, the.future is looking good but (they will) need like 2-4 years . The rest of the guys are good backup goalies and that is it."

1. Juuse Saros, 18, HPK Hameenlinna
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted 4th Round, 99th overall, 2013

Saros has had a breakout season as an 18-year-old rookie and backstopped Finland to a gold medal at the 2014 World Junior Championship. Considered undersized (5'10" 180 lbs.) for a prototypical NHL goaltender, Saros is looking like a steal after being drafted in the fourth round by the Predators at the 2013 NHL Draft.

As technically sound as any of the goalies to come out of Finland in recent years, Saros relies on outstanding positioning, impeccable reaction skills, and competitiveness to make things difficult on opposing shooters. HPK has slipped in the Liiga standings and currently trails HIFK Helsinki for the final playoff spot.

With HPK struggling over the second half of the season he has an 15-16-8 record but is among the league leaders in goals-against (1.78) and save percentage (.927).

In six games at the World Junior Championship, Saros was 5-0 with a 1.57 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. He stopped 23 of 24 shots in the semifinal win over Canada and stopped 35 shots in Finland's 3-2 overtime win over Sweden in the gold medal game.

"He is playing well in HPK but the team is going in a bad way," said Eloranta. "It's hard to say how things will be in North America. The World Junior Championship is just one step."

2. Joonas Korpisalo, 19, Jokerit/Ilves Tampere (Liiga) — LeKi/Kiekko-Vantaa (Mestis)
NHL Rights: Columbus Blue Jackets
Drafted 3rd Round, 62nd overall, 2012
 
The starting goalie for Finland at the 2013 World Junior Championship, Korpisalo has played for five different teams this season (including the Jokerit junior squad) and missed much of the first half of the season due to injury.

While the season has been a struggle, Korpisalo has played well for Ilves as a backup to starter Ville Kolpanen. In a recent start against his former team, he recorded 56 saves as Ilves defeated Jokerit 4-2 despite being outshot, 58-16.

Eloranta feels the jury is still out on Korpisalo's long-term prospects but the skill and mental makeup are definitely there.

3. Frans Tuohimaa, 22, HPK Hameenlinna/Vaasa Sport (Mestis)
NHL Rights: Edmonton Oilers
Drafted 7th round, 182nd overall, 2011 (Signed to two-year contract, April 2013)

The second of two Finnish goalies selected by the Oilers at the 2011 draft (Samu Perhonen was  taken in the third round but was never signed by Edmonton), Tuohimaa was loaned to HPK this year after spending two seasons as a backup with Jokerit.

Expected to compete with Saros and Jokerit product Timo Niemi for the starting job with HPK, the 22-year-old found himself in a backup situation for much of the season and will play the remainder of the season on loan to Vaasa Sport in Mestis.

In 19 games for HPK he was 4-10-3 with one shutout and had a 3.12 goals-against average and .889 save percentage. After joining Vaasa in mid-February, he has appeared in three games, winning in his first appearance, and has a 2.60 goals-against and .925 save percentage.

He and one-time Pelicans goalie Joonas Kuusela give Sport a strong tandem heading into post-season play.

"He's a good goalie but has problems with game balance," said Eloranta. "He has one great game, one not so great."

With Vaasa Sport moving up to Liiga next season to replace Jokerit, he should have an opportunity to play in the top division if he remains in Finland.

4. Henri Kiviaho, 19, KalPa Kuopio/KalPa U20
NHL Rights: Dallas Stars
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2012

The season has not gone as well as expected in Kuopio as both the Liiga team and it's A Juniors squad  have struggled, so Kiviaho's numbers are somewhat inflated.

With the club in last place in Liiga, KalPa has loaned several of its top players to other clubs, including veteran goalie Pekka Tuokola who is now playing in Sweden. With Tuokola gone, Kiviaho has been splitting the goaltending duties with Antti Ore. Kiviaho is 1-10-0 in 11 games with a 2.94 goals-against and .883 save percentage.

He had a 3.44 goals-against and .890 save percentage in 25 games for KalPa's A junior squad, which is 13th in the 16-team SM junior league.

"He's a big goalie. It's a bad team so his goalie stats are bad also," Eloranta said.

5. Janne Juvonen, 19, Pelicans (Liiga)/ Lahti Peliitat and KooKoo Kouvola (Mestis)
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted 7th round, 203rd overall, 2013

Juvonen, after making his SM-Liiga debut in the 2012 playoffs and then appearing in a handful of games with Pelicans last year, has been in a bit of a holding pattern in terms of his development.

Drafted by the Predators last spring, Juvonen did not see any action as Finland's third goalie for the gold medal-winning U20 team at the 2014 World Junior Championship and has spent most of the season in Mestis.

In four Liiga games with Pelicans as a backup to veteran Jere Myllyniemi he was 2-1-0 with a 3.29 goals-against average and .870 save percentage. He played nine games for Peliitat with a 4.13 goals-against and .863 save percentage. In in four games for KooKoo he had a 2.00 goals-against and .932 save percentage.

"While Husso and Saros are playing men's games, he is playing junior games and Mestis,"  Eloranta said. "He has potential but he's a big question mark."

Other notable goalies playing in Finland

Lars Volden, 21, Espoo Blues
NHL Rights: Unrestricted Free Agent
Drafted 6th round, 181st overall, 2011

Not tendered a contract by the Boston Bruins after being selected at the 2011 NHL Draft, the Oslo, Norway native is back in Espoo as a backup to Jani Nieminen. He was also with Norway during the Sochi Olympics.

In 16 games for the Espoo Blues he is 7-7-1 with 1 shutout and has a 2.59 goals-against and .908 save percentage. He appeared in one game as a back up to Lars Haugen at the Olympic games.

"He is playing under 20 games every season in Espoo," Eloranta said. "Is he good? I don t know, I want to see him play a full season. Maybe he is backup goalie for life."

Samu Perhonen, 20, HIFK A Juniors
NHL Rights: Unrestricted Free Agent
Drafted 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2011

Perhonen was drafted by Edmonton in the same 2011 NHL Draft as Volden, but like the Espoo goalie was never signed to an NHL contract. Despite prototypical size for an NHL goalie and some early success in junior hockey, Perhonen has not been able to match the potential he showed playing for Finland at the 2011 U18 World Junior Championship.

Perhonen began the year in the USHL skating for the Indiana Ice, but appeared in only eight games before returning to Finland and playing for HIFK's A junior team as a 20-year-old.

"He got back from the US and what happened?" said Eloranta. "It's the same story. He's OK but he's a backup goalie."

Mikko Koskinen, 25, Novosibirsk Sibir (KHL)
NHL Rights: New York Islanders
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2009

Part of the crowded three-headed goalie prospect group in Long Island along with Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, Koskinen played four NHL games with the Islanders in 2010-11 and appeared in three AHL games games in 2011-12 before being loaned to KalPa in November of 2011.

Tendered a contract but never signed by the Islanders, he is currently a restricted free agent. While at 25 he is no longer considered a prospect by Hockeys Future's criteria, he is worth keeping an eye on.

After excelling for KalPa in his second season with the club in 2012-13 (finishing 21-15-13 with a 2.05 goals-against and .919 save percentage), he signed a contract to play for Novosibirsk in the KHL and has been one of that league's top goalies this year.

With Nilsson seemingly having plateaued with the Islanders in his third pro season, Koskinen may get one more look from New York. If that doesn't happen, the former second round pick could be an option for teams in need of goaltending help.

Jussi Rynnas, 26, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Free agent

Rynnas returned to Finland after three seasons in the Maple Leafs organization and has been the league's top goalie with first place Karpat Oulu. Like  Koskinen, Rynnas is too old to be considered a "prospect" for HF purposes. However, his play this season may have generated some interest — if not in the NHL, then certainly with one of the KHL franchises.

Jussi Markanen, 38, SaiPa Lappeenranta
NHL Rights: Free agent
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2001

While he can certainly no longer be considered a "prospect" at his age, the play of former Rangers and Oilers goalie Jussi Markanen is perhaps the biggest surprise of the season in Finland.

Returning to Finland for the first time since 2007-08 to play for SaiPa near his hometown of Imatra, the veteran is 18-12-9 with two shutouts in 42 games with a 2.14 goals-against and SaiPa, which perennially struggles, is in fifth place and cruising to a playoff spot.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12