Finnish goaltending pipeline still producing

By Tony Piscotta

With the continued success of Finnish goalies – particularly Miikka Kiprusoff in Calgary and former free agent Niklas Backstrom with the Wild, as well as the emergence of Pekka Rinne in Nashville – it’s easy to forget that as late as Spring 2000 a Finnish goalie had yet to make a significant impact in the NHL (see HF article). Writer Bill Metzler correctly predicted that that situation would change, and we saw the success of players like Kiprusoff, fellow San Jose draft pick and now Toronto starter Vesa Toskala, and perhaps the most talented of that first wave of Finnish goalies, Atlanta’s Pasi Nurminen. These players kicked open the door for Finnish goalies.

Many of the successes have been late-round picks or free-agent signees. Only one of the five Finland-trained goalies picked in the first round – Atlanta’s Kari Lehtonen – has enjoyed success at the NHL level thus far. Nonetheless, the top young goalie among the Finnish-born prospects, and most likely to make an impact, is a former first rounder, the Boston Bruin’s Tuukka Rask (originally drafted by the Maple Leafs). Playing in the AHL with Providence for the third season, Rask again had an outstanding season and in his lone NHL appearance recorded a 1-0 shutout of the New York Rangers.  It appears the only thing keeping him out of Boston right now is one-time SM-Liiga star Tim Thomas. Thomas, who just turned 35, allowed just over two goals per game this season in leading the Bruins the best record in the Eastern Conference and was rewarded with a new, four-year contract. Whether Rask replaces veteran Manny Fernandez as the Bruins backup next season or is moved to another organization is an open question.
 
Four other Finnish goalies saw time in the American Hockey League this season but the uncertain nature of their particular situations make it difficult to assess their NHL potential.  In terms of performance, Rockford’s Antti Niemi may have enjoyed the most success. Signed by the Chicago Blackhawks as a free agent, the 25-year old is technically too old to be considered a prospect by Hockey’s Future, but in his first season in North America played well in a tandem with Corey Crawford in Rockford – leading the Ice Hogs to a playoff berth. Niemi’s play merited a late season call-up and he played well in three games with the Hawks. Like Rask, Niemi’s opportunity may lie elsewhere as Chicago’s goaltending tandem of Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet was one of the league’s best in leading the resurgent Hawks back to the playoffs.

New York Rangers prospect Miika Wiikman, like Niemi, was signed to a free-agent contract after making a name for himself in the SM-Liiga. Wiikman also split time with his AHL team this season, sharing the goaltending chores in Hartford with former Colorado College goalie Matt Zaba. Not as flashy or seemingly unorthodox as other Finnish goalie prospects like Rask or Riku Helenius (TB), Wiikman is strong at playing his angles and challenging shooters. While Rangers’ starter Henrik Lundqvist is established as one of the top goalies in the NHL, the 24-year-old Wiikman may challenge backup Steve Valiquette for that spot in training camp next September.

Both Helenius and Karri Ramo spent parts of this past season with the Norfolk Admirals and neither seemed to have benefited much playing in the goalie unfriendly Tampa Bay organization. Their NHL futures look cloudy at the moment.

Helenius, 21, a first-round pick of the Lightning in 2006 after he showed great promise playing for Team Finland in the World Junior tournament, played well for Seattle in the Western Hockey League last season. Splitting time between the ECHL and Norfolk in 2008-09, he has struggled at times. While the quick feet, and physical abilities are still obvious, it seemed that concentration and the ability to control rebounds were a concern in his 6-5 playoff loss with the Elmira Jackals in the ECHL playoffs. He was playing with his fourth different club and seemed a bit out of his element.

Due to a season-ending injury to Tampa Bay starter Mike Smith, Ramo, who signed a three-year contract with the Lightning in May of 2006, saw extensive action in the NHL over the last two months of the season. That turned out to be a mixed blessing as the under-manned Lightning were well out of the playoffs by that point and each night was a challenge. With Smith due to return next year and 19-year-old Dustin Tokarski recently signing a three-year contract, it is uncertain whether Ramo will be re-signed. At 22, he could very well follow in the footsteps of former first-round pick Hannu Toivonen. After failing to establish himself in his initial NHL opportunities with weak teams in Boston and St. Louis, Toivonen returned to Finland and played well this past season to establish himself as a top caliber goalie in the SM-Liiga.

While the prospects in Tampa Bay have had mixed results at best, it appears that the Sharks, who drafted both Kiprusoff and Toskala in the 1995 NHL draft, may have landed another raw talent when they selected Tampere’s Harri Sateri in the fourth round last year. While Tappara finished a disappointing 13th in the 14-team league, Sateri was one of their few bright spots. Playing alongside veteran Mika Lehto, the 19-year-old showed a lot of promise in his rookie year with a 2.30 GAA and .920 save percentage.  Sateri, the only Finnish goalie taken in the 2008 draft, appears to have loads of potential.
 
Like the Sharks, and unlike Tampa Bay, the Nashville Predators have successfully developed their players with a strong AHL franchise. Rinne, a 2004 draft pick, emerged as a legitimate NHL starter this season after spending parts of three seasons with Milwaukee.  The Predators had hoped for similar progress from 2007 seventh rounder Atte Engren but the 21-year-old from Rauma is still a bit of an unknown at this point. It was expected that he would challenge Czech import Alexander Salak for playing time in TPS when Engren left Lukko and signed a two-year contract last spring. Salak, however, proved to be one of the top goalies in the SM-Liiga and a bit of a workhorse, and Engren appeared in just six games with TPS, playing the bulk of the season with Kiekko Vantaa in Mestis and with TPS’ junior team. Salak, at 22, would have to be considered a legitimate free agent prospect after two strong seasons in the SM-Liiga.

Like Engren, Minnesota Wild draftee Niko Hovinen also entered the season with high hopes after moving from his junior club to another SM-Liiga organization. After getting off to a decent start, however, he too saw his playing time eclipsed by an SM-Liiga veteran – in this case Lahti Pelicans’ Tommi Nikkila. Splitting time between Pelicans, their junior team, and the Mestis team in Heinola, Hovinen had a respectable season and showed more consistency to go with his natural ability than he had in Jokerit the previous two seasons. However, with the Wild fairly deep in the nets and changes expected now that Coach Jacques Lemaire has resigned, it is uncertain whether the 21-year-old did enough this season to merit a spot in Minnesota.

If last year’s trend, in which the NHL shied away from drafting teenagers from Finland but instead signed players in their early 20’s to free-agent contracts continues, there are a handful of goalies that merit consideration – including three former NHL draft picks that had outstanding seasons this past year.

Much like Backstrom and Thomas established themselves by leading their respective teams to the SM-Liiga championship series, JyP’s Pekka Tuokkala may have caught the eye of the NHL brass with his play this spring.  After sharing time with Finnish veteran Sinuhe Wallinheimo during the regular season, the 25-year-old from Alavus was nearly unbeatable in the playoffs – allowing just 11 goals in 10 games. With JyP winning both the regular season and playoff titles, there could be a lot of interest in Tuokkala should he look to North America.

On the other side for the Finals, former Northern Michigan star and one-time Chicago Wolves Tuomas Tarkki had perhaps his best season yet in leading a surprising Karpat team, which finished fifth in the regular season, to the championship series. But at the age of 29, he is not considered an NHL prospect. However, his younger brother, Iiro, 23, may be. Playing for an overmatched SaiPa club, the younger Tarkki frequently kept his team in the game and had a respectable 2.81 GAA and at 6’2 has decent size for a North American goalie.

Twenty-one-year-old Jani Nieminen, a bit of an unknown at the beginning of the season, played his way into a true tandem with veteran Juha Pitkamaki in his second season with the HIFK men’s team. 

Two other goalies who were drafted in the 2003 NHL draft as youngsters but never signed to contracts – Assat’s Eero Kilpelainen (DAL) and Teemu Lassila (NAS) – established themselves as consistent starters in the SM-Liiga this year and may merit another look. Toivonen, the one-time first round pick, as mentioned above, was a workhorse for Ilves and appeared to regain some of the early form he showed both in Providence and in his first year with the Bruins. The issue now is whether any of these three are given an opportunity to return to North America, or desire to do so.     

Finally, there’s a draft eligible goalie who played in the SM-Liiga this past season. As a rookie with Espoo Blues 20-year-old Mikko Koskinen split time with one-time University of Wisconsin goalie Bernd Bruckler and finished with a GAA under 2.00. In their final ratings, NHL Central Scouting rated Koskinen as the No. 2 player among European goalies.

If NHL teams go the young route, there’s 18-year-old Joni Ortio, who backstopped Finland to a bronze medal at the U18 World Championships in Fargo last week. Ortio is ranked seventh among Europeans by Central Scouting. His tournament backup, Erno Suomalainen, is ranked ninth.