With the emergence of Antti Niemi as a solid partner to Cristobal Huet in Chicago, Antero Niittymaki’s re-emergence as a starter in Tampa Bay, and the outstanding rookie season Tuukka Rask has had in Boston, the good reputation enjoyed by Finnish goalies is alive and well.
Whether the five drafted goalies currently playing in Finland can live up to that reputation remains to be seen. All five mid-to-low round draft picks have shown glimpses of potential. But all five still have significant obstacles to overcome if they are going to follow the legacy set by their fellow countrymen.
1. Atte Engren, 22, TPS, Nashville
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2007
A bit of a long shot when selected by the Predators – the same organization that has formed Pekka Rinne into a solid NHL starter – Engren has taken a large step forward this season with TPS, emerging as the starter in Turku after Alexander Salak left for the Florida Panthers. With veteran import David Leggio injured much of the season, Engren has appeared in 30 games and has posted impressive numbers. TPS is one of the better surprises of this season – currently in sixth place.
While there are still some technical areas that need to be addressed by Engren, according to Finnish goaltending instructor Mikko Eloranta, it is obvious that Engren’s work with Finnish goaltending guru Urpo Ylonen is paying off. While it has taken some time, it appears that the natural abilities and athleticism that first impressed the Predators have begun to be supplemented by better technique and situational awareness.
With other young goalies still in the pipeline for the Predators, Engren is still a few seasons away and recently signed a contract extension for next season with TPS.
2. Niko Hovinen, 21, Pelicans/HeKi, Minnesota
5th round, 132nd overall, 2006
Hovinen and Riku Helenius, a 2006 first-round pick of Tampa Bay, were the two dominant goalies at the junior level when they played there. But like Helenius, the Jokerit-trained Hovinen has been frustratingly enigmatic. With ideal size, and highly-skilled, the Helsinki-born Hovinen has all the traits necessary to be a top goalie and, when he’s on his game is very impressive, but when he is not playing well it’s quite a different story, according to Eloranta.
Stuck with the Jokerit junior team for all but a handful of games in his first three pro seasons, Hovinen joined the Pelicans in Lahti last season and it was hoped that he might replace the departed Niemi as that team’s starter. However, after an uneven first couple of months splitting time with Tommi Nikkila, the Finnish veteran got hot and took over the goaltending duties on a full-time basis. Though Nikkila and Lahti have not been as impressive this season, he has still started the bulk of the Pelicans games – with Hovinen splitting most of his time between the Pelicans juniors and HeKi in Mestis.
In 14 SM-Liiga games this season, Hovinen’s been solid with a save percentage over 91 percent. But with much more expected; the clock is definitely ticking.
3. Harri Sateri, 20, Tappara, San Jose
4th round, 106th overall, 2006
Sateri’s play during the second half last year was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for Tappara. He took over the starting chores from veteran Mika Lehto and played well both in the regular season and in the relegation playoffs. This season, Tappara has chosen to focus on the development of its younger players rather than relying on higher-priced veterans. While ninth-place doesn’t sound like much in a 14-team league, the atmosphere in Tampere is much better and things are looking up – both for the club and for the young netminder.
One of the busiest goalies in the league this season, Sateri has played in 40 games for the Tappara, posting a 2.78 GAA and stopping over 91 percent of the shots.
Style-wise he is a classic butterfly goalie and is very good at making the first save. According to Eloranta, Sateri still has to work on clearing his rebounds and securing pucks in his glove. Such flaws could prove costly against the better shooters at the NHL level, but so far he is making progress.
The San Jose Sharks have had success drafting Finnish goalies in the past – most notably Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala. Sateri would continue that streak.
4. Joni Ortio, 18, TPS (A Juniors), Calgary
6th round, 171st overall, 2009
The second of three Finnish goalies picked in the 2009 draft, Ortio is another prospect working under the tutelage of Ylonen – playing for both the TPS A juniors and Turku’s Mestis club, TuTo – as well as making his SM-Liiga debut in three games this season.
Ortio, a sixth-round selection of the Calgary Flames, made a name for himself at the 2009 U-18 World Championships – leading the Finns to an improbable run including a come-from-behind, shootout win over Canada in the bronze medal game.
In addition to his experience in Finland, Ortio has gotten quite a bit of exposure in North America – both last year in Fargo and this past winter as the starter for Team Finland at the U-20 World Championships in Saskatchewan. There is a good chance that he will return to Western Canada next season – playing for Swift Current, who own his CHL rights.
5. Petteri Simila, 18, KalPa (A Juniors), Montreal
7th round, 211st overall, 2009
Simila played just 17 games with Karpat’s A junior last season and his selection in the 2009 draft was a bit of a surprise on both sides of the Atlantic. The Montreal Canadiens traded a 2010 draft pick to be able to select Simila with the final pick of the draft – with the belief that, like former Espoo Blues goalie Mikko Koskinen, Simila would be a high pick in the next draft if they didn’t select him.
While it’s way too early to say how things will work out, thus far the only thing the two goalies have in common is their size, as Simila (6’5") fills much of the net and tries to use that size to his advantage. Unlike Koskinen, however, who went from being a backup in juniors to leading the Espoo SM-Liiga team the following year, Simila is still a work in progress.
Drafted and signed by the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL, the plan was that Simila would thrive at a higher level of play. Instead, in 11 games with the Ice Dogs he posted a GAA of 4.14 and saw his role diminished as 2010 draft-eligible Mark Visentin took over the starting job. After a mid-season trade to Barrie, he instead returned to Finland, signing a two-year contract with KalPa.
Now starting for KalPa’s A junior team, and with the chance to play regularly, the early results have been promising. In his first six games with Kuopio, he has allowed just 1.30 goals per game and is stopping nearly 95 percent of the shots faced. The next challenge will be to make the transition to the SM-Liiga next season – with a possible return to North America further in the future.
Others to watch
While the five drafted SM-Liiga goalies all have some uncertainty as to whether they can make it to the NHL level, two other Finnish-trained draftees – both former Tampa Bay draft picks – are playing in other European leagues with varying degrees of success.
Karri Ramo, 23, played over 20 games for the Lightning the last two years and is considered "graduated" by Hockey’s Future criteria. He was not re-signed this summer after his contract ended and signed with Avangard Omsk in the KHL. Ramo has been outstanding this season, was selected for the KHL All-Star Game. Eloranta, who now spends much of his time working with young goalies in Russia, feels that Ramo is playing well enough to be a candidate for one of the spots on Team Finland for the World Championships in May and has the ability to return to the NHL as a starter.
The aforementioned Helenius, now 21, has struggled in his first two professional seasons shuffling around the ECHL and with Norfolk in the AHL. After appearing in just 12 games with the Admirals this year, he returned to Europe, where he is now playing for Sodertalje in Sweden. Always one of the most talented goalies in his age group and a gifted athlete, Helenius’ technique and mental play let him down at times and the lack of stability appeared to damage his confidence. If he can re-establish his game he may be once again be an NHL prospect – but it is unlikely he will get that opportunity with Tampa Bay.
Two non-drafted goalies in the SM-Liiga who may follow the route taken by Finns such as Niemi and Niklas Backstrom – who were never selected in the entry draft but later signed free-agent contracts – are Assat’s Jussi Rynnas and Iiro Tarkki of Espoo Blues.
Rynnas, playing for the perennially outmanned club in Pori, is this year’s Koskinen, coming out of nowhere after being a back-up at lower levels to be one of the top goalies in the SM-Liiga. With three shutouts and a GAA of 2.21 in 28 games, his play this season has not gone unnoticed. At 6’4, he is a big man and sometimes has issues with mobility. But the potential is definitely there.
Tarkki, the younger brother of Karpat’s Tuomas Tarkki, had hoped to compete for an SM-Liiga championship by moving to Espoo this season after two years as a workhorse with SaiPa. While the season has not gone as well as expected for the Espoo Blues, Tarkki, 24, has played well and according to a report in Finnish magazine Urheilu Lehti is being pursued by several teams – most notably the Columbus Blue Jackets.