Saros, Husso the top NHL-drafted goaltenders competing in Finland

By Tony Piscotta
Juuse Saros - Team Finland

Photo: HPK Hameenlinna goaltender and Nashville Predators prospect Juuse Saros has appeared in 39 international contests for Finland over the past five seasons (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

Finland has consistently produced NHL-caliber goalies in recent years. While some were never drafted and signed after establishing themselves in the domestic Liiiga — such as Chicago’s Antti Raanta or Antti Niemi of San Jose — there have also been some high profile draft picks like Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne who are enjoying great NHL careers.

Once again in the 2014-15 season, Liiga features players who fit both categories. HPK’s Juuse Saros (NSH) and Ville Husso of HIFK (STL), selected in the 2013 and 2014 drafts respectively, shared the goaltending duties for Finland at the 2015 World Juniors and have excelled in Liiga as teenagers.

In terms of potential unrestricted free agents, Karpat’s Tomi Karhunen and Tappara’s Juha Metsola, both of whom played junior hockey in Canada, are undersized for NHL purposes but both have been workhorses for their respective teams and are among the top goalies in Liiga. Both still have some things to prove, as will be noted below, but their production has garnered a second look after they went undrafted following junior careers in Canada.

JyP’s Sami Rajaniemi and Eetu Laurikainen of Espoo, who is back in Finland after two seasons with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos, have played well complementing Finnish league veterans and are other potential free agent signees in the future.

Samu Perhonen, selected by the Edmonton Oilers in 2011 but never signed, has played well as a backup to veterans Eero Kilpelainen and Andy Chiodo with KalPa.

Currently, there are five goalies playing in Finland whose rights are held by NHL teams. All but one, Minnesota Wild prospect Kaapo Kahkonen, are enjoying successful seasons in Liiga this year. Kahkonen, 18, has been one of the top goalies in Finland’s second league, Mestis, playing for TuTo and is the frontrunner to start for Finland at the 2016 U20 World Junior Championship.

In terms of those five, Saros maintains his spot as the top prospect from last year but Husso and Ilves’ Joonas Korpisalo, who signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets in March of 2014, have both closed the gap. Pelicans’ Janne Juvonen, selected in the seventh round by the Predators in the same 2013 draft as Saros, has played well in his first season as a starter in Lahti and could be more than just a late round flier.

In addition to consulting with Finland-based goaltending instructor Mikko “Elmo” Eloranta, information was also provided by Ilves’ goalie coach Santeri Matikainen, who played for Eloranta in the HeKi junior program.

Looking at the top group, Eloranta sees Saros and Husso as clearly ahead of the rest of the group at this point — alluding to the challenge that Raanta has had in securing a full-time role.

“They are purely prospects,” he said. ” If Raanta isn’t breaking up there is no chance for Juvonen, Korpisalo (and the rest of the group).”

1. Juuse Saros, 19, HPK Hameenlinna
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted: 4th Round, 99th overall, 2013

Coming off a dream season in which he was named the top rookie in Liiga and won a gold medal at the 2014 World Juniors in Stockholm, Saros continues to impress in domestic play. The 2015 WJC was a disappointment for both Saros and Finland — he was 0-2 in two starts and Finland, which struggled to score goals all tournament, was eliminated by Sweden in the quarterfinals with Husso getting the start — but he has been HPK’s best player on a nightly basis.

Saros’ lack of size and the disadvantage it presents against the highly-skilled shooters at the NHL level will be a concern until he proves his skeptics wrong. What cannot be questioned is his high level of production and the poise he shows for such a young goaltender.

HPK Hameenlinna trails Assat Pori and Ilves for the final two playoff spots but it’s hard to imagine how much worse things might be if not for the play of Saros. Playing in 46 of 59 games so far, he is 13-17-16 with six shutouts and has a 2.14 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

2. Ville Husso, 20, HIFK Helsinki
NHL Rights: St. Louis Blues
Drafted: 4th Round, 94th overall, 2014

Not selected in his first year of draft eligibility in 2013, Husso committed himself to training and working harder and enjoyed an outstanding rookie season in 2013-14. He was subsequently selected by St. Louis this past June and has continued to play at a high level.

After backing up Saros and seeing action in two games in the 2014 World Juniors, Husso split time with the HPK netminder in this year’s tournament and was selected by veteran coach Hannu Jortikka to get the start in the quarterfinals against Sweden. The tournament did not go as hoped but Husso played well for the most part.

In Liiga play, he has appeared in 41 games for HIFK and is 16-11-10 with three shutouts, posting a 2.36 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. HIFK, after a tumultuous season in 2013-14, is currently in eighth place and within range of sixth-place KalPa to avoid a preliminary round series.

3. Joonas Korpisalo, 20, Ilves Tampere
NHL Rights: Columbus Blue Jackets (Signed to three-year contract in March 2014)
Drafted: 3rd Round, 62nd overall, 2012

The starting goalie for Finland at the 2013 World Junior Championship, Korpisalo played well enough in the second half of the 2013-14 season to earn an entry-level contract from the Blue Jackets. Loaned to Ilves from Jokerit late last season, he has been with the club on a full-time basis this season as Jokerit is now competing in the KHL. In his first full Liiga season, Korpisalo has combined with veteran Juha Jarvenpaa to give Ilves a chance to win on most nights.

The strength of Korpisalo’s game is his high level of competitiveness and his ability to quickly put a goal behind him. That determination, coupled with his athleticism and ideal size suggests an elite upside.

Ilves is on the verge of capturing just its second playoff berth in the past five seasons and first since 2011-12. In 37 games as a rookie, Korpisalo is 14-13-6 with two shutouts and has a 2.32 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.

4. Janne Juvonen, 20, Pelicans Lahti
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted: 7th round, 203rd overall, 2013

Juvonen first garnered attention with Pelicans during the 2011-12 Liiga playoffs, appearing in two playoff games as a 17-year-old during the team’s run to the bronze medal game when starter Niko Hovinen was injured.

Since that time he has shuffled between junior hockey, Mestis, and serving as a backup with Pelicans. Finally getting his chance as a full-time starter in Lahti this season — much like current Calgary Flames goalie Karri Ramo earlier in his career — Juvonen has been outstanding on a Pelicans team that isn’t very good and has also lost several players to injury.

Juvonen has played in a career-high 44 games this season before suffering an injury of his own at the end of February in a game against JyP. He is 11-22-11 with three shutouts and has a 2.49 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. The Lahti club is currently 12th in the 14-team league.

5. Kaapo Kahknonen,18, TuTo Turku (Mestis)
NHL Rights: Minnesota Wild
Drafted: 4th round, 109th overall, 2014

Loaned to TuTo by the Espoo Blues at the start of the 2014-15 season, Kahkonen has been one of the busiest goalies in Finland’s second league in his first pro season. He was with Husso and Saros in Canada during the World Juniors but did not see any action as the team’s third goalie.

Opinions vary widely on Kahkonen, who has been Finland’s top goalie in the 1996-age group since his U16 season in 2011-12. That age group has struggled defensively at times in international play and as a result, Kahkonen’s numbers are a bit inflated. When he is on he is very consistent and plays a controlled style that relies on sound technique and anticipatory positioning.

Kahkonen leads Mestis goalies in games played in his first pro season, having played in 47 of 56 games. He is third in the league with a .925 save percentage and has posted a 2.11 goals-against average.

Other notable goalies playing in Finland

While all of these goalies face steep odds in reaching the NHL according to Eloranta, the potential is there.

“It demands lot of experience to play in (the) NHL. This group doesn’t have it, yet,” Eloranta said. “But in a good club with a good goalie coach…wonders can happen.”

Tomi Karhunen, 25, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Unrestricted Free Agent
Never Drafted

Karhunen, like Metsola, spent time playing junior hockey in Canada, playing 39 games for the OHL’s Sarnia Sting in 2007-08. A backup for Karpat the past two seasons — including last year’s Kanada Cup campaign when current Dallas Stars‘ prospect Jussi Rynnas was the starter — he has played a career-high 38 games. Karhunen and one-time Ducks’ prospect Iiro Tarkki have combined to give the league’s top team a solid tandem in net.

Karhunen’s lack of height may discourage teams from signing him as a free agent and he figures to be highly-sought after by any KHL teams looking to upgrade in the net — but his production this season has gotten attention. He is 20-10-7 with five shutouts while posting a 1.90 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

“Karhunen hasn’t in my mind yet panned out. It’s easy to play behind the best defense and team of the league,” said Matiakinen, who mentioned that Karhunen, whose contract with Karpat expires this spring, could head to Tappara next season if Metsola signs elsewhere.

Eetu Laurikainen, 22, Espoo Blues
NHL Rights: Free agent
Never Drafted

Laurikainen first emerged as a prospect in 2011-12 when he, Rajaniemi, and the then-recently-drafted Perhonen were all with the JyP U20 team. Playing in his hometown, he appeared in six Mestis games with JyP-Akatemia as a 19-year-old and played in 26 games for the A junior squad.

After two busy seasons in the WHL with Swift Current in which he appeared in 125 games (including playoffs), Laurikainen has steadily emerged as the starter for Espoo as a rookie. In 35 games, he is 16-9-9 with three shutouts and has a 2.10 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

Juha Metsola, 26, Tappara Tampere
NHL Rights: Unrestricted Free Agent
Never Drafted

Metsola spent two seasons with Lethbridge in the Western Hockey League between 2008 and 2010 so NHL scouts are familiar with him. Now in his fifth Liiga season — and fourth with Tappara — Metsola’s emergence as one of the league’s top goalies has coincided with Tappara’s reversal of fortune the past two years.

After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons the Tampere club was second in the regular season last year and lost to first-place Karpat in the finals. Tappara trails Karpat and is part of a six-team battle for the second spot again this season.

Metsola is 26-15-13 with eight shutouts and has a 1.93 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 55 games this season, topping 50 games played for the second consecutive season.

“His style is so aggressive that it will never work in a small ice,” said Matikainen. “He needs the defense to back him up in every save.”

Samu Perhonen, 21, KalPa Kuopio
NHL Rights: Unrestricted Free Agent
Drafted 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2011 by Edmonton

Perhonen seemed to bottom out last season after not being signed by the Oilers — spending a trying eight-game stint with the USHL‘s Indiana Ice before re-joining the HIFK U20 team and allowing over four goals per game in two playoff appearances. The 2014-15 season has been a big bounce back as the change of scenery after leaving Helsinki has seemed to restore his confidence.

Both with KalPa and playing for Hokki in Mestis, Perhonen has used his size to advantage and is displaying some of the skills that led to him being the third goalie taken in the 2011 NHL Draft. KalPa has been one of the league’ big turnaround stories after finishing last in 2013-14 thanks to an infusion of young talent, and Perhonen has fit in well with that group.

As a backup to now-injured veteran Eero Kilpelainen and recently-signed Andy Chiodo, Perhonen has played well when called upon to start. Including a five-game stretch of games in January where he had three of his four shutouts, Perhonen is 8-7-2 in 17 appearances and has a 2.06 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. In nine Mestis games, he had a 2.33 goals-against and .934 save percentage.

Sami Rajaniemi, 22, JyP Jyvaskyla
NHL Rights: Free agent
Never Drafted

Rajaniemi grew up in northwest Finland and has been with the JyP club since 2010-11 after two seasons of midget hockey in Lahti. He has played the last three seasons in Mestis before emerging as a backup to veteran Tuomas Tarkki this year.

Rajaniemi has played in 16 Liiga games and is 5-4-4 with one shutout, posting a 2.09 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. In seven games with JyP-Akatemia, he had a 2.94 goals-against and .897 save percentage.

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