St. Louis prospect Husso the best of Finland’s NHL prospects in goal

By Tony Piscotta
Ville Husso - IFK Helsinki - Champions Hockey League

Photo: IFK Helsinki goaltender and St. Louis Blues prospect Ville Husso posted 25 wins for Liiga’s top team in the 2015-16 campaign (courtesy of HC Davos/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

 

Finland has garnered a well-deserved reputation for developing goaltenders in recent years. The top five goalies currently playing in Finland are not likely to match the career achievements of players like Pekka Rinne or Tuukka Rask but instead are long-range projects capable of one day being competent NHL starters or backups.

Just one goalie from Finland was selected in the 2015 NHL Draft — 18-year-old Markus Ruusu, who was taken in the sixth round by the Dallas Stars. More of a long-term project than a can’t-miss prospect, the Jamsa native played in Mestis and at the junior level in 2015-16.

Two of the goalies from last year’s version of this list – Juuse Saros (Nashville) and Joonas Korpisalo (Columbus) — are in North America this season and both had encouraging first seasons, appearing in NHL games with their respective clubs.

Saros and goaltending partner Marek Mazanec have been outstanding for the Milwaukee Admirals, one of the AHL’s top teams. Saros made one start for the Predators against Buffalo when Rinne was out with an injury.

Korpisalo was expected to spend the year in the AHL with Lake Erie — and he did play 15 games for the Monsters — but injuries to starter Sergei Bobrovsky and backup Curtis McElhinney opened the door for Korpisalo in Columbus, and the Pori native was one of the few positives for a team that missed the playoffs. Korpisalo was 15-10-2 in his first 29 NHL games and his goals-against average (2.64) and save percentage (.918) were both the top marks for Columbus.

Ville Husso, second to Saros last year, takes over the top spot after another outstanding season for first-place IFK Helsinki. He had 25 wins in the regular season and has been even better as HIFK has reached the playoff semifinals.

Nineteen-year-old Kaapo Kahkonen had a baptism of fire of sorts for last-place Espoo Blues in his first Liiga season but was one of the heroes for Finland’s U20 team that captured gold at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Sami Aittokallio is back in Finland after spending three seasons in North America. He played two games with Colorado and appeared in 79 AHL games during that time. Signed to a one-year contract by the Avalanche as a restricted free agent in August of 2015, he was loaned to Karpat Oulu for the 2015-16 season.

Aittokallio played some of his best hockey during the regular season but has appeared in just one playoff game as Karpat has gone with red-hot Sami Rajaniemi, who was picked up from Pelicans in the middle of the season.

Janne Juvonen, drafted by Nashville in the same 2013 NHL Draft in which the club selected Saros, had an up-and-down year. The 21-year-old showed promise after returning from an early season injury but struggled late in the year and was replaced in the playoffs by one-time Wild and Flyers’ prospect, Niko Hovinen.

Ruusu rounds out the top five after splitting the season between JyP-Akatemia and the JyP Jyvaskyla U20 team. A late bloomer who was in the shadow of goalies like Arttu Kulmala and Veini Vehvilainen during his junior days, Ruusu has the complete package of tools to be an NHL goaltender one day.

Two other goalies that played in Finland this year — Ilves’ Henri Kiviaho and Slovakian Maximilian Pajpach of the Tappara Tampere U20 team — are currently on NHL protected lists. Kiviaho (Dallas) is back in Finland after splitting last season between the AHL and ECHL, while Pajpach was selected by Colorado in the 2014 NHL Draft but has yet to sign an entry-level deal.

As has been the case in recent years, such as when unrestricted free agents like Antti Raanta (New York Rangers) and Antti Niemi (Dallas) have been signed out of Liiga, there are two goalies playing in Finland this season who could draw interest — Karpat’s Rajaniemi and 29-year-old Ryan Zapolski.

Two young goalies — HIFK’s Kevin Lankinen and Vehvilainen of JyP Jyvaskyla — are eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft after passing through the 2015 NHL Draft without being selected. Both could draw late-round interest.

Once again, Hockey’s Future was assisted on this story by Finland-based goaltending instructor Mikko “Elmo” Eloranta and goalie coach Santeri Matikainen. Matikainen, who played for Eloranta in the HeKi junior program, worked with the goalies in the Ilves Tampere U18 program and with Peliitat in Mestis in 2015-16.

1. Ville Husso, 21, IFK Helsinki
NHL Rights: St. Louis Blues
Drafted 4th round, 94th overall, 2014

 

With Brian Elliott and Jake Allen enjoying fine seasons in St. Louis, and talented prospects in Jordan Binnington (Chicago Wolves – AHL) and Luke Opilka (Kitchener Rangers – OHL) in the pipeline, the Blues are deep in talented, young goaltenders.

Like those goalies, Husso has prototypical size (6’3″, 205 lbs.) and is athletic. In 39 games for HIFK he had five shutouts, posting a 1.91 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. He has been even stingier in the playoffs, going 4-1 in his first five games with one shutout and a 1.91 goals-against and .927 save percentage.

Husso’s numbers may be a bit inflated — even Lankinen, not considered a high-end prospect, has put up impressive stats when starting for HIFK — but he is talented.

“Husso had a good season in HIFK,” Eloranta said. “He is young and lacks of experience in a tight spot so it is hard to say how he will play overseas but he can play.”

“He looks big in the net,” said Matikainen, who feels Husso will need two seasons to add the consistency necessary to be an NHL goalie. “Everything stays complete when he moves. He will still have two good games and then one bad game.”

2. Kaapo Kahknonen,19, Espoo Blues (Liiga)
NHL Rights: Minnesota Wild
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2014

 

It is hard to imagine a young goaltender experiencing more ups and downs than Kaapo Kahkonen has, but if adversity makes you stronger — as some feel — Kahkonen is a perfect example. Both Matikainen and Eloranta feel that the Helsinki native could be the best of the next wave of teenage goalies.

With financial issues and other concerns, Espoo in 2015-16 was a shell of the franchise that had a string of reaching the playoff semifinals in four of five seasons just four years ago, finishing last in the expanded 15-team league. Sharing the goaltending duties with one-time Linkoping goalie Christian Engstrand, Kahkonen was 6-15-5 with the team’s only shutout and had a respectable 2.69 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

The highlight of Kahkonen’s season was no doubt the World Junior Championship tournament. Playing as the host team, Finland had loads of firepower but goaltending and defense were question marks. After splitting time with Vehvilainen early in the tournament, Kahkonen came on in relief in the quarterfinals against Canada and was in net for the remainder of the tournament. He finished 4-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.

“Kähkönen and Vehviläinen, in my list, are coming up,” said Eloranta. “They’re young guns. Like Husso, there is a lack of hockey experience, but let’s be patient. We have three good and big talents.”

3. Sami Aittokallio, 23, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Colorado Avalanche
Drafted 4th round, 107th overall, 2010

 

Sami Aittokallio returned to Finland hoping to re-establish a reputation as an NHL prospect, and for much of the season that appeared to be the case. Like HIFK, Karpat was one of the dominant teams in Liiga and Aittokallio was a big part of that success. In 33 regular season games he went 18-4-9 with two shutouts and had a 1.97 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.

Since Rajaniemi’s arrival in Oulu, however, the 23-year-old has seen limited action, appearing in three regular season games since February 20th and making his only playoff appearance in a loss to Tappara in the semifinals on April 2nd where he stopped all three shots he faced in 15 minutes of action.

 

Matikainen feels that Aittokallio may be a little bit ahead of Husso, but Eloranta disagreed, pointing to the fact that he has been replaced by the undersized Rajaniemi at the most crucial part of the season.

4. Janne Juvonen, 21, Pelicans Lahti
NHL Rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted 7th round, 203rd overall, 2013

 

Janne 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 after starter Niko Hovinen was injured.

Ironically, four years later it was Hovinen replacing Juvonen with the Lahti club’s playoff fortunes on the line.

In a case of goaltender musical chairs, Juvonen’s early season injury led Pelicans to turn to Hovinen and Rajaniemi, who was in his first season in Lahti. When Juvonen returned, Rajaniemi was sent to Karpat.

Juvonen’s play might earn him an entry-level deal with the Predators but, after a tough end of the season, his NHL future is in limbo. In 30 regular season games, he was 14-11-4 with one shutout and had a 2.59 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He started all three games in the preliminary series against KalPa, but after two losses to HIFK in the quarterfinals the club turned to Hovinen. Juvonen was 2-3 in the playoffs with a 2.57 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.

“Juvonen played a good season for Pelicans but Hovinen played in playoffs. It’s hard to say why,” said Eloranta, who feels the 21-year-old has developed into a solid Liiga goaltender but may not have the skill level to achieve more.

Matikainen, too, thought that Juvonen would have a tough time advancing further than the Finnish domestic league.

5. Markus Ruusu, 18, JyP-Akatemia (Mestis), JyP U20
NHL Rights: Dallas Stars
Drafted 6th round, 163rd overall, 2015

 

It was a mild surprise when Markus Ruusu and not Vehvilainen was the only Finnish goaltender selected in the 2015 draft. At the time he was selected, he had played just 12 games in the A juniors and spent most of the 2014-15 season playing for the JyP U18 team.

Playing in Metsis this season he held his own as Akatemia finished 10th in the 12-team Finnish second league. In 20 games, Ruusu posted a 3.09 goals-against against and .900 save percentage. Ruusu also played for Finland internationally, playing for the U19 team.

While Eloranta did not get a chance to see Ruusu play this season, Matikainen knows him well from Ruusu’s days with Tappara’s U16 team — having coached in Tampere at the time.

“Ruusu hasn’t gone forward as fast as I thought,” said Matikainen, who raved about the 19-year-old prior to the 2015 NHL Draft. He likes the goalie’s size and positioning skills but feels his footwork must improve to take the next step development-wise.

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