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

By Tony Piscotta

Sami Aittokallio - Karpat Oulu - Champions Hockey League

Photo: Karpat Oulu goaltender and Colorado Avalanche prospect Sami Aittokallio was the starter for Karpat for much of the 2015-16 season but was overshadowed by Sami Rajaniemi in the season’s second half (courtesy of Karpat Oulu/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

Other notable goalies playing in Finland

Henri Kiviaho, 22, Ilves Tampere (Liiga), LeKi Lempaala (Mestis)
NHL Rights: Dallas Stars
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2012

 

Signed to a three-year entry-level contract by the Stars in May of 2014, Henri Kiviaho returned to Finland on loan from Dallas in hopes of seeing more ice time. Backing up one-time Boston first-round pick Hannu Toivonen on one of the league’s weaker teams, Kiviaho played 19 games for the Tampere club and also skated in Mestis with LeKi. Matikainen and Eloranta were mixed on the tall goaltender.

“Kiviaho is interesting,” said Matikainen. “He had bad luck because Toivonen was one of the best goalies in the league. He has good positioning, very fast legs and plays every play 100%.”

Eloranta was less enthusiastic due in part to the team that struggled in front of him.

Kiviaho finished the year with a record of 3-10-2 with a respectable 2.76 goals-against average and .903 save percentage on a team that finished ahead of only the Espoo Blues.

Kevin Lankinen, 20, IFK Helsinki (Liiga)
NHL Rights: Draft-Eligible in 2016
Never Drafted

 

Kevin Lankinen has been eligible for three NHL Drafts, putting up impressive numbers in the Jokerit juniors before joining Husso with HIFK for the last two seasons, but he has generally been dismissed by most scouts. His skill set does not overwhelm observers and the HIFK team in front of him plays a strong defensive game. His production this season may earn him a late-round flier.

“He played so few games during the season so it’s hard to say,” said Eloranta. “But he could be some other club’s starting goalie for sure.”

Lankinen was 12-5-6 in 24 regular season games — including two on loan to KooKoo — and had a 2.35 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. He has played in three playoff games, going 1-2 with a 3.33 goals-against and .891 save percentage.

Maximilian Pajpach, 20, Tappara Tampere U20
NHL Rights: Colorado Avalanche
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2014

 

Maximilian Pajpach returned to Finland for his second season with the Tappara club after missing the entire 2014-15 season due to injury. He did not have an opportunity to play in Liiga, sharing the goaltending duties for the Tappara U20 team with undersized but exciting 18-year-old Kimmo Rautiainen. Pajpach played in 22 games and had a 3.18 goals-against average and .874 save percentage.

Neither Martikainen nor Eloranta had a chance to see Pajpach play this season, and until he cracks the men’s level — either in Finland or back in Slovakia — it is difficult to project his long-range potential.

Sami Rajaniemi, 23, Karpat Oulu
NHL Rights: Free agent
Never Drafted

 

Sami Rajaniemi spent five years in the JyP Jyvaskyla club — frequently being overshadowed by higher profile prospects like KalPa Kuopio goalie Samu Perhonen, an Edmonton Oilers‘ third round pick in 2011 or current Oilers’ prospect Eetu Laurikainen — but he has been the big story of the postseason in this year’s Liiga playoffs.

Slightly undersized compared to average NHL goalies, Rajaniemi was 13-7-9 in 33 regular season games for Karpat with a 1.93 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. The Karpat coaching staff has gone with Rajaniemi for most of the playoffs and in his first eight games he was 4-4 with one shutout, posting a 1.81 goals-against and .922 save percentage for the two-time defending champions.

Both Matikainen and Eloranta have been taken by surprise with his success.

“I dont know what’s going on with him,” Matikainen said. “He played one game in Peliitat and was very bad and now he’s Karpat’s number one goalie. He is small but he has good legs and hands.”

“Third goalie in Pelicans and starting goalie in Kärpät Oulu?” echoed Eloranta. “Something is wrong in this setup but he’s had a good and solid season.”

Ryan Zapolski, 29, Lukko Rauma
NHL Rights: Free Agent
Never Drafted

 

The most famous story of a North American goalie going to Finland and then coming back to star in the NHL is that of Tim Thomas, who after graduating from the University of Vermont in 1996-97 spent parts of three seasons in Finland while also playing in the minors in North America before a breakout season for Jokerit in 2004-05 catapulted him to the starting job in Boston, where he ultimately won a Stanley Cup in 2010-11.

With so many of Finland’s top players now playing in the KHL or in North America, the Finnish domestic league is not the same as it was when Thomas was playing. But Lukko’s Ryan Zapolski could nevertheless be writing a similar story.

Too old to be considered a prospect under HF criteria, the former Mercyhurst College star topped the 50 games played mark for the third straight season while posting a 1.65 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.

According to Eloranta the rumors are that Zapolski will play for Jokerit in the KHL next season.

“He has better technique than (Jokerit goalies) Riku Helenius and Henrik Karlsson, but we will see,” said Eloranta.

Veini Vehvilainen, 19, JyP Jyvaskyla
NHL Rights: Draft-Eligible in 2016
Never Drafted

 

Veini Vehvilainen was tapped by Team Finland U20 head coach Juka Jalonen as the starting goalie for the 2015 World Junior Championship, but after an opening game win he had an uneven tournament, eventually yielding to Kahkonen in the quarterfinals versus Canada.

Despite his struggles at the WJC, the 19-year-old had a strong season for fourth-place JyP in his first Liiga season, splitting time with veteran Tuomas Tarkki. In 28 regular season games he was 15-7-4 with three shutouts and had a 2.04 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.

There are still some sore spots in his game — his flexibility in particular when he is down in a crouch was a problem at the WJC — but the skill set is there according to Eloranta.

“Like everybody above, he has good technique,” Eloranta said, pointing out that Vehvilainen should continue to improve as he gains more experience.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way

 

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