Finnish goaltenders since the mid-90’s

By Pekka Lampinen

In 1995, Finland was left without a goaltender in an NHL organization when Markus Ketterer returned to Europe after two years behind Dominik Hasek and Grant Fuhr on the Buffalo Sabres’ depth chart. Two years later, Jani Hurme filled the vacuum and Mika Noronen’s emergence gave the country hope of a capable generation of goalies, which proved to be well-founded. Today, a total of 21 active Finnish netminders have been drafted by NHL teams.

Especially in the mid-90’s, when European scouting was still clearly developing, scouts were scratching their heads trying to evaluate the performances of young Finnish goalies. The truth can only be found in hindsight. Now that many have played there long enough to be evaluated on their play in North America, we can see whether performances in Finland were under- or overrated in the scouting phase.

Hurme, whose value changed like that of an average Finnish goalie during the period, helped scouts gauge their expectations. In the summer of 1999, Noronen and Miikka Kiprusoff made the jump with two different backgrounds. Kiprusoff’s performance in the U18 European Championships and in the World Junior Championships had earned him a mid-round draft pick in 1995, but his achievements in SM-Liiga were greater still. A starting goalie in TPS since Hurme’s departure, Kiprusoff conquered the championship title in 1999. However, this was not adequately appreciated, so once he had made his North American debut, Kiprusoff soon jumped from a nobody to an NHL-bound prospect.

Noronen’s case offers proof that not only national but also international performances were underrated: an U18 European Champion in 1997, the best goalie in both 1996 and 1997, yet called an “out-of-the-blue” draft pick late in the first round by many people. The following year saw Noronen as the best goalie of the World Junior Championships and a gold medal winner, but still the hype would not reach its peak until the year 2000, when he piled shutouts onto stat sheets in the Calder Cup playoffs. For the following few years he wore the mantle of a top prospect, and few remember his clutch performances beyond the AHL games anymore.

A logjam of goalies in the Sharks system, the outcome of which is most topical these days, started to form in 2000 when Vesa Toskala joined Kiprusoff in the AHL. The smallest Finn and the best stickhandler, Toskala was also a 1995 mid-round pick and a junior national team regular as an underager. He founded his career on national league performance and amounted to a World Championships backup before signing an NHL contract. Simply put, his stock went up significantly. There were no such things as 23-year-old European-based goalies poised to become NHL regulars back then. In the meantime, Ari Ahonen was building a career much like Noronen’s: the best goalie in both U18 and U20 World Championships and a pick in the late first round in 1999. His national league career was nothing special, although he did become a starter in HIFK at the age of 18 and left the league as an above average starter. He wasted no time. When HIFK’s season was over in the spring of 2001, he joined the Albany River Rats right away. The Devils organization doesn’t offer great career prospects for goalies, though, as Martin Brodeur is going nowhere and Ahonen struggles behind a poor team in Albany. That leaves him as a rare specimen in this study, a goalie whose stock stayed the same over his first steps in North America.

The flood gates opened. Both the Oilers and the Thrashers used a mid-round pick in 2001 to grab 25-year-old Finnish goalies. Jussi Markkanen stopped pucks for Finland in the 1995 World Junior Championships and finally developed into a well-rounded goalie after several years in the national league. He didn’t make the World Championships squad, but the Oilers staff had seen enough. The pick was an instant success, as Markkanen beat Ty Conklin and Marc Lamothe to the backup’s job, complementing Sweden’s Tommy Salo well. The late-bloomer Pasi Nurminen had conquered the starter’s post in the World Championships and moved to Atlanta that summer. A knee surgery kept him off the ice until November, but he still got his chance in the NHL that season. His season didn’t end until a Calder Cup championship celebration with the Chicago Wolves. The national league had churned out two NHL goalies that year. After only a year in North America, Nurminen became the first Finnish starting goalie in the NHL.

Antero Niittymaki took his time to sign with the Flyers. A former mid-round pick, he broke out as a rookie with TPS in 1999-2000, ultimately taking a dominating team all the way to the championship at the age of 19. Fredrik Norrena stole the thunder back the following spring when TPS won its third consecutive championship. Niittymaki still decided to stay, even though he would split duties with Norrena in 2001-02. It was the first of the dynasty’s two disappointing seasons, and in 2002 Niittymaki left for Philadelphia to become the eighth Finnish goalie under NHL contract. Even without notable international exposure (he couldn’t become a starter on either U18 or U20 level) he was hyped quite a lot. In that respect, his rookie season in the AHL was somewhat of a disappointment, the numbers only decent and the scepter still in Neil Little’s hands. In 2003-04, though, Niittymaki delivered and became a top goalie in the AHL, now also with a few NHL starts under his belt.

The question is, did he take the longest strides in development in Philadelphia or was just in a downswing in 2002? Given the reputation of TPS’s goalie academy, the latter option appears more plausible, but in this study even the smallest changes are decisive. The summer also witnessed the jump of Kristian Antila, a goalie different from the others. His All-Star performance in the U18 World Championships in 1998 earned him a fourth-round pick, but that was the greatest achievement of his career. Not a proper starter in the national league, he signed with the Oilers to breathe life to his career but didn’t take the opportunity. Antila didn’t work hard enough and after one and a half years mostly in the press boxes of the AHL, the ECHL and the CHL, he became the first Finnish goalie of the generation to return to Europe.

After years of build-up, the Finnish invasion reached its peak in 2003. In the end, the most important thing to the Thrashers about signing Nurminen may not be about Nurminen himself but making room for Kari Lehtonen in Jokerit. In a draft year among the most impressive in the history of hockey, Lehtonen was taken by Atlanta second overall in 2002. Of all his achievements, his Finnish national league performance was the most unbelievable the next season: the goalie of the year, the playoffs MVP and a championship winner. Another year with professionals in Finland was enough for him. In 2003-04, he delivered in the AHL in his first year in North America.

Also in 2002, Hannu Toivonen was a surprise pick by the Bruins at the end of the first round. The big and athletic butterfly was blessed with reasonable hype despite modest achievements, a split starter in the U18 World Championships and a national league backup with HPK in 2002-03. His stock would still skyrocket in 2003-04 due to an impressive performance in the Bruins camp, commendable numbers in the AHL and carrying the Finnish team to bronze in the World Junior Championships. All in all, Toivonen was another example of how many talented young goaltenders there are lurking in Finland.

As for Finnish goalies who are now old enough to pass judgment on, there are none drafted in the top 200 of any draft year who never made the jump to North America. The Finnish national league has succeeded remarkably well in developing good goalies and, in netmiders’ case, living up to the hype, which was still muffled by lacking European scouting until about 2001. In a system based on expectations, one could predict NHL organizations to respond to this by drafting more Finnish netminders and possibly even cause the market to overheat. Some might then expect that the 2003 picks Teemu Lassila (NSH, fourth round), Eero Kilpelainen (DAL, fifth round) and Ville Hostikka (PHI, sixth round) will go bust, but missing at those points in the draft would hardly cause the sky to fall. On one hand Lehtonen and Toivonen’s success suggests that Finnish goaltending prospects continue to exceed expectations, but on the other they could have been just the decisive stimulus that sets the scouts straight. Whether young Finnish goalies will be under- or overrated in the immediate future can’t be told until years from now, yet there is still the remote possibility that scouts set their expectations just on the right level.