The pool of goaltenders with NHL ties in Finland has grown to 10 during the 2011-12 season, with three netminders, who began the year in North America, being loaned to Finnish clubs by their respective NHL franchises.
While the majority of those goalies are late round picks (or in the case of HIFK’s Dennis Endras a free agent signing) there are two former high round picks. Both Mikko Koskinen, a second-round selection of the Islanders in 2009 and 2006 Lightning first round pick Riku Helenius are still protected by those respective clubs, but the projections for both have dimmed.
All 10 protected goaltenders have potential and have shown flashes either during their junior careers or in SM-Liiga play. Yet all have aspects of their game that prevent them from being labeled sure-thing NHL-bound prospects. With the help of goaltending coach and instructor Mikko "Elmo" Eloranta, Hockey’s Future has done our best to try and rate this group but there is not much that separates the top of this list from the bottom.
1. Joni Ortio, 20, TPS
NHL Rights: Calgary Flames
Drafted 6th Round, 171st overall, 2009
The second of three Finnish goalies picked in the 2009 draft, Ortio began the season playing for Calgary’s AHL affiliate Abbotsford but saw limited action. Ortio appeared in nine games with the Heat as a backup to 2006 first round pick Leland Irving, who continues to dominate at that level. Rather than allowing Ortio, who turns 21 in April, to languish on the bench, the Flames returned him to TPS in January.
Re-united with TPS goaltending coach Urpo Ylonen, Ortio has handled the bulk of the starts for the Turku club as former St. Louis prospect Marek Schwarz has been relegated to back-up duty. In nine games Ortio has two shutouts with a 2.63 goals against average and .908 save percentage.
"He’s a big gun. In my mind he’s on the top of this list," said Eloranta. "He has the potential to be a number one goalie in either the NHL or KHL."
Helenius’ status in the Lightning organization is a bit difficult to peg since he was drafted by the previous regime in Tampa Bay. But Steve Yzerman and his staff thought enough of him to extend a qualifying offer last June and he does have some impressive tools.
After three seasons of so-so results, including a forgettable 2008-09 season in North America when he spent time with five different clubs, Helenius is among the leaders in the SM-Liiga in both goals against average (1.64) and save percentage (.936) among goalies who have appeared in at least 25 games. His 16 wins are fourth-most and he is tied for the league lead in shutouts (7) with Jokerit’s Eero Kilpelainen.
While the numbers are impressive, scouts are mixed on his long-term projection.
"He’s gotten experience…but he can be better," said Eloranta, who feels Helenius’ style may cause problems at the higher levels. "He’s a good goalie with bad technical errors."
Scott McMillan, the former OCN Blizzard Coach/GM, saw Helenius recently and was not as concerned.
"The kid looks good," said McMillan, who also saw Helenius play in 2007-08 when he was an all-star with the WHL‘s Seattle Thunderbirds.
3. Niko Hovinen, 23, Pelicans
NHL Rights: Philadelphia Flyers
Drafted by Minnesota Wild, 5th round, 132nd overall, 2006
Signed entry level contract with Philadelphia (May 2011)
Like Helenius, Hovinen has resurrected his hopes for a career in the NHL and has continued to be a workhorse in his third season with the Pelicans.
Hovinen was a fifth-round pick of Minnesota in 2006 after a successful junior career in Jokerit but was never signed by the Wild. His impressive season in 2010-11, despite playing on a last-place club, earned him an entry level contract with the Flyers in May 2011.
This season, the Pelicans have been one of the SM-Liiga’s success stories, sitting in second place in the 14-team circuit. Hovinen has appeared in 41 games and leads the league with 21 wins while posting a career-best 2.26 goals against average and .919 save percentage. Hovinen has also appeared in three games for Team Finland during the European Trophy tournament against Sweden, Czech Republic, and Russia and has a microscopic 0.41 goals against average and .979 save percentage.
With the Flyers’ goaltending struggles earlier this season well-chronicled, it is not surprising that Hovinen has been the source of much conjecture. As with Helenius, Eloranta still sees areas in which Hovinen can improve.
"Everybody is speaking of him and how great he is but he’s still fighting technical problems," said Eloranta. "He allows too many rebounds and he’s just covering, which is good overseas but not (in the NHL)."
Part of the crowded three-headed goalie prospect group in Long Island along with Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, Koskinen appeared in three games for the Islanders’ AHL affiliate Bridgeport before being loaned to KalPa in November 2011.
After getting off to a strong start in November and handling the bulk of KalPa’s goaltending for much of the season, Koskinen has seen less action of late as Juha Toivonen has been in net for all but two games since mid-January. In 25 games for third-place KalPa, Koskinen has a 2.30 goals against average and .917 save percentage with a 13-5-4 record and five shutouts.
Koskinen’s inconsistency has been a mystery to Eloranta, who feels Koskinen has as much potential as any of the young Finnish goalie prospects.
"He may have even more potential than Hovinen. His only problem is that he isn’t catching anything," said Eloranta. "It’s hard to say what his problems are."
As with Hovinen and Helenius, Koskinen’s natural ability, along with his 6’6 frame, are prototypical for an NHL goaltender and like those two he may just require a little more time to get things figured out.
North American fans got their first long look at Aittokallio in this past winter’s 2012 U20 World Junior Championship tournament. While Team Finland may have come up short in its quest for a medal, finishing fourth after losing to Canada in the bronze medal game, Aittokallio firmly established himself as a prospect to watch in the future.
In five games at the tournament he finished with the third-best save percentage (.937) and had a 2.52 goals against average. He was most impressive stopping 38 of 39 shots in a 4-1 win over the USA and made 55 saves in the tournament semifinal game with Sweden, which the gold-medal winning Swedish squad won, 3-2, in a shootout.
In domestic play, Aittokallio has skated with Ilves in the SM-Liiga and for for the club’s U20 junior team and played seven games in Mestis (the Finnish second league) with LeKi. In ten games for Ilves, which is last in the SM-Liiga, he is 1-6-3 with a 2.82 goals against average and .910 save percentage.
"He has a lot of potential. (Right now) he’s just blocking the puck not catching. His skating is okay," said Eloranta. "He doesn’t have a lot of experience at the highest level (yet)."
A late round selection of the Stanley Cup championship Bruins, Volden appeared in nine SM-Liiga games for Espoo and played for his native Norway in the 2012 World Junior Division IA Championships. In nine games with the Blues he had an unimpressive 3.80 goals against average and .871 save percentage as a trio of veterans handled the bulk of the goaltending. He played all five games for Team Norway and was 3-2 with a 2.60 goals against average and .911 save percentage as the team finished third behind Germany and Belarus.
Volden’s best play, and the reason he has climbed in the rankings, came at the end of the season as he was loaned to Jokipojat for the Mestis playoffs. In 12 games, Volden’s play was a key reason the Joensuu club advanced to the league finals. After finishing 4-1 with a 1.98 goals against average and .929 save percentage in seven regular season games for Jokipojat, Volden held opponents to 1.62 goals and stopped over 95 percent of the shots he faced in 12 playoff games. Jokipojat reached the finals before falling to Vaasa Sport.
Perhonen led JyP’s U20 team to a playoff championship in 2010-11 and was one of two goalies from Finland selected by the Oilers in the 2011 NHL Draft. He attended the Oilers’ prospect camp in June but was sick for much of the week and unable to participate on the ice.
His experience in Edmonton was a precursor of the current season – as it has been one of fits and starts for the young goalie, who turns 19 in March.
With Helenius and veteran Joni Myllykoski in net for JyP’s SM-Liiga squad this season, he has split time between Mestis and JyP’s U-20 squad.
He suffered an injury in a pre-season game and missed time at the beginning of the season. Upon his return, he has split time with two other promising 19-year-old goalies – Sami Rajaniemi for JyP-Akatemia in Mestis and Eetu Laurikainen with the junior team.
In eleven Mestis games Perhonen was 3-8 with a 3.81 goals against average and .887 save percentage. His numbers were slightly better with the A junior squad; Perhonen posted a 3.14 goals against average and .923 save percentage in five junior games. He joined the SM-Liiga club at the league’s trade deadline as a third goalie but was not expected to see much time.
Despite his ideal frame (6’5, 185), Perhonen is still maturing physically and has some technical issues he must work out before he reaches his potential.
The other goalie selected by the Oilers in 2011 (Tuohimaa’s Jokerit club lost to Perhonen and JyP in the A Juniors SM-Liiga finals prior to the draft), Tuohimaa, has had a solid rookie season as a 20-year-old pro.
Tuohimaa has appeared in 18 SM-Liiga games for Jokerit as a backup to the veteran Kilpelainen and is 6-11 with five losses coming in overtime. He posted a 2.65 GAA and .898 save percentage with the seventh-place club.
In sixteen games with Mestis’ Kiekko-Vantaa he was 6-10 with two shutouts, a 2.82 goals against average, and .928 save percentage. Tuohimaa played in all four playoff games as Kiekko-Vantaa was swept by Jukurit in the first round. He finished the playoffs with a 4.56 goals against average and .882 save percentage.
Drafted largely due to his performance in place of an injured Aittokallio at the 2010 U20 World Junior Championship, Iilahti has not yet cracked through at the SM-Liiga level as veterans Antti Ore and Danish goalie Patrick Galbraith, along with Volden, shared the bulk of action in Espoo.
On the plus side, Iilahti played well for Vaasa Sport in Mestis – serving as a nice complement to veteran and former Canadiens’ prospect Joni Puurula. In 12 games for the third-place club he was 8-4 with a 1.80 goals against average and .934 save percentage. Iilahti did not see any action in the playoffs as Puurula started all 11 games.
Endras barely qualifies as a prospect under HockeysFuture’s criteria due to the fact that he signed his original NHL contract in 2010. He excited scouts with a big-time performance playing for Germany at the 2011 IIHF World Championship last spring and began the season with Houston in the AHL but after six games was loaned to HIFK.
After getting off to a slow start under former Espoo Blues Coach Petri Matikainen, HIFK has been one of the hottest teams in the SM-Liiga since mid-January and that has coincided with Endras’ solid play.
Endras hasn’t been the superstar that some expected after his World Championships performance last spring but he has been strong. His regular season record is 18-9-4 with a 2.38 goals against average and a .927 save percentage.
"He was a small disappointment," said Eloranta. "He’s not as technically strong as I suspected. Not bad, but not good."
Still a long shot due to his age and the crowded goaltending situation in Minnesota, Endras’ solid play over the second half proved he has the endurance to handle a large workload.
One other intriguing young prospect is Petteri Simila. The last player taken in the 2009 NHL Draft, he played 11 games for Niagara in the OHL in 2009-10 before being replaced by then-17-year-old Mark Visentin (PHO). He returned to Finland that season and was never signed by the Canadiens.
Now 21-years-old, he was off to a nice start with Kiekko-Laser in Mestis this season before that club folded mid-year. In 20 games he had a 2.52 goals against average and .922 save percentage. Simila joined Karpat’s SM-Liiga club in nearby Oulu, where he played his junior hockey, but did not appear in any games. In fourteen games on loan to Hokki (Mestis), including seven starts, he was 2-6 with a 2.26 goals against average and .918 save percentage.
As in years past, when goalies such as Minnesota’s Niklas Backlund or Antti Niemi of the Sharks were signed as unrestricted free agents, the next Finnish goaltending prospect could very well be one of the goalies not yet drafted. Karpat’s Tomi Karhunen or the Assat Pori tandem of Antti Raanta and Juho Jarvenpaa are among the younger goalies who were never drafted but have had some early success in the SM-Liiga.