Finnish goaltenders: the future in the crease?

By Lee McLellan

Finland’s rate at producing NHL goaltending talent has been fairly low up until recently. Many people pointed out that the Finns were the only team to have an NHL backup as their starting goaltender in the 2002 Olympics (Jani Hurme). Now Hurme, Atlanta’s Pasi Nurminen, San Jose’s Miikka Kiprusoff, and Edmonton’s Jussi Maarkanen and Buffalo’s Mika Noronen are all in the NHL. That is soon to increase with the following prospects looking to join them.

Joni Puurula

The Montreal Canadiens 8th round pick in 2000 has improved his stock considerably since he was selected by the storied franchise. A year later he posted 8 wins in 9 regular season games and a sparkling 1.72 goals agaisnt average and .936 save percentage in the playoffs for HPK despite fighting a virus for nearly the entire season. Puurula posesses excellent lateral movements and is said to have excellent focus. He has yet to make the transition to the North American game but could pressure the habs to move one or two of Jose Theodore, Mathieu Garon, or Oliver Michaud within the next 3 or 4 years.

Tuomas Nissinen

The St. Louis Blues 3rd round pick in 2001 was the toast of his country for the month prior to his drafting when he nearly singlehandedly won the bronze medal for the Finns at the Under-18 Championships that year. That same year, he posted Vezina-like numbers at the five-nations under-20 tournament with a goals against average of 0.49 and a save percentage of .969. While Nissinen has yet to convert to the North American game, he has had great success in virtually every international tournament he’s played on and if his European game translates onto the bigger ice, he could turn out to be a steal at 89th overall.

Antero Niittymäki

The Philadelphia Flyers 6th round pick in 1998 has been proving that his 2000 finnish elite league rookie of the year award was no fluke. He wound up guiding TPS to a finnish championship that same year with a 1.72 goals against average and a .944 save percentage in the playoffs. This year he has developed quite nicely with the Philadelphia Flyers. He has a similar trait to most Finnish goaltending prospects; good reflexes including a flashy glove hand. Niittymäki currently sits 3rd on the Flyers depth chart among goaltenders.

Vesa Toskala

The San Jose Sharks 5th rounder in 1995 has already got his feet wet in the NHL this year when Sharks #1 goalie Evegeni Nabokov was embroiled in a holdout in October. Toskala converted to the AHL with relative ease, posting 22 victories in 40 starts during his rookie year. Many claim his lightning fast glove hand is second to none. Couple his quick glove with his excellent stick handling abilities and we’ve got a Finnish version of Martin Brodeur on our hands here. The big knock on Toskala is his size; at 5-9 and 177 pounds, shooters see plenty of net when winding up on Toskala but his cat-like reflexes have been able to compensate for his small frame so far. Currently Toskala sits as the 3rd string goaltender on the Sharks depth chart but with San Jose destined to conduct a house cleaning this summer after an extremely disappointing season, he may be in line for a promotion.

Ari Ahonen

The New Jersey Devils surprised a few people by selecting Ahonen with the 27th pick in the first round of the 1999 draft but 4 years later, that pick looks like a steal. The Devils were attracted by his solid play in the under 18 championships that year when he led Finland to the gold medal. In 2001-2002 he made the transition to the American Hockey League and posted a respectable .914 save percentage and a goals against average of just over 3 in his first year with the Albany River Rats. In his first exhibition game with New Jersey in 2000, some thought that Martin Brodeur was playing goal for the Devils due to Ahonens superior stick handling ability and quick glove hand. Ahonen will challenge Corey Schwab for the backup position on the Devils this fall.

Kari Lehtonen

All discussion pertaining to Finnish goaltending talent starts and ends with Lehtonen. At 2nd overall, he was picked higher then any Canadian goalie in NHL history in 2002. Hockey’s Future ranked Lehtonen as the best NHL prospect. His season in Finland during 2001-2002 was second to none as he was named the leagues top goaltender. In the 2002 World Junior Championships, he was the number one goaltender for the Bronze medal winning Finns. In the 2003 World Junior Championships, he led Finland to the Bronze medal and many claim that he outplayed every goaltender in that tournament including Canada’s Marc-Andre Fleury. Lehtonen stands tall of 6’3″ and is an excellent stand up goaltender. He models his game after Patrick Roy and could come close to being equal or even better then Roy. He focuses himself extremely well and opposing forwards find it very difficult to get him off his game. The Thrashers plan on bringing him to the AHL for the 2003-2004 season and could make the NHL as early as 2004.