Finnish Goaltenders

By Bill Meltzer
Finland has produced some of the NHL’s top forwards of the 1980s and 1990s, most notably Jari Kurri and Teemu Selänne. There have also been Finnish defensemen who have emerged as top-quality NHL players, ranging from Reijo Ruotsalainen to Teppo Numminen. For some reason, however, there have been very few Finnish goalies to make it to the NHL and, as yet, there has not been a single Finnish impact goalie in the NHL. Only Jarmo Myllys, Kari Takko, Jari Kaarela, and Hannu Kampurri have ever so much as started an NHL regular season game. Myllys and Takko represent the (modest) pinnacle of success that Finnish keepers have had in the NHL.

In the meantime, every other major European hockey country has produced at least one regular starting goalie in the NHL. The former Czechoslovakia developed Dominik Hasek and Roman Turek. Sweden gave us Pelle Lindbergh and Tommy Salo. Russia produced Nikolai Khabibulin (not to mention the legendary Vladislav Tretiak, who would have been an NHL star if the political climate of the time had allowed it). Moreover, even some of the lesser NHL goalies from the other European countries, such as Tommy Söderström, Mikhail Shtalenkov, and Petr Skudra, experienced NHL success that was equal or superior to the North American accomplishments of Takko and Myllys.

Over the years, Finland has had some goaltenders who have been very well-regarded in European club team and World Championship play, yet world-class goaltending has never been the hallmark of the Finnish national program. Urpo Ylönen was Finland’s first goalie of some international renown. He represented Finland in 3 Olympics and 8 IIHF World Championships. In all, he played 188 games for the Finnish national team. He was selected the best goalkeeper at the 1970 World Championships in Stockholm and made the second All-Star team at the 1968 Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble, France. Ylönen helped author a surprise victory over Canada in the 1968 Olympics. In his 14 year career in the SM-Liiga, his clubs won one gold, one silver and four bronze medals. Nevertheless, the lasting image of Ylönen in many people’s minds are some of the frightful beatings he soldiered through as his out-manned Finnish clubs were summarily dismantled by the Russians, Czechoslovaks, Canadians and Swedes. Ylönen, while well-respected, was considered in North American circles to be a notch below Swedish standout Leif “Honken” Holmqvist and well below the elites of the sport, such as Tretiak and top NHLers Bernie Parent, Ken Dryden, and Tony Esposito.

Jorma Valtunen was another top Finnish goalie from the earlier period who was considered a good goalie, but not quite good enough to be ranked among the best in the world. He was an all-star at the 1972 World Championship. Still, outside of Finland, the single most famous game of Valtunen’s career was probably the gold medal game at the 1980 Winter Olympics, in which Team USA staged yet another of its patented third period comebacks to down Finland 4-2 and take the gold medal. Among the notable Finnish keepers of the 1980s and 90s, Jukka Tammi was often erratic but was arguably the most successful in key international games, including helping to lead Finland to its first ever Olympic medal (a silver in Calgary in 1988, accomplished with a masterful final game performance against the powerhouse Russians).

Jarmo Myllys is often considered the best goaltender that Finland has ever produced, yet many say that it is a dubious distinction. Myllys has long been an outstanding club team goaltender in both the Finnish and Swedish Elite Leagues. He has also had some international success, most notably in 1995, when he backstopped Finland to its first gold medal at the World Championships, defeating arch-rival Sweden in the finale. Playing behind a largely undersized, run-and-gun defense corps (including Timo Jutila, Hannu Virta, Mika Strömberg, and Marko Kiprusoff), Myllys stood on his head at times to keep the puck out of the Finnish net throughout the tournament. Still, Myllys has had a hard time gaining respect in North American circles. He has had the misfortune of having some of the worst games of his career in games that were seen in North America. His NHL stays in Minnesota and San Jose were rocky (of course, he was hindered by playing behind weak teams). Moreover, he has been embarrassed by yielding questionable goals in several of his most visible international appearances, most notably in poundings he’s taken against Russia and Canada. Most recently, Pavel Bure abused Myllys in the medal round of the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Ari Sulander, a Jokerit goalie with no NHL experience, was called upon to backstop Finland in their bronze medal upset of Canada. Thus, while the Finns have shown that they are a potential medalist at almost all of the major international competitions, respect for the Finnish goaltenders has remained elusive.

With the dawn of the new millennium, however, Finland stands poised to write a new chapter in its hockey history. An ever-growing pool of NHL draftees have begun to emerge from Finnish juniors and the SM-Liiga, some of whom are beginning to shape up as legitimate NHL prospects. While it is probable that some of these players will never make it to North America at all and others will go the way of Markus Ketterer and never advance beyond the North American minor leagues, the pool of prospects is sufficiently deep and talented to say with a fair amount of confidence that at least one of the current pool will be the Finns’ long-awaited breakthrough NHL goaltender. Indeed, there is a chance that within the next 3-5 years, there could be multiple Finnish-born goaltenders who stake a regular roster spot for themselves. In a telltale sign of the rising stock of Finnish-trained goalies, there have been two Finnish keepers (Mika Noronen and Ari Ahonen) selected in the first round of the last three NHL drafts. There is now little question of whether there will be a breakthrough NHL goalie from Finland; the big questions are how many will there be, and how soon will they make an impact.

These are Finland’s top current NHL hopefuls: Miikka Kiprusoff (San Jose), Mika Noronen (Buffalo), Jani Hurme (Ottawa), Vesa Toskala (San Jose), Antero Niittymäki (Philadelphia), Ari Ahonen (New Jersey), Mika Lehto (Pittsburgh), and Kristian Antila (Edmonton). Additionally, standout 24 year old Jokerit goalie Pasi Nurminen, who was the top regular season (and, to date, playoff) goalie in Finland this season should also attract some NHL interest this offseason. The rest of this article will briefly profile each of the candidates.

Miikka Kiprusoff has long since emerged from the shadow of his brother, Marko (a former Montreal Canadiens defenseman). Stuck behind starter Jani Hurme with TPS Turku, Kiprusoff signed with AIK in Sweden before the 1996-97 season. It was the best move the 1995 Sharks 5th rounder could have possibly have made at the time. Kiprusoff quickly emerged as one of the top keepers in the Swedish Elites, backstopping a resurgent AIK team to their best season in quite a few years. The following year, AIK crashed back down to earth, but Kiprusoff remained one of the league’s best goaltenders. Although AIK attempted to hold on to Kiprusoff, he elected instead to return to his mother club, TPS Turku, for the 1998-99 season. With the departure of Hurme to the IHL the previous year, the door was open for Kiprusoff to show the fans at home what they had been missing. The results were spectacular. Kiprusoff was by far Finland’s top goalie in the 1998-99 regular season and carried his success right on through the playoffs (TPS won the Finnish championship and Kiprusoff was chosen playoff MVP) and the World Championships. Finally taking notice of the young goalie, the San Jose Sharks signed Kiprusoff to a contract in the 1999 offseason. Assigned to the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the AHL, Kiprusoff has split time with Swedish import, Johan Hedberg. While both goalies have performed well, it has been the rookie Kiprusoff who has drawn the greater attention. Kiprusoff has shown himself to be very technically sound, with quick reflexes and good side-to-side agility. The adjustment to the smaller rink has gone smoothly. At 23 (he’ll turn 24 in October), Kiprusoff is now knocking on the door of a potential NHL callup during the 2000-2001 season.

After providing somewhat modest early returns after his 1997 first round selection by the Buffalo Sabres, Mika Noronen has also emerged as a top AHL goaltender this season; the best in the league, in the opinion of some. In one recent stretch, Noronen played every minute of 18 consecutive games for the Rochester Americans. The streak ended after a fatigued Noronen let in two bad first period goals in a road game against the Philadelphia Phantoms. In his young AHL career, Noronen has already demonstrated the ability to make both the routine and the tough save. Although Rochester is one of the AHL’s better defensive teams, they, like all teams, have breakdowns. Noronen has shown the ability to rise up at key junctures of games and hold the fort until his team rights its ship. The biggest short-term obstacle facing Noronen is the fact that he plays in a Buffalo organization that is stocked at the goaltending position. Besides the Dominator, there is another excellent young goalie, Martin Biron, who has already gained NHL experience and shown the potential to become a good NHL keeper. Buffalo’s goaltending depth will enable to organization to keep Noronen in the minors for another year; thus getting a better read on his development and his long-term projections in relation to Biron.

Unlike Kiprusoff and Noronen, Jani Hurme’s odds of becoming an NHL starter have faded a bit since signing his first NHL contract. His development in the North American minor leagues has taken longer than expected. Nevertheless, he has come on to the point of meriting consideration for an NHL backup spot (actually, he did dress as a backup to Patrick Lalime for the Ottawa Senators early this season, when Ron Tugnutt missed the start of the season with th a knee injury. Hurme saw no game action and was soon returned to the IHL). Hurme was considered an up-and-comer by the Ottawa organization when they drafted him in the second round (58th overall) of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. Playing his junior hockey with Kiekko-67, Hurme transferred to TPS Turku in 1995-96 and became one of the top goalies in Europe. He signed with Ottawa shortly after the 1997 draft and reported to the IHL. The upward arrows of Hurme’s career soon stalled. After several shaky early season starts for the Detroit Vipers, he lost his starting job to Johan Hedberg. Ottawa then him transferred to Indianapolis, for whom he played inconsistently. He subsequently has moved on to Cincinnati and, finally, Grand Rapids. Over the last two seasons, Hurme has finally completed his adjustment to North American hockey and has become one of the top goalies in the International League. With another NHL expansion draft coming up after this season, Hurme, who is still 3rd on the Ottawa goaltending depth charts, is a name to keep in mind as a potential NHL backup for one of the new clubs.

Prior to this season, the acrobatic Vesa Toskala was a fast rising prospect in the Finnish Elites, backstopping Ilves to respectability last season and earning a spot on the national team. The soon-to-be 23 year old goaltender signed a contract to join the San Jose Sharks organization for the 2000-2001 season. In the meantime, he transferred for the current season to defending Swedish champion Färjestad BK. Both Toskala and Färjestad proved to be something of a disappointment this year (Färjestad finished 7th in the league and bowed out of the playoffs in the first round). Toskala, who is something of a gambler in net and tends to run hot and cold, never did get on a roll this year, although his post-season performance was a bit better than his regular season. He remains a wildcard NHL prospect due to his athleticism and ability to make highlight reel saves. First, he will have to endure at least two minor league seasons in North America. My gut feeling on Toskala is that he will never be consistent enough to hold down an NHL job.

The fastest rising Finnish prospect is nineteen year old Antero Niittymäki. A favorite of legendary trainer Vladimir Yurzinov, Niittymäki enjoyed a good deal of success in TPS’ junior program. Nevertheless, few outside of Turku paid much attention to Niittymäki prior to this year. The Philadelphia Flyers European scouting director Inge Hammarström took sufficient notice to recommend his selection in the 6th round of the 1998 entry draft. Nearly two seasons later, the pick is shaping up as a potential gem. In a nutshell, Niittymäki has done things that no one would expect of a teenage rookie in the high-scoring, veteran laden SM-Liiga. After putting in an eye-opening showing at the Flyers 1999 summer prospect camp, Niittymäki has gone home to build on his success. Taking advantage of the early season absence of scheduled TPS starter Fredrik Norrena, Niittymäki easily seized the starting job away from Kimmo Lecklin. Not only did he become the starter, he became the top goalie in Finland during the pre-Christmas break portion of the season (Niittymäki was officially selected as a first half All-Star, receiving an award presented in a pre-game ceremony by Jari Kurri). Fans and scouts were amazed by his lightning quick glove and his ability to show a five hole and then pull it away. If there is any weakness at all to his game, it is on the stick side. He will also have to come out of his net a little more to adjust to the North American game; however this is adjustment that all European goalies face due to the change in rink configuration.

Niittymäki entered the 1999-2000 World Junior Championships as Finland’s starting goalie, performing decently before faltering just a tad and splitting medal round time with Ari Ahonen. Niittymäki’s profile in the second half of the season was reduced, as Norrena got the majority of the starts. Nevertheless, when he did play, he continued to do well. Niittymäki concluded the SM-Liiga’s regular season with a sparkling .930 (actually .9295) save percentage, a 2.15 goals against average, and a 26-6-2 record. He also fashioned 3 shutouts; two of the 30+ save variety. As the playoffs rolled around, Niittymäki sat behind Norrena in the first round. But when Norrena faltered early in the second round, the call went out for the teenager. Showing nerves of steel, Niittymäki went out and won the next three games for TPS in spectacular fashion. He enters the upcoming Finnish championship series against Jokerit with a gaudy .945 playoff save percentage and a 1.68 goals against average. Meanwhile, the Flyers have already indicated that they think he is ready for the AHL after just one Finnish Elite League season. With all the attention being paid to Flyers rookie goalie Brian Boucher and QMJHL standout Maxime Oullet, Niittymäki still faces a tough road ahead if he is to become the Flyers starting goalie of the future. But he has exploded out of the gates so quickly in his pro career, that it would be a mistake to for anyone to write off his chances.

Before the quick emergence of Niittymäki, the fastest rising WJC-eligible goaltending name in Finland was Ari Ahonen. Ahonen was a surprise number one pick by the New Jersey Devils at the 1999 entry draft. Although some questioned the pick because Central Scouting had projected him somewhere around the third round, Ahonen also had a solid corps of supporters, especially after he led Finland to a gold medal over Russia at the 1999 World Under-18 championships. Before this season, he transferred from JyP’s junior system to the higher profile HIFK program. Ahonen split SM-Liiga starting time this season with American veteran Parris Duffus. The rookie’s numbers were quite respectable, as he finished in the top half of most SM-Liiga goaltending stats this year and notched his first Elite league shutout. He split time with Niittymäki at the World Junior Championships. When the playoffs rolled around, Duffus got all 7 starts for HIFK before they were eliminated. All in all, Ahonen rookie performance this year was solid. While it was not as stunning as what Niittymäki has accomplished, Niittymäki had the advantage of playing for the strongest team in Finland (and one of the best anywhere in Europe). Ahonen’s long-range potential remains quite promising, although Martin Brodeur is not giving up the reigns to him or anyone else in the near future.

Oiler draftee Kristian Antila (1998, 113th overall) was very highly regarded in many circles when he was selected by Edmonton. Going into this season, some pegged him as a rising star. He may yet meet those expectations. However, few would argue right now that he currently stands on par with either Ahonen or Niittymäki. He was very ordinary this season for Ilves. Feeling the sting of losing Toskala and others, Ilves was a .500 club with new keeper Pasi Kuivalainen in net. With Antila in net, they were less than that. Antila, who got into 25 regular season games and one playoff game, finished the year ranked 25th on the Finnish goaltending charts.

Meanwhile, Penguins 1998 draftee Mika Lehto looked to be poised to claim the Ässät starting job for the 1999-2000 season, after the departure of incumbent starter Kuivalainen. Instead, the struggling team from Pori ended up rotating three keepers; the most successful of whom was veteran Jim Hrivnak (.913 save percentage, despite a 6-12-5 record and 3.15 goals against average). Lehto got into 23 games and had a pedestrian season, posting a 4-11-3 record, 4.75 GAA, and .862 save percentage. It is important to remember, however, that he is an inexperienced goalie playing for one of the weaker teams in the league. Lehto will be looking to take the starting job and run with it next season. In the meantime, 23 year old SM-Liiga rookie Timo Leinonen ended up playing parts of 13 games for Ässät this year.