This week I wrote a series on Buffalo Sabres prospects playing in Sweden. I continued looking at prospects within the organization, this time focusing on Finland and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
The Sabres selected the 6’4”, 196-pound netminder with their second-round pick in last year’s draft, 57th overall. The prospect is just 19 years old and is already a champion. He earned a gold medal at the 2016 Under-18 World Junior Championship, a silver medal at the U18 WJC in 2017, and won the U20 Championship in 2017 with HPK in Liiga.
While Luukkonen has enjoyed early success, he has also had to face some adversity. After helping Finland win the gold in 2016, he would miss the next four weeks because of pneumonia. After that, however, he would show his calmness and determination, having a strong end to the season.
The youngster would go on to become the top-ranked European goaltender in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He proved that he could win games an championships. Despite his success, he realizes that at a young age there is a lot of potential, but that potential is irrelevant if he does not work hard.
For more on Luukkonen, I reached out to Lauri Meriläinen, hockey writer for jatkoaika.com for his insight.
Q: Luukkonen is described as a big goalie who plays the butterfly style and can move well laterally. Can you describe his positioning?
A: His positioning is fine, but he has been inconsistent with it. Sometimes he overplays and allows soft goals because of that.
Q: What are his strengths and weaknesses - what does he still need to work on?
A: He’s big, athletic, and smart. He has a good work ethic and that helps with becoming more consistent in his play. His biggest weakness is his puck-handling. He likes to play with his stick but needs to work on that a lot.
Q: Can you describe his development in Liiga?
A: HPK has a solid starting goalie in Emil Larmi and Antti Karjalainen is a proven backup. Primarily, Luukkonen would be playing in second-tier level Mestis or OHL where he was drafted.
Q: Did he live up to expectations at the WJC and how confident of a goalie is he?
A: The U20 WJC championship was a disaster for the whole team with Luukkonen included. He’s strong mentally and I believe that when he matures more, he will be more consistent.
Q: He was drafted by Sudbury in the CHL import draft, do you see him playing there or returning to Finland?
A: Like I said before, it seems that if he wants to play more, he needs to go down to Mestis or try the CHL route. HIs playing style suites North American hockey so the move to Sudbury might be the right one for him right now. Coincidence or not, but HPK’s goaltending coach Juha Lehtola was part of Sudbury’s coaching staff a few years back.
Q: He’s still very young, but considering Buffalo’s status in goal - how far away is he from the NHL?
A: Patience is key with Luukkonen. He’s young and might take big steps forward in his development, but rushing things usually isn’t the way to go, especially with young goalies. There isn’t a current or upcoming franchise goalies in front of him that can play the majority of games when the Sabres decide to bring him up.
Q: Can you describe his personality and him as a player?
A: He seems really calm and smart. He knows where he’s at and is keen to make the necessary strides to make it in the NHL.
I had Meriläinen provide some clarification between the two Finnish leagues. Last season Luukkonen spent the majority of the season on loan with LeKi. He was on the bench for a few HPK games after the team loaned their backup goalie Antti Karjalainen to Germany. The only time Luukkonen saw action was in a game against KooKoo when he replaces Emil Larmi. LeKi is one step below HPK, Liiga. The league is called Mestis.
Meriläinen advised it is not unusual for a player to take a step back. especially goalies. Liiga teams loan players to Mestis all the time and moves them back up if needed. Young players get to play against men and the level of play is better than U20.
Our thanks to Lauri for taking the time to speak with us.