By Erica Whyte
Last Thursday, netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 60 saves as his Sudbury Wolves were eliminated from the OHL Playoffs in triple overtime. Within the hour, the 20-year old received a phone call informing him that he would be making his professional debut that Sunday as the Rochester Americans took on the Belleville Senators for the final game of the 2018-19 regular season.
“It all happened so quickly,” said the Espoo, Finland, native, who was selected 54th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2017 NHL Draft. “They called me up here and said I was playing on Sunday. I think it was good that I didn’t have too much time to think about the changes. It’s been busy.”
Luukkonen’s pro debut resulted in a 4-2 Amerks win, and yet another highlight in the young goaltender’s career-year.
In addition to leading Finland to a gold medal in the 2019 World Junior Championship this past winter, the 6-foot-5 brick wall made Sudbury Wolves history as their all-time winningest goalie and led the OHL in wins and shutouts this season.
WATCH: LUUKKONEN AFTER HIS FIRST PRACTICE WITH THE AMERKS
“He’s a big, play-reading goalie,” said Buffalo Sabres Goaltending Development Coach Seamus Kotyk, who made frequent trips to Sudbury, Ontario throughout this season to watch the prospect in action. “He uses his size, he’s positional and he reads the play. He has the ability to close the door on a big game, he’s mentally strong and he’s very calm with an imposing presence.”
Accolades aside, according to Luukkonen, the biggest takeaway he’s had from this season is faith in himself as he transitions into his professional playing career.
“It’s huge for confidence,” said Luukkonen. “You know that you can play well in big situations and big games. To know that you can play well against the best people that are your age. For a goalie, it’s important to succeed in those situations or else you could start to doubt yourself.”
Although it is unlikely that Luukkonen will see net time as the Amerks playoff run begins this weekend, Kotyk insists that exposing him to the pro lifestyle, even in a limited capacity, will help advance the netminder’s game going into next season and beyond. Additionally, if he wants to make it to the Sabres eventually, Luukkonen will first need to focus on developing – and winning – at the AHL level.
“He has the potential to make a big impact in this organization, I believe that whole-heartedly,” said Kotyk. “It’s just about making a plan to get him there, having patience and not rushing him. Our goal is to make sure that when he is ready to be in the NHL, he’s ready to be there permanently. There’s also the understanding that he needs time in the American Hockey League to adapt and learn the pro game.”
Rest assured, as Luukkonen spends the next few years learning the pro game, Amerks fans will be there cheering him on every step of the way.