LUUKKONEN MANAGING THE PRESSURE WITHIN THE PIPESOct 21, 2021
By Suzie Cool
For a goaltender to make it to the National Hockey League, it’s hard. Usually, goaltenders play in at least 100 professional games in North America to reach the best league in the world to make sure that their development is on pace and they’re mentally capable of the pressure they’ll encounter.
However, there’s always an exception to the rule, and last year we saw the rule broken with Rochester Americans netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
The 2020-21 campaign was something we’d all describe as unconventional, and quite honestly, feels like it never happened with how quick it came and went. Rochester went on to play 29 games in the condensed COVID-19 season, seeing just three different opponents and ending the year with countless players signed to professional tryouts.
Not to forget, the Buffalo Sabres goaltending situation that threw the entirety of the organization through a loop with the implementation of taxi squads and numbers of goaltenders that each team, including the taxi squad, needed to have.
It was a whirlwind to say the least, especially for a young player like Luukkonen.
WATCH: HEAD COACH SETH APPERT FOLLOWING WEDNESDAY'S PRACTICE
“I think something that is important to remember with ‘Uppie’ is that because of the surgery two years ago and then COVID last year, he hasn’t played very many pro hockey games,” stated Amerks head coach Seth Appert when asked if Luukkonen has more pressure on him after last season. “That’s part of the growing process, is playing more games, and that’s why he’s here is to get that experience.”
Looking at Luukkonen’s totals over the past two years in North America, he’s only appeared in 53 games between the ECHL, American Hockey League and NHL. When you factor in Luukkonen’s European totals that number comes to 81 and let’s not dismiss that he’s accumulated a 41-34-14 record in his time in the pros with a .902 save percentage.
Also, wait, did we forget to mention that he made four appearances with Buffalo last season?
Just his second year playing professionally in North American and Luukkonen made the jump to the NHL, posting a 1-3-0 record with Buffalo while also showing a 7-5-2 record with Rochester. After opening the 2020-21 campaign with three straight wins for the Amerks, Luukkonen earned his first-ever NHL recall from the Sabres on Mar. 23 and became the first Buffalo netminder to win his first career start since Mike Noronen on Oct. 5, 2000, as he made 36 saves in Buffalo’s 6-4 over Boston on Apr. 23.
Luukkonen also started 14 of 17 games for Rochester while on the roster in the Flower City, meaning he was looked at as the mainstay backstop in just his first full season in the AHL.
Now, that’s a lot for a literal kid to take on in a season where he’s still trying to figure out how to succeed in this league let alone the NHL. However, Luukkonen doesn’t feel as if there’s any additional pressure heading into the new season; he’s just learned to set higher goals for himself as each year passes.
“I don’t know if it’s pressure but of course you want to elevate your game every season and be better. I think it’s more setting the goals for yourself, and those goals are higher every year.”
Realistically, 53 or 81 is not a lot games for the now third-year pro who should see at least 40+ in a normal professional season, however, these past couple of years have limited that experience for Luukkkonen. For this exact reason, that’s why it was so important for Appert to leave Luukkonen in the crease during the Amerks 2021-22 season opener this past Sunday against the Utica Comets.
Getting the start in the crease for Rochester, Luukkonen saw his team come out strong, taking the lead twice within the first frame. Utica then laid the hammer down by tallying six markers in just 24 shots on goal. At the time the easy solution would’ve been to switch out netminders, but Appert knew that wasn’t going to teach the lessons that are needed in the long-term for his team or for Luukkonen as an individual.
“We’re about winning but we’re also about development. Sometimes it’s good to have to stay in and battle through adversity,” said Appert.
Appert then went on to add, “I think that sometimes taking guys out of those situations is the easy answer in the moment but it’s not usually what’s right for the long-term.”
And for Luukkonen it was a pretty simple game to look past once the final buzzer hit, despite the noise that social media created around the Amerks loss.
WATCH: UKKO-PEKKA LUUKKONEN FOLLOWING WEDNESDAY'S PRACTICE
“It sounds simple but there’s no point in thinking about it, it’s in the past. You’re not going to learn from it anymore, so there’s no point in staying on that or being to stuck on that game,” explained Luukkonen when discussing how he mentally moves past tough situations he encounters in his career.
Goaltending development coach Seamus Kotyk has been in Rochester this week working with Luukkonen and veteran goaltender Aaron Dell. Appert mentioned how Kotyk and himself don’t want Luukkonen worrying about what others are wanting from him at this time. They want him to know that the most important thing is to just get better every day.
It seems that’s an easy thing for Luukkonen to set his mind to as his work ethic is something that Appert heavily admires.
“His work ethic is incredible. Before practice, during practice and after practice, that young man comes in and puts in the work. What we want now is for him to forget about all of those other things and just trust the work that he puts in and allow himself to go and play more freely.”
Seeing how Luukkonen is one of the top prospects in the Sabres organization there’s always going to pressure on him, however, how he handles that pressure is what might be the most impressive part of his game.
“There’s no feeling sorry for himself, he kind of just comes back and goes to work. That’s his foundation is his work ethic and how he attacks every day and because that’s his foundation he’s going to continue to grow and continue to get better.”
Appert then added, “I have zero worries about UPL, like zero.”