By Warren Kozireski —
There were more than a few eyebrows raised at the National Hockey League Entry Draft in 2017 when Buffalo selected Finnish defenseman Oskari Laaksonen with the 89th pick overall in the third round.
He was a sleeper pick to many because he was not listed among the 140 European skaters ranked by NHL Central Scouting. But several teams were interested and then-Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill felt he couldn’t risk waiting any longer.
“it’s been great to prove some people wrong, but for me the draft was more that a couple of teams wanted me bad, so that’s why I got picked so high—Pittsburgh and Detroit. It’s a funny story. I think Buffalo had the 89th pick and I think Pittsburgh had 91 or 92 (actually 93) and Detroit had 93 (actually 100) or something so it was down to the wire.
“I remember having a conversation with the Finnish scout who is not with the Sabres anymore and he told me that story.”
Buffalo’s roll of the dice appears to paying dividends as Laaksonen is in his first North American season after part or all of four seasons in the top league in Finland, Liiga, where he put up consistent offensive numbers with nine goals and 43 assists over a combined 133 games.
His transition to the smaller ice surface has taken time, but he has adapted well and was seeing major power play minutes on one of the top units in the American Hockey League this season. He makes the simple play when needed like taking a hit to make an outlet pass from his own zone along with the will to block shots, but also willing and able to jump up into the play offensively.
“First couple of weeks were a little bit harder, but now the games have gone on and I’m getting more comfortable on the ice, so I feel it’s a process and it’s going in the right direction.”
“I try to shot a lot and make plays on the power play; that’s my job. And when you are on the power play you need to produce or someone else is going to be in your spot, so you have to have that killer mentality to score.
“I want the puck when I see there is an opening and I think our power play has been pretty god all along throughout the season. It’s five guys working together and I’m pretty happy with how our power play looks.”
Laaksonen was tied for second in the AHL among rookie defenseman in assists (11) and was fourth in points (13) as of April 22nd.
He waited an extra few years before coming here to play. Drafted at just 165 lbs. but now has added several pounds to his 6’1” frame.
“It was mostly my size and my strength and my physique,” he said about why he waited to come to North America. “You need to battle hard if you want to play especially in the American Hockey League. And three years as a pro teaches you a lot, so I was more ready to come here. Growing as a person and growing as a hockey player even more and it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. You need to be ready when you make those new steps. It’s always been important to me; to be ready for the next level.
Turning 22 years old in July, he has had several international experiences to draw from as well culminating in Team Finland’s gold medal at the 2019 World Juniors where he scored one goal in the seven games and was a +5.
“Obviously the World Junior tournament was unbelievable and probably one of the greatest experiences of my life with the success and the group of guys we had. It’s been great. It’s always nice to put on the Finnish National Team jersey. Finnish hockey is growing every year. It’s always a competition, but my hope is one day to be in a position to compete for a spot (on the Olympic team).
With less than one month to go in his first North American professional season, Laaksonen is planning to head home for the summer, but not be too far from his Buffalo system teammates and countrymen.
“Hopefully head home and a little vacation with the Finnish guys; we’ll see what happens with (Rasmus) Ristolainen, (Henri) Jokiharju and Ukko (-Pekka Luukkonen). We’ll probably do something. Then enjoy my time and train. You spend so much time here and when you go home you enjoy it even more, so spend time with my family, friends and train and mentally get ready for next year.”