By Warren Kozireski–
Much has happened to Buffalo Sabres 2017 pick Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen since he was selected 54th overall and told the media assembled in Chicago that he was disappointed in not being taken in the first round, but “but I’m just going to be a second round story.”
And the soon-to-be 20-year old (March 9) has.
He made the enormous leap over the ocean leaving his native Finland to learn the North American game with Sudbury in the Ontario Hockey League. Through his first 43 appearances for the first place Wolves, the 6’5”, 212 lb. had 31 wins with a sparkling 2.51 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.
In December/January, he returned to play for Team Finland at the IIHF Under-20 World Junior championships and backstopped his team to a gold medal. In six games against his contemporaries, he registered a1.80 GAA and .932 save percentage.
“It’s been real good for me to come here,” Luukkonen said in mid-February. “I really didn’t know how the league would be or how the games here would be and it was tough to adjust at the start, but we had a good team from the start so that helped.
“I think the same thing (coming back from) World Juniors, but it was nice to come back to the guys and help the team win. It’s been real good to come here (because) the game is a lot faster here and it’s going to get even faster when you go levels up from here.
“It’s been good for me to practice that and it was good practice from World Juniors to play the games here (on the smaller ice surfaces).
“It’s a lot more (games played) and I like it,” Luukkonen said about his workload compared to last season in Finland. “It’s something that will teach you how to be a starting goalie and how to schedule the week with practices and games, so it’s taking care of yourself and taking the responsibility to look after yourself.”
“You just have to trust your teammates and trust your team. You won’t win games with one or two players or with one or two lines. Your whole team has to play together and I think that’s the biggest takeaway for me.”
The plan as of now is for Luukkonen to sign a pro contract after his postseason with Sudbury ends. Options could include also inking an Amateur Tryout Contract allowing him to join Rochester for their stretch run, but any games played would not count against his entry-level deal.
Before that, Luukkonen has and will benefit from a year spent away from home and learning the North American game.
“Every kid who gets drafted dreams about playing in the NHL and making pros and next year will be one step closer to that. You want to prove that it was the right decision to draft you, so I have been doing everything to prove myself that I was a good draft pick.”