Finland produces a lot of top quality goaltenders, many of which come into the NHL. There’s something about the Finns that makes them perfect for this position. They are big and quick, but their overall calm demeanor is what makes them so successful. That calm translates into keen focus and unflappable presence. Most Finn goalies handle the pressures of guarding the net with ease. They are not easily rattled. If a puck gets past them, they are able to maintain their concentration, and not let it disrupt their entire game. Also, since the late 1980’s, Finland has been focusing on position and technique programs for young goalies all the way up to the SM-Liiga professional league. Of the 22 Finnish players currently playing in the NHL, 8 are goalies, and mostly impressive ones at that. Coincidentally, all but two of the Finn goalies play in the Western Conference. Let’s take a look.
Miikka Kiprusoff is a strong and very competitive goaltender, who consistently plays 70+ games for the Calgary Flames each season. It might do him some good to let his back-up, Henrik Karlsson, play every once in a while, but his competitive nature pushes him to be in the net as much as humanly possible. Kiprusoff is a huge component of the Calgary Flames and has been since he first played with them in 2003-2004. He had an insanely low GAA of 1.69 and a .933 save percentage that season. That was also the year he led the Flames to the 7-game Stanley Cup Final versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. Although Calgary didn’t win the Cup, Kiprusoff made a name for himself in Calgary and in the NHL. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2005-2006, as well as the William M. Jennings Trophy for lowest goals against that season. His extraordinary goal tending has paved the way for other Finnish goalies in the NHL. Kiprusoff’s NHL career so far includes 529 games played, 276 wins, 177 losses, 51 OT wins, and 40 SO wins with a GAA of 2.46 and a .913 save %.
Kari Lehtonen is a big presence in front of the net at 6′ 4″ and 215 lbs. His size alone is an asset to any team he plays for. He is also good handling the puck. Lehtonen was the first round draft pick by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2002. He was drafted 2nd overall after an awesome season in Finland’s SM-Liiga, where he earned Player of the Year, Goaltender of the Year, and Playoff MVP in his 2001-2002 season. Lehtonen played well for Atlanta, but missed many games due to injuries. He was traded to the Dallas Stars in Feb. 2010 and played 12 games with them that year. He played 69 games this past season and looks to be staying healthy. He has the potential to have a great NHL career if he keeps his health up. Lehtonen’s NHL career so far includes 285 games played, 134 wins, 111 losses, 28 OT wins, and 17 SO wins with a GAA of 2.79 and a .913 save %.
Niklas Backstrom began his NHL career with the Minnesota Wild in 2006, signing as a free agent. He was initially signed to back up Manny Fernandez, but ended up taking over the starting spot after Fernandez was injured early in the season. His consistent play and passion for the game allowed him to keep that spot. He is a phenomenal player to watch; a perfect example of that calm and cool Finn goalie style. He is a smooth and consistent goalie and an integral part of the Minnesota Wild’s defensive team. Niklas Backstrom won the William M. Jennings Trophy during his first NHL season when he had a GAA of 1.97. That same year he also won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for the best save percentage in the NHL at .929%. Backstrom’s NHL career so far includes 281 games played, 141 wins, 91 losses, 35 OT wins, and 5 SO wins with a GAA of 2.42 and a .918 save %.
I was able to see a lot of Antero Niittymaki while he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2009-2010. He is another good example of the calm and focused goalie, but he does have a tendency to be a bit inconsistent. He can be really great or just mediocre. He had lower body injuries last season while with the San Jose Sharks that kept him from playing 17 games in 2011. While he was out, another Finn goalie, Antti Niemi, took over the starting goalie position in San Jose. Niitty is probably best known for his performance in the 2006 Winter Olympics, where he led Finland to the silver medal. He was named MVP for being the best goaltender in those games. Niitty’s NHL career so far includes 234 games played, 95 wins, 54 losses, 31 OT wins, and 5 SO wins with a GAA of 2.95 and a .902 save %.
Antti Niemi was signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2008. He played with Chicago for the 2008-2009 season and the 2009-2010 season when they won the Stanley Cup. Niemi played 22 games in those 2009-2010 playoffs recording 16 wins, 6 losses, and 2 SO wins. He became the first Finnish goalie to win the Stanley Cup. After that Cup winning season, Niemi signed as an unrestricted free agent with the San Jose Sharks where he currently plays the starting position. Another Finn, Antero Niittymaki, plays his back-up. Niemi’s NHL career so far includes 102 games played, 62 wins, 26 losses, 11 OT wins, and 13 SO wins with a GAA of 2.36 and a .916 save %.
Pekka Rinne is probably my favorite current Finn goalie in the NHL. He is a big guy like Kari Lehtonen. At 6’5″ and 207 lbs, he covers much of the net with pure size. He shows a good amount of skill for a young player of 28, with a lot of time for improvement. Pekka was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2004 and played with them beginning in the 2005-2006 season. Rinne played great this past season, earning him a Vezina Trophy nomination, and leading the Predators into the Western Conference semi-finals for the first time in franchise history. Nashville’s great defense helps to boost his stats. It will be interesting to see if he stays in Nashville after this season. He can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2011-2012 season. Rinne has played in 2 playoff runs with the Predators beginning in 2009-2010. He has 18 playoff games played, 8 wins and 10 losses with a GAA of 2.61 and .908 save percentage. Rinne’s NHL career so far includes 177 games played, 95 wins, 54 losses, 18 OT wins, and 20 SO wins with a GAA of 2.33 and a .920 save %.
Tuukka Rask was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005. He was a first round pick, 21st overall. He never played for Toronto in the NHL. In 2006, he was traded to the Boston Bruins. He played his first season with Boston in 2007-2008. He led all goalies in the NHL with a .931 save percentage in 2009-2010, earning him the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award. He surpassed Tim Thomas that season and took the starting goalie position for the Bruins. Considering Tim Thomas’ epic goal tending skills, that’s impressive in itself. However, this past season, he lost the starting goalie position again to Tim Thomas. Rask was part of the team that won the Stanley Cup this season, but he did not play any games due to Tim Thomas’ dominance of the playoffs. Rask’s NHL career so far includes 79 games played, 36wins, 27 losses, 8 OT wins, and 8 SO wins with a GAA of 2.25 and a .925 save %.
Mikko Koskinen is the youngest Finnish goalie in the NHL at 23. He was drafted by the New York Islanders in 2009, 2nd round, 31st overall. He played only 4 games this past season, which were his first in the NHL. He had 2 wins and 1 loss with a GAA of 4.35 and a .873 save percentage. Although he had 2 wins, it was a rough start due to the amount of goals he let in. However, Koskinen is young and just needs time and practice to build up to NHL level play.
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Tags: Antero Niittymaki Antti Niemi Boston Bruins Calgary Flames Chicago Blackhawks Dallas Stars Finn Goalies Kari Lehtonen Miikka Kiprusoff Mikko Koskinen Minnesota Wild Nashville Predators New York Islanders Niklas Backstrom Pekka Rinne San Jose Sharks Tuuka Rask