The Buffalo Sabres’ 2017 2nd round pick (54th overall), Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was voted as the winner of the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s “Most Outstanding Player”. He was also selected as the OHL Goaltender of the Year.
As a 19-year-old this past season, “UPL” posted a 38-11-6 record which was tied for the league lead in terms of games won. He posted the 3rd best GAA with a 2.50, the league’s best save percentage at .920, and tied for the league lead in shutouts (6).
Fun Fact: Gilbert Perrault was one of several other Sabres’ players to receive the Red Tilson Trophy back in 1970.
After “UPL” and the Sudbury Wolves were eliminated in the 2nd round of the OHL playoffs, the Finnish goaltender got a taste of the North American professional game in the AHL with the Rochester Amerks. For the last game of the regular season, “UPL” made his debut in a 4-2 win over the Belleville Senators. He faced 34 shots and posted a .941 save percentage.
It is easy to see why Luukkonen was voted as the “Most Outstanding Player” in the OHL this past season. However, will that production transfer to the NHL level with the Buffalo Sabres, and when could we see that happen?
Unlike forwards and defensemen, goaltenders are much more difficult to project NHL success while they are labeled as prospects. Goaltenders typically will spend some time in the AHL before being called up to the big club. While skaters tend to enter the NHL around 20 years of age, goalies usually enter the league closer to 22-23 years of age, sometimes even later.
To put that into perspective, of the goalies who played in at least 20 games this season, there were only six who were under 25 years of age. There was just one goalie under 22 years old. With that being said, some might say “UPL” is still 2-3 years away. However, it is not impossible to see him play sooner.
Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers debuted at just 20 years old this season while posting a 30-16-13 record with a .917 save percentage and a 2.83 GAA. Although these stats don’t jump off the page, these are very respectable stats for a goalie his age.
On the other hand, you look at one of the Calder Trophy finalists in Jordan Binnington of the St. Louis Blues, and his journey to the NHL is a bit of a longer story. While he technically made his debut with the Blues in the 2015-16 season at 22 years old, he only played in one game for 13 minutes as he went in as relief.
At 25 years of age, Binnington started in 30 games this season and posted a 24-5-1 record while recording a .926 save percentage, a 1.91 GAA, and five shutouts. Although rookies are not typically 25 years old, Binnington was well deserving of a Calder Trophy finalist spot.
The two examples above show why some goalies can play in the NHL as soon as two years after being drafted, and some need a little bit more time to develop.
While UPL may see some time as soon as next season, it very well could be a few more years before he makes a consistent impact between the pipes for the Buffalo Sabres.