The Strong Finnishers

Justin Goldman

2008-09-08

 Kipper

 

The development of Finland’s native goaltenders and their great success at the professional and international scene has been covered extensively over the last few seasons by many scouts and pro writers. While some attribute this recent Finnish crease dominance to the great goalie coaching systems used for many years within their national programs, others are saying that, more importantly, goalies from Finland are getting bigger and faster and adjusting their style to better suit play in North America. But the more I continue to analyze the Finnish goalies in the NHL and AHL, the more I realize there’s still something that hasn’t been uncovered about their development.

 

For example, NHL.com’s Bill Meltzer  does a great job documenting the growth of the technically-sound positional systems taught by a select few goalie coaches in the country. During the early 1990’s, Finnish goalies were always considered under-sized at an average of 5-foot-8, yet very agile and acrobatic players. Less than two decades later and now they’re taller (averaging around 6-foot-1), stronger and playing a more in-your-face butterfly style, where goalies play higher up in their crease and take away more space, instead of always relying on reflexes and agility.

Even world-renowned goaltending coaches like Vancouver’s Ian Clarke says that Finnish goalies are not just more positionally sound and taller than before, they also have incredible instincts AND they’re overall just amazing athletes. Put it all together and Clarke paints a very positive picture for the future of Finland’s production at the goalie position. Take nothing away from these observations, for the world truly needs to recognize the increasing power of their raw skills and cool-as-ice mental focus.

Still, there’s an obvious missing piece of the puzzle. What hasn’t been brought to light about the Finnish goalies is the time needed for them to develop and play at their best. I see such a very strong correlation between age and level of play – so strong in fact that I can say with confidence that clearly Finnish goalies take longer to reach their pinnacle talent level. But once they get there, boy you’d better watch out because they are capable of doing some incredible things for your fantasy team. I also see a strong correlation between skill level for the goalies that actually stay in Finland and develop their game for at least three to four seasons and those that decide to start their pro careers much earlier in North America.

Miikka Kiprusoff (6-foot-1) turns 32 on October 26th and will obviously act as the ultimate example, because right now he’s the true living, breathing example. At the ripe age of 27, Kipper set a new career-low GAA with a 1.69 mark during the 2003-04 regular season and then led the Flames to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Following the lockout, Kipper captured the Jennings and Vezina Trophies at the age of 29. Sure, his GAA has gone up since then, but it’s not due to a decline in talent. Rather it could be seen as more of a product of the team in front of him, so with contract negotiations behind him, Kipper is poised to dominate the crease again in 2008-09 at 32 and remains one of the top-five goalies chosen in most fantasy leagues.

Vesa Toskala (5-foot-10) turned 31 back in May and is one of the most mentally tough goalies in the game. His size is the rare exception to the growth in Finnish goalies, yet he’s one of the few Toronto goalies to handle the barrage of shots (on and off the ice) and still play with a focused mentality. He’s only going to play better this season and he’s not in jeopardy of crumbling like Andrew Raycroft did. Toskala didn’t play North American pro hockey until the 2000-2001 season (Kentucky of the AHL) when he was already 23 years of age. So considering he’s entering only his second season as a true full-time starter, you have to expect Toskala to still play the best hockey of his career in the next two or three seasons.

Antero Niittymaki