MONTREAL – The meeting inside the KeyBank Center in scouts group went so long with Topias Leinonen that some hockey players with the Sabers joked that the 6-foot-6 goalkeeper wanted nothing to do with Buffalo in the NHL draft.
The 18-year-old took over the room with his social personality and self-confidence. They were already stunned by what they saw of him on the ice, including the shading reel and rescue saves. Although Lenonen had some inconsistent moments during his qualifying season for the enlistment, he always seemed to respond with a solid performance.
“We feel like it’s just scratching the surface,” said Jerry Forton, Sabers’ amateur scouting manager. “The idea of having this guy and our hands on him for the next few years is really exciting for us. I will add that there was a huge gap in our list for the next goalkeeper.”
The Sabers had 11 draft picks at their disposal, including three in the first round. The only argument between them was when to accept Lenonen and in the end, they weren’t willing to risk hearing another team pick a goalkeeper they rated as the best in their class.
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When Sword of the Clock was in the second round with a pick of 41, they announced Lennonen’s pick. He is a massive physical specimen weighing 233 pounds and his wingspan of 78.5 inches was the sixth longest among the participants when the event was held in Buffalo. This wasn’t considered a solid draft for goalkeepers – Leinonen was the first to be shot – but he is ranked as the best European goalkeeper.
Sabers general manager Kevin Adams insisted the position was not a priority due to questions surrounding their ability to sign potential goalkeeper Eric Portillo. However, selecting Leinonen above many expected was a move to ensure the organization was well stocked in the crease below the NHL.
“Our plan throughout going into this draft was to draft a goalkeeper,” Adams said when the Cypress draft was completed at the Bell Center. “As I played this morning we had to pick 41, we felt very strongly that this was the right time to make that happen. I really feel there is a huge upside with our goalkeeper there. A big kid, he has really shown signs of being a top-level goalkeeper, and it will take some time to develop. It’s good to have options, and you want depth in the network.”
Leinonen is a very different goalkeeper than Devon Levy, the ultra-competitive 20-year-old who broke school records at Northeastern University last season. While Levi’s is technically healthy and lightning fast in his curls, he’s only 6 feet tall. He, like Portillo, is set to return to school in the fall, although it has become clear that Sabers is confident signing Levi won’t be a problem.
However, the development path of Leinonen will be similar. It may be a few years before it moves to North America. He needs time to work on his technique, especially the gauntlet and blocker speed. Leinonen has rarely played professional hockey and would benefit from having more matches with JYP from Finland’s Liiga.
There is also a final adjustment to the surface of smaller ice in North America, which may be more challenging for some than others.
The Sabers have not been able to find a long-term goalkeeper since Ryan Miller, but they have a track record of success in development since Seamus Kotyk rose to his role as an organizational goalkeeper mentor under former general manager Jason Putrell in 2017. Kotyk’s work, after all, With Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen while moving to North America. He also mentored Portillo and Levi through college seasons to set records.
Lukkonen, another great 6-foot-5 Finnish goalkeeper, had an impressive debut season in the Ontario Hockey League in 2018-19 when he won the MVP award just a few months after leading Finland to the gold medal in the IIHF World Junior. championship.
Injuries have delayed Luukkonen’s full-time arrival in the NHL. Talent isn’t the issue, as evidenced by his 0.913 saves percentage in 13 NHL games with Buffalo. Cypress will count on Kotyk to work with Leinonen through the inconsistency shown at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in May, when he scored a meager 897 saves in five matches.
“We had so much information about this kid and the player that we think he’s just scratching the surface,” Fortun added.
There are other factors to consider when evaluating Lenonen’s performance on the ice during his qualifying season. It is said that the team he spent the bulk of his time with, JYP Under-20 Club, played poorly defensively and often had to keep them in matches. He still has 0.916 saves and 2.28 goals-to-average with two intensities in 21 games. And while he has struggled in four games in the Finnish top professional league, few teenage goalkeepers can make an immediate impact there.
Swordsmen don’t have to rush at Lenonin. Luukkonen is on the cusp of the NHL, and they expect at least Levi to land next spring. The bridge option for the NHL roster is Buffalo’s next step. But all of Sabers’ draft table participants felt better about their depth in position after Adams picked his first goalkeeper.
“It was a great day for us,” he said.
Here are some other takeaways from Sabers’ second day in the draft:
1. Viktor Nyushev’s talent outweighed the risks of choosing a Russian with a higher choice. Nushev, a dynamic right winger, scored 40 goals and 67 points in 61 matches for his club in the country’s junior league. His scoring production was tied for third place in the MHL Championship and his best shots on target were 363 in the league with 53 more shots than the player who finished second.
Sabers Neuchev’s analytics team gave him a second-round score, and the club’s final standings would have him go late in the first round or early in the second round. When the 18-year-old was still available in the third round at the 74th pick, Buffalo made the pick.
“Nyushev was, in our minds, one of the top three players outside of Russia this year,” said Fortun. “As a scorer, which is obvious, he was driving play himself. A very competitive kid, great stick. … We really love the combination of playmaking ability, being able to drive play himself and having an outstanding scoring element in his game.”
Neuchev was also chosen because the Sabers scouts in Eastern Europe are satisfied with the organization’s chances of introducing 6-foot-2 to North America, although it won’t be any time soon. His club in Russia, Yekaterinburg Automobilist, recently appointed Red Wings legend Pavel Datsyuk as development coach, giving Buffalo confidence that Nochev will be able to develop his game there.
2. Ryan Johnson will make up his mind after development camp. Adams met Johnson’s representatives, who were drafted by the Sabers for 31st place in 2019. The left-footed defender is deciding between returning to school in his first season – which would likely indicate he’ll explore unrestricted free agency next summer – or signing with Buffalo. The sword’s depth of defense is a factor in Johnson’s decision-making here. He will be on the ice for development camp next week and the two sides will meet again when it is complete.
3. Jake Richard was an interesting addition in the sixth round. Richard, the 17-year-old winger, has had an impressive first season in the USHL, filled with college-age players. He scored 18 goals and 57 points despite the slow start. UConn’s commitment climbed into the top six and showed so much maturity that the coaches there considered bringing him to the NCAA in the fall. While Forton said no official decision has been made, he expects the prospect to return to Muskegon for another season. Richard is already 6ft 1 and can put the disc into the net.
4. Cypress’ decision to select only two defensemen was a product of their rating. Adams acknowledged there was less urgency in adding to the position because Buffalo has six young players in the NHL, but it was a matter of availability when the sword was on the clock. They still had a skilled defensive man left in the fourth round when Mats Lindgren fell to Buffalo in the 106th pick.
Although he’s a bit small at 5ft 11, his game fits the way many defenders play in the NHL. He has a high speed, creates an offense by joining the rush and is an excellent pass. His father, also named Mats, played roles in seven seasons in the NHL. Lindgren has played a prominent role with the Kamloops of the Western Hockey League aged 17 this season. He doesn’t lack confidence either.
“I think in the qualifiers I really showed that I can play in two directions,” Lindgren said. “Before the season I was kind of defensive and offensive, but I think I’ve proven over the season that I can play both sides and I’m really excited about that. You watch the best players in the NHL, and they play on both sides of the game. That’s the player I want to be. My goal It is to win the Norris Cup one day.”
5. The analytics team, led by Sam Ventura, played a key role before and during the draft. During the season, they used data models to target players that Sabers scouts need to see in person, as well as use their preliminary score on each prospect to compare what the staff had generated based on ratings and other factors. If there is a disparity, the two sides work together to understand why and how it might affect Buffalo’s plans.
“Sam Ventura and his crew came to me talking about how happy they were with the way the draft went from their perspective,” said Forton. “I said the same thing to them. It doesn’t mean we didn’t have some disagreements about some of the players we took, but both sides understood what we were looking at and faced each other a little bit at certain points in the draft.”
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