Riku Helenius is back in North America to prepare for the new AHL season, and he’s on a mission to raise some hell in Tampa Bay’s goalie depth chart.
The starting gig in Syracuse rightfully belongs to Dustin Tokarski, but Helenius didn’t sign a new two-year contract (two-way the first year, one-way the second year) with the Lightning to sit on the bench. He wants to play every game, and he has the skills to earn just as many starts as Tokarski.
“Tick” won’t make it easy, however. He’s on the cusp of becoming a full-time NHL backup, so the former WHL standout is pushing hard to finally prove to the organization that, once and for all, he’s fit for the job.
And while I do think he’s close, he’s still not 100-percent ready to back up Anders Lindback.
But Helenius is a former first-round draft pick (15th overall in 2006) and is coming off an SM-liiga championship with JYP. He did this by posting a 1.64 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in the regular season, then a 1.73 GAA and .947 SV% in 13 playoff games. For his efforts, he earned the Urpo Ylönen Award as the league’s best goaltender.
Being a first-round draft pick might not make a difference to you and me, but to the Lightning, there’s a sense of urgency to legitimize his high selection. That means he’s likely to earn some opportunities that other goalies might not receive, and that bodes well for a guy with so much confidence right now.
Furthermore, Riku has been developing at a steady pace with JYP goalie coach Jarkko Hyytiä, and now at the age of 24, he’s ready to prove his worth at the AHL and NHL levels.
So the battle in the Crunch’s crease is on, and this intriguing duel is sure to see some sparks fly.
RIKU HITS THE ICE IN EDINA
Since Riku’s agent is friends with former NHL goaltender Robb Stauber, he was able to secure some ice time at Stauber’s Goalcrease training center in Edina. Goalie coach Jeff Hall personally invited me to come out and evaluate Helenius during their training session on Thursday, and even though I had originally planned to scout Day 2 of the NAHL Showcase up in Blaine, I couldn’t miss this rare opportunity to see one of the top Finnish goalie prospects.
So I was there faster than a Pekka Rinne reflex save.
Once we hit the ice, the first thing that stuck out to me was Riku’s extremely wide stance, but more importantly, how well it worked for him. His feet really flare out beyond his shoulders, and even for a flexible and athletic Finnish goalie, his balance points (front, back, and vertical) are pretty unique. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 198 pounds, he doesn’t necessarily look that big in the crease due to having such a wide stance, but he still sits very tall and upright in the butterfly.
Like most successful Finnish prospects, Riku’s quickness and athleticism are two of his finest traits.
To be honest, there’s not much I take away from a simple one-hour training session this early in the new season. He was clearly not at peak performance in terms of his stamina, which is only fair to expect from a guy that is just starting to fire up the blades in preparation for training camp.
I also hold off on posting more than a few scouting notes because I don’t have any comparisons to work with. He spent the past two years in Europe, so it has been quite some time since I’ve last seen him play a full game. Obviously he has come a long way since his run with Norfolk in 2009-10, as he has more experience, intelligence, and body control than ever before.
Either way, you can still get a good idea of how he moves in the crease from these three videos. For the most part, he was smooth and in control of his slides, yet extremely quick to seal the ice, or to pop back up to both skates and square up to Jeff’s shots.
I also really appreciated his stick discipline, his active hand placement (in front of the body), and his ability to make minor adjustments as verbally dictated to him by coach Hall.
Beyond the movement and recovery drills you see in the videos, Helenius did some unique skating and agility drills in the first 10 minutes, then finished up the session with some patented Goalcrease puck-handling drills.
Away from the technical stuff, it was a treat to personally meet Riku and talk about one of my favorite subjects, music. Many of you know I’m a huge Finnish metal fan, so I naturally had to ask him what kind of music he liked. Although his answer included country, I was excited to hear he was also a fan of some of my favorite bands, including Kalmah, Children of Bodom, and some others.
As a former first-round draft pick, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Riku’s potential in a Lightning uniform. Despite the fact GM Steve Yzerman signed Lindback over the summer and drafted Andrei Vasilevski in the first round, there’s no doubt in my mind he realizes that Riku has the potential to evolve into a very solid NHL goaltender over the next 2-3 years.
Otherwise that new two-year contract wouldn’t include a “one-way” clause in the final year.