After long road back, Makiniemi sees the light

Photo: Mike Zitek

by Nick Nollenberger | AHL On The Beat

When the San Jose Sharks traded franchise icon Brent Burns to the Carolina Hurricanes on July 13, 2022, part of the compensation coming back the other way included promising young goaltender Eetu Makiniemi.

Although it was a small sample size – just 14 games with the Chicago Wolves in 2021-22 – Makiniemi made quite an impression in his first season in North America, going 11-2-1 with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage, to go along with a pair of shutouts. That Wolves team would win the Calder Cup, but unfortunately for Makiniemi, he was back home in Finland, rehabbing what would turn out to be the first of two major surgeries over a 14-month span.

Last season, his first in San Jose’s organization, Makiniemi appeared in 22 games with the Barracuda and two in the NHL with the Sharks. In his first and only NHL start, he made 24 saves on 25 shots and picked up a 6-1 win at Anaheim on Dec. 9, 2022.

Unfortunately, a nagging lower-body injury that he dealt with throughout the season ultimately required season-ending surgery in February to ensure that he would be 100 percent healthy for this year.

To begin 2023-24, Makiniemi played one game on Oct. 20, and then an unrelated injury popped up that kept him sidelined for the next three weeks. On Nov. 16, he was assigned to the ECHL for a conditioning stint, where he played a pair of games before returning to the Barracuda.

Now healthy, Makiniemi is ready to put his injury woes behind him and get back to where he was before. On Nov. 29, in his third appearance of the year with the Barracuda, he turned aside 31 of the 34 shots he faced in a 5-3 win at Coachella Valley, his first victory since Jan. 20 of last season. It was also the team’s first win against the Firebirds in 11 attempts (0-6-2-2).

“After the injuries, you start to appreciate it even more when you’re actually healthy.” said Makiniemi. “No hockey player wants to be in the stands and not with the team. It’s been a couple of tough years because of the injuries, but I’m just excited to get back to where I was.”

Feeling helpless and frustrated can be common emotions when you deal with the type of unlucky stretch that he has. But for the Vantaa, Finland, native, being around family and resetting his mind and body was invaluable during his time away from the rink.

“For me, the biggest part was that I was able to get back to Finland with my family, away from everything. Just being with the family is the biggest part of mental stuff.”

The Sharks still view the former fourth-rounder as a high-end prospect and a potential future solution in net. But, for now, it’s about growing his confidence and being patient.

“I think it’s two things: it’s communication and patience,” said Sharks director of goaltending Evgeni Nabokov. “We’ve got to understand what he went through. Recovery is never easy, so you’ve got to manage that. Manage the workload. You just have to hear him out when he’s feeling it and when he’s not… Continue to build confidence.”

The tools that made Makiniemi a desirable piece in the Burns trade are still there. But it’s about building him back to where he was and then growing beyond that. Without being able to practice as much as he would have liked over the last two years, he recognizes it’s a process to get back to where he was.

“I’m just happy to be able to practice and start to get better again,” Makiniemi said. “I’ve been kind of staying the same for two years because of the injuries. I’ve only been able to practice for six months in two years so you’re not able to improve during that time, so that’s why I’m happy to start practicing again, and just get better.”

What’s on his side is time. At just 24, he’s still a couple of years away from when most goaltenders are just starting to find their stride. That’s something he tries to keep in mind as well.

“For a goalie, you’re at your prime at 27, or something like that, so I’m still a young goalie. There’s definitely room to improve and I’m at that age that I really need to push myself right now. But at the same time, I have had the injuries, so I need to be smart with it.”

For Nabokov, it’s about getting Makiniemi in games. There is no replacement for game and practice reps.

“Just like the rest of the guys, we’re trying to get him in more games. He needs to have more consistency but, again, that’s where the patience comes in and communication comes in. That’s the goal, get him in more games, and have him play more consistently.”

With just a combined 57 combined AHL games played amongst its three goaltenders, the Barracuda have one of the most inexperienced groups in the entire league. Now back on ice, a healthy Eetu Makiniemi could go a long way in getting the Barracuda where they believe they can be, and that’s in the playoffs.

And for the Sharks, it’s about getting him back to where he was before, and that’s a top goalie prospect in the organization.