Amerks leaning on Luukkonen

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

Nothing about Rochester Americans goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s pro development has been a straight line.

In April 2019, for example, Luukkonen made his pro debut in Rochester’s season finale, then days later underwent double hip surgery.

The thing is, plenty of optimism had surrounded Luukkonen’s arrival in Western New York three years ago. He had just finished a standout junior season in Sudbury, where he was named both the goaltender of the year and the most outstanding player in the entire Ontario Hockey League. He also took Finland to a gold medal at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.

But mix in something as significant as hip surgery, followed by two seasons disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, dramatic management front-office turnover for the parent Buffalo Sabres, a coaching change in Rochester, and the normal developmental ups and downs of an AHL goaltender, and the 23-year-old’s pro career has been nothing if not eventful.

“Very few [prospects] have a straight line,” Amerks head coach Seth Appert said. “And we’d like to sometimes believe they [do]. You know, everybody talks about Jack Quinn and what a year he’s had, but let’s look back to last year. He played 15 games and scored two goals and had to go through a lot of adversity.”

Now the Amerks need Luukkonen, a 2017 Buffalo second-round selection, to do something else rather eventful ― lead this Rochester team into the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Something like this past Saturday night would be nice for Luukkonen and his teammates. Luukkonen frustrated the desperate Hartford Wolf Pack at Blue Cross Arena with a 36-save, first-star performance to take a much-needed 2-1 win. A night earlier, Luukkonen had battled Belleville Senators counterpart Filip Gustavsson, allowing only a penalty-shot goal and a power-play goal while making 25 saves and earning third-star honors. Last Wednesday, Luukkonen and the Amerks pulled out a 4-3 overtime win against the streaking Laval Rocket.

“Especially the last two games I feel like I’ve been in the game and able to control it,” Luukkonen said after defeating Hartford. “I’m behind the pucks and not chasing it.”

Rochester continues to be locked in a North Division playoff battle with five games to go on its regular-season schedule. At 35-27-6-3 (.556), the Amerks trail Toronto (.561) for the final playoff spot with playoff-bound Springfield coming to town Tuesday night. Then a three-in-three weekend begins with a road game in Utica followed by a home-and-home with Cleveland.

Photo: Micheline V

Lately Appert has leaned on Luukkonen, giving him three consecutive starts despite having NHL veteran Aaron Dell available. This week’s stretch is another test for Luukkonen.

“I wasn’t thinking that I will play all three,” Luukkonen said of his busy week. “But you know, if the call comes, of course you have to be ready for it. I’m a young guy, so I always appreciate playing a lot of minutes, especially when the [games] go well, there’s nothing to complain about.”

In all, Luukkonen has gone 13-13-5 in 31 games for the Amerks, recording a 3.37 goals-against average and an .899 save percentage. However, hit hard by injuries and recalls to Buffalo this season, Rochester has allowed 32.6 shots per game, fourth-most in the AHL, and the Amerks have been outshot in 49 of their 71 games this season. Luukkonen has seen 30 or more shots in 18 of those 31 appearances, and is averaging 33.3 shots faced per 60 minutes.

“[Luukkonen] is going through what almost all young talented goalies go through ― a lot of ups and downs,” Appert said. “He’s also had injuries that he’s had to overcome in his years in pro. He’s also had shortened seasons because of COVID. So, he is far behind, realistically, the number of games played that the organization would love for him to have three years in.

“This is part of the process.”

Any prospect would be tested mentally by Luukkonen’s first three seasons so far. Luukkonen’s rookie season was delayed by recovery from his hip surgery, and then was mostly spent in the ECHL before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season in March. A year later, he opened the season at home, playing 13 games for Finnish Liiga club TPS Turku before returning to North America.

Simply put, an AHL goaltending prospect needs a heavy workload, and the Amerks are now giving him that down the stretch. Securing a playoff berth would offer even more opportunity to load up on playing time, especially if the Amerks could go on an extended run.

“The mental side is something that [Luukkonen] works diligently on,” Appert continued. “He knows that that is an avenue to keep getting better. He is very active in that in terms of who he works with on the mental side and attacking that, and I think that those things are helping him, and I see that growth in his game.”

Luukkonen’s teammates trust him, too, and these late-season performances can only reinforce that belief.

“He makes a big save, and you’re able to feed off that energy,” Amerks captain Michael Mersch said after the Hartford victory. “He allowed us to win the game.”