Makiniemi making case among Canes crease hopefuls

Photo: Ross Dettman

📝 by Patrick Williams

What Chicago Wolves goaltender Eetu Makiniemi faces in his battle to earn a job with the Carolina Hurricanes goes well beyond the many talented American Hockey League shooters he will see this season.

Start by breaking down Carolina’s organizational depth chart in net.

Right now the Hurricanes have the highly capable Frederik AndersenAntti Raanta tandem under contract through next season. Both 32 years old and AHL graduates themselves, Andersen (11-5-0, 2.05 goals-against average, .928 save percentage) and Raanta (6-4-1, 2.41, .904) have taken Carolina to a 17-6-1 mark and three points off the Eastern Conference pace following a 4-2 road win against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday.

Behind Andersen and Raanta on that depth chart is Alex Lyon, a 28-year-old with six seasons of pro experience to serve as a top-end AHL goaltender and a reliable go-to option for NHL recall duty. Lyon signed with the Carolina organization this past summer and has been excellent with the Wolves in going 6-1-1 with a 1.47 GAA (second-best in the AHL) and a . 935 save percentage that ranks third in the league. Each summer, NHL organizations make it a top priority to add a goaltender like Lyon, someone with top-flight experience who can ease the pain of an injury striking one of their NHL netminders.

Then there is Beck Warm, who showed capably enough last season with the Wolves on an AHL contract to earn a two-year entry-level deal a month into the 2020-21 season. Warm, 22, is 6-4-1 in 11 games for Carolina’s ECHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, and owns a 2.21 GAA along with a .932 save percentage. Over in the Kontinental Hockey League, the Canes have 22-year-old Pyotr Kochetkov (6-5-2, 2.22, .927) getting a steady workload with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod; Carolina took Kochetkov in the second round of the 2019 NHL Draft.

The goaltending riches extend to the amateur side as well. Jack LaFontaine, 23, is a junior at the University of Minnesota, where he won the Mike Richter Award as the college game’s top goaltender last season in addition to being a Hobey Baker Award finalist. In the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Carolina also has 2021 third-round pick Patrik Hamrla, who is in his first North American season with Rimouski.

And then there is Makiniemi, a cheerful 22-year-old product of high-calibre Liiga competition in his native Finland who has made a smooth transition to the AHL. As Makiniemi finds his way through his first AHL season, he does so fully aware that the competition for future crease time with Carolina presents a rather daunting path.

But Makiniemi certainly presents a strong case of his own for one of those future Carolina jobs. Playing for Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky amid a deep group of Carolina prospects, Makiniemi is following a tried-and-true slow path that has served many young goaltenders coming out of Finland’s traditionally strong pool.

A 2017 fourth-round pick by Carolina, Makiniemi spent the next four seasons making his way up the Finnish ranks. He was named the top goaltender in the second-division Mestis in 2019-20, and took on a 34-game workload with Liiga club Ilves Tampere last year.

Said Warsofsky, “You can tell he’s not overwhelmed by the moment. Technically, knows what he’s doing.”

“It helped a lot,” Makiniemi said of his season with Ilves in one of Finland’s great hockey cities. “I think the Finnish league is really good for a goalie, and for me it was a good situation. I got lots of games last season, so that helped out a lot. I feel like last season was really good for me. I learned so much from it, especially mentally.”

With that training, it was time for Makiniemi to take on the last ― and most difficult ― challenge before a hoped-for NHL career. Carolina bringing in Lyon during the offseason set up Makiniemi for a smoother development path and gives both the Hurricanes and the Wolves that sort of needed veteran reliability.

Makiniemi has been plenty reliable himself, however. At 8-2-1 through his first 11 AHL games, he owns a 2.09 GAA that is fourth-best in the league and a .923 percentage that places him eighth among a stout group of goaltenders.

Three times last week the Lyon-Makiniemi tandem frustrated an Iowa Wild club that ranks 11th in the AHL in scoring at 3.06 goals per game. Lyon shut out Iowa twice and Makiniemi provided a 23-save win as the Wolves swept the week. Or ask the Grand Rapids Griffins, another Wolves rival: They saw Makiniemi four times in a four-week span and came away with four losses and a total of seven goals.

Alex Lyon and Eetu Makiniemi have been a formidable duo in net for the Wolves this season. (Photo: Ross Dettman)

For the 14-4-1-1 Wolves, who hold a claim on fourth overall in the AHL (.750) on the strength of a seven-game point streak (6-0-0-1), last week’s work has them second in the league at 2.25 goals-against per game and second only to the Utica Comets (1.83).

Still, Makiniemi has a rather intensive to-do list with the Wolves. It is well documented that European-trained goaltenders face adjustments moving to the North American game, and Makiniemi is no exception. The AHL’s penchant for rambunctious net-front play and forcing goaltenders to go post-to-post regularly are key tests in that transition.

“For a goalie, you just need to be ready all the time,” Makiniemi said.

Makiniemi is quite self-aware. Puck-handling, something that he admits has never been a strength, is another focal point.

“I know puck-handling is one of the biggest things for me,” Makiniemi acknowledged. “I have never been good [with] that, so I really want to get better.

“I think one thing is that [with] the [smaller] rink size, for a goalie you can [be] faster to stop the rims. That’s one thing, and that actually makes it much easier for me to start learning it.”

Warsofsky’s blue line has also been through changes recently, with stalwarts Jalen Chatfield and Max Lajoie on recall to the Hurricanes, Daniel Brickley in from Norfolk, and veteran Eric Gelinas off to the Swedish Hockey League. Communication with his defensemen is another area of focus for Makiniemi.

“I think that’s one thing I can be better with,” Makiniemi outlined. “We can speak more in the game still, but we are getting better all the time there. And it’s a new situation for me to speak English on the ice also.”

Having Lyon, a respected and outgoing personality who is not afraid to voice his thoughts, as his goaltending mentor and confidant has been a boost for Makiniemi.

“I really like him,” Makiniemi said of Lyon. “He’s a really nice guy. He’s a little bit older, so I can really ask [him] things. I’m a pretty shy guy to say how I really feel, especially when I’m new here, so it’s nice to have somebody [who] can say everything that comes to his mind.”

Warsofsky, not an easy man to impress, quickly took note of Makiniemi’s demeanor and preparation.

“He’s a pro,” Warsofsky said. “He knows what it takes to get himself prepared for practice. He knows what it takes to get prepared for a hockey game.”