|Riku Helenius first got the attention of North American scouts at the 2006 Under-18 World Junior Championships leading Finland to a silver medal.|
"I missed a whole year in Finland, so my thinking was I had to accelerate my progression and I knew I would be able to get in a lot of good games in the (Western Hockey League) and I did," Helenius told NHL.com. "I played over 40 games (for the Seattle Thunderbirds) in the regular season and that was pretty good. I would have never seen that kind of action in Europe, so it really paid off for me in my development."
While he split starts in Seattle with 2008 Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Jacob DeSerres, Helenius posted a 22-12-6 record with a 2.42 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and three shutouts in 41 games. In the WHL playoffs, Helenius helped the Thunderbirds eliminate Kelowna in the opening round en route to finishing 4-4-1 with a 2.70 GAA and .911 save percentage while starting nine of the team's 14 playoff games.
"After sitting out seven months with the shoulder injury, I felt I really played well in Seattle and it was a great year for me," Helenius said. "I also got used to the North American game and the coaches and that was important. I have every intention of earning a spot with (Tampa Bay's American Hockey League affiliate) Norfolk this coming season."
Helenius was certainly out to prove that point during Tampa's prospect camp at the Bear Mountain Resort in Victoria, British Columbia in late July.
"I'm ready for the season and ready to fight for a spot in the NHL or the AHL," he said.
Tampa Bay's chief scout, Jake Goertzen, likes what he sees in Helenius.
"It was unfortunate that he got hurt the year after we drafted him, but he did come back a little bit during the (WHL) playoffs," Goertzen said. "I feel he made a wise move coming over to North America to play with Seattle last year and he did have a productive year. He's a little behind in his development since he missed a crucial year (with the injury), but he battled hard and is a talented kid so I feel he'll be all right."
While adjusting to the North American game, Helenius was grateful DeSerres was around to offer a helping hand.
"Having Jacob as a teammate in Seattle was great," Helenius said. "He already knew a lot about the North American game so he was able to help me and I feel I was able to help him as well. Jake showed me how to play a little deep on the bad-angle shots and reminded me to be square to the puck.
"I had to get used to all the traffic and screens in front of the net and it was a lot harder to find the puck since guys were shooting from almost anywhere on the ice. In Europe, players are looking for a better shooting lane or ways to pass the puck, but over here they're cutting hard for the rebounds, so those were the things I had to learn."
DeSerres expressed a mutual respect for Helenius.
"I couldn't have asked for a better goalie partner (in Seattle)," DeSerres said. "We played together for one year and became best friends and I learned so much from him. He really taught me how hard you must work in practice every single day to make an impression. He's one of the hardest-working players I've ever met."
Hard work, according to Helenius, is what makes the average player better.
"I'm the guy during a practice who will fight for every puck," Helenius said.
In two seasons prior to joining Seattle, Helenius had 28 starts for Ilves of the Finnish junior league. In 2005-06, he helped Ilves garner a junior gold medal after finishing with a 2.68 GAA and .919 save percentage in 26 appearances.
Helenius first got the attention of the North American scouts at the 2006 Under-18 World Junior Championships, going 4-1-1 with a 1.83 GAA, .942 save percentage and one shutout to lead Finland to a silver medal. He was named the tournament's best goaltender.
"That was a great experience and was maybe the biggest reason why I got drafted in the first round that summer," Helenius said. "That team we had was together for three years, so we were a really good group."
NHL Central Scouting rated Helenius the fifth-best goalie for the 2006 Draft, but he was the second player drafted at his position, four places after the Los Angeles Kings chose Jonathan Bernier.
"When I think about being a first-round pick, I don't feel any added pressure, but I like to think of it as a great opportunity and a great honor," Helenius said. "It's a chance for me to show this team that I'm capable of taking that spot in the NHL someday. I'm a pretty laid-back guy so I just try and work hard every day and, hopefully, that's enough to get the job done."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.