Ylonen created goaltending revolution
Finland is known for producing NHL-caliber goaltenders in bunches. But it wasn't always that way.
Until the 2000s, Finnish goaltenders had little success in the NHL, and even the cream of the crop, such as Jarmo Myllys and Ari Sulander, often fared better in European league play in major international tournaments (with the exception of Myllys backstopping Finland to the 1995 World Championship).
From an NHL draft standpoint, the turnaround in Finland's goaltending legacy roughly coincided with the TPS Turku championship dynasty of the mid-1990s to early 2000s. Under the guidance of Russian-born coach Vladimir Yurzinov (1992-98) and goaltending coach Urpo Ylonen, TPS raised the bar for coaching and emphasis on player development to new heights.
Ylonen enjoyed a long and successful goaltending career with TuTo Turku and TPS Turku and was a fixture on the Finnish national team in the years before it became a legitimate medal contender. His stature was such that the SM-liiga's equivalent to the Vezina Trophy is named the Urpo Ylonen Trophy. He is a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame and the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame.
As the TPS goaltending coach, Ylonen built a reputation for being able to get the most out of any goalie with whom he worked. One of the greatest testaments to his success -- apart from the championships the team won thanks in part to strong goaltending -- is the string of TPS goalies who went on to play in the NHL: Jani Hurme, Miikka Kiprusoff, Fredrik Norrena and Antero Niittymaki. Later, he worked with Czech netminder Alexander Salak.
Ylonen's success with TPS and willingness to share his knowledge has had a wide-reaching impact throughout Finnish hockey (and hockey worldwide). His coaching methods were studied and influenced programs throughout the country. Today, it is common for Finnish teams to have a dedicated goaltending coach who works full time with the SM-liiga team as well as top prospects in the junior system.
Over the last dozen years, the vast improvements in goalie development at the Finnish junior and senior levels have filtered through the NHL draft and NHL rosters. There are numerous Finnish clubs, such as Karpat Oulu (which gave rise to the careers of Pekka Rinne and Niklas Backstrom), and Pelicans Lahti (Antti Niemi, Philadelphia prospect Niko Hovinen), which have become important goaltending talent development sources for NHL teams.-- Bill Meltzer
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the junior- and senior-level programs of Finnish team TPS Turku was the developmental hub of a string of goaltenders who went on to play in the National Hockey League. Nowadays, Swedish club Brynas IF Gavle has become one of the NHL's prime sources for drafting and signing highly-regarded goaltending prospects.
Oscar Dansk, whom Central Scouting ranked second among European goaltenders eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft, is the latest goaltender in the Brynas system to emerge as a candidate for future NHL play. When Dansk is selected, he will become the sixth BIF goaltender since 2008 either to be picked in the draft or to sign an NHL entry-level contract after joining the Brynas organization at the Elitserien level -- Jacob Markstrom, Anders Lindback, Joacim Eriksson, Eddie Lack and Niklas Svedberg.
Markstrom, 22, is slated to compete for a regular job with the Florida Panthers next season. Lindback, 24, is entrenched behind Pekka Rinne as the backup goaltender for the Nashville Predators, but many feel he has the capability to emerge as an NHL starter. Eriksson, 22, became the full-time starting goalie for Elitserien playoff finalist Skelleftea AIK over the course of this past season. Drafted in 2008 but unsigned by the Philadelphia Flyers, Eriksson could draw NHL interest next summer if he has a strong 2012-13 season.
Svedberg, 22, is the only one of the group who is not a product of the Brynas junior system. He started out in the Djurgardens IF Stockholm junior system and spent parts of three seasons with Modo Hockey Ornskoldsvik before signing with Brynas in 2010. However, he did not truly blossom until he came to Gavle. This past season, Svedberg's stellar performance in the playoffs helped Brynas win the championship. On May 29, Svedberg signed an entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins.
In addition to the aforementioned goaltenders, Vancouver Canucks prospect Eddie Lack spent the final season of his pre-North American career with Brynas before he signed an entry-level contract with the Canucks. Now 24, Lack won the AHL's Rookie of the Year award in 2010-11 and enjoyed another strong AHL campaign this past season while awaiting an opportunity with the big club.
Part of the credit for the string of success enjoyed by the Brynas netminders goes to BIF goaltending coach Per-Erik "Pekka" Alcen. The 52-year-old Alcen, who survived a heart attack earlier this year, has coached with Brynas since 2005-06. Previously he served as the goalie coach for Leksand and also has worked with the Norwegian national team. In his seven years in Gavle, Alcen has established a reputation for success with his charges that is comparable to the legacy that famed Finnish goaltender Urpo Ylonen had with TPS Turku after becoming its goaltending coach.
Alcen, who has joked that he considers his goaltending students his children and "gives almost more to the goalies than to my wife," downplays the notion that there is anything special or different to his method of teaching apart from the hard work and dedication he and his pupils have put into their development. Within the framework of dealing with different goalies' strengths and personalities, Alcen has a rather straightforward philosophy about the key to consistent success.
"See [the puck], size it up, take action; there's no other secrets," Alcen told Hockeysverige. "I don't buy this, 'I didn't see the puck' talk, especially when killing penalties. As a goalie, you have an enormous responsibility and if you are going to do a good job, you always have to focus and track the puck. The whole time, the biggest thing is to try to see the puck regardless of where it goes. Then you'll have the greatest chance to make the save, also. Of course, there are also situations where it really is impossible to see the puck, and then all you can do is to make yourself as big as possible."
Dansk, a big butterfly stylist, has earned strong marks for his focus and poise as well as his natural athleticism. At 6-foot-2 and 186 pounds, he also possesses the size that scouts look for nowadays with young goaltenders. Although Dansk finished behind Russian goaltender Andrei Vasilevski for the top European spot in the final Central Scouting rankings, there are some scouts who believe Dansk is neck-and-neck with the Belleville Bulls' Malcolm Subban for the honor of being the top prospect at his position.
The departure of Svedberg for North America next season opens a spot for Dansk to compete for playing time with the Brynas senior team. With veteran former NHL goaltender Johan Holmqvist still with Brynas, however, Dansk likely will start as the backup goaltender for the Elitserien club while simultaneously serving as the primary starter for the J20 team.
The 18-year-old Dansk spent most of the 2011-12 season at the J20 SuperElit level for Brynas' top junior team (2.82 goals-against average, .910 save percentage in 28 games), and also starred for Sweden at the 2012 World Under-18 Championships (1.98 GAA, .937 save percentage in five games).
Unlike the vast majority of young European goaltenders, Dansk is no stranger to playing in North America. From the ages of 14 to 17, he attended the famed Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Minnesota. A number of NHL players are alums of the school, including Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Columbus' Jack Johnson and New Jersey's Zach Parise. Before returning home to Sweden to join the Brynas junior system, Dansk excelled at the bantam and midget levels for Shattuck-St. Mary's.
"The reason I came overseas to play really goes back a ways. My family and I have been to Canada and the U.S. for hockey schools many times over the years," Dansk told Niklas Persson of the Malvakstranar Tankar blog. "That led to my big brother (Vasby IK defenseman Victor Dansk) going over to Canada for one year. One thing led to another and we got in contact with Shattuck. … At first I was only going to stay one year, but I liked it so much I ended up staying."
Dansk's three years of living in North America has put him a step beyond most of his peers when it comes to English communication and acclimation to a somewhat different lifestyle off the ice. Most young Swedish players speak passable English even when they first come to North America. But much like with countryman Gabriel Landeskog, Dansk speaks English without even a trace of an accent.
"I like playing on the smaller rinks," he said. "The North American game is more resolute and straightforward. There's not as much passing back and forth and stickhandling as much. … In some ways it's a different approach to hockey, but they also have a different culture over there. Personally, I enjoyed it a lot and that's a big reason why I stayed there for a longer time."
Dansk has had little difficulty switching from the big rink in Europe to the small-rink game. He starred for Team Stockholm at the 2009 TV-Puck tournament and rocketed up the Brynas junior system from the J18 to J20 teams, as well as earning a roster spot on the Swedish junior national teams in the Under-17 and Under-18 age groups.
If his status as a top candidate for the 2012 draft ever was in question, he cemented his status at the 2012 World Under-18 Championship. Apart from a rough outing over 32-plus minutes in the gold-medal game against Team USA, Dansk was stellar throughout the tournament. His best performance was a 28-save shutout of Russia, defeating Vasilevski in the process.