Even though he likely won’t be lacing up his gear with the NHL club, he’ll be playing in a great city with a winning program that has made it a priority over the years to develop players for the pros.
Jonathan Iilahti is one of five goaltenders attending camp and has made the longest trek of all the puck-stoppers to get to the west coast. The 19 year-old native of Vaasa, Finland was Vancouver’s fourth pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, going in the 6th round (175th overall). He is back at Rogers Arena for his second development camp in as many years.
“Now you know what you have to expect,” says Iilahti, whose travel plans from Finland to Canada kept him awake for close to 30 hours. “Of course it’s fun to come over and try to do better than the last time.”
Iilathi is coming off a solid season playing in his country’s top junior league.
Appearing in 18 games with the Espo Blues, Iilahti posted a 2.76 goals against average while combining for a save percentage of 90.1%.
Even though he wasn’t selected to play at the World Junior Championships in Buffalo, Iilahti is hopeful a strong season ahead can help his cause to play for Finland at the tournament next winter held in both Edmonton and Calgary.
“He’s got really quick feet and quick reflexes in terms of being able to react to things,” said Canucks Director of Player Development Dave Gagner. “He game just needs to be tidied up a bit and our goaltending coach Rollie Melanson has been working with him on that, so he doesn’t over-slide and over-commit to things.”
Measuring in at 6’1”, 176lbs, Iilahti is preparing to leave Europe this year to play in the Western Hockey League for the Vancouver Giants.
In the eyes of the WHL club, Iilahti and the Canucks happened to find themselves in the right place at the right time. The Giants were in the market for a goaltender this off-season and saw the Canucks prospect as a perfect fit. The Giants used their lone pick in the 2011 CHL Import Draft to select Iilahti 39th overall.
“We want Jonathan to come over here and play,” says Gagner. “It’s a good thing the Giants drafted him as we think he needs to be pushed at a higher level and play more games this year.”
“It would be a great opportunity to play in the same city as the NHL team,” adds Iilathi. “It would be an once-in-a-lifetime thing and I hope I can come over and play next season.”
As with any junior player at any level, coaching plays a huge role in one’s development. The Canucks know full-well Iilahti is going to a team where coaching won’t be an issue.
Head Coach Don Hay has established himself as one of the top junior coaches in Canada, leading the Giants every year as one of the most successful teams in the nation. This year, Hay has a new partner to work alongside, as former Canucks assistant coach and goaltender Glen Hanlon will be on the Giants bench as an assistant coach. Both Hay and Hanlon have experience coaching at the NHL level, something the Canucks feel Iilahti can benefit from in the long run.
“The Giants are a great organization,” says Gagner. “They’ve had a lot of players who they’ve put into the NHL. With all the experience they have, we’re really happy Jonathan is going to get an opportunity to play with that organization.”
The Canucks hope Iilahti can be the latest player in their program who uses the Giants as a springboard to stepping into the pros.
It was only two years ago that defenceman Kevin Connauton was drafted by the Canucks and then placed in the Giants organization. In his one season with the Giants, Connauton quickly became one of the more dominate blue-liners in the WHL.
His rise to pro hockey has been quick, and the Canucks are hopeful the same can occur with their Finnish goaltending prospect.