During last summer’s Washington Capitals summer development camp in Hershey, defenseman Sami Lepisto stated his intention to play one more season as a professional in his native Finland. Lepisto opined that after playing the 2006-07 season for Jokerit Helsinki, he’d be ready to come to North America and try his hand at playing pro hockey on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Less than a year later, on May 31 of this year to be exact, Lepisto inked that first North American pro contract. He will come to training camp this fall and vie for a job on the Washington blueline. The 22-year-old native of Espoo, Finland will likely skate in Hershey during the 2007-08 season if he is unable to crack the Washington lineup right away.
“Obviously it is every little boy’s dream to sign an NHL contract,” says Lepisto. “Now I’ve done it and I just need to improve so I can get to play in the NHL. I have achieved one goal, but there are many ahead. I just have to get better.”
Listed at 6-foot-0 and 176 pounds, Lepisto is somewhat slight of build for an NHL defenseman. But those numbers are a few years old; he may be a bit more muscular and heavier now. Regardless, the style of play in the NHL has changed over the last two seasons. Big hulking blueliners with limited mobility have seen their ice time dwindle and the demand for their services wane. At the same time, quick and smart defensemen who can move the puck efficiently have become far more sought-after commodities than they were a few years back.
“I’ve been watching a lot on TV,” says Lepisto when asked his opinion of the “new” NHL. “The game is different. Defensemen are smaller and faster, and that suits me. We’ll see what happens.
“This new NHL is very good for me. All I need to do is get a little bigger and stronger and I think this is the league for me.”
Not surprisingly, some of the players Lepisto idolizes and would like to pattern his own game after fit a similar mold.
“From the Finnish players, maybe Kimmo Timonen,” he says when asked to name favorites. “From the non-Finnish players Brian Rafalski was good. He played in Finland back before he came to the NHL and he is a phenomenal player. All those quick, fast and skilled guys.”
Lepisto played a couple of seasons of junior hockey for Jokerit before beginning his pro career at the age of 19 in 2003-04. He put up modest offensive totals that season, registering three goals and seven points in 53 games. But he put himself on the radar screen of NHL scouts with his outstanding performance in the 2004 IIHF World Junior Championships, held in Helsinki that year. Lepisto totaled four goals and eight points in seven games during the tournament. He earned tournament all-star honors for his efforts and was also named the tournament’s best defenseman. In 2004-05, the Finnish pro league absorbed several NHL players who were looking for a place to play during the North American league’s season-long lockout. The influx of NHL talent made a strong league even better, and Lepisto prospered in that environment. He totaled seven goals and 25 points in 55 games during his second pro season.
Ironically, Lepisto’s point total that season matched that of one of his blueline teammates, Brian Campbell of the Buffalo Sabres. Campbell put up a dozen goals and 25 points in 44 games for Jokerit in 2004-05. Prior to his season in Finland, Campbell’s NHL single season career high in points was 19, established in 2002-03. He had three goals and 11 points in 2003-04, the season immediately prior to the lockout.
Having found his offensive footing in Finland, Campbell has returned to put up 44 points (12 goals, 32 assists) for Buffalo in 2005-06 and 48 points (six goals, 42 assists) in 2006-07. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Campbell is another player similar in stature to Lepisto, and another example of the type of defenseman that has found the “new” NHL more conducive to his skills set and playing style.
Unlike Campbell, Lepisto will need to adjust to the smaller ice surface in North American. But it’s a transition that others – including Rafalski – have made without much trouble. After four seasons at the University of Wisconsin and four more as a pro in Sweden and Finland, Rafalski finally made his North American pro debut with New Jersey in 1999-00. He put up five goals and 32 points in his first NHL campaign and has continued to improve since. Rafalski recently signed a five-year contract worth $30 million with the Detroit Red Wings.
Lepisto is looking forward to the challenges ahead of him.
“I haven’t played any real games, but the game is quicker,” he says of the shift to North American style hockey. “I like fast intensity games. It’s a different game when you have to be faster and move the puck quicker and everything like that. But I think I can adjust my game to the smaller rink.”
Fellow Washington defenseman Josef Boumedienne also has a great deal of European experience. The paths of the two defensemen crossed recently, and the 29-year-old Boumedienne will be competing with Lepisto for a job this fall.
“I met him at my friend’s wedding and we had a few words,” says Lepisto when asked about Boumedienne. “He’s a good guy. He speaks very good Finnish. He has Swedish and Finnish passports. He’s a great guy and it’s good to have him here helping me out.”
At the team’s recent summer development camp, Lepisto was clearly one of the best defensemen on the ice. He showed how far he has come since the Capitals chose him with their third-round (66th overall) choice in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft and looks more than ready to play professionally on this side of the big pond. After signing that first contract, Lepisto was especially looking forward to this summer’s camp. “Always I do my best, but after I signed I thought [summer camp] was a chance to show [what I could do],” he says. “Training camp is coming and I’m looking forward to it. This is a great place, and a great facility and I am looking forward to next season.”
Lepisto is the godson of former NHL winger and Hockey Hall of Famer Jari Kurri, but he says his famous godfather hasn’t imparted any words of advice as he prepares for his own voyage to North America.
“Not yet,” says Lepisto. “He just congratulated me and told me to do my best and I would be [in the NHL]. Maybe later on he will give me tips on what to do and what not to do. But I think he will let me be just as I am.”
“Just as I am” might be just what’s needed on the blueline in the Caps’ organization this season. Whether he opens 2007-08 in Washington or in Hershey, Lepisto’s future progress bears watching.