A person often feels more comfortable when they have roots planted firmly in one location, whether he is working in the business world or as a professional hockey player, so it is no wonder Lightning goaltending prospect Riku Helenius
’ head was spinning last season. He played for five different teams in 2008-09, including one that folded, yet the former first-round pick has remained resilient and steadfast in his attempt to improve his game on and off the ice.
“It was a pretty weird year for me,” Helenius said. “I played for five different teams so it was not a normal year for a hockey player. I have to say it was pretty tough meeting new guys all the time and getting in to new towns and all that but I’m sure I grew up a lot as a person last year.”
Helenius, a former first-round pick by the Lightning, began last season with Tampa Bay’s ECHL affiliate, the Augusta Lynx. After playing eight games, and while he was “still in the jersey” as Lightning Assistant General Manager Tom Kurvers puts it, the Lynx closed up shop and Helenius was left without a team. His teammates were scattered throughout various leagues and Helenius was eventually sent to former Lightning ECHL farm club, the Mississippi Sea Wolves.
Once joining the Sea Wolves, Helenius began to find the play that earned him the 15th overall selection in 2006. He posted a 2.28 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage in three games with Mississippi. His stay there was short-lived though, as injuries with the Lightning rippled through the system and forced Helenius to pack his bags again.
This time he was off to the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League. As the calendar turned to 2009 Helenius was making his AHL debut with the Admirals, which included a 41-save shutout in his first start. He looked comfortable from the on-set as he posted a 2.24 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage during the month of February. Only a call up to Tampa Bay, in which he made his NHL debut in relief, would take him out of the starting role for the Admirals. Helenius went on to post a 2.71 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in 25 games for the season. He capped the year by being assigned to the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL for the Kelly Cup Playoffs. There he appeared in two games to finish his 2008-09 season.
"He saw the full gamut of professional hockey last season,” Kurvers said. “That should help him settle in."
That might be a bit of an understatement to say the least, but Helenius took it all in stride and made the most of it.
“That’s one of the big things for me last year, that I grew up and I’m more mature than the year before as a person,” Helenius said. “That's the biggest thing I took out of last year. I settled down in Norfolk at the end of the year. It’s a lot easier to play when you’re settled down in one place. Of course there were a lot of things I learned on the ice. There were things (Lightning Goaltending Coach) Cap Raeder and I talked about that I need to work on in practice. That helped me a lot.”
Helenius’ progress was not lost on Lightning management. Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton believed the young net-minder, in his first professional season, was in a rush to find success early on.
"He accepted the challenge,” Lawton said. “He looked at himself honestly and made changes. The best thing we can do with these guys is slow them down a bit."
Helenius didn’t have much down time after season to unwind. After spending some time in his native Finland it was back to Tampa in early July for the 2009 Lightning Young Guns Camp. Once he arrived the Tampa Bay brass was already able to tell a difference in Helenius’ demeanor. What they saw was a more out-going and comfortable hockey player.
“At the first prospects camp he was on the outside of the guys,” Lawton said. “But his play earned the respect of his teammates and he felt better. He has crossed that bridge."
The camp wasn’t just an opportunity for the goaltender to show off his confidence around the locker room. He also continued the strong play fans saw last season.
“It was a great camp,” Helenius said. “The whole set up was great. I had meetings with Cap Raeder, Brian Lawton and all the other coaching and scouting staff. I have a good picture of what’s going to happen and what I have to work on next year to become a better hockey player and be closer to the NHL some day.”
What is expected of Helenius next year is to spend his first full season with the Admirals. Playing time won’t come easy though, even though he is the incumbent, as Memorial Cup and World Junior Champion Dustin Tokarski is expected to be pushing him the entire way. According to Kurvers there should be time for both goaltenders to play there due to one of the toughest travel schedules in the AHL, with the team often playing 10 games in 15 days traveling by bus.
Helenius believes he has proved he can play at the AHL level and now he must work on his consistency in order to make it to the next level.
“I think last year I showed myself and the coaches in Tampa Bay that I can play in the American Hockey League,” Helenius said. “I think for this year the biggest thing for me is to be one of the best goalies in that league. I need to play at a high level every night and that is the biggest thing for me next year.”
Nothing is ever certain in hockey, but whichever hand the 2009-10 season deals Helenius, he’s sure to be ready for it.TBL.com writer Mark Pukalo contributed to this report