It is a journey well understood by the Salmelainen men. The NHL is a steep, arduous climb.
Ask Tony Salmelainen, signed to a one-year-deal with the Leafs and the owner of the flashiest goal of training camp, struck last week in Thursday's 3-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
Better yet, ask his father. Tommi Salmelainen holds the distinction of being the first European player drafted in the NHL. The St. Louis Blues did what was then unthinkable and what is now commonplace when they used their sixth choice in the 1969 draft, the inaugural year of the draft, to draft the Finnish star.
Salmelainen played in the minors but never reached the NHL. His son has enjoyed more success, if barely.
After a season in which he led the Finnish Elite League in scoring and was voted MVP, Salmelainen inked a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2006-2007 season. But it didn't pan out. He struggled with injuries and limited playing time and was delighted when Leafs GM John Ferguson offered a one-year-deal.
One of the Leafs main off-season goals was to upgrade their team speed. Free agent Jason Blake gives the club one of the fastest players in the NHL. But with veteran winger Boyd Deveraux out sidelined by a foot infection, there is room for wheels on the penalty kill and on a regular shift.
"The forecheck is one of my strengths and you need speed on the forecheck," Salmelainen said. "Same with the penalty kill. I think I can do that."
"He's very, very quick and he's been able to maintain it," said Leafs coach Paul Maurice. The reason we signed him was that speed. He's done a good job on the penalty kill but he's got to work in other areas as well."
Salmelainen’s highlight goal came when he dashed down the right wing and rifled a shot
past Phoenix netminder Mikael Tellqvist. It was a spectacular goal but there remains a long line of forwards, Simone Gamanche, Kris Newbury, Jiri Tlusty among them, competing for precious few spots. Hockey people speak of one great skill, something a prospect does better than anyone else. Speed is obviously Salmelainen’s calling card and in Finland, he has shown himself an accomplished scorer.
The penalty killing cache is nice, but to justify a spot on the roster, Salmelainen needs to justify a spot on the top three lines. At root, he is a scorer who has not consistently produced in North America.
"We're going to have a lot of competition" acknowledged Maurice.
Salmelainen, who played at Ricoh Coliseum as a member of the shortlived Toronto Roadrunners understands he could be back in the American league with the Marlies.
Salmelainen is, however, hoping for the best.
"I think it's been going pretty well. I still know I can do better. I have been doing what I do best, try to shoot the puck as much as I can and be energetic on the ice. I need to keep on bringing speed and go to the net hard."