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AHL Notebook: Eastern Conference goalies in spotlight

Larsson, Luukkonen, Primeau, Shesterkin, Vehvilainen making progress, adjusting to league

by Patrick Williams / Independent Correspondent

An apprenticeship in the American Hockey League is a near-must for top NHL goalie prospects.

Here is a look at five top young goalies in the Eastern Conference and their progress through the first month of the regular season. A breakdown of Western Conference teams will follow next week:


Filip Larsson, Grand Rapids (Detroit Red Wings)

The 21-year-old (6-foot-2, 194 pounds) is attempting to make the jump to the AHL after one NCAA season at the University of Denver.

Selected by the Red Wings in the sixth round (No. 167) of the 2016 NHL Draft, Larsson played the 2017-18 season with Tri-City of the United States Hockey League, then went to Denver, where he was named to the NCHC All-Rookie Team and took his team to the NCAA Frozen Four. He went 13-6-3 as a freshman with a 1.95 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 22 games. That also helped him to be named a finalist as the top goaltender in the NCHC.

Grand Rapids coach Ben Simon has chosen to ease Larsson into the AHL in a pairing with veteran Calvin Pickard. Larsson is 2-2-0 with a 3.28 GAA and .879 save percentage in four games.


Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Rochester (Buffalo Sabres)

Hip surgery has delayed the 20-year-old's full-time entry into the AHL, but optimism remains high for Luukkonen after a stellar season with Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League.

Chosen by the Sabres in the second round (No. 54) of the 2017 NHL Draft, Luukkonen was 38-11-2-2 with a 2.50 GAA in 53 games last season and won the Red Tilson Trophy as the most outstanding player in the OHL, as well as top goalie honors. His six shutouts led the league and his .920 save percentage ranked second. 

Internationally, he led Finland to a gold medal at the World Junior Championship, where he had a 1.80 GAA and .932 save percentage in six games.

Luukkonen (6-4, 220) continues his rehabilitation process and made his season debut with Buffalo affiliate Cincinnati of the ECHL. He had 25 saves in a 4-1 loss at Brampton (Ottawa Senators).

With Rochester veteran Andrew Hammond on recall to the Sabres for its trip to the 2019 NHL Global Series in Sweden, Buffalo reassigned Luukkonen to Rochester on Sunday. He could see playing time when Rochester hosts Binghamton (New Jersey Devils) on Friday; Rochester (7-3-1-0) is tied with Utica (Vancouver Canucks) for second in the North Division and two points behind Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs) for the Eastern Conference lead.


Cayden Primeau, Laval (Montreal Canadiens)

The 20-year-old has emerged as a strong prospect; after the Canadiens selected him in the seventh round (No. 199) of the 2017 NHL Draft, he played two NCAA seasons at Northeastern before electing to turn pro.

Last season with Northeastern, Primeau (6-3, 198) finished 25-10-1 with a 2.09 GAA and .933 save percentage in 36 games on the way to being a finalist for the Mike Richter Award as most outstanding NCAA goalie for the second consecutive season. He also was a Hockey East First All-Star in each of his two seasons.

Splitting playing time with the well-established Charlie Lindgren, Primeau is handling the AHL well. He is 4-2-0 in six games with a 1.80 GAA and .941 save percentage, each ranked fourth in the AHL. His 38-save performance helped Laval to pull out a 3-2 shootout win at Providence (Boston Bruins) on Oct. 26.


Igor Shesterkin, Hartford (New York Rangers)

The 23-year-old has justified the considerable enthusiasm and hype that accompanied his move to North America after a standout career in the Kontinental Hockey League.

The Rangers chose Shesterkin (6-2, 182) in the fourth round (No. 118) of the 2014 NHL Draft. Last season with SKA St. Petersburg, he went 24-3-1 with a 1.11 GAA, .953 save percentage and 10 shutouts in 28 regular-season games.

Shifting from a European league to the North American game and the AHL's scrambly style can test many young goalies, Shesterkin has excelled with a much-improved Hartford team. He is 5-1-1 in seven games with a 1.83 GAA, .932 save percentage and one shutout.

Hartford (8-1-0-3) has an AHL-leading 19 points through 12 games.

Video: NJD@NYR: Shesterkin reaches out to grab bouncing puck


Veini Vehvilainen, Cleveland (Columbus Blue Jackets)

Another unheralded potential find, the 22-year-old was taken by the Blue Jackets in the sixth round (No. 173) in the 2018 NHL Draft.

Columbus' faith was rewarded when Vehvilainen (6-0, 181) went 25-8-5 with a 1.58 GAA and .930 save percentage in 38 games with Karpat of Liiga in Finland and was named the league's top goalie; he was then rewarded by the Blue Jackets, who signed him to a two-year entry-level contract on June 4.

Vehvilainen's season began with a 30-save win at Laval on Oct. 5. After a 6-3 home loss against Syracuse (Tampa Bay Lightning) on Oct. 12, he has bounced back by allowing three goals in his next three games, including a 29-save shutout of Rockford (Chicago Blackhawks) on Oct. 26.

He's 3-2-0 with a 2.02 GAA, .932 save percentage and one shutout in five games with Cleveland.

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