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Ville Husso, Luke Opilka give Blues options in net

St. Louis goalie prospects impressing, could compete for backup job

by Louie Korac / Correspondent

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Trading goaltender Brian Elliott signified a changing of the guard for the St. Louis Blues, not just at the NHL level, but from an organizational standpoint as well.

Jake Allen will take the reins as the No. 1 goalie for the Blues in the 2016-17 season, but the franchise always has been looking long-term, and perhaps Jordan Binnington and Pheonix Copley, who shared goaltending duties last season for Chicago of the AHL, should be looking over their shoulders.

The Blues have a couple of young prospects waiting in the wings, in 2014 fourth-round pick Ville Husso and 2015 fifth-round selection Luke Opilka.

The 21-year-old Husso, a native of Helsinki, he will make the jump from playing for HIFK Helsinki of Liiga in Finland to North America after signing a three-year entry-level contract May 10.

"I played three years in the Finnish League," Husso said. "I learned a lot of things and I feel like now I'm ready to come over here."

Husso, the top-ranked European goalie by NHL Central Scouting heading into the 2014 NHL Draft, played in 39 games last season and was 25-8-6 with a 1.91 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. He put up even better numbers in the playoffs (1.55 GAA, .935 save percentage) in leading HIFK to the final before losing to Tappara.

Husso was the backup on Finland's gold medal team at the 2014 World Junior Championship.

"I took big steps last summer," Husso said. "Last year was a big year for me. I played well. We won our regular season and we lost the final. I feel now that I'm ready to play in North America. It's going to be fun to come here, but so different than Helsinki."

Husso has risen rapidly on the Blues depth chart, and wants to follow in the footsteps of some of the other successful Finnish goalies in the NHL, including Pekka Rinne, Kari Lehtonen, Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi.

"Of course, the pressure is huge if you're a Finnish goalie and you come to North America," Husso said. "I don't take [on] any more pressure. I do as best as I can. I want to be the [top] goalie to play in the NHL.

"This is a big opportunity for us. When I was in HIFK three years ago, I did a lot of work in the summer and got the chance one game and I played well. The coach liked me. That's my plan [here]."

Former NHL goalie Ty Conklin, the Blues goalie development coach, likes Husso's approach and confidence.

"He's got the demeanor. He's nice and calm," Conklin said. "He's got all the tools, as far as on the ice. He's been successful the last two years against men. That's a good sign for sure. He's used to playing that high level hockey and he's done very well at it. He's still only 21 years old. There's still a lot of room for him to grow."

The 19-year-old Opilka, who grew up in St. Louis, was going to play at the University of Wisconsin last season but chose to go pro and had a successful season playing in Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League.

Opilka was 27-11-5 with a 2.70 GAA and .906 save percentage and was well on his way to putting up even better numbers, but was set back after a bout of mononucleosis and a hip injury that required surgery; he wasn't able to participate in Blues development camp, but is on target to resume playing for Kitchener.

"He certainly had a great start to the season, but he got mono and that derailed him for a little bit and then now with his hip," Conklin said. "We're expecting a good year from Luke. He'll be one of the older guys, second year there in Kitchener. We expect big things from him this year, for sure."

The Blues also drafted goaltender Evan Fitzpatrick in the second round (No. 59) at the 2016 draft, adding to their organizational depth.

"I'm lucky that I get to work with these very talented kids," Conklin said. "It's like anybody: How much do you want it, how much are you willing to sacrifice to get there?

"We usually pick the right guys."

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