Oskari Laaksonen was able to learn from success in 2018-19.
Still only 19 years old, Laaksonen played top-pair minutes and was a consistent cog on the power play with Ilves in the Finnish Elite League. He played a key role on a Finland team that won goad at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
This past season introduced lessons through adversity. A slow start led to a coaching change, which was then compounded by an injury that sidelined Laaksonen for more than a month. When he returned, his power-play minutes had been distributed elsewhere. He finished the campaign with 12 points (2+10) in 46 games.
"It was tough to sit in the stands and see my role get away, but I think I grew a lot from that," Laaksonen said.
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Laaksonen was lauded for his mobility and puck moving at the time of his selection by the Sabres in the third round in 2017. This past season was about shoring up his game in his own zone, an objective he remains committed to moving forward.
"My physical play along the boards needs to be better and I think in the D-zone I need to be better," he said. "Although I think I read the game pretty well, you need to be harder on those battles. So, I think those are the two main points that I think I can improve a lot and I think I will be a much better play when I get those things on a good level."
The Sabres' development staff worked with Laaksonen to that end, providing notes and tips during frequent visits. Laaksonen is one of two Sabres prospects on the Ilves rosters along with forward Arttu Ruotsalainen.
"I think a lot of the focus for Oskari this year was working on the defensive zone and working on low play, and those are areas that all young defenseman - especially the guys who fall into that offensive category - probably need to focus on as part of their development," Sabres general manager Steve Greeley said.
"We were really pleased with how Ilves was trying to work and develop Oskari. We're as excited about him as we ever have been because there's so much talent to the player."
What's next for Laaksonen remains to be seen. Assistant general manager Randy Sexton floated the possibility of Laaksonen coming to North America next season during a conference call with reporters. The defenseman had already been exposed to the North American game through development camps with the Sabres and at the 2019 World Juniors, which were held in Canada.
"I'm looking forward to that a lot," Laaksonen said. "If it's not next year, then I think for sure it's going to be the year after that. I think my game's going to be ready when I come over."