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Laaksonen talks winning gold at World Juniors

Sabres.com's weekly Prospects Update

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Oskari Laaksonen has ascended from relative unknown to World Juniors gold medalist in little more than a year and a half. 

The Finnish defenseman wasn't listed in NHL Central Scouting's prospects rankings leading up to his draft year in 2017, nor was he invited to the Scouting Combine. Even he couldn't believe it when the Sabres selected him in the third round that year. 

Now he's a 19-year-old workhorse on the back end for Ilves of the Finnish Elite League and, along with a fellow Sabres prospect in goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (second round, 2017), he was part of the Finnish squad that defeated Team USA to win the World Junior Championship in Vancouver on Saturday. 

That victory was followed by an extra night in Vancouver on Sunday and a celebratory night with his teammates in Helsinki, Finland's southern capital, on Monday. 

"It's been kind of hectic," he said. "Pretty blurry, you know? Everything went pretty fast, but great."

Laaksonen was finally back home in Tampere, Finland when he caught up with Sabres.com on Tuesday to discuss the World Juniors, Luukkonen, and his season so far with Ilves.
 

When you were drafted, you had never played for the Finnish national team. Back then, would you have thought this was possible? 

Well, yeah. My goal was to be in these World Juniors. That was my goal that I set when I was drafted. I just worked hard. The Sabres drafting me kind of opened up some eyes for the national team coaches. 

 

How much does your life change after being drafted to the NHL?

Nothing too special. You just get noticed more and obviously everybody's going to see you more when you play. Nothing too much, but you get noticed more. 

 

Speaking to the media at your first development camp, you remembered exactly where you were when Rasmus Ristolainen scored the golden goal for Finland in 2014. Was this a dream back then? 

Yeah. I mean, I have always watched the tournament at home. It was really special to put on that Finnish jersey, to represent Finland in World Juniors. I mean, that's been like a dream. We have watched so many games back home, so it was a really special moment. 

 

What do you think you'll remember most from these past few weeks?

The overtime goal against Canada was pretty special. And then obviously when [Finnish forward] Kaapo [Kakko] scored the game-winning goal [in the Gold Medal Game against the United States], that was unbelievable. 

 

In the quarterfinal round, Maxime Comtois gets a penalty shot in overtime for Canada. Knowing who you have in net (Luukkonen), what's going through your mind when he's getting ready to take that shot?
 
When they picked Comtois to shoot, I was like, 'I think he's going to shoot it.' In that one, I just thought we had a good chance to keep this alive. Ukko did a tremendous job keeping us alive. That was kind of the turning point of our tournament there.

 

At your first development camp, you described Ukko as a "fun guy." How much more have you gotten to know him through this experience and in your time together as Sabres prospects?

We have become really good friends off the ice. It's just great to have - well, now we have two Finnish guys. (The Sabres added defenseman Miska Kukkonen in 2018). But back then, we had only me and Ukko. It's nice to have that Finnish guy in the prospect pool. He's a good guy and like I said, we've become really good friends. It's helped a lot.

 

How steady was he for your team in this tournament?

He was so good. He was so important. You need that good goalie when you want to win something. He saved us many times from giving up goals. That's what you need when you want to win a championship. Every team that has won something has a pretty good goalie.

 

In your opinion, what's made Finnish hockey so successful recently, whether it's international competition or developing NHL players?

I think our junior work has been pretty good lately. We've had some pretty good teams at World Juniors. Although we're a small country, I think we have pretty good young players coming every year. I think that's the key, developing young players. It's getting rewarded now. 

 

You're leading your Liiga team in average ice time this season (at 20:47). What's been the challenge in that? Have you embraced it?

I've had a pretty good start to this season. Off of that, I've been keeping it loose and playing my own game. The coaches have been liking that, so I've gotten much responsibility. Obviously, I like that. I've just got to keep working hard and go to the ice whenever coach needs me. It's been a good, healthy year that way.

 

What was the biggest adjustment last season, going to the men's league?

I think just the battles and everybody's playing really smart versus the junior game. I think that's the biggest change from junior games to men's games. Everybody plays smart and everybody's pretty strong on the boards. Everybody knows the game plan pretty well, so there's not a lot of defensive breakthrough. It's harder and it's smarter.

 

You've always been looked at as an offensive defenseman. How has the other side of your game progressed?

I think it has become a lot better. I've got more weight and it's easier to defend and battle. I think I've handled that part pretty well in these couple years.

 

What's been the key to adding on size?

Just eat a lot. Obviously, I've been undersized when I got drafted, like a late bloomer. I think that's now coming together when I'm getting older, just getting stronger and bigger. 

 

Have you gotten to follow the Sabres this year?

Yeah, I've followed quite a bit. 

 

What have you thought of their success?

It's been great to see that Buffalo's doing really well. It's nice to see those young players playing so well, like Mittsy and Rasmus. It's great to see.

 

Pekar gets back to work

Matej Pekar (2018, fourth round) was back with Barrie this week following his World Juniors stint with the Czech Republic. He was held off the board in his first game back, a 2-0 loss to Ottawa on Saturday, but rebounded with a two-goal, one-assist performance in a 3-2 win at Kingston on Sunday. 

Pekar fought his way to the slot to deflect a shot from the point for his first goal:

 

He then buried a rebound to give the Colts a lead in the final minute of regulation: 

Pekar ranks second on the Colts with 38 points (14+22) in 32 games this season, his first in the OHL.

 

Murray stays hot for Youngstown

Brett Murray (2016, fourth round) is tied for the USHL lead with 39 points (16+23) in 29 games following a six-point weekend as Youngstown picked up a pair of wins over Sioux City.

Murray scored a goal and added two assists in a 5-3 win on Friday, then tallied three helpers in a 4-3 overtime victory on Saturday, including the primary assist on Jack Malone's winner:

Tweet from @YtownPhantoms: This weeks @jacobsclevenger Play of the Week is brought to you by Steven Holtz overtime goal against the Sioux City Musketeers. #PlayOfTheWeek pic.twitter.com/ypEW0ZC6oO

 

Glotov named an ECHL All-Star 

Vasily Glotov (2017, seventh round) was named as the Cincinnati Cyclones' representative for the CCM/ECHL All-Star Classic on Monday. He's tallied seven goals and 16 assists for the Cyclones, who lead the league's Western Conference through 34 games. 

You can read more about Glotov and Cincinnati here.

 

 

Stats

Skater Position Team (League) GP G A PTS
Christopher Brown F Boston College (NCAA) 17 2 3 5
Jacob Bryson D Providence (NCAA) 20 3 11 14
Ivan Chukarov D Massachusetts (NCAA) 16 1 1 2
Marcus Davidsson F Djuragardens (SHL) 29 3 12 15
Casey Fitzgerald D Boston College (NCAA) 17 0 6 6
Vasily Glotov F Cincinnati (ECHL) 31 7 16 23
Miska Kukkonen D Tappara U20 (Mestis) 28 2 6 8
Oskari Laaksonen D Ilves (Liiga) 26 3 10 13
Linus Lindstrand Cronholm D IK Pantern (Allsvenskan) 26 2 5 7
Brett Murray F Youngstown (USHL) 29 16 23 39
Philip Nyberg D UConn (NCAA) 20 0 2 2
Matej Pekar F Barrie (OHL) 32 14 22 36
Mattias Samuelsson D Western Michigan (NCAA) 16 3 5 8
Linus Weissbach F Wisconsin (NCAA) 10 2 9 11
Maxwell Willman F Boston University (NCAA) 17 0 3 3
William Worge Kreu D Linkoping J20 (SuperElit) 9 0 0 0
Goaltender Team (League) GP W L OTL SOL GAA SV% SO
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen Sudbury (OHL) 26 19 5 1 1 2.49 .923 2
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