CHICAGO – In the ideal scenario, Buffalo was going to draft a goaltender. The situation Saturday wasn’t only ideal, it was tops.
The Sabres used a second-round selection on Finland’s Ukka-Pekka Luukkonen. He was the top-ranked European goalie prospect, according to NHL Central Scouting, after leading his junior team to the league championship.
Though he’s one to three years from coming to North America, Luukkonen adds depth and talent to an organization that needed it, especially after being spurned by Cal Petersen.
“It’s a great situation when you know there’s space for you to fit in,” Luukkonen in United Center. “You know there’s something to work for, and you have a goal to work for. I think it’s a great situation.”
The Sabres are getting a goalie who’s been strapping on the pads since he could walk. He went straight to the net when he started playing street hockey, and he stayed in the crease as soon as there was ice under his feet.
“My older brother was a goalie,” Luukkonen said. “My older cousin, he was a goalie. It’s maybe in the family a little bit, but I also liked to watch the goalie gear, the pads, the gloves. It was just great for me.”
The 6-foot-4, 198-pounder admires Finnish countryman Pekka Rinne of Nashville. Both had postseason success this year.
After recording a .916 save percentage and 1.78 goals-against average during the regular season, Luukkonen led HPK Jr. to the league title. He also backstopped Finland to the gold medal in the 2016 under-18 world championship, where he was named to the all-tournament team. He earned a silver at this year’s under-18 tournament.
“He fills the net out there,” said Jeff Crisp, the Sabres’ head amateur scout. “There’s not much to shoot at when he’s in the net.”
NHL Central Scouting says Luukkonen’s rebound control is excellent, as his butterfly style.
“There’s a lot of times it’s more like butterfly style, but still I like to play standing up,” Luukkonen said. “I would say I’m pretty calm. There’s no problem for me to be the goalie and play in big situations or be in big situations.”
He noticed that trait in a fellow Finn and member of the Sabres. Rasmus Ristolainen scored the gold medal-winning goal in overtime at the 2014 world junior tournament.
“The whole Finland went crazy, so I wasn’t the only one who went crazy there,” Luukkonen said. “It tells about him. He has the confidence to make those plays. It was just great.”
While the goalie is looking forward to meeting Ristolainen at training camp, they won’t be teammates for a few years. Luukkonen has more to prove at home.
“I want to have a great season with a men’s team somewhere in Finland, so it would be maybe one, two or three years when I have the great season with the men’s team,” he said. “After that, I would want to go to Buffalo.”
The Sabres appeared to go off the board, and maybe way off it, to augment their organizational depth at defense by taking two players who did not show up on Central Scouting's list of top skaters.
In the third round, Buffalo took Finnish bluliner Oskari Laaksonen. In the fourth round, the Sabres went with Providence College freshman Jacob Bryson.
Laaksonen, 17, was listed on Eliteprospects.com as 5-foot-9 and 130 pounds but the NHL had him growing to 6-1, 165. He had six goals and 13 assists last season while splitting time between Liiga and Sarja in the Finnish junior leagues.
Laaksonen himself cleared up the confusion over his stats by tweeting he's actually 6-0 1/2 and 154 pounds.
"He's very mobile, likes to pass the puck and move the puck," said Crisp. "He's a late bloomer that's coming along nice. Our scouts have tracked him for the last two years and we know him well."
The pick came at No. 89 overall. It was their second pick of the third round, acquired last year from Washington in the deadline-week trade for defenseman Mike Weber.
The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Bryson had three goals and 17 assists last season for Providence in his first year of American college hockey. He was the defense partner of Anthony Florentino, Buffalo's fifth-round pick in 2013. Florentino layed on the Friars' 2015 national championship that beat Jack Eichel and Boston University in the title game at the Frozen Four.
His 20 points ranked third in the NCAA for first-year defensemen. The London, Ont., native played previously for Omaha in the USHL.
"Sometimes we undervalue players who step into college right away," said General Manager Jason Botterill. "It's a big adjustment playing against sometimes 23-24-year-olds. He stepped into a very good program and played very well. From a puck-moving ability, he did an excellent job this year."
The Sabres started Day Two the same way they ended Day One – with a center.
Buffalo picked Sweden’s Marcus Davidsson with the sixth pick of the second round. He plays professionally for Djurgardens of the Swedish Hockey League, where he had five goals and nine points in 45 games. He added six goals and 10 points in nine games with Djurgardens' junior team.
“Our Swedish scouts really thought that he was a player that had good hockey sense,” Botterill said. “Although his production may not be as high as some other players in the draft, he can certainly be a guy that contribute offensively but also play a good solid defensive game, too. He plays with pace, will get in the forecheck.”
Davidsson won a championship with his junior club in 2015-16. He put up 17 goals and 40 points in 45 regular-season games and three goals and six points in six playoff games. He was named playoff MVP.
The 6-foot, 191-pound center has represented Sweden on its silver-medal teams at the 2016 under-18 world championship and the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial. He was ranked 12th among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
“Davidsson has a nice mature, two-way game that coaches will love,” said Crisp.
The Sabres closed their draft with the seventh-round selection of Linus Weissbach, a left winger for Tri-City of the United States Hockey League. The native of Sweden came to North America this year and had 19 goals and 47 points in 49 games for Tri-City.
The 5-foot-8, 161-pounder had 17 goals and 48 points in 44 games for Frolunda's junior team in 2015-16. He is scheduled to attend the University of Wisconsin.
“A competitive player, certainly can bring an offensive flair, offensive dynamic,” Botterill said.
Nico Hischier was not only the first pick of the NHL Draft, he won the third annual E.J. McGuire Award. It’s named for the late Buffalo native who ran NHL Central Scouting.
The award is presented by the NHL to the draft prospect who best exemplifies commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness and athleticism. McGuire died at age 58 in 2011, leaving behind his wife, Terry, and their two children, Jacqueline and Erin. He was the brother-in-law of Sabres equipment manager Rip Simonick.
"This award doesn't focus on the on-ice skills and attributes of the recipient, it focuses on the person," said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. "We saw the same type of passion and motivation to do the right thing and do it to the best of your ability similar to the way that E.J. strived.”