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Mike Harrington: Luukkonen's development plan takes an interesting twist

Having development camp in the days leading to free agency rather than in early July, a new twist under Jason Botterill, creates an interesting dynamic for the Buffalo Sabres.

On one hand, the team is girding to fill its immediate needs. Short-term ones can be taken care of starting Sunday at noon, when unrestricted free agents can be signed. On the other hand, this week is heavily about the future and that means a lot more than just Rasmus Dahlin.

The worlds are seemingly colliding now, as the team is closing in on a three-year deal with Carter Hutton to become the No. 1 goaltender while watching 19-year-old Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen continue to prime for a top slot that's still a few years away.

The 6-foot-4 Luukkonen, the team's second-round pick last year, just signed his entry-level contract earlier this month with the Sabres. They're super-high on him and he's bullish on them.

Luukkonen also said it's quite a bit different not being a camp newbie.

"I think it’s a lot easier," he said after Friday's session in HarborCenter. "I see all the Finns, my roommate Miska Kukkonen, I see a lot of me last year on him.

"There’s a lot of the excitement of getting drafted. Drafted guys are so nervous here. You learn so much in the first camp. You’re not here to show off. You’re here to learn. There’s a lot calmer me this year in camp."

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Since we last saw Luukkonen, he's had an eventful year. The biggest might have been when he came back to Buffalo to play for Finland in the World Juniors.

"It was a great experience to play here in Buffalo in front of all of the fans of the Buffalo Sabres," he said. "It was a big thing for me. It was nice to see the city in the winter. It was beautiful and it was a great experience."

The Sabres had a new wrinkle thrown into Luukkonen's career path on Thursday when the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League drafted him with the third overall selection in the Canadian Hockey League import draft.

That leaves the Sabres with an interesting question to ponder.

They could have Luukkonen playing in Sudbury and getting acclimated to the smaller North American ice sheet. It would be a quick plane ride to watch him play, or a manageable drive for several of his road games in the OHL.

But Botterill clearly doesn't think much of the Canadian junior ranks, as no draft picks in two years would indicate. You wonder if the Sabres would be satisfied to simply keep Luukkonen playing in Finland, albeit on the bigger international sheet, so he can keep getting reps against older players rather than the 16-20 set in Ontario.

Botterill, assistant GM Steve Greeley and development goalie coach Seamus Kotyk will have to put their heads together and once again ponder Luukkonen's plan with this new development.

"It’s a big thing to get drafted here in the import draft," Luukkonen said. "We’ll talk with the agents and with Steve Greeley and Seamus Kotyk and see what’s best for me."

Luukkonen is the first goalie Sudbury has taken in the import draft since 2011. Wolves General Manager Rob Papineau told the Sudbury Star on Thursday he's prepared to go through the process of selling the Sabres on Luukkonen coming to northern Ontario.

“They’re a first-class organization, when you deal with the individuals there," Papineau said of the Sabres. "We deal with (assistant general managers) Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley and their goalie coach, Seamus Kotyk. These are first-class people, they have an open mind, they’re professionals.

“Going through the import draft, it’s a process, so today is our team making a selection and we’re definitely looking forward to the next part of this process, which is all the discussions that follow.”

Luukkonen had an 11-11-2 record and .908 save percentage last season in the Finnish second division and also played one game in the senior league. Where he might fit come fall could certainly color the Sabres' decision.

Luukkonen turns 20 in March. He needs ice time. Whatever phobia the Sabres may have about the OHL probably needs to be pushed aside if it looks like he won't play as much back home. The Finnish League's earlier start to the season could give Luukkonen and the Sabres the answer they need.

"It was a little bit different, my first time in the men’s league," Luukkonen said. "There was a lot of new stuff going on and a lot of new games, different games than what I’m used to. It was a lot of learning included there but I think it went pretty well."

Luukkonen is like any big goalie in that he has to work on his quickness in the crease and take precautions to close whatever holes he leaves. Goalies are long-term projects and Luukkonen can't be counted upon to battle for the NHL for at least another two years. Probably more. But it's important that the development plan goes in the proper direction right now.

"I’m a big guy so I have to be a lot quicker and get some power to my body and some more control to my play," he said. "There’s good coaching going on in Europe. We work hard there. There’s good goalie coaching, good player coaching. You can see it in the draft, there are a lot of teams that want European players that have good work ethic."

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