DETROIT -- Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is one step closer to the National Hockey League -- for now.
Luukkonen, a 20-year-old goalie, was recalled by the Rochester Americans from the Cincinnati Cyclones on Sunday morning. An ECHL All-Star selection, Luukkonen had a .917 save percentage and 12-5-3 record for the Cyclones after returning from hip surgery.
According to Buffalo Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton, Luukkonen will spend the next week with Rochester before returning to Cincinnati. The Sabres want Luukkonen to play approximately 40 games this season between the Amerks and Cyclones.
Rochester will play three games in three days beginning Friday against Cleveland in Blue Cross Arena. Luukkonen is one of three goalies on the Amerks' roster, joining Jonas Johansson and Andrew Hammond.
"He’s gotten off to a good start," Sexton said of Luukkonen in a phone interview with The Buffalo News. "We were very cautious and careful after his surgery to make sure we didn’t rush things. He’s had a good first half and as far back as the summer we had planned to start to introduce him to some American League games provided he stayed healthy in the first half of the season and this is really the commencement of that process."
Luukkonen practiced in Rochester earlier this season while working his way back from hip surgery. He established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the ECHL since making made his season debut with Cincinnati on Nov. 2.
Luukkonen, a second-round draft pick in 2017, won a gold medal with Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championship last January. He was named the Ontario Hockey League's most valuable player after winning a league-best 38 regular-season games with the Sudbury Wolves last season and made his professional debut with Rochester in April.
Luukkonen underwent surgery later that month and missed the Sabres' development camp, Prospects Challenge and training camp. The Sabres would prefer Luukkonen spend the bulk of his first professional season in Cincinnati since the Amerks have Johansson and Hammond.
Johansson, 24, has a .924 save percentage in 18 games this season and was selected to the AHL All-Star Classic. Hammond, a 31-year-old with 56 games of NHL experience, has a .902 save percentage in 22 games with the Amerks.
"Part of it is we think it’s the right workload for a first-year pro," Sexton said of getting Luukkonen 40 starts this season. "Bear in mind, he does have some pro experience from his time in Finland, but first-year pro in North America. Also, if you looked at how other young goalies that have progressed to the National Hockey League, we think the right number is around 40 or a few more."
Pekar makes impact
Sabres prospect Matej Pekar has made a significant impact since joining Sudbury this week. The 20-year-old forward has six points in three games with the Wolves, including five assists in an 8-2 victory over North Bay on Saturday.
Pekar, who was drafted in the fourth round by Buffalo in 2017, was traded to Sudbury from Barrie last week. He represented Czech Republic in each of the past two IIHF World Junior Championships.
Sudbury is currently holding on to a playoff spot, and Pekar has been placed on a line with Quinton Byfield, a top prospect in the 2020 NHL draft.
"We really do believe that playoff series accelerate the development of younger players particularly," Sexton said. "Sudbury is in a good spot. They have a good team. They’re well-coached with (head coach Cory Stillman) there, and we know him obviously from UPL’s time there last year. We have a great working relationships with the guys in Barrie. (Barrie General Manager) Jason Ford was very honest and forthcoming with us about what his plans were. Would have been happy to see Metaj there, but it looks now with some of the moves made around the league that Sudbury should be well-positioned for a good push and hopefully Matej can help them through that."
Casey Mittelstadt’s first 11 games in Rochester have been a mixed bag. The 21-year-old forward scored in three consecutive games and had points in four straight. However, he’s a minus-3 with three shots on goal over his past two games. His stat line with the Amerks: three goals among six points with a minus-7 rating.
The Amerks have allowed 19 goals over their last four games and have lost six of their last seven. Entering Sunday, Rochester was tied with Belleville for second in the American Hockey League’s North Division.