1) It seems the NHL has gone through a series of goalie crazes over the years. It seemed at one point that almost every team had a Swedish goalie on their roster. Later it appeared that most elite goalies seemed to come from Quebec. With Roy and Brodeur being the most prime examples. So teams drafted every kid with French name and a goalie glove. Later with the emergence of Hasek, Czech goalies were all the rage, and names like Turek, Cechmanek, etc were common. A brief Russian goalie rage also occurred in the recent past. Today its the Finns who see to be getting all the scouts excited. Is it warranted, and why is it happening?
2) For the last few years now, Finland has been considered one of the cradles of goaltending by NHL scouts and talent evaluators. It seems that almost every team either has a Finnish goalie on their roster or one in their system ready to step in. Why does this seem to be so? We asked several folks in the know: What do all these Finnish goalies have in common? As one scout told us, each developed as an established star in the Finnish pro leagues first before making the jump to the NHL. He went on to say that 'The thought process over there (in Finland) has a preponderance of elite goalie coaches and the practice-heavy routine' as opposed to playing a heavy schedule of games as is done here in North America.
3) Goalies currently in the NHL who were born/trained in Finland: Mikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, Kari Lehtonen, Niklas Backstrom, Antero Niittyimaki, Fredrik Norrena, Hannu Toivonen, Karri Ramo, and Tuukka Rask . The ladder 3 are still unproven/rookies who have yet to make a mark, but are highly touted as their teams' heir apparent.
4) So lets look at the accomplishments of these goalies.
- Mikka Kiprusoff: No one would/can dispute that has been one of the top goal tenders the past few seasons, as well as the best goalie to come from his country. Carrying his team into the Finals in 2004, and perennial Vezina finalist. (2006 winner) Despite a poor start this season, he remains one of the league's best.
- Niklas Backstrom He would be next in line on the Finn depth chart in our opinion . Who despite being confused as being a Swede due to his name, was born in Helsinki and trained in Finland. He has had 1 good season and is doing well again this year. It could be argued that he plays in a system(Jacques Lemaire's Wild) that favours goalies.
- Fredrik Norrena: A late comer to the NHL. Is no kid at 34. Played several years in the Swedish elite league before coming to Columbus. Even in front of their inexperienced defense/team has put up respectable numbers. A save % well above .900. Though few would place him in the top 50% of NHL goalies
- Kari Lehtonen: Highly touted for the past couple of years as Atlanta's future, we have yet to see consistency from the year 24 old. The jury is still out and we're not saying he won't eventually become the 'next Kipper', and this in actuality is only his second NHL season, and he has the size etc, but so far we're not impressed.
- Vesa Toskala: Seemed to be getting new life when he was dealt to the Maple Leafs from the Sharks. In San Jose he was Nabokhov's back up; putting up decent numbers and showing promise to be a #1. So far in TO he has not been the saviour. Better than Raycroft(not saying much), but not able to carry the team either.
- Antero Niittyimaki: Like Lehtonen, was highly touted, but has yet to leave a mark. The Flyers clearly lost confidence that he'd soon emerge as a starter when they signed Marty Biron to a 3 year deal this summer. Could still re-emerge as he's still only 27, but right now is the team's backup and playing sparingly (On pace to play 20 games)
- Hannu Toivonen/Karri Ramo/Tuukka Rask: All lumped together here due to their ages and lack of NHL experience. All are being touted by their respective teams as their 'goalie of the future'. None, thus far, have shown anything that would get us excited. Of course its seldom that a goalie under 22 is a starter/making an impact in the NHL, so the jury remains out on these 3.
5) Despite only Kiprsoff, and to a much lesser extend Backstrom making a huge impact on the NHL, we have to commend Finland for producing so many players who have enough talent to play in the NHL. To have 9 players in one position coming from a country that barely has a 5 million population is impressive! It would be the equivalent of the Toronto metro area producing that many goalies. That said, we have yet to see a reason for the hype. Unless we see several of the named players, or another who has gone under our radar develop, into another Kipper, we would see no reason to tout Finland as a goalie nursery. Surkea Suomi!