Finnish netminder Eetu Laurikainen had one hell of a season for the Espoo Blues last season, so I was pretty excited to see him ink a deal within the Edmonton system last year. I won’t lie, I totally hopped on board that hype train.
Over the first handful of games this year, though, he’s only gotten one start – and while it’s through no fault of his own, that’s hardly a good way to develop.
The solution? The 22 year old is being loaned back to Finland for the year, announced on Sunday.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) November 15, 2015
When the Edmonton Oilers acquired Cam Talbot in the off-season, that acquisition gave the team the ever-elusive hypothetical number one netminder they’ve needed for close to a decade now.
Remember Jussi Markkanen? How about Dwayne Roloson? From these guys and Khabibulin to Devan Dubnyk, Ben Scrivens, and Viktor Fasth, the Oilers had failed to find the answer in net – and the expectation was that Talbot would be able to come in and fix things.
Of course, the addition of Cam Talbot alone would have been fine for Laurikainen’s standing within the Oilers organization. Talbot and Scrivens could theoretically serve as an acceptable – potentially even successful – tandem at the NHL level, while Laurikainen split the net with prospect Laurent Brossoit in the AHL. If things went sour with either Scrivens or Talbot, Brossoit’s AHL and ECHL numbers suggested in the last few seasons that he’s likely nearing a stage where he can successfully hold on to starts at the NHL level; whomever he replaced could move to the AHL and tandem with Laurikainen instead.
That was before the Oilers acquired Anders Nilsson as well, though.
Nilsson wants NHL starts, which initially put the Oilers in a kind of sticky situation. The club was left with the option to either waive Scrivens (which they ultimately did), allow Nilsson to return to the KHL at no cost to them for yet another impressive season overseas, or waive Talbot (which was unlikely from the start). Nilsson, Scrivens, and Talbot were all looking for NHL time, and teams only carry two netminders each game.
That left the Oilers with five goaltenders who looked to be either AHL or NHL ready – and with two prospects of the five, that meant either sitting a pricey NHL netminder at the AHL level or allowing a prospect to ride the bench for weeks at a time in the minors.
They chose option two, and Laurikainen found himself the odd man out.
One mediocre start for the Finnish free agent wasn’t enough to earn him the starts over Brossoit – who looks good enough to potentially be a U23 World Cup candidate – and Scrivens simply costs too much to sit in favor of the younger, cheaper options. Brossoit’s three shutouts and .933 unadjusted save percentage gave the Oilers no reason to see starts given away from the former Calgary Flames prospect in Bakersfield, so Laurikainen took his one AHL start and returned to Finland this week.
Why this is good for the Oilers
While some players bolt overseas and never return, Laurikainen has been loaned to a European club while on an ELC for Edmonton; the club has the power to recall him at any point during the 2015-2016 season (per the 2013 NHL CBA), and they’ll retain his negotiating rights at the end of the year as a restricted free agent.
This is the perfect situation for the Finn, then.
While in the SM-liiga, Laurikainen can likely make the majority of the starts for HPK (the club he’s been loaned to). They’re currently struggling, icing a tandem of aging 32 year old starter Jere Myllyniemi and struggling 23 year old prospect Kristian Jarvinen over their first 25 games of the season. Jarvinen has yet to win a game, Myllyniemi has gone 5-11-3, and the duo post respective raw save percentages of .840 and .880 through mid-November. The club itself is struggling to score, but both Jarvinen and Myllyniemi have been far from impressive.
Laurikainen, in comparison, is coming off a season where he boasted a .933 raw save percentage and recorded four shutouts with the Blues; he can come in to HPK as a starter from day one with this option.
That’s better for his development than sitting on the bench at the AHL level, and he expressed a desire to return to Europe over the ECHL should that scenario present itself. Last season’s numbers for the 22 year old saw him record one of the highest save percentages among all of the elite European leagues, and there’s little reason to believe he can’t pull that off again.
Laurikainen also doesn’t need to learn the rink dimensions in North America – which is less important than the share of starts he’s getting, but is still nice to know nonetheless.
While he spent the majority of his development overseas in Finland, Laurikainen actually made a two season appearance with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos – where he recorded solid, >.900 unadjusted save percentages in both campaigns. Giving him a large share of starts overseas won’t hurt his understanding of North American rinks, but it will give him the practice that’s so crucial to a young goaltender.
The Bottom Line
By loaning him to Finland instead of breaking his contract, the Oilers give themselves insurance that it’s looking more and more likely they’ll need.
Talbot and Nilsson are both beginning to struggle behind the porous Oilers defensive structure, while Brossoit is white-hot in the minors; even if nothing leaves the Oilers needing to pull Brossoit up to the big show this year, there’s little reason to believe he won’t be ready for his debut next year. That will leave the Oilers with Brossoit likely hitting the NHL and Scrivens wrapping up his stint with the Edmonton organization, opening not just one but two spots for Laurikainen to grab for his own.
Beyond that, though, this keeps the relationship strong with Laurikainen for the club. Sitting on the bench for an entire year after a successful European season does nothing to benefit a young, developing netminder – so the likelihood that he’d want to stick around after a year of twirling his thumbs would be much lower than it is with him earning his share of starts overseas. The Oilers get to hold on to his negotiation rights without having to either bench a pricey Scrivens, sit Laurikainen, or move a netminder out of the system before the team’s structure has even managed to fully take shape, and they’ll do it with the netminder likely walking into their offices this summer with a big smile on his face.
Part of a goaltender’s success hinges on consistency and structure; lacking the ability to make starts is as detrimental as trading out one of the team’s five ‘guys to watch’ before he’s gotten a chance to establish himself in the team’s system. This is a good move for all involved – and if both Brossoit and Laurikainen can pan out in time to see Nurse, Klefbom, and Reinhart pan out themselves, there’s a lot to like about the future of Edmonton’s weakest area.