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NHL – BELL: Sabres’ Patience with Luukkonen Paying off

MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 21: Buffalo Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (1) tracks the play during the Buffalo Sabres versus the Montreal Canadiens game on February 21, 2024, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire)

When the Buffalo Sabres drafted Finnish goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen with the 54th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, he was quickly touted as the goaltender of the future. From there, it’s been a long road for the netminder - one that the Sabres have patiently waited through.

Since being drafted, Luukkonen has had stops in the U20 SM-liiga, Liiga, Mestis, OHL, ECHL, and AHL. In 2020-21, he made his NHL debut, getting four games with the big club. That grew to nine games in 2021-22, and then 33 games last season - his first season spending most of the campaign in the show. He didn’t exactly dazzle though, with a .892 save percentage (SV%) for his rookie season.

Along that long path from the NHL Draft to sticking in the NHL this season, Luukkonen’s remained a promising prospect. Still, injuries have plagued him including a double hip surgery that nearly scrapped his entire first year pro. His durability naturally led to questions about whether or not he could still be the future answer in net for the Sabres. Trading for Devon Levi - who arguably has the longest list of accolades for a goaltender before turning pro - added additional questions of Luukkonen. Who’s going to be ‘the guy’? Luukkonen or Levi?

This season, Luukkonen has silenced any doubts and has not only solidified himself as the No. 1 guy in Buffalo, but he’s announced that he might just be on his way to being a top goaltender in the league. Levi, who’s three years younger, will come knocking for that spot sooner rather than later, but the Sabres are in an excellent, enviable spot right now in the position. Their goaltender of the future is here, and they have another waiting in the wings.

It might not seem like it, but Luukkonen’s breakout campaign is coming at the perfect time for the Sabres. This is a young team on the upswing, with a core that could very well become a perennial contender very soon. And now, they have their answer in net.

Luukkonen’s Breakout Season by the Numbers

Looking at the season as a whole, Luukkonen’s numbers have skyrocketed compared to last season. While his 23-18-3 record isn’t exactly what you’d want through 45 games, the rest of his most telling stats have come a long way:

Season GP Overall SV% ES SV% Quality Start % (QS%) Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA)
2022-23 33 .891 .899 .406 -14.1
2023-24 45 .912 .917 .690 9.9

In almost every stat, he’s in the top half of the league (minimum 15 games played): wins (23 - 11th), SV% (.912 - tied for 15th), goals against average (GAA) (2.52 - 12th), shutouts (five - tied for second), QS% (.690 - fourth), and GSAA (12th).

Where it gets even better is looking at his 2024 performance. The NHL rank is in brackets (again, minimum 15 games played).

GP Overall SV% ES SV% Quality Start Goals Saved Above Average
2023-24 45 .912 .917 .690 9.9
Since Jan 1 27 .923 (t-2nd) .933 (4th) .741 (1st) 14.77 (3rd)

The QS% stands out as the BEST in the league since January 1st. The Overall SV% is just barely behind Connor Hellebuyck’s .924 and is tied with Jordan Binnington. The GSAA is behind only those two goaltenders, and the ES SV% is behind those two and Sergei Bobrovsky. That’s it - that’s the company he’s been keeping since January 1st and keep in mind, that’s with him getting lit up with eight goals on March 21st.

While this is impressive, the numbers only show so much. To truly understand how dominant he’s been, we have to take a look at the tape.

Luukkonen’s Eye-Test Performance

One of the first things you notice about Luukkonen is his size. He’s a massive presence in the net, standing at 6-foot-5, 216 pounds. While smaller goaltenders can still make it with borderline elite athleticism, there’s a definite advantage to being a massive present in net.

That’s 6-foot-3 Matt Martin standing in front of Luukkonen, who can easily see around the screen. Luukkonen can still easily track the play, does well at getting to the top of the paint to cut down the angle and be prepared for a tip, and ultimately makes the save. While he doesn’t swallow up the initial shot, his rebound control is on display here as he quickly pounces on the puck to protect it from the chopping of Martin. He remains calm but reacts quickly and that’s exactly what you want to see from your netminder.

That calm collected presence is a regular trait of the Finn’s play, as you can see here. The Sabres turn the puck over on the exit, and Matty Knies gets into the slot and despite falling, gets the shot off. What stands out here is the technically sound play of Luukkonen. It’s a straightforward save with a clean view, but it does require a quick reaction with the shot coming from that location. And with Knies falling, it’s unpredictable where it will end up. But Luukkonen makes the save and perfectly directs it to the corner, away from the open Maple Leaf in the circle. Luukkonen’s quickly back up on his feet, over to his post, and then scans the ice to ensure he knows where everyone is. It’s a simple save, but it does show the composure, rebound control, and awareness he brings to the ice.

Speaking of composure, this is a great example of that. Luukkonen is so good at staying patient and focused, not overcommitting on a play. There’s a lot that could go wrong here due to the defensive lapse of the Sabres and the Golden Knights ending up with two open attackers just feet away from the blue paint with time. Luukkonen needs to be prepared for a quick pass or a quick shot and does just that.

He utilizes this time to continue to cut down the angle, likely knowing that he’s staring down Jonathan Marchessault who’s approaching 40 goals this season and that he’s probably going to shoot. Marchessault tries to change the angle here on Luukkonen, getting close to the goal line, but the goaltender gives him absolutely nothing. Marchessault runs out of time so ends up just firing it and hoping for the best, which Luukkonen easily stops and jumps on the rebound. With the open man in front, Luukkonen could have panicked and cheated to prepare for the pass or challenged the shooter more and risked the pass, but he remained patient, poised, and gave the shooter nothing.

We’ve covered a lot of how Luukkonen’s patience and technical ability help him in net, but of course, when it comes down to making a big save, you can still count on the young goaltender.

First off, what a pass from Chandler Stephenson with one hand on his stick. But then, what a save from Luukkonen to answer. The reading of the play is perfect here, and he nailed the timing across to make a huge blocker save. You always want your goaltender to make these saves but frankly, you understand if they don’t. But in a tie game, this desperation save comes up clutch.

While there’s been lots of positive development, Luukkonen’s still young and there’s room to improve. While this desperation blocker save is huge, his glove hand can be a weakness when you get him moving.

This is even just a small shift over for him, but Luukkonen’s read is then off. This is fairly common on his glove side in motion or not, and should be an area of focus for him moving forward. This is a shot he should stop every time.

Diving further into this area of weakness: of the 109 goals against this season, 54 have come on his glove side (49.5%) and 43 on his glove side off the ice (39.4%). 23 of the goals (21.1%) have been above his glove and 17 (15.5%) between his glove and his pad. For those doing the math and wondering about the other three goals against, they were over his shoulder. In my opinion, this is his biggest area of improvement moving forward, but it’s not the only one in need.

This isn’t always the case, but he can get caught too deep in his net at times. I would like to see him more aggressive in plays like this and similarly to the last clip, this is a shot he should stop every time. It looks like the puck was tipped off the defender here, so his initial reaction was no longer where the puck was going. But if he was at least at the top of his crease, he would have cut the angle down more and had less space visible. With his size, he could have stopped that puck without moving much at all.

In order to not leave you on a negative note with these clips, here’s one more - another desperation save, this time with a stretched-out paddle earlier in the season:

While the 25-year-old netminder still has some work to do, the improvement this season over last season is quite remarkable. If there was an award for Most Improved Player, Luukkonen would absolutely be a frontrunner. Injuries have likely lengthened the development road for him, but he now appears to be back on track and excelling at that. The goaltender of the future appears to be here and ready to take the Sabres to the next level.

Statistics from, InStat, and Natural Stat Trick