Due to regional authorities imposing stricter COVID-19 restrictions with crowd gatherings at games in Finland, the Liiga has announced on Wednesday that it has suspended its regular season starting Thursday, Dec. 3 through Saturday, Dec. 19.
The Buffalo Sabres have a total of four prospects currently playing in Finland to start their 2020-21 season. Three out of the four prospects playing in the Liiga are on a loan agreement from the Sabres, which means that once training camp opens for the 2020-21 NHL season, those players will return to North America.
Though the league is nearly through a third of its season, all four of Buffalo’s prospects in Finland have been relatively productive in that span.
Starting at the top of the scoring leaderboard in the Liiga, Arttu Ruotsalainen is showing some true promise with his production to start the year.
The 23-year-old forward is leading the entire league through 19 games played with 16 goals and 27 points. His 16 goals is four more goals than the next closest players on the stat line, while his 27 points is also four points ahead of the next closest player.
Ruotsalainen has been very a key cog of the offensive group in Tampere Ilves. He serves as the No. 1 center on the team, while also playing a number of key roles on the team, including the top power play unit and also on the penalty kill. Ruotsalainen leads the entire Liiga with a whopping nine power play goals, while also leading the league with three shorthanded goals.
In November alone, Ruotsalainen set the Liiga on fire with seven goals and five assists for 12 points in just seven games.
Ruotsalainen is one of the three Sabres prospects that will be making the trek to North America once the NHL has set dates for the start of training camps. He is expected to start the 2020-21 season in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans, and could see himself develop in a similar way that Victor Olofsson did when he played his first season in North American back in the 2018-19 campaign.
Former Sabres general manager Jason Botterill signed Ruotsalainen as a European free agent back on March 8, 2019.
Another notable Sabres prospect that has played well on his loan agreement in the Liiga is defenseman Oskari Laaksonen.
The former third round pick (89th overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft finished his first 18 games of the season with the Lahti Pelicans with four goals and eight assists for 12 points. His 12 points currently rank him tied for seventh in scoring among defensemen. Meanwhile, Laaksonen’s four goals have all come while on the man advantage, which is tied for the league-lead from the blue line with Montreal Canadiens prospect Otto Leskinen.
The addition of Laaksonen has solidified the defensive group for the Pelicans to start the season. The team has the 21-year-old averaging nearly 21 minutes per-night, shooting the puck plenty, and playing some key minutes, especially on the power play that ranks second overall in the league. His 89 shots on goal from the blue line ranks him third overall in the league.
As for where Laaksonen slots in for the Sabres this upcoming season, he is very likely to start his North American career playing in the minors with either the Amerks in the AHL or the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL. He will be competing for a full-time roster spot in the AHL this upcoming season with a number of other players in Rochester, but he should have a decent shot at earning a top-six role.
Meanwhile, the lone Sabres prospect playing in the Liiga that will remain in Finland through the rest of the season is defenseman Miska Kukkonen.
The 20-year-old blue liner has primarily been playing a bottom-four, two-way role with Rauman Lukko, who currently sits tied atop the Liiga standings with Ruotsalainen’s Ilves. Kukkonen is averaging just 15:27 per-night in Finland, but has produced eight assists in 19 games, and is one of just two defensemen on the roster to have played all 19 games this season.
Kukkonen has already matched his game total in the Liiga from last season as he plays his first full season of professional hockey in Finland. The former fifth round pick (125th overall) of the Sabres in the 2018 NHL Draft will likely have another year or two of development in the Liiga before the possibility of making the jump to North America.
Buffalo’s final prospect playing in Finland comes with goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who’s played very well in net during his time with TPS Turku.
The 21-year-old has become the No. 1 option in goal for TPS as the season has progressed, posting a 5-2-4 record with a 2.34 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. His goals-against average is currently tied for eighth in the league rankings, while his save percentage has him sitting fourth in the league.
Getting Luukkonen the valuable playing time in Finland will certainly help him continue his strong line of development going forward as, arguably, Buffalo’s top goaltending prospect. The second round pick (54th overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft is getting a chance to play, and play well, against professionals in Finland, while proving his worth as a potential No. 1 goalie for the Sabres organization.
He is bound to return to North America once NHL training camps get underway for the 2020-21 season, and will compete for the chance to start the season in the AHL with the Amerks. However, it’s likely that Luukkonen will start the season as the starter in the ECHL once again, where he was an All-Star with the Cyclones as a rookie netminder.
The goaltending tandem in Rochester to start the upcoming season will likely be Jonas Johansson and newly signed goalie Dustin Tokarski.