By AJ Lee
Finland produces goalies like Italians make suits, or Germans make cars.
In 2015-16, no fewer than 11 Finnish goaltenders suited up in NHL games. That’s from a country of 5.4 million people.
The long line started even before Miikka Kiprusoff became the first Finn to win a Vezina Trophy, in 2005; or Antti Niemi became the first Finn to win a Stanley Cup, in 2010 with the Blackhawks. It will extend beyond Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne and Niklas Backstrom.
The hope in St. Louis is that it will extend to Ville Husso. The 22-year-old seems to have settled in with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL this season after struggling to find a place upon coming to North America in 2016 — following his selection by the Blues with the 94th overall pick (fourth round) of the 2014 NHL draft.
Looking the Part
Husso could have come straight from Finnish goalie central casting: 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, blond hair, blue eyes.
“When I watch him in net, there are a lot of qualities that you like,” Blues coach Mike Yeo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in September. “It’s the size. He’s got athleticism, and he’s competitive. You can hear him from the bench. He’s barking at guys, he’s communicating. To me, that screams of a goalie that’s really engaged. And that’s a good sign.”
Husso showed well in his only start during training camp, stopping 27 shots in a 4-0 win over Washington. Preseason or no, it was a shutout in his first NHL start of any kind.
“It was a good camp for me, but I still need to keep going,” Husso said the next evening, after finishing his camp with the Blues. “I want to just play a lot this season. I understand I’m still a young guy. … It doesn’t matter where I play, just enjoy and play like (I did against the Capitals).”
Finding a Spot
St. Louis is solid between the pipes with 27-year-old Jake Allen being backed up by 32-year-old Carter Hutton. Realistically, so much as a backup role might not open until next season, or even 2019-20.
Then, is it Husso, 2016 second-round pick Evan Fitzpatrick, 2015 fifth-rounder Luke Opilka or 2011 third-rounder Jordan Binnington?
Finding a Groove
Through the 2015-16 season, Husso stayed in juniors, and was named the top goaltender in the SM-liiga.
When Husso got to North America, he suffered through some unexpected shuffling. After an unimpressive stint with the Missouri Mavericks in the ECHL (4-4-2 in 13 games, 3.23 GAA) he bumped up to the AHL, in a three-man rotation for the Chicago Wolves. He settled in there, posting a 2.37 GAA and .920 save percentage in 22 games.
This season, Husso arrived in San Antonio, which will become St. Louis’ AHL affiliate next season (the Blues’ contract with the Wolves expired last season). He started slowly, with a GAA hovering near 4.0. But Husso has come on strong.
On the second day of the new year, he was name the AHL’s Player of the Week for the week of Dec. 31 after stopping 54 of 55 shots in two starts for the Rampage, one of which was a 1-0 overtime win for his first shutout of the season. Though he hasn’t started as many games as Spencer Martin — whose parent club, Colorado, is the Rampage’s NHL parent club for the remainder of the year — Husso’s .925 GAA is tops on the team.
And he is again looking like St. Louis’ netminder of the future.
Author bio: AJ Lee is Marketing Coordinator for Pro Stock Hockey, an online resource for pro stock hockey equipment. He was born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and has been a huge Blackhawks fan his entire life. AJ picked up his first hockey stick at age 3, and hasn’t put it down yet.