BUFFALO – The burden of expectations could’ve weighed Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen down. After all, shortly after the Sabres drafted him in the second round in 2017, he was labeled as their goalie of the future.
At times in the minors, the Finn seemed to be developing a bit slowly. Injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic limited his playing time. He sometimes struggled or performed inconsistently.
“There’s been ups and downs to it,” Luukkonen said of his maturation following Friday’s practice at KeyBank Center. “… I feel like there’s been the expectation and all that, sometimes it feels like you didn’t meet that and all that. I think working through that whole thing you realize it doesn’t help you at all if you don’t worry about it too much.”
So, on his way to Buffalo, Luukkonen, 23, learned to stay in the moment and focus on whatever that day presented, wherever he was playing.
That mentality has helped him arrive as the Sabres’ No. 1 goalie in his fourth pro season. Following a slow start upon his promotion from the Rochester Americans in mid-November, he has won 10 of his last 14 outings, helping the Sabres roar into the thick of the playoff chase.
The 6-foot-5, 217-pound Luukkonen will likely start this afternoon’s game against the Calgary Flames at KeyBank Center, his ninth nod in the last 12 contests.
“There’s been tremendous people in this organization to get me better, and I realized it’s not about looking what it could be a year from now, it’s just showing up every day and being as good as you can,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in Cincinnati or in Rochester or in here. I think spending the time in Rochester and even Cincinnati I realized that it’s not always where you will be exactly where you want to be.
“So it’s … a cliché, you just try to show up and work, work hard for it. So I guess that mentality has been paying off every day when those hard times come, too.”
The Sabres have been hesitant to officially name Luukkonen as their starter. Perhaps they don’t want to put too much pressure on the rookie. They, of course, also have veteran goalie Craig Anderson and newcomer Eric Comrie on the roster.
Whatever the case, Luukkonen will almost certainly handle most of the action until he falters.
“To do what he’s done, I think’s been tremendous,” Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said Thursday. “It’s been great to see him continue to be calm, and now when you look at UPL, regardless of the building we’re playing, opponent we’re playing, he has a maturity about him. That’s exciting.”
The youngster’s ability to quickly process and learn from his experiences in Rochester buoyed his development and helped him earn the No. 1 job.
“You can evaluate and say there’s areas of growth and then the next game or within the future showed us that he learned from that experience playing,” Sabres coach Don Granato said last week. “That started to compile positively more and more and more.”
In his first four NHL games this season, Luukkonen looked a bit suspect, compiling a 1-2-1 record with a 4.47 goals-against average and an .855 save percentage. But Granato said the netminder, like he did in Rochester, learned from his struggles.
“Take this game, might be a bad goal or two or play, learn from it and gain the experience of that and then show that he’s gained that experience,” he said. “So rapid growth, rapid growth period, but the growth was from last year and the year before and the work prior that he put in.”
Since that weak four-game start, Luukkonen has registered a 12-4-1 mark with a 3.03 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. Those 12 wins were the NHL’s fourth-highest total during that span entering Friday’s schedule.
Joining the Sabres, of course, has taken Luukkonen out of development mode and put him in win-now mode. Granato, however, believes he can keep improving.
“Once you’re a No. 1 goalie in NHL, you no longer have the luxury of focusing on how to get better,” he said. “It’s win or loss and the pressure that can take you away from your focus on improvement. With his ceiling, we want him to continue to focus on improvement, and now he’s got a real good balance with the both.
Sabres center Tage Thompson practiced Friday and will play against the Flames, Granato said.
Thompson, the team’s leading scorer, suffered an upper-body injury Feb. 1 and missed the NHL All-Star Game.
“It kind of (stinks) you didn’t get to go,” Thompson said. “… The most important thing is getting healthy for the rest of the season and being able to help our team win. I figured that was the right decision.”
Meanwhile, center Tyson Jost, who missed Thursday’s practice because of illness, skated in Friday’s session.