BUFFALO, N.Y. — Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen comes from a family of goalies. His older cousin was a goalie and so was his older brother. The Luukkonens’ house always hosted the neighborhood games, and the Luukkonens were the ones who always jumped in net.
So it makes sense that the 6-foot-5 Finland native is obsessive about the position. It’s all he’s ever known. He grew up idolizing fellow Finns Miikka Kiprusoff and Tuukka Rask. He spent his free time designing his own pads and thinking about the gear he’d like to have one day if he could reach the highest level of the sport.
Now Luukkonen is there, having played his way into his role as the Buffalo Sabres’ No. 1 goalie. The 24-year-old still hasn’t lost that passionate approach to the position, either. It’s just reflected in different ways, like in his video sessions with Sabres goalie coach Mike Bales.
It’s easy to see Luukkonen as a product of his traits. He has the prototypical goalie frame and the movement skills to match. But the difference this year has been the way he’s thinking about the position. When the play is at the other end of the ice, Luukkonen is already trying to get a feel for how the rush is going to develop and in what way the shooters are going to try to attack him. He’s recognizing patterns in the game quicker and understanding how to anticipate what’s coming.
“Now when I am playing well, I can see what’s working for me,” Luukkonen said.
Luukkonen is quick to point out that the team is playing better defensively in front of him, too. The reads are more predictable when the defensive play is better. The increased workload has helped, too.
“Once you get more games, you understand the game better,” Luukkonen said. “When you play well, you get confidence. And when you have confidence, you feel like you have an extra second. The game slows down in front of you when you’re not thinking too much and you’re just expecting and knowing which way the game is going.”
Luukkonen said when he was first breaking into the NHL, he had a tendency to overplay the shot and have almost too much respect for shooters.
“You have the thought in your head of, ‘Oh, I need to make the save here,’” Luukkonen said. “And then the play gets behind you and you’ve kind of screwed yourself over because the other guy is open. Learning how to read that and when to challenge is the biggest thing.”
Clearly, Luukkonen has found a groove over the last couple of months. Among NHL goalies with at least 25 starts this season, Luukkonen is ninth in quality start percentage. Since Jan. 1, Luukkonen is third in the NHL with a .937 save percentage and second with a 1.72 goals-against average. Those are No. 1 goalie numbers. Unfortunately for Luukkonen, the Sabres are only 5-5 during his starts in that stretch. They’ve lost a game in which Luukkonen allowed just one goal and another in which he allowed only two.
He still has to show he can keep this going for more than a few months, but Luukkonen is making a strong case to be part of the Sabres’ long-term plans. He’s a restricted free agent this offseason and will get a nice raise on his next contract. How Luukkonen finishes the season will determine not just how big of a raise he gets but what else the Sabres do at the position. Devon Levi should be in Rochester for the rest of the season, but will the Sabres want him back in the NHL next year?
None of that matters to Luukkonen, who is locked in on the opportunity he has to finally be Buffalo’s unquestioned starter. It’s one he’s been quietly working for even as circumstances have prevented him from getting the chance in the past. Stars defenseman Esa Lindell trains with Luukkonen in the offseason in Finland and smiled thinking about how far he’s come in the last couple of years.
“It’s been nice to see how he’s playing lately,” Lindell said. “He’s been working and getting leaner and more strength (in the offseason). There’s a big difference in the past couple of years. You can look at his development, it’s huge. I spoke with our goalie coach and he said he’s been playing really well, too. And obviously he’s playing a lot, so he’s playing well.”
1. Back in early January, we covered the Casey Mittelstadt situation in the mailbag. With each day that passes without a new contract, Mittelstadt’s name becomes more involved in trade rumors. Over the weekend, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Andrew Peters of the local “After the Whistle” podcast mentioned Mittelstadt as a name that has come up in trade conversations around the league. At the very least, the Sabres are listening when teams ask about him. As we noted last month, though, trading Mittelstadt for just picks and prospects isn’t going to cut it. If you’re getting rid of someone like Mittelstadt, a homegrown player who likes playing in Buffalo and has been the team’s best player this season, you need to get pieces back that are going to improve your team in 2024-25.
It’s smart of Kevyn Adams to gauge interest in Mittelstadt and see how the league values him. If he does eventually sign him to a long-term contract, at least he’ll have done so while comparing that deal to the potential trades that might have been out there. The deadline might not be the best time to make the trade the Sabres are looking for, but Mittelstadt is a restricted free agent so that gives them time. For his part, Mittelstadt has said and done all of the right things. He continues to produce, leading the team in points regardless of what line he is on. He prefers to stay in Buffalo and is doing everything he can to block out the trade noise.
2. Adams has likely been popular with his fellow general managers given where the Sabres are in the standings. Buffalo entered Tuesday 12 points out of a playoff spot. Almost half the league was represented in the press box at the Sabres’ game against the St. Louis Blues over the weekend. Expect Erik Johnson and Zemgus Girgensons to be the two most attractive trade assets among the Sabres’ unrestricted free agents. Johnson’s playoff experience and ability to help on the penalty kill will be attractive to contenders. Girgensons plays a game that translates to the playoffs, too, even though he has never played in the postseason, having spent his entire career in Buffalo. Kyle Okposo will be an interesting case. He has four young kids and is the captain of the Sabres so he may not be keen on leaving, but his career is winding down so if a playoff team comes calling, he might be interested. My sense is Adams will be checking in with all three of these players closer to the deadline to see what their preference is. As long as they are willing to move, Adams should be able to collect some assets for them.
3. It might be time for the Sabres to start showcasing Victor Olofsson. He played just three games in January, which didn’t do much to help his trade value. Olofsson was already difficult to move in the offseason because of his $4.75 million cap hit. Now he’s played in only 33 of Buffalo’s 51 games and has just four goals and eight assists. Given how much the Sabres have struggled to score and how bad their power play has been (30th in the NHL), Olofsson can’t hurt. If he gets on a scoring run, maybe the Sabres can move him at the deadline.
4. The Sabres are going to be without Owen Power for at least a week and “maybe a couple of weeks,” Granato said on his weekly radio appearance on WGR550 Tuesday. Power left practice on Monday with what appeared to be an upper-body injury. He has struggled to find the same level of consistency he showed as a rookie last season, but he’ll still be a significant loss given the amount of minutes he plays. With Power and Mattias Samuelsson out of the lineup, the Sabres have a lot of minutes to fill. This will be another chance for Jacob Bryson to draw into the lineup, but more importantly, it should be an opportunity for Ryan Johnson and Connor Clifton to fill a bigger spot.
(Top photo of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)