Topias Leinonen's selection addresses Sabres' glaring need in prospect pipeline

Topias Leinonen’s selection addresses Sabres’ glaring need in prospect pipeline

MONTREAL – The meeting inside KeyBank Center at the scouting combine went so long with Topias Leinonen that a few hockey operations people with the Sabres joked that the 6-foot-6 goalie would want nothing to do with Buffalo at the NHL draft.

The 18-year-old captivated the room with his gregarious personality and confidence. They were already wowed by what they saw from him on the ice, including the highlight-reel, bailout saves. Though Leinonen had some inconsistent moments during his draft-eligible season, he always seemed to respond with a strong performance.

“We feel like he’s just scratching the surface,” said Jerry Forton, the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting. “The idea of having this guy and our hands on him for the next few years is really exciting for us. I will add there was a major gap on our list to the next goalie.”

The Sabres had 11 draft picks at their disposal, including three in the first round. Their only debate was when to take Leinonen and in the end, they were unwilling to risk hearing another club select the goalie they ranked as by far the best in the class.

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When the Sabres were on the clock in the second round with pick 41, they announced Leinonen as their selection. He’s a massive physical specimen at 233 pounds and his 78.5-inch wing span was sixth-longest among combine participants when the event was held in Buffalo. This wasn’t considered a strong draft for goalies – Leinonen was the first taken – but he was ranked the best European netminder.

Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams insisted the position wasn’t a priority because of questions surrounding their ability to sign goalie prospect Erik Portillo. However, selecting Leinonen higher than many projected was a move to ensure the organization was well-stocked in the crease below the NHL.

“Our plan all along going into this draft was to draft a goalie,” Adams said when the Sabres’ draft was complete in the Bell Centre. “As it played out this morning, we got to pick 41, we felt strongly this was the time to make it. Really feel that there’s a huge upside with our goalie there. Big kid, really showed signs of being a high-level goaltender, and it’s going to take time to develop. It’s good to have options, and you want depth in net.”

Leinonen is far different goalie than Devon Levi, the ultra-competitive 20-year-old who broke school records at Northeastern University last season. While Levi is technically sound and lightning-quick in his crease, he’s only 6-feet tall. He, like Portillo, is set to return to school in the fall, though it’s become clear the Sabres are confident that signing Levi won’t be an issue.

The development path for Leinonen will be similar, though. It could be a few years before he makes the move to North America. He needs time to work on his technique, particularly the quickness of his glove and blocker. Leinonen has barely played professional hockey and will benefit from getting more games with JYP of Finland’s Liiga.

There’s also the eventual adjustment to the smaller ice surface in North America, which can be more difficult for some than others. 

The Sabres haven’t been able to find a long-term franchise goalie since Ryan Miller, but they’ve had an outstanding track record of development success since Seamus Kotyk ascended to his role as organizational goalie prospect mentor under former general manager Jason Botterill in 2017. Kotyk, after all, worked with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen during the move to North America. He also guided Portillo and Levi through record-setting collegiate seasons.

Lukkonen, who is another big Finnish goalie at 6-foot-5, had a remarkable debut season in the Ontario Hockey League in 2018-19 when he won MVP honors only a few months after leading Finland to a gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship.

Injuries have delayed Luukkonen’s full-time arrival to the NHL. Talent isn’t the issue, as illustrated by his .913 save percentage in 13 career NHL games with Buffalo. The Sabres will lean on Kotyk to work with Leinonen through the inconsistency that was on display at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in May, when he posted a paltry .897 save percentage in five games.

“We had a lot of information on this kid and a player we think that’s just scratching the surface,” Forton added.

There are other factors to consider when evaluating Leinonen’s on-ice performance during his draft-eligible season. The team with which he spent the bulk of his time, JYP’s Under-20 junior club, reportedly played poor defensively and he was often forced to keep them in games. He still had a .916 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average with two shutouts in 21 appearances. And though he struggled in four games in Finland’s top professional league, few teenage goalies can make an immediate impact there.

The Sabres don’t have to rush Leinonen. Luukkonen is on the cusp of the NHL, and they expect to land at least Levi next spring. A bridge option for the NHL roster is the next step for Buffalo. But all involved at the Sabres draft table felt better about their depth at the position after Adams selected his first goalie.

“It was a big day for us,” he proclaimed.

Here are other takeaways from the Sabres’ second day at the draft:

1. Viktor Neuchev’s talent outweighed the risk of selecting a Russian with a higher pick. Neuchev, a dynamic right wing, delivered 40 goals and 67 points in 61 games for his club in the country’s top junior league. His scoring output was tied for third in the MHL and his league-best 363 shots on goal were 53 more than the player who ranked second.

The Sabres’ analytics staff gave Neuchev a second-round grade, and the club’s final rankings had him going in the late first or early second round. When the 18-year-old was still available in the third round at pick 74, Buffalo made the selection.

“Neuchev was, in our minds, one of the top three players out of Russia this year,” said Forton. “As much as he’s a scorer, which he clearly is, he was also driving play by himself. Very competitive kid, a great stick. … We really like the combination of playmaking ability, the ability to drive play by himself and having the high-end scoring element to his game.”

Neuchev was also selected because the Sabres’ scouts in Eastern Europe feel good about the organization’s chances of eventually bringing the 6-foot-2 forward to North America, though it won’t be anytime soon. And his club in Russia, Yekaterinburg Automobilist, recently hired Red Wings legend Pavel Datsyuk as a development coach, which gave Buffalo confidence that Neuchev will be able to grow his game there.

2. Ryan Johnson will make his decision following development camp. Adams met with the representatives for Johnson, whom the Sabres drafted 31st overall in 2019. The left-shot defenseman is deciding between returning to school for his senior season – which would likely signal that he’s going to explore unrestricted free agency next summer – or sign with Buffalo. The Sabres’ depth on defense is a factor in Johnson’s decision-making here. He’ll be on the ice for development camp next week and the two sides will meet again when it’s complete.

3. Jake Richard was an intriguing add in the sixth round. Richard, a 17-year-old winger, had a tremendous debut season in the USHL, which is filled with college-aged players. He totaled 18 goals and 57 points despite a slow start. The UConn commit ascended to a top-six role and has shown so much maturity that the coaches there gave some thought to bringing him to the NCAA in the fall. While Forton said an official decision hasn’t been made, he expects the prospect to return to Muskegon for another season. Richard is already 6-foot-1 and can put the puck in the net.

4. The Sabres’ decision to select only two defensemen was a product of their rankings. Adams acknowledged there was less urgency to add at that position because Buffalo has six young blueliners in the NHL, but it was about availability when the Sabres were on the clock. They still got a skilled, left-shot defenseman in the fourth round when Mats Lindgren fell to Buffalo at pick 106.

Though a bit undersized at 5-foot-11, his game fits how the position is played by many defensemen in the NHL. He’s possesses high-end speed, creates offense by joining the rush and is an excellent passer. His father, also named Mats, played parts of seven seasons in the NHL. Lindgren played a prominent role for Kamloops of the Western Hockey League at 17 years old this season. He’s not short on confidence, either.

“I think in the playoffs I really showed that I can play a two-way game,” said Lindgren. “Before the season, I was kind of an offensive defenseman, but I think I proved as the season went along that I can play both sides and just really excited about it. You watch the top guys in the NHL, they play both sides of the game. That’s the player I want to be. My goal is to win the Norris Trophy one day.”

5. The analytics staff, led by Sam Ventura, played a major role before and during the draft. During the season, they used data models to target players the Sabres’ scouts needed to see in-person, plus their draft grades on each prospect were used to compare what the staff created based on evaluations and other factors. If there was a disparity, the two sides work together to understand why and how it could impact Buffalo’s plans.

“Sam Ventura and his staff just came up to me talking about how thrilled they are with how the draft went from their perspective,” said Forton. “I said the same to them. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have some disagreements on certain players that we took, but both sides understood what we were looking at and we went a little bit against each other at certain points in the draft.”

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