Thursday, May 9, 2019

Luukkonen named OHL Most Outstanding Player

After winning a World Junior gold medal and earning a spot on the tournament All-Star Team, and later being named the Ontario Hockey League Goaltender of the Year, a top Sabres prospect will need to make room in his trophy case for yet another piece of hardware.

The Ontario Hockey League announced Thursday that Sudbury Wolves netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has been awarded the 2018-19 Red Tilson Trophy as the league's Most Outstanding Player.

You don't always need to draft players out of the Canadian Hockey League, but you can certainly send your prospects there to dominate.

Luukkonen was simply magnificent for the Wolves this season, setting single-season franchise records with 38 wins (t-1st in OHL), six shutouts (1st), and a 2.50 GAA (3rd), all while posting a league-best .920 save% and leading the Northern Ontario club to their first playoff series victory in six years.

Just over two weeks ago, Luukkonen underwent double hip surgery after playing through pain for the entire second half of the season. It would have been easy for him to shut himself down after the World Junior Championship, but Luukkonen didn't quit. The result was his full body of work being rewarded with the league's most prestigious individual honor. His family, teammates, and the Sabres player development staff should be proud of not only his on-ice excellence, but also his perseverance.

Luukkonen, who is the sixth goaltender tabbed for the award since it was first handed out in 1944-45, joins a list of recent Red Tilson Trophy winners that includes Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner, Vincent Trocheck, Alex Debrincat, Ryan Ellis, and Tyler Seguin. Past Sabres prospects to win the award include Brian Campbell (1998-99), Ray Sheppard (1985-86), and John Tucker (1983-84).

While Luukkonen's commitment has paid off to date, the real work begins now. His puck-handling and situational depth have improved since being drafted, and he's being forced to scramble less and less. Moving forward, it's all about remaining composed nightly and consistently meeting the speed challenge of the North American pro game. If his first American Hockey League start served as any indication, it's clear that Luukkonen is a legitimate National Hockey League goaltending prospect.

Following a successful rehabilitation that should see him return to the ice between Halloween and American Thanksgiving, a fair and reasonable road map should see the talented Finn hold the fort down in Rochester through the 2020-21 season before mounting a serious push to earn a full-time NHL job in Buffalo.