An injury to a goaltender has a ripple effect on an entire organization.
The one to Blue Jackets netminder Joonas Korpisalo is no different.
When the team’s starter went down with a knee injury that will keep him out 4-6 weeks in a Dec. 29 game vs. Chicago, everyone in the organizational food chain moved up a peg.
Korpisalo’s backup, Elvis Merzlikins, became the starter. Matiss Kivlenieks was summoned from AHL Cleveland to be Merzlikins’ backup. And Veini Vehvilainen became the No. 1 goalie in Cleveland, tasked with starting the majority of the games.
And to hear the 22-year-old Finn talk about it, that’s fine with him.
“I want to play, like, every game,” he said with a smile and a laugh. “But it’s not smart.”
The way he’s been playing, though, the Monsters have been happy to have Vehvilainen — who was recalled to Columbus on Wednesday — seeing as much time in net as possible. After two straight seasons of dominating Finland’s Liiga, Vehvilainen has made a quick transition to North American hockey, posting a 2.22 goals-against average that sits fifth in the AHL along with a .918 save percentage.
“He’s been pretty steady,” Monsters head coach Mike Eaves said. “He’s had his growth curves as well. Most of it has to do with his ability to play the puck, knowing when to stop a puck (behind the net) or stay in the net, but he works hard every day.
“He’s more comfortable, more confident, getting used to the North American game because the puck comes at you quicker and you have to be ready for that. He’s gotten more comfortable with that. He’s making better decisions in playing the pucks and he’s feeling it. It’s nice to see.”
He’s done it with a style that’s not always flashy but get results. At 6-foot-0, Vehvilainen is not the biggest goaltender in the world, so he has to make up for it by quick movements and excellent positioning. That’s what he does, and as a result, it seems as though the puck just finds him, whether it’s coming through traffic or if he’s moving side to side to search for a rebound.
“He always has good rebound control, which is really good for our defense,” Monsters forward Trey Fix-Wolansky said. “Just making those saves when you need them, that can really bring a team up. He does a good job of that.”
The biggest adjustment for Vehvilainen has been getting used to North American hockey, as it is for about any goalie that comes over from Europe. The challenges build on one another because of the smaller rink used in AHL and NHL hockey — the shots come faster, the angles are tighter, and the shooters have more skill.
It makes for a transition period, but Vehvilainen says it’s one he’s feeling more comfortable with every day.
“It’s much better than in Traverse City,” Vehvilainen said, referring to the annual September prospects tournament where he made his debut with the team. “It felt very fast, and everything was new. I feel so much more comfortable. It’s making my game so much easier.”
Snagged with a sixth-round pick in the 2018 draft — one that could be a bonanza for the Blue Jackets, as it includes World Juniors medal winners Liam Foudy and Kirill Marchenko at forward, fellow World Juniors participant Tim Berni and Fix-Wolansky — Vehvilainen has done nothing but impress in recent years.
He was named the top goalie in the Liiga two years in a row, posting a 1.89 GAA and .925 save percentage two seasons ago and a 1.58 GAA and .933 save percentage last year while taking Kärpät to the Liiga title two years ago and a Game 7 in the finals last year.
With the transition to North America, Vehvilainen said he’s had to spend more time on his knees covering the bottom of the net blocking pucks given how quickly they get to the front of the net, but all in all, he’s getting used to everything that his transition entails.
“It has been a big challenge getting used to things on the ice and off the ice, but I have started getting used to it,” he said. “I think I am very comfortable right now. I think we have a very good team and I enjoy the hockey.”