Jonathan Iilahti played some stellar hockey at the international junior level last year.
Will it carry over to the WHL and the Vancouver Giants?
(Photo courtesy Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Being a goaltender in the Vancouver Canucks system must be a curious and interesting phenomenom these days. For starters, Vancouver has long been known as a goalie graveyard, a place where very few goaltenders have succeeded and a place where fans find every single opportunity to rip their netminders to shreds. Then there’s the fact that the Canucks currently have Roberto Luongo signed until he’s 700 years old, and have a serious trade chip in backup goalie Cory Schneider.
So what does the future look like for young Finnish goaltender and Canucks prospect Jonathan Iilahti?
The Canucks finally look like they have plenty of depth in goaltending. At the NHL level, they are led by Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. Next, in Chicago with their AHL affiliate Wolves team, they have Eddie Lack and Matt Climie. Then they have young emerging goalies in Joe Cannata (2009 Draft, 6th Rd, 173rd overall), David Honzik (2011 Draft, 3rd Rd, 71st overall) and Jonathan Iilhati who was taken in the 6th round, 175th overall in the 2010 Entry Draft.
Iilahti is a product of the Espoo Blues junior system in the Finnish league, a team that has produced little in the way of professional prospects over the last 10 years. Their most notable graduates are:
- Mikko Koskinen, an Islanders 2nd round pick in 2009 who has struggled in the AHL.
- Jere Myllyniemi, not drafted in the NHL but has had a successful career in the top Finnish league.
- Matti Kaltiainen, a Bruins 4th round pick in 2001 who played 4 very successful years at Boston College, then returned to play in Finland, only to return before turning 27.
So it’s not like Iilahti is coming from particular illustrous stock. That said, he played a decent number of games last year in a variety of different settings and still posted some great numbers. Playing in the Junjor league for under 20’s, Iilahti played 18 games and posted a 2.76 GAA and a .901 Sv%. He also excelled at the international level, playing 5 games for the Finnish National Junior team and recording a stellar 0.96 GAA and a .960 Sv%, easily the best of any of the five goalies that played for the Finnish Junior team last year. All this made the decision to cut Iilahti on the eve of the World Junior Championships all the more puzzling. In the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championships, the Finns played a stellar round robin, only to lose to Russia in the quarterfinals and then Switzerland in the consolation game. You have to wonder if Iilahti’s inclusion would have helped the junior Finns progress further in the tournament.
Hockey’s Future has Iilahti graded as a 6C which means that they see his top potential as a top league back up or minor league starting goalie. That said, Iilahti is the youngest of the seven Canucks goalie prospects at only 19 years old, so he has plenty of time to develop and blossom. His next step appears to be a move to North America to play for the Vancouver Giants in the WHL. However, as Gord McIntyre points on in his article, Iilahti is under contract with his Finnish club for another year. While both Iilahti and the Giants (and the Canucks for that matter) believe that he will be able to make a deal to move to Vancouver, it is still a significant hurdle that needs to be cleared.
A move to the Giants, playing in a North American system may do wonders for Iilahti’s game and his progression. It may also illuminate glaring flaws in his game, too large to correct. In any event, should he play for the Giants this coming season, it will give the Canucks a better idea of what they have in Iilahti. Do they have the next Antti Niemi, or the next Matti Kaltiainen?