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‘We can teach technique in a weekend’: Ian Clark on why the Canucks are so high on prospect Aku Koskenvuo

Yesterday, the Vancouver Canucks drafted 6’4 Finnish goaltender Aku Koskenvuo with the 137th overall pick, and left some scouts wondering why.

Upon first glance, he’s a flawed goaltender who put up an .874 save percentage at this year’s U18s.

To trained eyes, however, he’s a serious candidate to be a diamond in the rough.

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And who better to ask about that potential than perhaps the only other person in the city who was clamouring for the Canucks to draft this kid?

Here is the thought process that went behind drafting Koskenvuo, from Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark himself.

“For me, I’m a big believer when it comes to scouting in evaluating the intangibles when it comes to goaltenders,” Clark told CanucksArmy. “Technique and structure and all those types of things are very tangible. Those are things we can kind of do with our eyes closed. They’re very tangible and very blueprint-y.”

“I say this, and I probably shouldn’t, but I say that we can teach a goaltender technique in a weekend,” Clark said with a laugh. “So for me, those things really don’t register for me when I’m evaluating a goalie. What I’m really looking at is the intangible things that I know through my history in the game are much more difficult to teach through nurture.”

What exactly are those difficult-to-teach things that Clark is talking about?

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“The ability to react, both internally and externally,” said Clark. “You think about the technical side of the game and say, ‘okay well if I can go do this repetitiously X number of times I’m going to get much better at the skill,’ but there are some ambiguous things about goaltending. The ability to break from structure to find a creative, smooth solution in a difficult moment. You can’t just always count on technique to carry the day when the game is so dynamic, so unpredictable. The elite goalies all have the ability to find creative solutions in difficult and challenging moments.”

It’s those natural instincts and natural-born athleticism that drew Clark to Koskenvuo, similar to how he was drawn to Arturs Silovs in 2019.

“When I look at Aku, I look at a goaltender that may be a little bit raw, a little bit green with some of the structural stuff, you know, there’s some blemishes there that we can easily transform and reorganize in his game, but some of those other areas which are much harder, he has in spades.”

What Silovs and Koskenvuo both have that makes them so intriguing is “length”. As Clark explains, this doesn’t just mean they’re tall, either.

“You can have a very tall goalie that is very uncompetitive and therefore, they’re not long,” said Clark. “You can have a shorter goalie, that is extremely competitive, that has more length. You can have a goaltender that’s very tall but has poor flexibility for example and they lack length because the length must also be flush to the ice. When a goalie is extending their leg if they don’t have the flexibility to keep their knee flush to the ice and really seal everything down, really that length has no value.”

“Length, to me, is a really valuable commodity in those critical moments, and Aku has that.”

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As stated in my report on Koskenvuo from before the draft, the biggest flaw I noticed in his game is his hands. He sometimes sets up with his glove to his side rather than out in front, activated, and sometimes cheats toward his glove side, leaving him prone on the blocker side.

Although poor hands will certainly affect results and cause teams and scouts to be turned off by a prospect, Clark believes the hands are the least important asset for a goalie prospect to have, which is good news for Canucks fans hoping Koskenvuo can develop into a true diamond-in-the-rough pick.

“My philosophy when it comes to a goalie’s order of assets is eyes are number one, feet are number two, and hands are number three,” said Clark. “Those are your top three assets. But for me, there are all kinds of things that I think Aku can add to his game structurally, and those are all things that we excel in from the standpoint of mentorship, and he will get all those things.”

The fact that the on-ice results haven’t been there for Koskenvuo yet doesn’t deter Clark. In fact, it actually entices him even more.

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“I actually like goalies that have structural imperfections because it forces them at a young age to develop the instinctive side of the game. If a goalie is very highly programmed, early on in their career, they almost are limited in their exposure to instinctive moments.”

“I characterize these goalies that have maybe some structural things that they need to improve as wild horses,” added Clark. “They have all these incredible intangible assets that are geared to the goaltending position if you’re looking at natural athletic ability. I’m not talking about his trained athletic ability, I’m talking about his natural athletic abilities. He is a 10 out of 10. Whether that’s his anatomical size, whether that’s his ability to lengthen — his elasticity — all of this stuff is a 10 out of 10, dimensional.”

Clark is no stranger to taking big swings on goaltenders like Koskenvuo. In fact, his track record is downright impressive.

“If you go back in my history in Columbus, when we acquired Sergei Bobrovsky he was a guy that had major structural things in his game that he had to iron out, but his athletic ability, his work habits, his competitiveness, his natural athleticism was incredible. And so what did we do? We brought a more cohesive package to his game. Then we ended up with Joonas Korpisalo, and what did we do? We had another goaltender with imperfections so we took all that athleticism and all those intangibles, and we brought a more cohesive package to his game. And then we had drafted Elvis Merzlikins. Again a wild horse as I call them. Goalies that have all these great intangible assets, but maybe structurally, there’s some blemishes there and maybe that doesn’t appeal to some, but it appeals to me. And so this is kind of just my philosophical way of thinking and going about my business.”

Koskenvuo is set to become the first Finnish-born player to ever play for Harvard University next year. He’ll start to get used to the North American style of play soon, and the work starts now for Clark and the Canucks to bring a more cohesive, all-around package to his game.