Last year at around this time, Veini Vehvilainen was a solid backup to Jussi Rynnas for Karpat Oulu, a modern-day Finnish dynasty that had won the league title six times since 2000.
Now, thanks to the emergence of Vehvilainen, Karpat has seven championships since 2000. The 21-year-old took over the starting job in Karpat’s second game of the playoffs, posted a league-best 1.57 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, and recorded three shutouts, two of them in the final. What a difference a year makes. “A huge difference,” said Vehvilainen, speaking in Finnish. “I’ve taken another step forward. I’m stronger mentally and physically, and I’m a technically better goalie.”
Back in October 2016, Vehvilainen had played only five games for JYP Jyvaskyla, his hometown team, in Finland’s Liiga. A few months after that, he was part of Finland’s entry that won the world juniors on home ice – but he lost the starter’s job to Kaapo Kahkonen. He was then passed over for a second time at the 2016 NHL draft. And then again in 2017.
Vehvilainen was the Finnish starter at the 2017 WJC, and while he posted impressive numbers – 1.51 GAA and .931 SP in six games – it was also the year Finland made dubious history by becoming the first defending champion to end up in the relegation round, while also making a mid-tournament coaching change.
Add to that the sudden passing of Vehvilainen’s father last season, and you begin to understand the emotional rollercoaster he has endured in recent years. Now, it’s evident he’s come through it as a stronger person. “A part of that is simply growing up,” he said. “Of course, I’ve had some success lately that has helped my confidence, but I also use mental coaches, and that gives me tools that make me better, just like I use coaching tips to become technically better.”
This season, back with Karpat, his stock is climbing fast. He posted a 1.22 GAA and .945 SP with four shutouts through 13 games and was named Liiga’s player of the month for October. “It’s difficult to see your own development,” Vehvilainen said. “It’s probably easier for an outsider to see it. Having said that, when I’ve seen old tapes of my games, I can tell that I move better and my foundation is more solid, thanks to the good work with our goalie coach Ari Hilli.
“I know it’s a cliche, but it’s simply a result of hard and smart work. Now I have a good foundation to build on.”
Vehvilainen was drafted into the NHL – finally – this summer by Columbus. The Jackets took him in the sixth round in June,despite the fact Vehvilainen was 21 and could have signed shortly after as a free agent.
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen is bullish on Vehvilainen: “He could play North American hockey right now,” he told the ColumbusDispatch. “He was a heck of a goalie for Karpat last year. We studied him not only this year but in the past.”
“I had a goalie in Helsinki who didn’t make it to the NHL until he was 32,” Kekalainen added, referring to 2011 Stanley Cup champion and Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas.
Thomas played for Karpat in 2001-02. The season after that, Pekka Rinne made his Karpat debut and then went to Nashville in the eighth round of the 2004 draft as an overager. The path is open for Vehvilainen, too. “I try to do my best every day to get better, that’s all I can do,” he said. “I leave other decisions to people in charge of those. I try to take it one day at a time and hope I get rewarded for my work at some point.”
Where will he be a year from now? “It’s hard to say since it’s not 100 percent up to me, but I hope to be a better goalie and a more mature person,” Vehvilainen said. “I’d love to play in North America, but I’m in no hurry. I’m still just 21, the top goalies tend to be at least a few years older than that.”
This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.